7 factors to weigh when you cast your vote

It’s decision-time – almost!

Polling day for the UK general election is in just a week – on 7 May.

But that’s too late to start thinking about your vote. There’s simply too much information to digest and cogitate on a single day to make a meaningful judgement. Instead I see it as a decision that should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.

If you want to shortcut that, The Sun has offered some helpful advice…

Here are two different papers, with a clear divergence in their editorial line.

  • If you vote in England or Wales, The Sun says vote Conservative.
  • If you vote in Scotland, The Sun says vote SNP.

But there appears to be a strategic alignment. In England & Wales, it’s about buoying up the Conservatives; in Scotland, it’s about sinking Labour. Others say it simply about backing winners, but I see it as backing David Cameron in his bid for a second term as PM.

You could do what the Sun says, or the Mirror, or the New Statesman, or the Spectator. But this is your decision. By all means listen to their arguments (see a wide range here), but make the decision yourself.

So, unless you’ve already voted by post (I have), what factors should you weigh when you cast your vote?

1. Policies

All the main parties have published their manifestos – the pledges on which they propose to govern. They tend to be long. The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto is 160 pages, totalling 33,000 words. My university dissertation (about the Good Friday Agreement, since you wondered) was about 12,000 words.

They are probably too long. Partly with regard to this, the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman wonders why they’re all “so rubbish”Rob Ashton even explains why, with his analysis of the writing style of seven manifestos. Labour, he writes, had the highest number of grammar and punctuation errors.

Famously, Lord Pearson – the UKIP leader at the time of the 2010 General Election – was unable to answer questions about his party’s manifesto. His successor, Nigel Farage hadn’t read it and later described it as ‘drivel’. Perhaps it wasn’t the only one, then or now.

I won’t be reading the manifestos. It’s simply too much work, and I’d rather leave the analysis to key bloggers and political correspondents. Sometimes the parties do their own point-scoring analysis of their opponents’ manifestos. This can be surprisingly insightful, particularly where a key policy issue is fudged or omitted entirely.

For all their faults, manifestos do reveal a something about a party’s plans for governance. Those plans are vulnerable, of course, but they are not to be ignored. For all the backlash the Lib Dems felt for their U-turn on tuition fees, each one of their five priority pledges of 2010 was honoured in part or in full (at least in theory). Once again they have five priority pledges that we might suppose they would bring to the negotiating table in the event of a hung parliament.

I think the temptation for some people is to feel they can make their voting decision based almost solely on weighing up the manifesto proposals. That process is worth something, and it’s interesting to check out which party you seem to most align with using web tools like Vote Match.

Making your decision based on policies alone is a purist approach. Perhaps too pure, in my view. Here are a few other perspectives to consider.

2. Values

Typically, it’s the values that underpin the policies. What values are important to you, and what priorities flow from those values?

A party’s values should be fairly constant over time. But sometimes the values of a party leader or his/her lieutenants do drift from the core values of the party – sometimes genuinely, and sometimes for reasons of expedience.

3. Reputation

This particularly applies to the party of an outgoing government, but it’s also a factor to consider with a party of recent governments. How did these governments perform during their hour in the sun?

This is why I’ve suggested your “decision should be five years in the oven. Maybe longer.” But how far back do we go? The reputational question becomes less and less relevant as the candidates of today are able to divorce themselves from the governments of yesteryear. Candidates who were ministers in previous governments need to be held to higher scrutiny than candidates who were not even born during the period in question. That may apply for some Conservative candidates with regard to the Thatcher years; it will certainly apply to many Labour candidates with regard to the Callaghan year, and it applies to every Liberal Democrat candidate with regard to the Gladstone years.

4. Prime Minister

Who do you want to see as your Prime Minister? Or whose breast pocket do you want them to govern from?

The leadership question is a blend of other factors in this list, along with judgement and character. The more controversial question of whether they ‘look the part’ is really a wider one about charisma and authority, and it still matters. It helped Winston Churchill win the war by inspiring his country, and it continues to matter on the world stage.

5. Wider Cabinet

The process of government is a team effort, so it makes sense to assess the members of the team, particularly if you have a particular policy interest. Who’s likely to be the minister overseeing that policy?

6. Your candidates

Who are the key candidates in your constituency? Is one of them a friend, or someone you hold in high regard? It might persuade you to cast your vote for an unfavourable party. I confess to having voted for a party way outside my comfort zone in a local council election several years ago, because I knew the candidate was a good egg. He later defected!

Someone I follow on Twitter recently wrote to her local candidates, which included a Cabinet Minister, to ask where they stood on life issues (ie abortion, euthanasia, etc). She posted the minister’s response, in which he confirmed such issues would be subject to a free vote if it came to it – a party answer, not the personal answer requested. It was such a shame he declined to give a meaningful response. As my Twitter contact said, even if the minister disagreed with her, “I’d at least respect his honesty in informing me.”

It’s important to understand our local candidates, and often local hustings help with this.

7. Tactical voting

Ideally we make a simple decision on our preferred candidate and cast our vote accordingly. For many of us, that’s all there is to it:

  • In a two-way marginal (eg Conservative vs Labour), if you already wanted to vote Tory it’s a no-brainer. There is no tactical benefit to voting for another party.
  • If you are party loyal, or loyal to a friend who’s standing, you may decide to sacrifice tactical concerns to add to your preferred candidate’s vote tally – even if they are guaranteed to lose.
  • If you take a purist approach, the tactical benefits of voting outside your party loyalty are neither here nor there.

But there are many places where tactical considerations lead to some awkward choices. A few examples:

  • In Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg is under threat from Labour. Conservatives might vote for Clegg to prevent Labour winning another seat. Some of them might also feel that Mr Clegg would be a more favourable Lib Dem negotiating partner for the Conservatives than some of his colleagues.
  • In Brighton Pavillion, some Labour supporters might vote for the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas. It was a three-way marginal in 2010. While Labour could still win the seat, some voters might feel Mrs Lucas has a better chance of locking out the Conservatives’ Clarence Mitchell.
  • In Conservative marginals, some UKIP supporters might consider voting Tory to lock out their more Europhile opponents.
  • In Scotland, some Conservatives might vote Labour to keep the SNP out, or Labour supporters might vote Lib Dem for the same end.

I suspect tactical voting will be a big deal at this election.

So there we have it. Seven factors to weigh when you cast your vote next week.

Weigh them carefully!

A night to forget?

My General Election prediction was wide of the mark. The result is far more complicated and very unsatisfactory for any party seeking a workable coalition.

For many, this was a night to forget

It was no great surprise, but Gordon Brown has lost the election. He will not survive as Prime Minister for very long.

David Cameron has fallen too far short of an overall majority to seize the reins of power by default.

Nick Clegg has not enjoyed the breakthrough he might have expected. His negotiating strength will be limited.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, has lost the seat he held for 31 years.

The SNP hoped for 20 seats. It has repeated its 2005 haul of just six seats.

The Ulster Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest until less than a decade ago, has failed to win a single seat. A disappointment for both the UUP and David Cameron.

It was a very bad night for Nick Griffin (BNP), George Galloway (Respect) and Nigel Farage (UKIP), the latter of whom must reflect on his performance from his hospital bed. They each fell short of victory, and must settle for bronze.

There were just a few successes

Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavillion for the Green Party. Its first ever seat and a major breakthrough.

The NI Alliance Party won East Belfast; Naomi Long took the seat at Peter Robinson’s expense (or due to Mr Robinson’s expenses?) Another first; another major breakthrough.

Plaid Cymru gained one seat.

With such wide variations from the average national swing, many new MPs will be proud of their own individual successes.

And the voters?

Many voters were unable to vote and are very angry. But the rest of us have got the government we deserve. Or at least we might get it, eventually.

For many, this was a night to forget. But it will be remembered for a very long time.

This time next week, anyone could be our Prime Minister. Let the negotiations begin.

My prediction…

…published ahead of the exit polls.

The turnout will be high, about 72%. That’s higher than 2005 (61.3%), but lower than 1992 (77.7%). The warm weather will have helped, but apathy pins many people to their sofas.

The Conservatives will win 323 seats. The Ulster Unionists will win two seats. They are already in a formal coalition, so that grants David Cameron the support of 325 MPs, exactly half of the total. Truly a ‘balanced parliament’.

Labour will win 222 seats and the Liberal Democracts will win 74.

Sinn Fein will win five constituencies, but they do not take their seats. The Speaker of the House is John Bercow and he will retain his Buckingham seat by a small margin. For his main opponent, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, it will be the second blow in 24 hours. Mr Speaker does not vote. In effect, this enables Mr Cameron to govern with a practical majority of six.

But it is always the nominal overall majority that is quoted, and so my prediction is zero. John Major won a majority of 21 in 1992 which dwindled to precisely zero by the end of his term. He found it hard to govern throughout.

If David Cameron wins outright, it will be by a tiny margin. Frequently, he will need to count on the support of every one of his MPs, and maybe others. It will be tough.

For whatever government emerges over the next few days, tough years lie ahead.

A crucial opportunity

We’ve a very important job to do on Thursday.

Vote.

Every Westminster constituency is up for grabs. 650 of them. For many of us it’s time to choose our local councillors too. Both elections are important, but the opinion poll story suggests our votes in the General Election are particularly crucial.

As I’ve argued, there are many parallels with the election of 1992.

But in some ways, the parallels with February 1974 are more important.

In that election, a surge in support for smaller parties produced a hung parliament (or ‘balanced’ as the Lib Dems like to call it) which left the Conservatives too weak to govern. Harold Wilson became Prime Minister, leading a minority Labour government. In need of strength, he called a fresh election in October 1974, securing an overall majority of just three seats.

Apparently the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, believes whoever wins the election ahead “will be out of power for a whole generation.” Perhaps he was thinking of 1974. Our economy then was in deep trouble. The years ahead brought great strife and many strikes. It took Labour 18 years to return to government following its defeat in 1979.

We are immersed in a fiscal nightmare; last year the government spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. Dealing with the deficit will be very painful. We may be out of recession for now, but the years ahead will be harder, not easier. Pity the Prime Minister calling an election in 2015.

But it is not 2015. It is 2010 and we’ve a very important job to do. We must think of the five years ahead, not the years after that. We must put our country first as we cast our ballot.

In 2005, 61.3% of the electorate turned out to vote. In 1992, the last time we knew it would be close, the turnout was 77.7%. I suspect we’ll see a similarly high turnout this time.

I will be voting in Poplar & Limehouse. It’s a fascinating contest; a three-way marginal where Respect’s George Galloway has entered the fray to unsettle Labour’s Jim Fitzpatrick. It presents the Conservatives’ Tim Archer with a golden opportunity to win a challenging seat; a diverse, deprived, inner-city constituency.

George Galloway

George Galloway campaigning for Respect outside my home.

The BBC’s take on my constituency is here. Few seats will be watched with such interest, but every seat is important. Even safe seats are decided by those who actually turn up. They are only ‘safe’ because the voters make them safe. In 1997, the ‘Portillo moment’ showed that no seat is truly safe.

Voting is a great privilege and a great responsibility.

As a Christian, it’s interesting to note how many of my brothers and sisters feel it’s not their place to vote. Some of them don’t want to compromise their beliefs, by voting for the lesser of two evils. Others note that voting is not sanctioned in the Bible and that Jesus did not engage in the government of his day.

However, God created us to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to rule “over every living creature” (Genesis 1v28). Later St Paul writes that “there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13v1), “it is necessary to submit to the authorities” (v5) and “the authorities are God’s servants” (v6).

It reasonable inference that Christians might play a role in government or in electing it. It is even more important for us to pray. Each of us is but one man or woman and we have just one vote. But our prayers call upon a supreme authority for whom all things are possible.

While I have my doubts about the extent of the state, I do believe it has a role to play in regulating society and meeting the needs of the most vulnerable. This is a good mission. But it can be undertaken well or badly and I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure our government acts well.

The debate about Christian engagement will go on. There is a similar argument in Islam, where some believe voting is “Shirk” (forbidden and unforgivable). But Muslim political engagement here in the UK is very strong, probably stronger than amongst Christians.

It is probably explained partly by a feeling of oppression as a minority in a secular christian country (small ‘c’ deliberate) and partly by an optimism that change is possible. Whereas the rest of us, Christian and secular alike, have come to feel that our votes count for very little.

Perhaps that’s true, but they still count for something. If they didn’t politicians wouldn’t be fighting so hard for them.

Christians may find it useful to check out the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement or the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. Together they established Christians in Politics, a broader resource.

Vote for Policies is an independent website which merits 10 minutes’ investment. With so much focus on the personalities and the impression given by the parties, which party might we choose if it were entirely down to the policies? Vote for Policies might help.

If you want to examine the policy issues from first principles, check out the party manifestos (listed alphabetically, not by preference!)

Alliance Party (NI)

British National Party

Christian Peoples Alliance

Conservatives

Conservatives & Unionists

Democratic Unionist Party

English Democrats

Green Party

Jury Team

Labour

Liberal Democrats

Official Monster Raving Loony Party

Plaid Cymru

Respect

Scottish National Party

Social Democratic and Labour Party

Sinn Fein

UK Independence Party

Where are they flocking from?

Gillian Duffy was a lifelong Labour voter who told Gordon Brown she was now “absolutely ashamed of saying I’m Labour.”

Mrs Duffy raised a number of issues with the PM: crime; tax on pensions; national debt; immigration and student tuition fees. She spoke forcefully and he responded persuasively in a four minute exchange. Afterwards he dismissed her as a “bigoted woman” in a private conversation.

Why?

You can’t say anything about the immigrants, because you’re saying that you’re a… But all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?
(Gillian Duffy, Rochdale, 28 April 2010)

One assumes they may be “flocking” from eastern Europe!… Mr Brown thought the encounter was a “disaster” and the idea of talking to her “ridiculous”. But really the encounter was fine. It was a heated discussion, probably uncomfortable for him, but not particularly harmful. And after the conversation, Mrs Duffy told the BBC she would probably still vote Labour, though perhaps that is now in doubt.

The infamous exchange (from BBC News)

A deception?

My only complaint with Mr Brown’s handling of the conversation was on the issue of debt.

How are you going to get us out of all this debt, Gordon?
(Mrs Duffy)

We’ve got a deficit reduction plan to cut the debt by half over the next four years.
(Mr Brown)

If only that were true… At the end of March, the public sector net debt was £771.6 billion (excluding financial interventions). That is a lot. In the year ahead, our interest payments alone are projected to be £43bn.

£43 billion.

That is more than the government proposes to spend on defence. It is twice the budget for transport or half the budget for education.

It is more than the government expects to raise in corporation tax. It is over half the VAT take.

It’s not as if we can afford to spend so much on interest. Last year alone, the government deficit was £163 billion. It spent £163bn more than it raised in taxes. This is not just a number; it is an obscene amount to borrow.

Alistair Darling’s plan is to cut the deficit by half over four years. If he is successful, in four years time we will borrow just £82bn. The deficit will be half what it is now, but the national debt will not be. It will have risen by hundreds of billions of pounds. Any budding chancellor should read my blog on debt: good, bad or ugly?

Gordon Brown told Mrs Duffy he would cut the debt by half over four years. Obviously, he meant the deficit. A slip of the tongue. The difference is profound, but the language is deceptively subtle. Cutting the deficit by half may sound great, but the burgeoning debt draws us ever closer to economic doom.

“A sort of bigoted woman”

I must digress no more. What Gordon Brown said after leaving Mrs Duffy was more damaging for him.

She’s just a sort of bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour.
(Gordon Brown, oblivious of his personal microphone)

Perhaps he was right? Mrs Duffy selected eastern Europeans to illustrate her immigration concerns. Perhaps she is a bigot?

She seemed to acknowledge the issue could get her into hot water: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants, because you’re saying that you’re a…” It’s impossible to know what she almost said, but I’ll hazard a guess: she was concerned about being labelled a racist. However, she persisted and made the point, somewhat ineloquently, that immigration is too high.

I don’t believe her primary concern is eastern Europeans. I believe it is immigration. For her, recent immigration is characterised by eastern Europeans. It’s a reasonable perception. A million eastern Europeans have registered to work in the UK since the jobs market was opened to them in 2004. I believe she would have been equally concerned about immigration to Rochdale from Spain, China, Australia, Birmingham or, God forbid, Northern Ireland.

That is my perception, and I may be wrong. But Mrs Duffy seemed to recognise the danger of talking about immigration. Even the Prime Minister hears the word ‘immigration’ and thinks ‘bigot’. Mrs Duffy was evidently upset when learned what he’d called her.  He later visited her to apologise.

Gordon Brown hears his error on The Jeremy Vine Show (from BBC News)

Immigration is an important issue. We must be allowed to discuss it. There are many arguments in favour of immigration. There are strong arguments against it too. But even if debate was clear cut, if immigration was acknowledged to be A Good Thing, there will be many who remain concerned. Those concerns should be addressed, not ignored or dismissed as bigotry. That approach has given succour to the BNP, and that is – in my view – A Bad Thing.

Click here to compare the main parties’ immigration policies.

Gordon Brown should have learned from John Major’s error in 1994. He probably has ‘bastards’ in his own cabinet too, but all politicians know that a microphone has only one job, and that is to listen. He must be careful what he says when a microphone is listening.

Reliving 1992

It’s getting close. The election is soon, and the gap between the two main parties is narrow. Various opinion polls give the Conservatives a slim majority over Labour. In some cases it’s just two percentage points. For the Conservatives, a two point lead is not enough for an overall majority. It may not even win them more seats than Labour.

Labour could be in a position to form a minority/coalition government despite polling fewer votes than the Conservatives. This is because Labour dominates in urban constituencies with smaller electorates. So the seats it wins are often secured with fewer votes. It’s a real possibility the Conservatives could win more votes but fewer seats in the forthcoming election. Indeed, in 2005, in England, that’s just what happened.

As an aside, the Liberal Democrats are wrestling with the conundrum of a hung parliament in which Labour secures more seats and the Conservatives, more votes. They say the party with the strongest mandate has the right to govern. But Nick Clegg won’t say whether that means the party with most seats or the most votes. It leaves him some wriggle room.

Election day, 1992

So the Conservatives are ahead in the opinion polls, but each party has all to play for. It reminds me of 1992 and there are a number of similar features.

  • In 1992, the Conservatives had been in office for 13 years. Margaret Thatcher, an inspirational but controversial figure had led her party to three comfortable majorities before losing favour with the country and her own party. She stood aside mid-term to be replaced by her Chancellor, John Major.
  • Now in 2010, Labour has been in office for 13 years. Tony Blair, an inspirational but controversial figure led his party to three comfortable majorities before losing favour with the country and his own party. He stood aside mid-term to be replaced by his Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
  • In 1992, Labour has been 13 years in opposition. In the early years it  swung sharply to the left and suffered for it in successive elections. But the latest leader, Neil Kinnock, had worked hard to change the party and its brand. By 1992, it had been mainly ahead in the opinion polls for several years.
  • Now in 2010, the Conservatives have been 13 years in opposition. In the early years they swung sharply to the right and suffered for it in successive elections. But the latest leader, David Cameron, has worked hard to change the party and its brand. Now it has been mainly ahead in the opinion polls for several years.
  • In 1992, the Conservative had won three general elections. When they first came to power, they succeeded a highly unpopular and mistrusted Labour government. Margaret Thatcher was re-elected twice, remaining undefeated in the country. She called each of her elections after four years. Her successor waited until the last practical moment: five years.
  • Now in 2010, Labour has won three general elections. When it first came to power, it succeeded a highly unpopular and mistrusted Conservative government. Tony Blair was re-elected twice, remaining undefeated in the country. He called each of his elections after four years. His successor waited until the last practical moment: five years.
  • In 1992, the economy was in recovery from a nasty recession, but Black Wednesday lay ahead.
  • Now in 2010, the economy is in recovery from an even nastier recession, but I have no doubt further challenges lie ahead.

Of course, there are some differences too. For example:

  • In 1992, the incumbent Prime Minister was still relatively new to the voters. He’d served as Foreign Secretary for four months, Chancellor for 13 months and Prime Minister for 18 months before election day.
  • Now in 2010, the incumbent has served 18 years at the highest levels of opposition or government. Mr Brown is well-known.
  • In 1992, interest rates were 10% (on election day). They had fallen steadily from a peak of 15% in 1989.
  • Now in 2010, interest rates are just 0.5%. That is as low as they have ever been.

But there is another critical similarity:

  • In 1992, the incumbent party won a late surge in support.
  • Now in 2010, that is happening again.

In 1992, the incumbent party won.

Politics was not well-served by the re-election of the Conservatives in 1992. They were tolerated, not loved, but the voters couldn’t face the prospect of Labour returning to power. Five years on and the governing party was about as popular as a rat at a hen do.

It has taken many years and a substantial change in tone and focus for voters to come to terms with the Conservatives again. But that last term in office did them great harm. Labour is tolerated, not loved, but the voters are very nervous about the Conservatives returning to power.

Now in 2010?

Against expectations, Labour could remain in government until 2015. If that happens, I predict a landslide the other way, just like 1997. 18 years in government is a very long time. By 2015, it will be a very tired government.

In any case, the next five years are going to be very difficult. The next government will have some very tough economic decisions to take. It cannot risk the politics of popularity. It must govern in the national interest.

For the next government, Labour or Conservative, the election of 2014/15 is going to be very tough indeed.

When is E-Day?

Much has been said about when the general election might be. Well-informed tongues began wagging ahead of the Labour conference in 2007, Gordon Brown’s first as Prime Minister. Should he call a snap election to consolidate his authority? As leader of the underdogs, David Cameron’s challenge was to frighten the PM and force a rethink. He was helped by some clever politicking by his Shadow Chancellor. In the end, there was no election and it became clear Mr Brown would aim to see out the mandate won by Tony Blair in 2005.

Today is four years on. Each of the previous two elections were held after four years (or thereabouts). Both of Margaret Thatcher’s re-elections were held after four years, but John Major held off until the five year mark on both occasions.

When might Mr Brown see fit to go to the country? My view is that the election will take place on 6th May 2010, one year tomorrow. The argument for this precise date is put succinctly and effectively by James Forsyth in the Spectator last week. Basically, we know the local elections will be held that day and he doesn’t think it will happen before then or afterwards.

6th May 2010 is (a day) more than five years. It surprised me to learn recently that the general election could take place more than five years after the previous one. But apparently so; it happened most recently in 1997. Parliament is elected for a five year term, after which the timetable for the next general election is set in motion automatically.

In practice, the Prime Minister normally requests a dissolution from the Monarch before this point, but it’s not necessary. An election next year could happen as late as 3rd June, or two weeks later if the Queen dies after she’s summoned a new parliament. But as James Forsyth explains, 6th May would seem to be the most likely date. 

Westminster
The Mother of Parliaments

Mr Brown has faced much flak for his failure to go to the country early to secure a personal mandate. He was criticised, partly because probably he would have won; but the philosophical reason is arguably more important. Had he sought the consent of the British people to govern, he could more easily point his critics to this and move on.

He also lacks a mandate from his party. His elevation to the premiership was something of an appointment by inevitability. Labour MPs knew Mr Brown would be their next  leader, so the vast majority of them pledged their support. Two challengers emerged, Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, but neither could secure enough support (45 MPs) to force Mr Brown to face a wider vote.

So Mr Brown has neither a mandate from his party nor from the British people. His only real democratic authority comes from his constituency in Scotland. This reality harms him when he faces other challenges to his authority. So if he is replaced any time soon, would his successor call a snap election? I don’t think so.

All parties are ready for an election at any time. At least they should be. Even the party of government should be ready for when its leader decides it’s time to go to the country. Only the Prime Minister knows when he will do that, but his chief lieutenants must have a campaign plan ready at all times.

So, along with the others, Mr Cameron’s party is ready, Mr Clegg’s party is ready, and Mr Brown’s party is ready. But if Mr Brown is deposed, his party would no longer be ready to fight.

A new commander would need time to marshal his forces. He (or she) would need to draw up his own battle plan. A personal leadership vision would not be enough. A manifesto for government and an effective campaign to sell this message to the voters would take time to draw up. And in the midst of a crisis, the voters may not forgive any prime minister who decided to focus on electioneering instead of governing. The voters know the election will come soon enough. I believe they would rather wait for it, particularly if a key leader was unknown to them.

For Gordon Brown, it was different. He had ten years to prepare for the premiership, and the voters knew who he was. So he could have called a snap election. His replacement would be a fool to do so, particularly if the opinion polls remain stable.

The county council and European elections are on 4th June. This will be a key test. A good day for Labour will possibly settle the leadership question for now. But a bad day will increase the pressure on the Prime Minister. If he steps down, it will happen in June. A new leader would not be in place until, probably, August. At the earliest, a snap election could take place in September. But I suggest this will not happen.

I believe that, at the best of times, a new leader would want to wait at least three months before calling the election; perhaps even six months in the current economic climate. By that logic, an election would not take place before April. In that case, he might as well wait until 6th May, if only for the prospect of better weather. I believe the governing party benefits from a sunny day and Labour, in particular, benefits from a decent turnout.

But what is the likelihood of Mr Brown being turfed out now? I think it is slim. There is plenty of speculation about the leadership, but the next leader of the party will not want to begin a term in opposition after a crushing electoral defeat. Better to allow Mr Brown to take the hit. The circumstances of a stable overall majority for Labour are difficult to envisage; any victory is likely to be akin to John Major’s 21-seat majority of 1992 which had dwindled to precisely zero by 1997.

Who would want to take the helm during this storm? A caretaker, just for now, is a possibility. After all, if the skipper has lost command of his vessel, his crew must either step up or face doom. But if a caretaker is needed, Gordon Brown might as well stay on. For this purpose, he’s probably as good as anyone. The pretenders will recognise this soon. Expect them to close ranks almost immediately; certainly before the elections on 4th June. Watch the rats abandon ship in the year ahead (to a range of parties and some as independents), but Captain Brown will remain on the bridge.

A week is a long time in politics.
(Harold Wilson)

One might suppose that a year is somewhat longer. We will have to see that year out to understand what history reveals. But my prediction is this: the three main party leaders will all fight the next general election and the campaign will culminate on 6th May next year. One year tomorrow.