The epic AV Referendum post-mortem blog: Evil triumphs when the good are led by incompetent halfwits

May 10, 2011

This is a lengthy and cathartic postmortem of the AV Referendum campaign. Parts of it (especially the bits about how the Yes campaign could have won) are based on the insights of staff and fellow volunteers in our marvellous Birmingham group. If you don’t fancy reading  all 3000 words of this, a couple of pithy quotes sum up nicely my attitudes to both campaigns:

First, the Yes campaign:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain” – Geoffrey Howe in his resignation speech.

Next, the No campaign:

“There’s a bright future for all you professional liars” – Elvis Costello, How to be Dumb.

Now, on with the catharsis:

Oh dear.

A crushing defeat of 69% to 31% demands a lengthy post-mortem. It’s an absolute thumping, and surely puts electoral reform off the agenda for a generation at least.

A defeat like this has prompted a variety of reactions amongst Yes campaign activists. First, that this must mean the British people are stupid. Second, that it proves that our opponents had too much money, power and influence that there was nothing we could do. The Yes campaign was “doomed from the start” because powerful forces in the media and politics were opposed to a Yes vote. This seems to be the view of this chap/chappess:

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.

To understand why this view is misguided, let’s have a look at the polling data and at the actual votes cast for Yes.

You can see a history of polling data for the AV Referendum here. Around the turn of the year, Yes were continually on early 40s/late 30s, and often enjoyed a narrow lead over No. Yes lost support slowly over April, then rapidly over the last couple of weeks of the campaign. For the last ten days or so of the campaign, the figures were something like Yes 32%, No 68% in most polls, which is remarkably similar to the referendum results.

The trend, then, is the No campaign winning over the Don’t Knows, and Yes losing support. Part of this can be attributed to the hardening of the Tory vote once Cameron started campaigning, but not all of it. What the overall polling suggests, from way back in 2010, is that the Yes campaign had a base of around 30% of voters, but failed to convince any Don’t Knows whatsoever. Indeed, the total Yes vote was lower than the total Lib Dem vote in May 2010.

That’s a remarkable figure, and one that cannot simply be explained by Nick Clegg, or the EVUL NO CAMPAIGN!?, as some would have us believe.

Let’s put things straight first. This referendum was winnable. It goes without saying that the Yes campaign was dealt a difficult hand. People wanted to kick Nick Clegg. The pro-reform vote was split three ways. Elderly voters and Tory voters were likely to vote No, and more likely to vote than Yes voters (often the younger voters). These factors could explain a small Yes defeat, but not one on this scale.

To say that a No vote was inevitable is wrong for a few reasons, and I want to try and outline why below. First I shall explain the main reason why a No vote happened. It’s because the Yes campaign was shockingly appalling:

1) The Yes campaign was run by people who had never run a national election campaign.

It was led by two kinds of people. The first was the Electoral Reform Society/Take Back Parliament people, who were members of a pressure group and had never run a political national campaign of any sort. The other kind of people were Liberal Democrats. As a rule, Lib Dems don’t run national campaigns: they run a series of targeted, local campaigns and do not operate anything on this scale.

The mass incompetency of the Yes campaign ran through it like a stick of rock. For instance:

2) Its central message was very poor.

The Yes campaign’s main message was “Make your MP work harder”. To which MPs could, and did, plausibly claim that they worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The yes campaign were trying to get the anti-politics vote, but they weren’t turned on by this message. I spent a lot of time giving out the “Make Your MP Work Harder” leaflets in town. I had many replies to the effect that “We don’t want MPs to work harder, we want them shot”. One said “they should work harder making their own gallows”. Our main message, then, was rubbish. It fell between two stools, and didn’t capture either the anti-politics vote, or the pro-politics vote.

The Yes campaign’s other message – about axing jobs for life and ending safe seats – also didn’t work because AV doesn’t help end these problems.

In contrast, not enough time was spent explaining why our current electoral system was not fit for purpose. The two main unquestionable benefits that AV would have brought are that it eradicates the huge amount of tactical voting under FPTP, and MPs would need a majority of support from their constituents. These are the main messages that worked when talking to voters in the street or on the doorstep, and yet were almost totally ignored by the Yes campaign. The only mention of the latter was a slogan on some Yes leaflets called “Make it 50″ which was so awful and obscure it took our office and local activists a couple of minutes to work out what central office were going on about.

As one of our activists commented on Facebook, when I mentioned I was writing a postmortem blog:

The more I think about it, the more the disconnect between the message we found actually worked on the ground and what the national campaign concentrated on, drives me nuts.

This lack of a decent message was a symptom of the fact that our campaign was not led by political campaigners.

3) Too many rubbish gimmicks

See this source from the Yes campaign, quoted in the Guardian:

We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.

I’m assuming this is the same person who posted toilet seats, pond cleaner and rubber ducks to us in the Birmingham group (for a street stall linking AV to the expenses scandal) and inflatable axes (“axe jobs for life”). Part of me wants to dedicate the rest of my career in politics to ensuring that people like this advertising man, and a fair few of those high up in the Yes campaign, never work in politics again. Thankfully for them (and me) I’ve got better things to do.

4) Very little was made of our main strength – the breadth of cross-party support

Nigel Farage was our secret weapon, and yet was hardly ever used by the Yes campaign. He’s a good communicator, would have appealed to older voters (Yes’s weakest demographic) and would have been a great answer to the people who said “This should be a referendum on leaving the EU”. But he wasn’t, because the Yes campaign was run by incompetents. It was trying to be a lefty-love in, forgetting that we needed to appeal to all sections of political opinion, and that we couldn’t rely on the support of all left-wing voters.

5) Squandering what money it had

The Yes campaign had less money than the No campaign. Although published figures put the funding for both parties at about the same, that ignores the large amounts of money put into the No camp from Tory central office. However, the Yes campaign still had lots of money – millions of pounds. Therefore a lack of money was not the issue. The problem was that it misspent lots of money.

It spent too much on phonebank co-ordinators, when no political party now uses phonebanking as a way to engage with voters. The Electoral Commission would have paid for the postage of one targeted mailshot to every person on the electoral roll. The No campaign took advantage of this, we didn’t. There was only one mailshot, sent out to a few targeted voters, and even that was a bit rubbish. It was full of celebrity endorsements, didn’t explain why our system was broken and how AV would change that. What’s more, it managed to cause a race row, as well as as demonstration of how not to run your official twitter account.

The truth was that Zephaniah was added, not omitted, to the Yes leaflets after one member of staff commented that it’d be odd if a leaflet featuring no BME faces was delivered to houses in London. However, they were added to leaflets in London, but not to those letters sent to residents in Birmingham (including myself) which is also very ethnically diverse, and also Zephaniah’s home city! It was a bad leaflet, badly targeted, with an awful reaction to the media furore that surrounded it. Utter, utter incompetence.

The simple fact is that some people voted No because they received a No leaflet and not a Yes leaflet. When there was a chance to send out a targeted mailshot to every house in Britain, with the postage paid for. This was an epic clusterfuck of a campaign which will go down in the annals of political incompetence.

I don’t think Katie Ghose gets that though. In her speech she said the public had been “shut out” of the debate on AV. What nonsense. If anything, they were shut out by her campaign refusing to print proper mailshots, and by the last fortnight of the campaign taken up with Chris Huhne calling the No campaign Nazis.

If you really want to hear more about the naffness of the Yes campaign, please read this very entertaining piece on Socialist Unity.

So, how could the Yes campaign have won?

If I, and a few of the people in the Birmingham office, had run the campaign, this is what we’d have done differently:

a) Changed the name

“Yes to AV” is far catchier and to the point than “Yes to Fairer Votes”. “Fairer” is reminiscent of new-politics-coalition-newspeak-fluffy-bullshit.

b) Got a professional politician to run the campaign

Perhaps someone like Paddy Ashdown or Jack Straw. Someone who has plenty of experience of running lots of national campaigns.

c) Spent more time lobbying Labour MPs to vote Yes

This from Tim Montgomerie is an absolute must-read. It’s clear that the No campaign spent a lot of time lobbying Labour MPs:

The hard slog of ‘winning the Labour party’ first so that Labour voters could be won later was carried out by former Labour MPs Jane Kennedy (who took on Militant in the 1980s)  and Joan Ryan. For weeks on end they almost lived in the atrium of Portcullis House – the place in the parliamentary estate where MPs, journalists and researchers mingle. The campaign that resulted in a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposing AV was won over cappuccino and chocolate muffins. The campaign was also fought in the country. “Whilst Joan Ryan was setting up Labour No to AV and building the national campaign as the deputy campaign director – particularly working out the core vote/swing vote strategy – Jane Kennedy spoke at about two hundred meetings of constituency Labour parties.

It was obvious that Labour voters were going to be the swing voters. Why didn’t Yes do the same and lobby Labour MPs? If Labour “big beasts” such as Jack Straw, Ed Miliband, Ben Bradshaw etc etc had lobbied MPs more to vote Yes, especially the No2AV Yes2PR ones, perhaps the result would have been very different.

This is what I mean when I say that a defeat for Yes was not inevitable. People point to the split of the Labour party on the issue as a reason why a No vote was inevitable. What it actually shows is how effective the No vote were at lobbying Labour, which is something Yes should have been doing as well.

d) Ditch the anti-politics message

It was rubbish and didn’t work.

e) Use Nigel Farage more and take advantage of a mailshot with post paid for.

As I’ve said above.

f) Try and turn it into a referendum on David Cameron

It’s clear that Nick Clegg was a complete liability for the Yes campaign. I don’t have the exact statistics to hand, but I reckon that every time he spoke, Yes lost 5000 votes. What we had to do was turn the referendum on Cameron instead. To quote Eddie Izzard, “If No wins than Clegg gets a bloody nose, if Yes win than David Cameron gets a bloody head”. Tory blogs were making it quite clear what dire consequences Cameron would face if there was a Yes vote. Would Labour voters have needed much persuading to inflict these dire consequences on him?

Instead, our campaign said nothing. Because, you’ve guessed it, it was incompetent. Only Labour Yes did so, and we could easily have tailored adverts like these for “ordinary” voters as well.

g) Focus on bread-and-butter issues

We all know that the No campaign adverts were despicable. However, the creator of the “dead-baby” advert, Dan Hodges, is more right than wrong here in this post. He also argues that the Yes campaign lost this referendum rather than the No campaign winning it. This is his logic for the baby advert:

When I helped created the baby campaign, it was partially because I was trying to frame the issue in a way that people worrying about their jobs, their mortgages and cuts to their services could relate to. I was desperately trying to make relevant a subject that 99 per cent of the public find a complete, utter, total irrelevance.

Now I find the advert, as I’m sure many of you do, morally abhorrent. Yet there is surely a way for the Yes campaign to have framed the referendum in those terms too: “Do you care about the NHS? Do you want to have more say in how it’s run? You should have some more say in how you elect your MP then.” We are a Parliamentary democracy. We need electoral reform for better representation, so we can decide who cuts, and how much they cut, better. After all, much more than 50% of people in May 2010 voted for parties who promised slower cuts to those happening right now, but that is in no way reflected in the Parliamentary arithmetic.

Why on earth did the Yes campaign not attempt to do that? I’m sure you can guess by now…

h) Kicked the local Lib Dems’ arses into gear

The Conservatives put their mighty party machine behind a No vote. It would have been nice for the Lib Dems to do the same, as opposed to gently encourage a few activists to give out Yes leaflets and hope for the best. I’m sure it would have been less resourced than the one run by the Tory’s but the fact that not all those who voted Lib Dem last year voted Yes last Thursday shows that not enough was done to win over all the Lib Dem support.

What about the lies of the No campaign?

All this means that, although it would be nice to blame everything on the lies and misinformation put out by the No campaign, and the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, that doesn’t seem wash for me. We had money, but it was spent badly. Labour was split so badly because little effort was made to lobby them (and Labour MPs were put off voting Yes because of our central message). Our message wasn’t getting through, because it was rubbish. Nick Clegg is unpopular, but so is David Cameron. The No campaign was terrible, but as many people were put off by their tactics as voted No because of their lies. You can’t blame a defeat of this scale on one horrible poster, and ignore all the other stupidity that went on with our campaign, even if it is very frustrating that there’s no way of sanctioning the No campaign for putting a figure on posters all around the country that even they have admitted was made up.

The fact is that we cannot say there was a big conspiracy against us that stopped us winning. If you blame the press, or the No campaign’s money, or the “structures in society” for a No vote, you’re basically saying there’s nothing we could have done. You might as well blame the lizard people, or the Jews, for us losing. Whereas we have agency. That’s the crucial thing. We could have run a much better campaign and won. To say otherwise is foolhardy and risks not learning the lessons that I’ve spelled out in this blog post. Worst, it would be an abdication of responsibility.

The future of electoral reform

Even if we’d’ve had a much-improved Yes campaign, it may still have lost. As I wrote above, it was dealt a very difficult hand, and played it badly. Even if it still lost narrowly, A defeat of 55-45, could have been spun credibly as “Well, this motion only failed because more would prefer PR to AV”, since the pro-reform vote would have split three ways: Yes, No and Meh. A loss on this scale buries the prospect of reform of the House of Commons until about 2040 at least, surely?

I assume so. There are two main possible scenarios here that I can think of.

The first is that a No vote means the two-party system is entrenched. The Lib Dem vote shrinks, or the party splits, and its votes are redistributed between the Conservatives and Labour. First Past the Post is kept, and although electoral reformers won’t be happy, it won’t be another 30-35 years before anyone even dares to speak of reform again.

The second is that the trends we’ve seen since the mid-1970s continue. More people vote for parties other than Labour or Conservative. A sizable minority (say 10-15%) still vote for the Lib Dems, whilst UKIP and the Greens gather more and more votes. This means we see more coalitions, or parties winning parliamentary majorities on yet-smaller minorities of the vote. If that happens, the calls for some form of PR could come around quicker than you think. However, I’m not sure any government would actually change an electoral system that had served them so well (c.f. Labour 1997).

There are other short-term consequences that I’ll hopefully write about later this week. This post is long enough as it is.

If anyone still wants to read more on the AV referendum, as well as those pieces already linked to this, by No2AV’s press officer, is well worth reading.

Conclusion

I hope anyone reading this from Central Office (if they do read this) isn’t too offended by this post. I’ve tried to be as constructive as possible. What I want people to take away from this is the fact that the result wasn’t out of our hands. This referendum was winnable, if we’d done things slightly better. That, surely, should cheer us. Even if AV passed, it was going to be the first step of a long journey. Sadly, the journey for political reformers seems a lot longer now than it did on May 4th.

What’s most important is that we learn our lessons from this referendum and remember that we do have the power to change things. We do have agency, and there’s no big conspiracy stopping us from changing things. As FDR might have said, had he been involved with the Yes campaign, the only thing we have to fear is our incompetence.


Would AV help the BNP?

March 31, 2011

With only five weeks to go until the AV Referendum, Yes2AV have unveiled their secret weapon: Baroness Warsi.

Warsi is the chair of the Conservative Party, and judging by her recent comments she is a Yes2Av double agent masquerading as a patron of the No2AV campaign:

Speaking in London’s East End, near where anti-fascists fought a march by Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in 1936, Lady Warsi argued that a switch to AV would bring “a real risk that candidates would pander to extremists”, with “more inflammatory campaigns, and more policies which appeal to people’s worst instincts rather that to the values of the mainstream”.

Supporters of AV were “backing a system which rewards extremism and gives oxygen to extremist groups”, she claimed. It could also give parties like the BNP more legitimacy and “more power to those people – fringe voters, Monster Raving Loonies, and yes, fascists – who are voting for precisely the kind of extreme policies most people want to marginalise”. Lady Warsi added: “It means that bigots will be given more power in our politics and extremists will look to gain more influence over mainstream parties.”

Anyone would think that under our current system no parties pander to the BNP whatsoever. If only that were true. As Immigration Minister, Devil Incarnate and unofficial nemesis of Paperback Rioter Phil Woolas pandered to the far-right on an almost daily basis. And does anyone remember “British Jobs for British Workers”? It’s not as if Warsi herself is immune from this treatment: she said in an interview back in 2007 that people voting BNP had “legitimate concerns”. I can’t see AV making this situation any worse.

If this were a debate over a proportional system, such as STV or AV+, then there would be a chance that BNP MPs would be elected and sit in the House of Commons. If that were the debate we were having, then the following points could be made:

a) If people vote for fascists, than fascists have the right to sit in Parliament. That’s the point of democracy, after all.
b) The BNP’s views are repugnant, but as I’ve argued before the best way to challenge the BNP is to defeat their arguments in open debate and not to shirk from the challenge.

However, that is not the debate and AV is not a proportional system. It’s a system of electing MPs to a constituency. And it would make the prospect of a BNP MP much more unlikely because of the need for MPs to reach a threshold of 50% +1 of votes.

Take a look at this House of Commons briefing note on the BNP. The three BNP councillors elected for the first time in Burnley in 2002 had an average vote share of 28.1%. This means that 71.9% of voters voted against these councillors, yet they were still elected. If you look at the vote share of BNP councillors elected in 2008 (p7), you’ll see that only one of the fifteen candidates was elected with more than 40% of the vote, and one, in Maltby, was elected with just 23.1% of the vote.

Under AV the only way the BNP could have won these elections is to have picked up a sizable number of second preference votes. This is extremely unlikely, because, to quote this excellent guide to AV, “generally voters either support a party like the BNP, or hate it, so such parties gain very few second and third preferences.”

We do actually have some data on second preference votes for the BNP, for the London Assembly elections in 2008. You can find it on p8 of the House of Commons briefing notes. By my calculations, across the fourteen constituencies we have data for, an average of 4.93% of voters put the BNP down as a second preference. This would have been insufficient to win any of the council seats I mentioned above, even in seats where they polled 40% of votes in the first round.

Warsi is therefore plain wrong. AV would not help the BNP: if anything it would make them almost impossible to win any seats. Indeed, that’s why the BNP are supporting the No campaign.

There is another strand to Warsi’s criticism, about whether AV would give more influence to voters of extremist parties, but I will address that in a later blog post.


The Budget: it’ll take more than deregulation to stimulate growth

March 24, 2011

George Osborne made it clear very early on in his Budget speech that it would be “fiscally neutral”. This meant there were no large-scale tax cuts or any rises in public spending.

You see the key points here. I don’t really want to concentrate on the details: wading through the nitty-gritty can be left to the professionals, thank you very much. Instead, I’d rather focus on the tone of this budget.

As you’d expect from this coalition government, it’s dedicated to a free-market, neo-liberal economic model. Following up from Cameron’s “Enemies of Enterprise” speech, which talked of wanting to cut red tape, plans were laid out to cut taxes and regulation for businesses. Sadly, such an approach is misguided.

Labour keep on saying that the Tories are taking us “back to the 1980s”. One way in which they are doing this is in creating 21 new “Enterprise Zones”. This announcement was no big shock – such a plan was leaked to the Evening Standard as far back as January, and Osborne talked about creating these zones in a speech made only a few weeks ago.

Essentially, Enterprise Zones are specific areas which “will include tax breaks, deregulation and relaxing of planning rules to ten areas across the UK, costing the government £100m over four years”. Margaret Thatcher and John Major created 38 of these areas in the 1980s and early 1990s. Cutting red tape to stimulate growth sounds very sensible, but these schemes have not been very successful in practice.

Last month The Work Foundation planning published a report on Enterprise Zones. It found that their success across various countries had been “ambiguous at best”, and often had a “resoundingly negative” impact. (p6)

In Britain, Enterprise Zones had created 63, 300 jobs by 1987, but only 13, 000 were “new jobs”. The other 80% of these jobs were merely displaced from other areas. A government report put the cost at £45, 000 per new job created in the Enterprise Zone.

All this deregulation also didn’t seem to attract companies to the Enterprise Zone. Surveys suggested that only one-quarter of new jobs could be seen to have arisen from this deregulation, with site characteristics and market access seen as being more important reasons for them to invest. (pp5-6)

The one main success story of the Enterprise Zones was the emergence of Canary Wharf as a thriving employment hub. However, that can be attributed to the government investment in the Dockland Light Railway, rather than the deregulation present in the Enterprise Zone. Most jobs were created in the area after the area lost its “Enterprise Zone” status. (p7)

The whole ethos behind this budget and the creation of the Enterprise Zones is to create a “flexible labour market”. David Cameron has been banging on about this since the start of this year: in January he talked about plans to make it easier to sack workers who had worked for a company for less than two years.

That implies that it’s good to have a lightly-regulated, flexible labour market. However, such a market can have just as much inefficiencies as a labour market which has buckets of regulation. Ha-Joon Chang writes about one illuminating example in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.

South Korea has one of the most lightly-regulated labour markets in the world, with the result that many South Koreans end up in very insecure, temporary jobs. Around 60% of workers are on a temporary contract. Workers in their 40s and 50s are often “shunted out” to make way for younger workers: a chilling prospect given Korea’s meagre welfare state. Because of this, most young South Koreans are trying to become doctors if they have a science degree, or lawyers if they are humanities-inclined, because there is (slightly) more job security in these areas than in engineering, say.

80% of top-performing graduates say they want to study medicine. It is harder to get into South Korea’s 27th-best medical school than the country’s top engineering department. All this is despite the fact that now doctors’ wages are falling, in relative terms, because of the over-supply in doctors in South Korea. Summing up, Chang concludes that “one of the freest labour markets in the rich world…is spectacularly failing to allocate talent in the most efficient manner. The reason? Heightened job insecurity.” (pp222-224, at p224)

There are a couple of elephants in the room with the Coalition’s attack on regulations on business. The first is that some regulation is necessary. Very lightly-regulated economies that sought to encourage business (especially financial businesses) such as Iceland, Ireland and Britain are amongst those who were hit hardest by the crash: an unsustainable boom caused a long and gloomy period of economic insecurity afterwards.

Regulations might impinge on short-term growth, but they can then lay the foundations for longer-term, stable growth. Back to 23 Things again (p197):

(R)egulating the intensity of fish farming may reduce the profits of individual fish farms but help the fish-farming industry as a whole by preserving the quality of water that all the fish farms have to use.

It’s not as if regulation is incompatible with economic growth. Per capita income growth in the developing world was 3% per annum in the 1960s and 1970s. From 1980-2009, after the free-market reforms were introduced, the rate of growth fell to 2.6%. That figure is inflated by the fact that it includes the performance of India and China, neither of whom embraced neo-liberal policies. (23 Things, p73)

Going back to South Korea again, businessmen in the early 1990s needed to collect 299 different permits from a number of different government agencies in order to set up a factory. Despite this, its economy had grown at 6% in per capita terms since 1960. (p196)

The important thing is not to have no regulation, but the right regulation.

That’s what Osborne’s budget misses. Instead, we have indiscriminate deregulation and lowering of corporation tax. This benefits wealthy businessmen whilst stripping workers of basic rights, such as maternity leave and health and safety laws which could protect them. It’s only going to perpetuate inequality.

Also, and oddly for a budget meant to deliver growth by stripping red tape, the rate of growth was downgraded. The Office for Budget Responsibility revised its growth forecasts for 2011 and 2012 (1.7% and 2.5%, down from 2.1% and 2.6% in November). What’s more, these figures seem optimistic compared to other forecasts (see the Blanchflower article I linked to for these).

That’s not the only forecast that’s more grim than was predicted:

The deficit increase of £11.8bn in February was almost double the £6.9bn expected by the market. Also unexpected was the increase in the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rate of inflation to 4.4 per cent, with core inflation jumping to 3.4 per cent. This has increased the pressure on the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to raise rates, which would be disastrous for growth.

I can think of no better way to round off this blog than to paraphrase Paul Krugman from a few months ago: George Osborne’s plan is bold, but he’s boldly going in the wrong direction.


Thoughts on Barnsley Central: another Lib Dem disaster

March 5, 2011

Before anyone starts designing “Ed Miliband: Prime Minister in 2015″ mugs, let’s remember that this was an average performance for Labour in Barnsley Central. Yes, they won 60.8% of the vote, but that’s almost exactly the same figure they won in 2005 (61.1%).

Even when Eric Illsey had a massive expenses-shaped cloud hanging over his head in May, for which he ended up being imprisoned, Labour won with a majority of 11,000, which is about the same number as Dan Jarvis’s majority now.

So there really isn’t much point in popping champagne corks in Labour HQ just yet. None of this has anything to do with Ed Miliband. He’s the equivalent of a new football manager who has just beaten two teams in the relegation zone in his first two games.

It is interesting that, as with Oldham East, the misdemeanours of the previous Labour MP simply wasn’t an issue. This is hardly surprising, as I remarked in the Old and Sad post-mortem, people care more about the impending spending cuts than who claimed what on an expenses claim form years ago.

In his acceptance speech Dan Jarvis quoted a lifelong Tory voter, a pensioner, who apparently said to him on the doorstep something to the effect of:

This Tory-led government is cutting spending too far and too fast. It’s bad for jobs.

(I honestly cannot remember the exact quote; I can’t find the full speech online and I saw it at 1.20am so my recollection of it is hazy)

I’d be surprised if the pensioner actually referred to a “Tory-led government”, but I am sure she expressed those sentiments about the spending cuts.

For the Lib Dems, this was an almighty kicking. After narrowly finishing second in May, they finished sixth (yes, sixth!) losing 5000 votes in the process. They were beaten into fifth by an independent, who is an unemployed miner with no party machine, and the BNP finished fourth (but lost one-third of their votes from May, which is a reason to be cheerful).

Alarm bells must be ringing in Nick Clegg’s ears, despite his protestations to the contrary. In the long-term, the fate of the Lib Dems depends on the state of the economy in 2015. For now, however, it’s clear that it’s looking disastrous in the short-term for them. Local elections in May could see them completely obliterated.

The big winners of the night were UKIP, who finished second. I don’t know enough about their campaign in Barnsley to comment on why they more than doubled their vote share (4.7% in May to 12.2% now). Judging from this billboard, they went down the “human rights” angle:

It shows that, strategically, David Cameron is falling between two stools. His attempts to “detoxify” the Tory brand didn’t quite work, as seen by the fact he failed to gain a majority against a morally and intellectually bankrupt Labour Party in May last year.

Indeed, one of the most interesting parts of Andrew Neil’s documentary calling for the return of grammar schools was when he discussed polling data which suggested that C1 and C2 types, the “aspirational working and lower-middle-class” that would have voted Thatcher in the ’80s didn’t vote Tory in constituencies like Birmingham Edgbaston because they were perceived as being “too posh”. It’s voters like these that cost Cameron an overall majority.

However, by his attempts to make the Tories appear “fluffy” he has managed to alienate a great portion of the Tory right.

This was well-illustrated by Norman Tebbit, in the most mind-boggling column I’ve ever seen hosted by a national newspaper site.

After explaining that Arabs “don’t do democracy”, defending the poll tax, taking a sideswipe at Chris Patten and referring to the ECHR as “mad judicial imperialists”, Tebbit goes on to say:

I still do not know where, apart from to a Big Society gay wedding in Westminster Abbey, the Prime Minister really wants to go.

Tebbit went within a gnat’s tadger of backing UKIP in Oldham East, and a few more results like that of Barnsley Central could see him fully jump ship, along with, potentially, a few more right-wing Tories.

I’m not sure I can ever fully understand the motives of people who look at this current administration and say, “You know what the problem is with the coalition? They’re just SO left-wing”. But there is definite discontent within the Tory right, and UKIP is picking up on it.

However, one still should not overplay UKIP’s success. They only won 12% of the votes: less than 3000 in total. It hardly sees them becoming, as Nigel Farage put it “the voice of opposition in British politics” – yet. Also, governments always get kickings in by-elections.

Still, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage will be happy, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg will not. For if David Cameron tries to placate the Tory right with some more “centre-right”-type policies, that can only serve to annoy even more the few remaining Lib Dem voters.

Unlike a few partisan Labourites I know, I can’t take much pleasure from the Lib Dem implosion. It’s like watching a friend you thought you used to know go completely off the rails. I can’t see anything other than oblivion happening in May for them now.


Old and Sad: Labour hold; Lib Dem disaster

January 14, 2011

So, at the end of all that, it’s a Labour hold. It feels like an anti-climactical end to a roller-coaster of an eight months for the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency. We’ve had one of the bitterest general election campaigns fought in recent years, two recounts, a wafer-thin majority, a court case, an MP leaving in disgrace and, according to the Independent, “the most unusual by-election ever“.

Now Debbie Abrahams has been elected as the Labour MP (full results here), the area should return to some sort of normality until 2015, the most likely date for the general election. I doubt anyone living in Oldham East wants to see any election leaflet until then; everyone is suffering from election fatigue.

I’ve been saying on Twitter and Facebook (and to anyone who would listen) that Labour would hold Oldham East for about the past week or two. This has hardly involved sticking my neck out much, though. Ever since the polls showed that Labour were 17 points ahead on Sunday, the result has felt a bit of a formality.

In May, 14,186 people voted for the Devil Incarnate with a Labour rosette attached to it. The Labour vote would only have gone up since then, given their boost in the polls. In contrast, the Lib Dem vote of 14,083 would only have gone down, despite a significant amount of tactical voting from the Tories.

To win this by-election, the Lib Dems were relying on two factors. Firstly, that the personal vote that Elwyn Watkins had developed would over-ride his party’s current chronic unpopularity. Second, that people voted Lib Dem out of a sense of injustice and outrage over Phil Woolas’s leaflets. Both these factors turned out to be insufficient.

The Woolas shenanigans has not been a factor in the campaign. Both Debbie Abrahams and Kashif Ali have said that it just was not a doorstep issue. I’ve mentioned before that it was a big issue for me, but it really isn’t that surprising that most residents of Oldham East and Saddleworth don’t care much about it. After all, we have the biggest cuts to public spending in living memory coming up. That’s a much bigger issue then who-said-what in an election leaflet eight months ago, and I say this as someone who thinks that the Woolas case is, to paraphrase Joe Biden, a pretty big deal. The fact that anger over cuts seems to have caused people to vote Labour, who would have made the majority of these cuts had they been in power anyway, seems to be by-the-by.

The big story here: disaster for the Lib Dems

Let nobody try and persuade you otherwise: this is a terrible result for the Lib Dems.

Saddleworth is, as one of their main organisers in Oldham put it to me, “the kind of area where people vote Lib Dem because their parents do”. That kind of area is thin on the ground. It was also a by-election, where the Lib Dems generally excel, in a constituency where they only finished 103 votes behind Labour in May. They had a reasonably popular local candidate, hundreds of activists on the ground, and Nick Clegg visited Oldham three times. Not to mention the fact that their campaign had a head start of both Labour and the Tories, and they also moved a writ to hold the by-election as early as possible.

Nick Thornsby has been admirably trying some damage-limitation. He said last night:

A Labour majority of 3,558 is less than Phil Woolas achieved in 2005, when the seat was identified as a target by the Liberal Democrats – not an outstanding result for them by any means.

Ah yes, 2005. When the Lib Dem candidate was Tony Dawson, who screwed up his party’s chances of gaining a winnable target seat by, as I recall:

a) Claiming he lived in the constituency when he actually lived in Southport
b) Being accused of doctoring photos on election literature
c) Making obscene comments on internet forums

You could hardly claim, then, that 2005 was a high water mark in Lib Dem support.

The other argument against a Lib Dem collapse is the fact that their share of the vote actually increased. However, this rose from 31.63% in May to the heady heights of, er, 31.9% yesterday. The number of Lib Dem votes actually fell by almost 3000, and would have fallen by much more were it not for tactical voting from some Conservatives. UK Polling Report reckon that at least 22% of Tory voters switched to the Lib Dems. Most of the other Lib Dem voters, it seems, just did not turn up at all.

The Lib Dems really believed they could win this by-election; for them not to makes you wonder where they can win at all now.

The strange collapse of the Tory vote

Baroness Warsi has been on the radio talking about how effective the Tory campaign was, despite losing 6500 votes from May. In some respects, Warsi was the perfect choice from the Conservatives to front the by-election campaign. On the one hand, she is a senior Tory (party chair, no less), Northern, Asian, and therefore could connect to the large Asian vote. On the other hand, she is completely incompetent and a liability. For an election where the Tories didn’t really want to win, but wanted to pretend that they did, Warsi was the perfect choice.

In any other situation where the Tories finished 2,500 votes behind Labour, there would have been a massive Tory campaign to win the seat in a subsequent by-election, and potentially destablise Ed Miliband’s leadership. Arif Ansari, the BBC’s political editor in the Northwest, made the point last night that whilst the Lib Dems and Labour were constantly telling him what events they were planning and who was coming to the constituency, he was having to chase the Tories to work out what was going on with their campaign. Then, when David Cameron did campaign in the constituency, he forgot the candidate’s name.

This blog from Guido Fawkes gives some of the reasons Tory activists were grumbling about their by-election campaign. It inclues this briefing note that was given in the last week of the campaign:

Suggesting they hadn’t updated their briefing notes since November. Nice one.

Still, we probably cannot read too much into this result. It’s been a Labour seat since 1997, governing parties don’t usually win by-elections, and there’s a long way to go until the next election. However, we do know now what the political narrative of the next year will be: the crumbling Lib Dem vote.


Why you should vote Conservative in Oldham East and Saddleworth

January 12, 2011

Last but not least in our online hustings is the case for voting Conservative in Oldham East and Saddleworth. This comes from Simon Turner, who is a member of the Conservative Party from Reading. Simon tweets here and he blogs here.

There are many reasons why to vote for the Conservative Party in the up-and-coming election. The clearest is that we are the most honourable and honest party; this by-election has been solely caused by the illegal activities of the last Labour candidate, who cared more for his own election then the social harmony of your constituency.

Another reason is that the Conservative Party is the only party able to deal with crime. Ken Clarke is busying himself to bring prison reform through a prison-based work system; making prisoners pay for both their crimes and their room and board whilst ending the shameful and waste of mass short prison sentences and removing the pointless and frequently broken ASBOS with the right of local communities to physically rid themselves of bad neighbours.

In addition to dealing with crime and making prisons work, the Conservative Party has also fought against the tyranny of terror by both fighting terrorists and fighting back an overly intrusive state that has overridden our traditional liberties with massive and overly expensive databases, as well as the imposition of the surveillance society alongside illegal surveillance orders. These try in vain to control our enemies but end up simply controlling the decent and law abiding citizens. Unlike some others, the Conservative Party will not sacrifice our diversity or our liberty in order to fail to curb terrorism, but we will fight and tackle extremism in all its forms wherever it may rear its hate-filled head.

It is also the Conservative Party that had saved and will continue to secure the private sector-led, manufacturing-led real recovery from the shameful overspend of the last regime and from the repercussion of the global collapse. We are doing this by localising power from distant costly QUANGOS and RDA to local development agencies, as well as decreasing business taxes and regulations. Indeed Mr. Cameron has been busy creating new trade connections with the new emerging market. It is a notable achievement of the Conservative-led government that we have lifted the poorest from paying tax and also are reforming wholly the welfare state to make work pay and talking to businesses to learn how to help them create jobs and to help them and help us out of this mess.

There are many, many other reason to vote for the Conservative Party; we are the only party opposed to the takeover of Britain by the EU, we are the only party without a particle and merciful immigration policy and we are the only party with an active and trade-orientated foreign policy and the party of peace ending the wasteful war in Afghanistan.

In the end you should vote for the Conservative Party because together we will remake Britain, we will make it strong and fair and free once again.


Naughty and NICE

November 19, 2010

In the week that saw the wrecking of the Conservative party headquarters by student demonstrators the Coalition Government continued, more quietly, in its ongoing project of vandalism against the machinery of the British state.

This time it’s the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) facing the axe. There have been many cruel and callous acts by this government during the six and a bit months it has been in office and it’s difficult to know where to begin when writing about them because cruelty and callousness often defy rational analysis.

Sheer stupidity, on the other hand, is easier to get a handle of and this move is profoundly and irredeemably stupid.

NICE was one of Labour’s more successful creations. It was designed to provide uniformity of access to innovative treatments and to control costs within the NHS by assessing every new treatment by a single standard. Treatments judged to be cost-effective would be offered to all NHS patients, whereas treatments judged too expensive would be rejected.

This idea was so simple and so effective that it soon began to attract international attention attention, as this New York Times article shows, with many other countries talking of introducing similar policies. Dr. Donald Berwick, the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), in the US, described NICE as an “extremely effective, … conscientious, valuable and- importantly- knowledge building- system.”

The importance of NICE was that it tackled one of the major problems facing all advanced healthcare systems. The fundamental aims of healthcare – the treatment of ill health and the extension of lifespan – are goals without any natural limit. The ultimate logical aim, of immortality and perfect health, are forever out of reach and a country could very well expend all its resources in the effort.

This is particularly true given an intellectual property based model of healthcare innovation that means that drug developers can pretty much charge whatever they want and the end of the era of rapid advances in medical technology meaning that vast amounts of money could be spent on incremental improvements in outcome. NICE proved very effective at containing drugs costs by providing a clear non-negotiable cap on what the NHS would pay for treatments. It also helped to shield British patients from over-hyped and ineffective treatments.

Naturally, the pharmaceutical industry didn’t take this challenge to its control over drugs pricing lying down, whipping patients into a frenzy over “life-saving” treatments that were being denied, and creating fake patient advocacy groups. The tabloids relentlessly pushed this narrative, carrying multiple, emotive articles highlighting patients stories, and blaming NICE relatively poor cancer outcomes in the UK; a claim that makes no sense – the months of survival benefit these drugs have shown in clinical trials does not translate into years of advantage on a population level.

This campaign has often led to NICE being steadily undermined, a process that began with the Labour government intervening to ensure the approval of Herceptin for breast cancer in 2006, and continues with the coalition, first creating a separate fund to pay for refused cancer treatments, effectively neutering NICE in price negotiations, before removing its powers to approve or refuse new drugs altogether.

Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, wants to replace this function with what he calls “value based pricing”. This will mean companies negotiating directly with the Department of Health over prices, and drugs being approved or refused directly by local GP consortia.

This plan is riddled with potential problems.

The DoH will be subject to extensive lobbying by industry and political pressure not to be seen to be denying drugs to needy patients – the ball will be entirely in the drug companies’ court and they know it.

GPs have neither the time, objectivity nor clout to handle these negotiations. Dr Ben Goldacre has written that it would take GPs 600 hours a month to read all the studies relevant to primary care alone, and that drugs companies are adept at massaging the data to favour their products, for example by failing to publish negative data and using positive data in multiple studies in different journals. These are tricks that are difficult to spot by all but the most careful reader, and certainly to busy GPs, themselves subject to corporate marketing and “hospitality.”

This plan effectively removes the ability of the NHS to force the pharmaceutical companies to lower prices, the GPs don’t have the clout to stand up to big multinational corporations and the government certainly doesn’t have the political will. It’s safe to say that the champagne corks will be popping in the boardrooms of those companies and their lobbyists (lobbyists such as the one wheeled out to defend the changes in the Guardian editorial linked to at the top of this paragraph) at the news.

Further to the reforms of the funding of the new medical treatments, we hear the news that many of the regulatory functions of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) with ”food networks” including representatives of the food companies to discuss “voluntary not regulatory approaches.”

We can see very clearly where Lansley’s political sympathies lie. He cannot plead ignorance, certainly on the issue of healthcare. He has spoken about the issue many times with Private Eye’s “MD” columnist (aka Phil Hammond), who has christened him “la-la Lansley,” assuring him that he has fully understood the need for rationing in the NHS.

These moves completely contradict the Conservative portion of the Coalition’s stated raison d’etre of fiscal responsibility- in an era of tightening health budgets, diverting precious resources to a small and vocal group of patients, to little end, and to pay to patch up an increasingly unhealthy public. This cuts away the myths of Conservative principles, exposing their core values of deference to business, deference to wealth and pathological hatred of the state.


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