Category Archives: United Kingdom

Guest Post: Eastleigh (United Kingdom) by-election 2013

While everybody was busy with Italy, an important by-election was held in the UK – in the constituency of Eastleigh. Chris Terry was nice enough to offer me a fantastic guest post on this by-election. Chris is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society in the United Kingdom and you can follow him on Twitter here.

A by-election was held in Eastleigh, England on the 28th of February.

The by-election was caused by the resignation of Chris Huhne MP. Huhne was a prominent Liberal Democrat, originally Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the UK’s coalition government. He had twice run for leader of the party, both times coming second. The second time he was only very narrowly beaten by 1.2% by current Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. 1,200 votes were held up in the Christmas post and an unofficial check of them revealed that Huhne had had enough votes to win the leadership, though, to his credit, he stood by the result.

Background

Shortly after being made a Minister in Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government in 2010 Huhne had split from his wife, Vicky Pryce, a former head of the Government Economic Service. He had left her for his press officer, Carina Trimingham. The nature of this revelation caused Pryce to leak to the press that Huhne had had her claim responsibility for speeding when he had been caught by a speed camera. Lying in this way was perversion of justice, and so a court case started against Huhne and then also against Pryce, as she, too, had been complicit in this. Pryce claimed not guilty due to ‘marital coercion’, a rarely used defence in UK law. Huhne eventually pleaded guilty on the 5th of February. He has not been sentenced yet but, as it was clear he would receive jail time he resigned his seat. Pryce’s trial is currently subject to a retrial as the Jury could not reach a decision in the original trial.

The 2010 election had resulted in Britain’s first hung parliament since 1974 and the first peacetime Coalition government since before the war. After thirteen years of Labour governance Britain was suddenly faced with a Coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. During the 2010 election the Lib Dems and their leader, Nick Clegg, had become briefly extremely popular, riding a wave known as ‘Cleggmania’ from Clegg’s strong performance in Prime Ministerial debates. Polls early in the campaign had shown the Lib Dems challenging for the most votes. On election day, however, they fell back from these optimistic predictions, winning 23.0% (a gain of 1%) of the vote, and remaining in third. They also lost six seats. Nonetheless this was their strongest popular vote since 1983, and their second strongest since 1923, shortly after Labour had leap frogged them to being the main opposition to the Conservatives. They also held the balance of power in a hung parliament, and formed a Coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives.

After forming the Coalition, Lib Dem fortunes quickly deteriorated. Lib Dem voters are a heterogenous group but perhaps a majority in 2010 were either protest voters or left-of-centre. Many voters had voted for the Lib Dems because they saw them as more left-wing than Labour. A particularly symbolic moment for many was the vote on University tuition fees. The Lib Dems had long been against University tuition fees and during the 2010 campaign its MPs had signed a cast-iron pledge designed by the National Union of Students to the effect that, as a MP, they would not vote for any rise in tuition fees. This was a short-sighted policy in many ways, both Labour and Conservatives clearly favoured tuition fees in private and considering Britain’s economic position (a budget deficit equivalent to around 10% of GDP) it was difficult to see where the money would come from. The Lib Dem’s therefore ended up having to agree to raising tuition fees from a maximum of £3,000 a year; to £9,000 a year (it is very rare to see a University charging less than the maximum). The Lib Dems had had a very strong youth and student base and this was seen as a massive betrayal. The Lib Dem party itself split in the Commons. 27 Lib Dems, almost all ministers in the government, voted for the rise, 21 voted against and 8 abstained, in an atmosphere notable for the massive student protests in London.

From 23% in 2010, opinion polls indicated that the Lib Dems may have fallen into the single digits nationally, with some polls showing the Lib Dems as low as 8%, though some higher, at around 15%, with the polls mostly averaging around the 10% mark. Considering Britain’s First Past the Post electoral system if uniform swing applied this would mean the loss of a startling number of Lib Dem seats, the vast majority. However a glimmer of hope remained for the Lib Dems in their results in local elections where they demonstrated a capability to maintain strength in the areas where they have MPs and particularly against the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats as a party have often relied on strong local figures maintaining a strong profile as ‘local MPs’ and therefore having a strong personal vote. Indications were that this was continuing. A tradition of Labour supporters tactically voting Lib Dem to stop Conservatives getting in also seemed to continue. It was in areas where the Lib Dems had strong second or third places in 2010 where they lost the most votes. This suggested that the Lib Dems may save more seats than uniform swing indicated, especially as 38 of the party’s 57 seats were in seats where the Conservatives were in second place.

The Conservatives had had started in government fairly well, with a surprisingly long honeymoon period in the initial days of the Coalition in contrast to their Lib Dem partners. However since the 2012 budget things started to fall off the Conservative wagon. The government had cut the new top rate of tax introduced by Labour for those earning over £150,000 a year from 50% to 45%, whilst also removing certain exemptions from the tax code. A particularly odd argument that raged on was that of the ‘pasty tax’. The government had removed an exemption from VAT for hot takeaway food, such as pasties, a savoury pastry filled with meat and vegetables. The pasty is seen as a food of the working class, and so the ‘pasty tax’ was seen as symbolic of a government that did not understand ordinary people. Embarrassing photo ops had to be arranged where politicians explained just how much they enjoyed a pasty. At one point David Cameron was asked at a press conference when the last time he had a pasty was, he responded with a story about buying a pasty at Leeds railway station, but it was later revealed that the pasty shop he mentioned had shut down at the time he said! The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and many other prominent Conservatives come from aristocratic backgrounds and the Conservatives have often been seen as the ‘Party of the Rich’. There was therefore a contrast between the ‘tax cut for millionaires’ as Labour framed it, and a tax raise on a beloved lunchtime meal of the ordinary working man. The Conservatives have also been tainted by associations with the Murdoch press after the fall out from the phone hacking scandal and had to deal with an increasingly rebellious and unruly set of backbench MPs, who feel that the Coalition government has been insufficiently right-of-centre. Cameron has had to deal with an increasingly vocal and rebellious backbench who apparently feel that his moderation was beyond their failure to win in 2010. Unlike Blair who was able to hold moral authority over his party by virtue of his large majorities and therefore claim superior democratic legitimacy Cameron has had no such luck and many Conservative MPs feel a weak attachment to the Coalition Agreement, feeling that their party’s manifesto is more important. One particular backbench MP, Peter Bone, is well known for his almost weekly calls for Cameron to end the Coalition. While his is a lone voice, it is nonetheless a sign of the times in the party.

Labour had been launched into a leadership contest immediately after the 2010 election. The favourite was David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, a former aide to Tony Blair widely seen as on the right of the party. His main competitor was Ed Miliband, his younger brother, the former Energy and Climate Change Secretary and a former aide to Gordon Brown, who was seen as closer to the centre-left of the party. To the surprise of many commentators Ed Miliband won, just.

Ed’s earliest period in power was problematic for the party. He was painted out in the right wing press as ‘Red Ed’, opposed to any and all cuts to the state. He was seen as uncharismatic, nerdy, and even a little weird. There was a strong public perception that he had ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ with rumours that the two no longer spoke.

However as the Conservative’s problems grew Labour grew in strength in the polls, and this led to a change in the narrative about him. Ed also became more confident in front of a camera and in the Commons. While Ed still has his problems and is not riding any Obama-like wave of ascendancy, he is no longer seen as the unremitting disaster he was initially presented as.

Nonetheless, approval ratings for all three party leaders are now pretty terrible and there is a certain anti-establishment feeling in the UK.  This has fed into the rise of a new(ish) force – UKIP. Originally short for UK Independence Party (the party recently changed its official name to just the acronym), UKIP was originally a very minor party, eclipsed by the similarly Eurosceptic Referendum Party of millionaire former Conservative donor Sir James Goldsmith. UKIP was originally a single-issue party with a single raison d’etre – the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. The party had done well in European Parliamentary elections in the UK, aided by a broadly Eurosceptic electorate, a proportional voting system and low turnouts UKIP had managed to get 3 MEPs elected in 1999 (coming fourth), 12 elected in 2004 (beating the Lib Dems into third) and 13 in 2009 (beating Labour into second).

UKIP had never been particularly good at winning votes in general or local elections however. In 2010 it won 3.1% of the vote in the UK, but came nowhere close to a seat anywhere, with its most prominent candidate, current leader Nigel Farage, only succeeding in third place against Commons Speaker John Bercow (by convention the three main parties do not run against the Speaker). However since 2010 UKIP has been gaining steam, pulling off a string of impressive by-election results, often coming in second, though never actually winning. The party’s best record is 21.7% of the vote in Rotherham in November 2012. The party has also climbed in the opinion polls, where it ranges between 8% and 16%. The party’s success has been due to a variety of factors. Firstly their current leader, Nigel Farage, is a ‘straight talking’ sort of politician who has become popular with news organisations due to his bombastic style replete with quips and put downs for his political contemporaries. In one infamous speech in the European Parliament he lambasted the President of the European Council, the former Belgian PM Herman Van Rompuy, as having the “charisma of a damp rag”, as “looking like a low-grade bank clerk” and as coming from a “non-country”. UKIP has also rounded its policies with policies designed to appeal to right-wing Conservatives in particular. The party increasingly concentrates on opposition to immigration and gay marriage. It is said to be pulling away significant numbers of activists from Conservative Future, the Conservatives youth wing. Finally the party appears to be benefitting from the removal of the Lib Dems as a viable protest vote.

All the seats that had been up for by-election so far had been either Labour safe seats, with the exception of Corby, a Lab/Con marginal which has tended to be the former rather than the latter in recent years. In all of these bar one notable exception (Bradford West, where the former Labour MP George Galloway won backed by his far-left RESPECT coalition) the Labour candidate had won, often fairly resoundingly. Eastleigh, however, was a LD/Con marginal. The Eastleigh by-election therefore provided an interesting opportunity for the psephologically-inclined to see how the Lib Dems might perform against the Conservatives at the next election, scheduled for 2015. It was also important to both Coalition parties. For the Lib Dems, a win would mean rare positive press, a significant morale boost for their base and a demonstration that the party was not heading towards electoral wipe-out. For the Conservatives the win was less necessary but it would show that the party was capable of defeating the Lib Dems, who hold significant numbers of Conservative target seats. Eastleigh was therefore, by many measures, the most important by-election since 2010.

The Seat

Eastleigh is a railway town (a town that primarily developed because of its railway station) in the South of England. It is just 5 miles North of the city of Southampton, one of the larger cities in the South of England, besides London. Like most of Southern England outside London, Eastleigh is overwhelmingly White British, predominantly middle class, though there are working class areas, and economically active.

Up until 1994 Eastleigh had been regarded as a Conservative safe seat, won by the Conservatives at every election since the seat’s creation in 1955. In 1992 the Conservatives had won it with 51.3% of the vote, defeating the second placed Lib Dems with a majority of 23.3%. The sad death of the Conservative MP, Stephen Milligan, a rising star in the party, from what appeared to be a sex act gone wrong led to a by-election in 1994. By this point John Major’s Conservative government had become exceptionally unpopular and in the by-election the Conservative vote collapsed, with the Conservatives winning less than half of their 1992 vote, at 24.7%, coming third with the Lib Dems winning the seat with 44.3% for their candidate, David Chidgey. The seat was held by the Lib Dems from then on. The Conservatives, however, targeted Eastleigh which continually remained just out of reach. The Conservatives would gain votes, but the Lib Dems would succeed through tactical voting in their favour from Labour. Chidgey stood down in 2005, to be replaced by Chris Huhne. In doing so the party lost Chidgeys personal vote and Huhne was only able to defeat the Conservatives by 1.1% of the vote. He increased this in 2010 to 7.2%.

In many other respects Eastleigh has become something of a fortress for the Lib Dems. The party currently holds all of the council seats in the constituency, giving it a stupendous majority on Eastleigh borough council of 40-4 against the Conservatives (with the 4 Conservatives holding seats in areas outside the constituency boundaries). Remarkably the Lib Dems have even managed to gain seats in Eastleigh since 2010, gaining 2 in 2011. No other council is so dominated by the Lib Dems. They also hold all six county council seats in the constituency and even managed to top the poll locally in the super-low turnout Police and Crime Commissioner elections held last year. The Lib Dem machine in Eastleigh is infamous for its effectiveness and ruthlessness at Lib Dem ‘pavement politics’, the art of taking to the streets and campaigning viscerally on local issues. So effective is the Lib Dem machine that local businesses advertise on the back of their leaflets due to their reach. Having such a strong activist base and so many councillors gives the Lib Dems a strong advantage in terms of knowledge of the seat and voting data, something the party exploits.

At the last election the result had been as follows:

Chris Huhne (Liberal Democrat) 46.5%
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 39.3%
Leo Barraclough (Labour) 9.6%
Ray Finch (UKIP) 3.6%
Others 1%

The candidates and the campaign

The four most notable candidates (in order of their party’s performance in the 2010 election) were:

Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrats). The Lib Dems took the safe route with the selection of their candidate in the form of Mike Thornton. Thornton is a local councillor, which gave them the opportunity to localise the contest somewhat and avoid the associations with Nick Clegg that would have happened if the Lib Dems had run a Westminster insider. Some on the campaign trail said he was boring, but this also meant he was uncontroversial.

During the campaign it seemed as if the entire Lib Dem activist base had decamped to Eastleigh for the month. The Lib Dems have traditionally been very good at targeting seats they hoped to win and highly effective at by-elections. They are very good at focusing a campaign on local issues – in this particular case opposition to a local housing development project in a classic piece of British NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard). While all parties notionally support increasing the housing stock nationally in practice at a local level people tend to think that the houses should be somewhere else! This strategy was masterminded by former Lib Dem Chief Executive Chris (now Lord) Rennard and is known as ‘Rennardism’ in some circles. In a twist of fate for the Lib Dems, Rennard was publicly accused of sexual harassment by 10 female former Lib Dem activists during the campaign with the intimation that this is why he lost his position as Chief Exec. The Rennard allegations created significant questions for the leadership, with their knowledge of the allegations being a key question. Rumours about Rennard had circulated in the Westminster village for years, but there had never been proof. Clegg’s claim on the Sunday prior to the by-election that he had not heard the allegations before therefore stretched credibility, and he quickly had to release a statement to the effect that he had heard rumours but nothing more. The Lib Dems were therefore faced an ironic situation where they may have lost the by-election due to the behaviour of Chris Rennard, a man who had previously been seen as responsible for many historic Lib Dem by-election wins. Nonetheless the party broadly remained the favourite, though not overwhelmingly so, during the campaign.

Maria Hutchings (Conservative). The Conservatives once again ran their candidate from 2010, Maria Hutchings, a local businesswoman. This was unsurprising given that the party needed a candidate with local credentials to take on the Liberal Democrat strategy of localised pavement politics. With the party having no local councillors Hutchings almost certainly represented the person in the party who knew the seat and its voters the best.

Hutchings was on the right of the party and stated during the campaign that she would have voted against the government’s recent same-sex marriage bill, a source of consternation on the Conservative backbenches and amongst party activists. She also stated that she would have voted for a motion backed by many Conservative rebels in the Commons for a referendum on European Union membership, another source of great division in the heavily Eurosceptic party. She also uttered some statements which were seen as controversial, such as stating that she had sent her son to an independent (fee-paying) school because he was gifted and wanted to be a surgeon and therefore the right kind of education for him would be “impossible” to find in the state system. This was in contrast to Thornton, whose daughter had had a state education and who is now currently studying Medicine! Hutchings also failed to attend two hustings (local Q&A sessions) for the candidates, the first time apparently because she was campaigning with Cameron, the second because she was “meeting with voters”. This led to allegations from her opponents that the party was trying to ‘hide her’ away.

John O’Farrell (Labour). In the 1994 by-election Labour had succeeded in coming second in Eastleigh, beating the Conservatives into third place. As recently as 2005 the party could still pull in more than 20% of the vote, but their vote had collapsed to less than half that in 2010. While no one expected Labour to win the by-election unless extremely lucky, there was an opportunity here to give a sense of momentum by winning back tactical voters from the Lib Dems, and put down a marker that Labour were viable in the South of England outside London and a few urban conurbations, the weakest area for the party. Compared to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the party took a radically different tack in its approach to candidate selection, however, selecting John O’Farrell, a comedian, television broadcaster and writer, who lives in Clapham, South London. O’Farrell is best known for his appearances on comedy panel shows such as Have I Got News for You. He has run for parliament before – running in 2001 in a Conservative safe seat, he is also known in Labour circles for his bestselling book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter. The book is a memoir tracing the eighteen years of opposition that Labour found itself in between 1979 and 1997 and O’Farrell’s story is a story familiar to many Labour activists and to the party as a whole – that of the transition from radicalism to moderation.

O’Farrell’s campaign was predicated on suggesting that a Lib Dem or Conservative MP for Eastleigh was essentially the same thing as they would both be supporting the same government. Being a comedian his twitter feed included many humourous quips about the by-election. O’Farrell is well known and popular within the Labour Party and I suspect his candidacy helped to galvanise supporters and donors in favour of his campaign. During the campaign O’Farrell was attacked for excerpts from his bestselling memoir when he spoke about a momentary glee on hearing about the 1984 bombing of the Conservative Party conference by the IRA and of supporting the Argentines in the Fawklands War. In the book O’Farrell highlights these as examples of what he sees as the idiocy of radical knee-jerk politics and explains that he is now disgusted by both views but this was still used as a stick to beat him with. Perhaps more damagingly however, friends of mine who were campaigning on the ground say that Eastleigh voters appeared to feel that in nominating a South London based Comedian Labour were not taking the by-election ‘seriously’.

Diane James (UKIP). UKIP nominated Diane James, a councillor and healthcare expert from Waverley in Surrey, originally elected as an independent, James had later joined UKIP. Eastleigh had a special resonance for UKIP as during the 1994 by-election their candidate had been none other than Nigel Farage, their current leader. Farage turned down the opportunity to campaign in the seat again, however.

UKIP ran a surprisingly slick campaign in Eastleigh, and managed to succeed in gaining momentum as the campaign went on. The party nonetheless gained controversy when its leaflets claimed that when immigration laws are relaxed later this year 4 million Bulgarians would come to the UK (the population of Bulgaria is 7.4 million, so this would represent a very large number indeed!) but this did not seem to hurt the party. On Election Day the party pulled ahead of the Conservatives in the betting odds and there were many rumours of a late surge for the party.

In the grand tradition of British by-elections many minor party, fringe and joke party candidates stood. In all 14 candidates stood. The others were Danny Stupple, an independent standing on an anti-gay marriage platform, Michael Walters for the English Democrats, Darren Proctor for the far-left Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and Kevin Milburn for the Christian Party. The National Health Action Party, a single-issue party that has gained some media attention for its opposition to NHS privatisation and particularly the government’s controversial new health law stood a candidate, Dr. Iain MacLennan, for the first time. Jim Duggan stood for the Peace Party, Colin Bex stood for the Wessex Regionalists and Ray Hall ran for the Beer, Baccy and Crumpet party, a single issue party which campaigns against pub closures and for the rural way of life. By-election favourites, the Official Monster Raving Looney Party, a joke party that dates back to the 1960s, ran their leader Alan “Howling Laud” Hope. Finally perennial by-election candidate, David Bishop, stood under the latest of his Elvis Presley themed joke labels, ‘Elvis Loves Pets’.

Five polls were carried out during the campaign. Three showed the Lib Dems ahead by 3-5% and two showed the Conservatives ahead by 3-4%. The most notable thing from the polls was the fall in the Labour vote and the increase in the UKIP vote. The last poll of the campaign, by Populus, showed Lib Dems 33%, Conservatives 28%, UKIP 21%, Labour 12% and Others 6%.

The result

Mike Thornton (Liberal Democrat) 32.06% (-14.44%)
Diane James (UKIP) 27.80% (+24.20%)
Maria Hutchings (Conservative) 25.37% (-13.93%)
John O’Farrell (Labour) 9.82% (+0.22%)
Danny Stupple (Ind) 1.85%
Iain Maclennan (National Health Action) 0.94%
Ray Hall (Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party) 0.56%
Kevin Milburn (Christian) 0.39%
Howling Laud Hope (OMRLP) 0.33%
Jim Duggan (Peace) 0.31%
David Bishop (Elvis Loves Pets) 0.17%
Michael Walters (ED) 0.17% (-0.33%)
Daz Procter (TUSC) 0.15%
Colin Bex (Wessex Regionalist) 0.07%

Turnout was 52.8%, down by 16.5% from 2010 but still a very healthy turnout for a by-election.

The Lib Dems therefore succeeded in holding their seat, something which they are exceptionally happy about. Nick Clegg described the victory as “stunning”. The Lib Dem victory does indeed have much to commend it. Despite the hard times of coalition, the Rennard scandal, the jail term of Chris Huhne which had started the whole by-election the Lib Dems had succeeded in running a well-targeted, slick campaign won on local issues, with a solid dependable local candidate. This will be the model the Lib Dems will pursue in 2015 and on this by-election gave them some confidence that they may save more seats than many expect. That said, this is a rather pyrrhic victory. The party still lost almost 15% of the vote compared to 2010, most likely to a combination of abstention of the historically unreliable Lib Dem vote and to UKIP, in the form of protest votes. In a sense they only won because the Conservatives lost almost as much of their vote as they did, and the Lib Dem loss is in line with national opinion polls too. According to an ‘exit poll’ of sorts, (with a low sample, 760) by Conservative Party election expert Lord Ashcroft, 43% of Lib Dem voters voted for the party tactically suggesting that despite the Coalition the party successfully retained Labour tactical voters. 26% of Lib Dem voters also stated that the main reason they voted for the party was local services, totally unprompted. Only 43% of Lib Dem voters said they would ‘probably’ vote for the party in 2010, however now he is the MP Thornton will no doubt pursue the traditional Lib Dem strategy of working very hard as a local MP and building a strong personal vote, so they probably have the advantage in 2015.

UKIP also pulled off a victory of sorts. While they didn’t win the seat, their 27.8% of the vote represents their best every score in a parliamentary constituency, and they came within 4.3% of victory. This gives the party a continued feeling of momentum. According to the Ashcroft polling the party won roughly equal amounts of the Lib Dem and Conservative vote from 2010 (around a fifth in both cases) and 83% of their voters said they “unhappy with the party they usually support nationally” and three quarters said that they were “unhappy with all the main parties at the moment” further evidence that UKIP’s appeal is primarily anti-establishment and ‘plague on all your houses’ based. There does indeed appear to be a late surge element – 31% made up their minds in the last week, 18% on the last day. As with the Lib Dems only 43% said they would probably vote UKIP in 2015, with 10% saying they would likely vote Conservative.

The Conservatives are reeling. Coming in second would have been poor, but understandable, coming third puts the party in an extremely difficult position. The party is calling this a mid-term protest vote and noting that voters often vote against the government in these types of elections. While that’s true, the voters did elect a MP from a party that is in the government! The Conservatives have historically been poor at by-elections as the party is bad at targeting its campaign activities, and not as good at the ‘ground war’ aspect of a by-election as other parties. Sections of the party have also blamed Cameron for moving the party too far to the left and abandoning the party’s core vote to be picked up by UKIP. However as Professor Tim Bale, the leading academic expert in the Conservative Party, notes, the Conservatives have been attempting to ape UKIP for some time in many respects in the form of Cameron’s recent call for an EU referendum and the Home Secretary, Theresa May’s promise to cut immigration by another quarter. In Bale’s view by doing so the Conservatives could be creating the impression that UKIP’s concerns about both are perfectly valid and giving the party credibility, as he puts it “Rather than shooting Nigel Farage’s fox, all Cameron has done is feed it”. The whole argument also ignores that Maria Hutchings stood on a platform that was clearly right of the party leadership. Yet the party leadership is once again under significant pressure from its activists and backbenchers to shift right as a response, and Sunday’s right wing newspapers are replete with references to getting rid of the Human Rights Act, a particular object of hatred for the right-wing media.

Labour are the only one of the main three parties to have gained votes, but they remain below 10% of the vote. This is hardly the marker that they can win votes in the South of England which the party wanted. The party appears to have made a serious tactical misstep by selecting O’Farrell. Polls suggest that the party lost around half its support over the course of the campaign with most probably going to the Lib Dems, but some also likely going to abstention or UKIP. By running a comedian from South London Labour appear to have given the local electorate the idea that they were not taking Eastleigh seriously. The party will have to work harder to convince the electorate that it can succeed in the South of England – a particular focus will be on this year’s county council elections.

Bradford West (UK) by-election 2012

A parliamentary by-election was held in the British constituency of Bradford West on March 29, 2012. The seat, which covers parts of downtown Bradford as well as the Yorkshire city’s northwestern outskirts, was vacant following the resignation of Labour MP Marsha Singh, who had represented the seat since 1997, earlier in March.

Thus far, the by-elections to this Parliament have been uneventful affairs, boring by-elections fought in safe Labour seats across Britain (and Belfast West, which was hardly exciting). On paper, Bradford West was shaping up to be like all other by-elections in this Parliament’s lifespan. Covering parts of the textile centre of Bradford, the constituency is a poor multicultural working-class population with a long list of social problems and neighborhoods which are similar to some American inner-cities. The constituency includes the bulk of Bradford’s large Pakistani population which accounts for 35% of the seat’s population, which is also 38% Muslim and only 50% white British. The seat’s three downtown core wards are heavily Asian Muslim, but the seat also has a sizable white working-class electorate and a middle-class suburban base (Thornton & Allerton). The seat’s political history is surprisingly colourful. In 1997, Marsha Singh’s first election after a fractious nominating process, the seat was one of two seats in the country to record a swing to the Conservatives. Singh won, but with an 8.5% majority much smaller than his predecessor’s 19% majority in 1992. In 2010, Singh was reelected – this time recording a counter-cyclical swing against the Tories to Labour, taking a 14% majority.

Labour politics in Bradford West are said to be dominated by biradari networks (an Urdu word meaning ‘family’) which denotes an hierarchical system of clan politics dominated by connections and family ties to Mirpur, a city in Pakistan where most of Bradford’s Pakistanis hail from. Labour’s candidate, Imran Hussain, a deputy council leader, fitted the profile of biradari clan politics quite well. Hussain was certainly, on paper, the favourite to win a fairly safe Labour seat where the Conservatives have never staged a real challenge and where the LibDems were weak even before their post-Coalition electoral implosion.

Enter George Galloway, one of the most controversial politics in the country. Galloway, a former Labour MP, gained notoriety in 2003 for his staunch opposition to the Iraq war and his support for Palestine. Standing for the Respect Party, the charismatic and assertive Galloway knocked off Labour MP Oona King in the east London seat of Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005, but he was defeated when seeking reelection in 2010 in the new seat of Poplar and Limehouse, winning only 17.5% of the vote and third place. In 2011, he failed to win election to the Scottish Parliament standing for Respect.

Galloway was always going to make a presence in an otherwise boring by-election, but casual observers never guessed the impact he would have. Those with their ear on the grounds knew that something, however, was up. Galloway, running largely on his opposition to British military involvement in Afghanistan and benefiting from his strong popularity with the Muslim population, was able to motivate first-time voters, previous non-voters, Muslim voters who had always voted Labour and so forth. Galloway is still very popular with Muslims in Britain, who fondly remember his charismatic opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan as well as his fabled fights with interviewers and US Senators. Galloway seized on tensions in the Asian community concerning the system of biradari politics, which he was strongly critical of. On the sidelines, Galloway may have tried to exploit racial tensions and play a communitarian card by sending out a letter to voters “of the Muslim faith” which insinuated that Galloway – who is not Muslim – was somehow a better Muslim than Hussain.

Turnout was strong at 50%, still down 15% on 2010. The results were:

George Galloway (Respect) 55.89% (+52.83%)
Imran Hussain (Labour) 24.99% (-20.36%)
Jackie Whiteley (Conservative) 8.37% (-22.78%)
Jeanette Sunderland (LibDem) 4.59% (-7.08%)
Sonja McNally (UKIP) 3.31% (+1.31%)
Dawud Islam (Green) 1.47% (-0.85%)
Neil Craig (Democratic Nationalists) 1.05%
Howling Laud Hope (Monster Raving Loony Party) 0.34%

Galloway won a shocking victory, which was more than a narrow upset but rather a political earthquake. He scored a 36.6% swing from Labour to Respect, making this by-election one of the most historic by-elections in British political history since, perhaps, Simon Hughes’ landslide victory in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election against Labour. Galloway didn’t win just because of a turnout fluke, because turnout was very strong for a by-election. Reporters on the ground have indicated that he was able to mobilize first-time young Muslim voters, apathetic voters who had usually not bothered to vote in the past but also traditionally Labour Asian Muslim voters who were mobilized by Galloway. Galloway motivated voters by appearing as a radical anti-establishment candidate, opposed to the war in Afghanistan (obviously very unpopular in this type of constituency) and standing against politics as usual symbolized by Labour’s system of biradari clan politics. Labour has often tended to take Asian Muslim voters for granted and much has been written about this complacency in the context of Bradford. On March 29, that complacency and friends-and-neighbors system of clan politics in Bradford likely blew up in Labour’s face.

It certainly makes for a very bad result for Labour leader Ed Miliband, but it must not be forgotten that a lot of this huge upset is due to George Galloway’s personality. This won’t be a game-changing political event, because Respect simply isn’t a strong enough political force with any other well-known leaders besides Galloway (and maybe Salma Yaqoob) who could capitalize on an event like this. Galloway has an appeal to Muslim voters which his party doesn’t really have, because he is a superstar and political hero for a lot of younger Muslim voters in Britain. In Bradford West, Muslim turnout was likely very heavy and probably huge for Galloway. It would not surprise me if Hussain, ironically, was only able to hold Labour’s old white working-class voters.

Galloway’s win can be attributed to motivating a wide base on the issue of Afghanistan and anti-system opposition to politics-as-usual and by seizing on racial issues in the community including the issue of clan politics and Labour’s attitude towards Muslim voters. A good piece by Labour MP John Mann on LabourList says that Labour’s response in Asian areas were negative, and decries that the party had “no game plan” and fielded no Muslim, Urdu-speaking or hijab-wearing doorknockers.

Labour finds itself with a pie in its face, but the Tories are hardly coming out any better. The Tories did terribly, winning only 8.4% of the vote – losing nearly 23% since 2010. Some Conservatives might have voted strategically for Galloway to stick one to Labour, but in large part it seems like a repeat of a mayoral election in Tower Hamlets in 2010 when Tories simply did not seem to show up. The Tories aren’t strong in Bradford West, but they certainly have a floor (perhaps something like 25-30%) which is still much higher than high single-digits! Their turnout was probably particularly awful, because I doubt a whole load of Conservative voters in Bradford could have stomached voting for Galloway.

The LibDems did awfully as well, but such is to be expected at this point. The party’s performance in by-elections thus far is only marginally more impressive than the FDP’s polling numbers in Germany.

Belfast West by-election 2011

Belfast West

A by-election in the Westminster Northern Irish constituency of Belfast West was held on June 9, 2011. The by-election was sparked by the resignation of the constituency’s Sinn Féin MP Gerry Adams in December 2010 in order to run (and win) for a seat in the Irish Dáil. Belfast West, Sinn Féin’s stronghold has been held by Gerry Adams since 1997 and prior to that between 1983 and 1992.

Belfast West is by far the most heavily Catholic seat in Northern Ireland, with a 82.7% Catholic community background in the 2001 census and only 16.2% having a Protestant community background. It is also the poorest seat in Northern Ireland, with 80% of census areas in the constituency being amongst the poorest 20% in Northern Ireland. The population is largely young and poorly educated. Belfast West includes the heavily Catholic working-class areas of Lower Falls and Upper Falls, which both split 4-1 in Sinn Féin’s favour against the SDLP in the 2011 local elections. The constituency also expands to include most of the Court electoral area, more specifically the Shankhill area, which is a heavily Protestant (and very poor) neighborhood north of the barricades. In 2011, the Court district elected 3 Democratic Unionists, one Unionist independent and one Progressive Unionist. The seat has been held since 1966 by nationalists, being represented by Gerry Fitt who won the seat in 1966 as a Republican Labour candidate, founded the SDLP in 1970 and left the SDLP in 1979 to sit as an independent. Fitt was defeated by Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams in 1983, who was himself defeated on a wave of tactical voting and rare cross-community voting by the SDLP’s Joe Hendron, one of the few Northern Irish politicians to enjoy a cross-community appeal. Hendron was defeated by Adams in 1997, who increased his margins in every election since to reach a record high of 71% of the vote and a 54.7% majority in 2010. Since 2007, Sinn Féin’s mastery of vote management has allowed them to win 5 out of the 6 Assembly seats with the SDLP’s Alex Attwood (the Environment Minister) winning the last seat. The DUP lost its seat here in the 2007 elections.

The candidates were Sinn Féin MLA Paul Maskey, SDLP MLA Alex Attwood and DUP councillor Brian Kingston who were joined by 2011 Assembly candidate Bill Manwaring for the UUP (the UUP won 4.2% in 2011), 19-year old student Aaron McIntyre for the Alliance and Gerry Carroll of the far-left People Before Profit which won 4.8% in 2011, their second best showing in Northern Ireland after Foyle. The by-election was boring, and turnout was 37.53%. Turnout in the Protestant areas must have been terrible, given that turnout there is always lower than in the Falls area.

Paul Maskey (SF) 70.63% (-0.45%)
Alex Attwood (SDLP) 13.45% (-2.92%)
Gerry Carroll (PBP) 7.62% (+7.62%)
Brian Kingston (DUP) 6.06% (-1.52%)
Bill Manwarring (UUP) 1.68% (-1.43%)
Aaron McIntyre (Alliance) 0.53% (-1.32%)

Shockingly unsurprising results, with Sinn Féin holding the seat with a huge majority (57.1%, the largest ever majority for any party in this constituency) though losing a bit of votes from the 2010 Gerry Adams high, though its showing is stronger than its 66% result in the May elections. Aside from the UUP’s disastrous result and the overall piss-poor showing of the Unionists, the main noteworthy result is Gerry Carroll’s very strong showing for the PBP which managed to place third and hold its deposit.

Northern Ireland 2011

Assembly elections were held in Northern Ireland on May 5, 2011 as part of the UK election bonanza, covered in earlier posts which you’ll find scrolling down this page. Northern Ireland’s Assembly has 108 seats elected by STV in 18-multi member constituencies which elect 6 MLAs each. Given Northern Ireland’s troubled history, Northern Ireland is a consociational democracy, and a consociational democracy which takes the word consociationalism to its true meaning. The Northern Irish executive, led by a First Minister and Deputy Minister forming a powerful duo and various ministers, is neither elected through popular vote nor is it a traditional government seeking confidence of the Assembly. Rather, the makeup of the power-sharing executive is determined by the d’Hondt PR formula and cabinet seats are apportioned based on the number of seats held by a party in the Assembly. The largest party of the largest community gets the office of First Minister, while the largest party of the minority community gets the office of Deputy First Minister.

When talking Northern Ireland, we often talk in terms of communities. Politics is also tightly regimented along lines of community. Northern Irish parties are, with almost all parties identified to said communities. The Protestant or Unionist side includes the Democratic Unionist (DUP) and Ulster Unionist (UUP) parties with two smaller parties, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). The DUP, led by the famous Reverend Ian Paisley between 1971 and 2008, was originally the more radical of the two main Unionist parties and the more right-wing of the two, being based in the evangelical Free Presbyterian Church. The DUP originally opposed power-sharing deals, but the growing influence of younger pragmatists within the party led to it to accept power-sharing, culminating in Paisley becoming FM in 2007. The UUP, long the dominant party of Unionist politics (and Northern Ireland), has been in terminal state since 2007 at the earliest and in bad straits for most of the twenty-first century as the DUP has outplaced it as the largest Unionist party. The UUP is often seen as the most moderate party, largely due to the work of its ex-leader David Trimble in favour of the Good Friday Agreement. The party has had a hard time adapting to life as the second fiddle in Unionist politics, and its desperate and ultimately failed linkup with the Conservative Party in 2009-2010 was one of their leadership’s desperate moves. The smaller parties, PUP and TUV, are much smaller in weight. The PUP is the only left-wing Unionist party, and is linked to the UVF paramilitary – a linkup which has divided the party and led to its only MLA walking out of the party in 2010. The TUV was founded in 2007 by former DUP MEP Jim Allister as a radical Unionist party opposed to power-sharing. Allister did well in the 2009 Euros, winning nearly 14%, but the TUV has since turned into an also-ran and personal machine for Allister.

On the Catholic or Nationalist side, the two parties are Sinn Féin (SF) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). SF, which we all know well, is the more left-wing and ‘republican’ of the two parties and was pretty much the political wing of the IRA. SF’s participation in the peace process was vital, and it has enjoyed more and more success as it moderated its position, allowing it to become the largest of the nationalist parties. The SDLP conciliates moderate nationalism with social democracy, and played a vital role in bringing SF to the table and making the power-sharing agreements work. Since then, however, the SDLP has suffered loses – like the UUP – and is now the second largest nationalist party. However, unlike the UUP which is still struggling to grasp that reality, SDLP has had less problems and it isn’t in a terminal condition.

The liberal Alliance Party (APNI) is a non-sectarian, cross-community liberal party. The Alliance is not exceptionally strong, but APNI candidate Naomi Long stunningly defeated DUP First Minister Peter Robinson in his East Belfast constituency in the 2010 general election. Furthermore, APNI was allowed a seat at the table – David Ford as Justice Minister – an exception to the d’Hondt formula of cabinet allocation. The Green Party (GPNI) also has one seat in the Assembly, and they’re cross-community as well.

Here are the results, marked by a low turnout of 54.5%

DUP 30% (-0.1%) winning 38 seats (+2)
SF 26.9% (+0.7%) winning 29 seats (+1)
SDLP 14.2% (-1%) winning 14 seats (-2)
UUP 13.2% (-1.7%) winning 16 seats (-2)
Alliance 7.7% (+2.5%) winning 8 seats (+1)
TUV 2.5% (+2.5%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Green 0.9% (-0.8%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PBPA 0.8% (+0.7%) winning 0 seats (nc)
UKIP 0.6% (+0.4%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PUP 0.2% (-0.4%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Independents winning 1 seat (nc)

(56 Unionists vs. 43 Nationalists, +1 Unionist and -1 Nationalist)

The overarching trend here is stability. There has been no drastic movements, with no party gaining over 2.5% more than its 2007 share of the popular vote and with no party losing or gaining more than 2 seats. The DUP remains the largest party and gains two seats, while Sinn Féin gained one seat. The second fiddle party within each community, SDLP and UUP, suffered loses (again). The Alliance gained the most, but fell short of gaining another seat in North Down by a handful of votes, that last seat falling to the Greens who held their seat there despite the retirement of the popular Green MLA there. Jim Allister’s TUV actually did very poorly, down further from its rather disastrous 4% in the 2010 GE. But Allister was elected on the last count in North Antrim.

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness had hoped to become First Minister after these elections, which would have required SF placing first ahead of the DUP which it did in 2009 and 2010. But the DUP remained rather comfortably ahead of SF, and did roughly 5% better than in 2010. In this story, one of the main actors is Peter Robinson, the comeback kid. The First Minister had a rough ride in 2009 and 2010, with his wife Iris (a former MP and MLA) being embroiled in a sex scandal, a series of bad things which culminated in Robinson shockingly losing his East Belfast Westminster seat to the Alliance’s Naomi Long in May 2010. Since then, Robinson has been on the way back and his efforts paid off. With 28% first preference votes, he easily topped the poll in East Belfast and led the DUP to a strong showing after the 2009 disaster (at Jim Allister’s hands) and the setback of 2010.

The SDLP and UUP both suffered loses for the second consecutive election. There’s no hiding from the fact that both of these parties are in dire straits and must reinvent themselves in a way which prevents them falling further down the road of irrelevance.  Their respective positions seem confused, and probably confusing to voters and members. The overall picture for the SDLP is bad, but not all that bad as it still managed to top the poll in South Down and Foyle (though not by a whole lot, especially in Foyle). The picture for the UUP is bad, and Tom Elliott’s recent outburst at his count in Fermanagh and South Tyrone only makes the whole thing worst. Elliott, the UUP’s leader since last year, has made no secret of his conservatism and his positioning within the right of the party (rather than, say, the civic unionism of David Trimble and Sylvia Hermon). Furthermore, in Unionist politics, competition for ‘ethnic intransigence’ seems to be a constant, and Elliott’s goal seems to be pushing the UUP into a TUV-lite position to the right of the growingly pragmatic DUP. At his count, Elliott attacked the “traitorous scum of Sinn Féin” and Shinners wearing “the flag of a foreign nation”. Perhaps Mr. Elliott should study the results of the TUV before acting like a Unionist dinosaur.

Northern Ireland seems to be consolidating into a two-party DUP and SF system, with the SDLP and UUP risking long-term extinction or irrelevance if such trends continue.

The Alliance did well, gaining a second seat in East Belfast where it won 26.3% of the overall first preferences, up 7.5% on its 2007 performance (the DUP won 44.1%, up 6.4% since 2007, in East Belfast). As aforementioned, it fell short of a second seat in North Down, that seat instead being held by Steven Agnew for the Greens. Agnew won roughly 8% of first prefs and was elected on the last count. The popular Alliance-turned-Indie-turned-Green Brian Wilson had won the GPNI’s first seat there in 2007, likely due to a large personal vote, but retired this year. His wife Anne was the APNI candidate who fell short of that seat, ironically enough. As a final note about North Down, the DUP did quite well there with 44% (up 10%) against a mere 10% for the UUP which has apparently not recovered from the Sylvia Hermon episode of 2010.

Jim Allister’s TUV did horribly, its paltry 2.5% result being the party’s lowest result in its brief existence. Even in Allister’s North Antrim, the TUV won only 12% of first prefs (10% for Allister himself), lower than the 16.8% he won there in 2010. Yet, Allister managed election on the ninth count. The TUV’s low showing shows the low weight of radical unionism in Northern Ireland, and Allister’s platform of being a thorn in the side of the executive probably won’t amount to much.

In East Belfast, both the PUP-turned-Indie incumbent Dawn Purvis and the PUP’s leader Brian Ervine lost out. Purvis was eliminated on the final count, after polling 5.3% of first prefs. Ervine won 4.6% of first prefs and was eliminated on the tenth count, right before Purvis. An Independent, David McClarty, was elected in East Londonderry on the seventh count with 8.6% of first prefs. McClarty ran as an independent after being deselected by the UUP. The UUP will now try to win him back (in order to get a second cabinet seat), but Elliott’s outburst won’t help considering McClarty commented that they made Jim Allister look like the Dalai Lama.

Of the smaller parties, the far-left PBPA won 5% in West Belfast and 8% in its Foyle stronghold but transfers weren’t good enough to get it a seat there. UKIP won 5.6% in South Down, where its candidate is a local councillor.

The new cabinet will have a DUP FM, a SF Deputy FM alongside 4 DUP ministers, 3 SF ministers, and one minister each from UUP, SDLP and Alliance. The Alliance will likely have two ministries overall, though, with David Ford likely to hold his Justice portfolio. If McClarty joined back up with the UUP, the UUP would get a second seat at APNI’s expense. The Alliance could take such matters into court, as could the UUP if they only get one ministries to the APNI’s two considering the APNI is half the size of the UUP.

Local election counts are underway, with the same trends showing up: DUP and SF stable, SDLP and UUP loses, Alliance gains.

English locals and AV comments

Continuing from yesterday’s post on elections to devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, today comes an overview of the results of local elections in England as well as an overview of the AV referendum held on May 5.

English locals

In the patchwork of English local government, 279 councils of various types were up for reelection and in half the entirety was up and in the other half only a third was up. In all 36 metropolitan boroughs, a third was up. In 30 unitary authorities (UAs) the entirety was up while in 19 UAs only a third was up. In 126 district authorities, the whole council was up and in 68 districts a third was up. Finally, five direct mayoral elections were held. I believe these particular seats were last contested in 2007, though I’m probably wrong. These elections are notable for being the first held under a Tory government in years, and the first locals in a very, very long time where the LibDems are in government. As you all know, government hasn’t been a good experience for LibDems.

The headline results are:

Conservative 157 councils (+4) and 4820 councillors (+81)
Labour 57 councils (+26) and 2392 councillors (+800)
LibDems 10 councils (-9) and 1056 councillors (-695)
Residents Association 1 council (nc) and 48 councillors (-3)
Others 0 councils (-1) and 602 councillors (-177)
Green 78 councillors (+13)
Liberal 8 councillors (-2)
UKIP 7 councillors (nc)
Boston Bypass Indies 0 councils (-1) and 4 councillors (-14)
BNP 2 councillors (-11)
EDs 2 councillors (+1)
Independent Community and Health Concern 1 councillor (-3)

The BBC’s results page has fuller details on all councils. The overall picture is favourable to Labour, slightly favourable to the Tories and a disaster for the Liberal Democrats. The LibDems have obviously been hit for their participation in cabinet, but the Conservatives themselves haven’t suffered all that much from the government’s relative unpopularity. It has kept its base intact, which obviously can’t be said of the LibDems.

In the details, the LibDems suffered numerous routs in various cities in northern England where they had managed to build themselves a base in local government. They had already lost Liverpool, which they had held since 1998, in 2010, and suffered an utter rout there after a pathetic campaign which allowed Labour to win a supermajority, picking up 11 seats for a total of 62 against 22 LibDems. A pitiful result. Labour picked up its largest target in the region, Newcastle, held by the LibDems since 2004, with a gain of 10 seats from the LibDems to take 43 seats against 32 LibDems. In Sheffield (Clegg’s home turf), governed by the LibDems since 2008, Labour gained 9 seats to take 49 seats against 32 LibDems and enough for absolute control. I haven’t run through all the details, but the general word is that the LibDems seem to have performed better in places where contests were Tory/LD.

AV referendum

When Nick Clegg accepted to form the ill-fated coalition with David Cameron, holding a referendum on electoral reform was one of his demands. If successful, general elections would have been held under the alternative vote (AV) system rather than the current FPTP system. AV is used in Australia for elections to the House of Representatives and in some local elections in the US, where it is known as IRV. The Wikipedia page on AV/IRV explains the system in more detail, and Britain-vote’s guide to AV is well worth reading as well.

As a very brief overview, an AV/IRV system keeps single-member constituencies but instead of having the candidate winning the most votes win outright, voters must rank candidates in order of preference. If no candidate has 50%+1, the lowest placed candidate is eliminated and his votes redistributed. This process continues until a candidate has 50%+1 or, alternatively, when there are only two candidates left standing. In Australia, voters are required to preference all candidates (those who don’t have their ballots voided) whereas the proposed UK-AV did not require voters to preference all candidates. The guide to AV, linked above, explains the details of the working and of the effects of AV on elections in much more breadth.

AV is not proportional representation in the pure sense of PR. AV does not lead to more proportional elections than FPTP, and in some cases it might lead to some results which are even more disproportionate than FPTP. AV’s main advantage, for its proponents, is that winners elected under AV have a much broader base of support or, in Australia, 50%+1 support. But they’re not necessarily the “most liked” candidate, rather they often tend to be the “least disliked” candidate. As to the above point of AV not being PR in the pure sense of PR, Australia provides a good example as the Greens hold only one seat out of 150 even if they polled nearly 12%. Research by the BBC on the the effects of AV on past British elections shows that while the LibDems would be stronger they would not be represented to their actual weight (especially in years such as 1983). Furthermore, in 1997, the Tory rout would have been an absolute humiliation if AV has been used as AV allows voters who hate one party (eg; LibDem and Labour voters who were anti-Tory in 1997) to coalesce even more than under FPTP.

Both campaigns were pretty atrocious, though I personally found the no campaign even more demagogic and atrocious through its use of strawmen arguments or worthless demagogic drivel. One NO2AV ad could basically be summarized as “AV is way too difficult, so it sucks”. I guess the reason why both yes and no campaigns resorted to such demagoguery and drivel is that electoral reform is a non-issue for most people aside from psephologist, some hardcore partisans and people who read books on such stuff and throw hissy fits because the 1986 election in country X was not proportional. Most voters don’t care much about such stuff, a lot don’t understand or don’t bother to understand proposed changes and those who have minimal interest will be easily convinced by lies and deceit rather than by thought-out 10-page papers arguing both sides. In most cases, finally, unless voters have memory of a very disproportional election not too far back, they’ll lean heavily in favour of the status-quo (FPTP). I also believe wording of the question matters somewhat. This question asked ‘do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?’. My opinion is that using words like ‘current [...] system’  or similar phrases do hold sway for the low-information voters who do bother to vote and influences them to favour said ‘current system’.

In this particular referendum, the LibDems supported the yes and the Tories supported the no. Labour doesn’t have an official position, but Ed Miliband supported the yes. Smaller parties such as the SNP, Plaid, SDLP, Greenies, APNI, UKIP and Scottish Greens supported the yes. The DUP, BNP, UUP and GPNI opposed AV. A handful of voters, who I wager are overwhelmingly well-informed PR partisans, opposed AV because it wasn’t proportional enough.

Turnout was 42%, and results were as follows:

NO 67.9%
YES 32.1%

The Guardian has a cool interactive shaded map of results by counting area.

Opposition was highest in England, and somewhat lower in Scotland and Wales (but still over 60% opposed) and lowest (56% no) in Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales are used to some form of non-FPTP system. Northern Ireland uses STV for all elections except Westminster. Opposition was very high in Conservative rural England, often over 70% opposed, but also significantly high in working-class areas throughout England.

Support was highest in urban areas, or in areas with significant concentrations of students. Oxford and Cambridge voted 54% in favour, while more or less well-off urban areas in Glasgow and Edinburgh voted in favour. In London, areas which voted in favour are not, in general, particularly wealthy but a lot seem to have significant bobo-type populations but also large deprived immigrant populations. The pattern of areas with a highly educated population or a young population leaning more heavily in favour of electoral reform seems to be a constant throughout those places which have held referendums on such matters.

Scotland and Wales 2011

Elections for the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were held on May 5 in Scotland and Wales, alongside an AV referendum, English and North Irish locals, a Westminster by-election and elections to the Northern Irish Assembly.

AV and Northern Irish count is under way, and results for the English locals are being counted. A post on those results will be up when it’s all done. Results have been declared, however, for Scotland and Wales.

Scotland

A magnificent and very complete preview of sorts, better than anything I could create, is on the Britain-votes blog. Scotland’s devolved administration had been led by First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party (SNP) since the 2007 election, Scotland’s devolved Parliament having been ruled by Labour since its creation in 1999. Though the SNP did well in the 2009 European elections, it did poorly in the GE in 2010 and was widely thought to be headed to certain defeat at the hands of Labour, as Scottish Labour picked up the inevitable seeds laid by the unpopularity of the Tory-LibDem coalition in Westminster. Labour had a large lead over the SNP in opinion polls at the outset, but they floundered it away.

Scottish Labour leader, Iain Gray, was seen as gray and uninspiring. So was his campaign. Labour seemed to have campaigned for Holyrood as if these were local elections, with systematic votes against the Westminster government. However, devolved elections in Scotland and Wales are not local elections anymore, rather they are equivalent to Canadian provincial elections or German land elections. As thus, Salmond was able to play on his popularity (his +33% approval is the highest of any of the 4 leaders) and really build up a strong vote of confidence in his favour. The SNP’s campaign played heavily on Salmond, and the SNP apparently appeared on ballots as ‘SNP – Alex Salmond for First Minister’. And so the SNP rocketed ahead of Labour in the final weeks. The Conservatives have a small but rather solid base in Scotland. But the Liberal Democrats, which had been until the SNP established itself in 2007 one of the main “non-Labour” opposition forces in Scotland and so held considerable weight in Scottish politics, collapsed. They have been hurt a lot in Scotland (and throughout the UK) for their participation as the junior partner in the Cameron-Clegg coalition. Scottish LibDems are quite independent from the mother party, but they’re guilty by association.

The preview post explains Scotland’s MMP electoral system, with 73 constituency FPTP seats and 56 regional seats allocated to ‘equalize’ representation according to votes cast. Therefore, parties doing excessively poorly in the FPTP seats will be compensated by regional seats.

Con % +/− Con seats +/− Reg % +/− Reg seats +/− Total +/−
SNP 45.4% +12.5% 53 +32 44% +13% 16 -9 69 +23
Labour 31.7% -0.5% 15 -20 26.3% -2.9% 22 +13 37 -7
Tories 13.9% -2.7% 3 -3 12.4% -1.6% 12 -2 15 -5
LibDems 7.9% -8.2% 2 -9 5.2% -6.1% 3 -3 5 -12
Greens 4.4% +0.3% 2 nc 2 nc
Others 1.1% -1.1% 0 nc 7.7% -2.9% 1 nc 1 nc

With 69 seats, the SNP has won an absolute majority, made even larger by two pro-independence Greenies and one left-wing ex-SNP nationalist, Margo MacDonald, reelected as an independent in the Lothians region. 45% is by far the SNP’s biggest vote share ever in Scotland, and makes this election a resounding victory for Salmond and the SNP. An overall majority notably allows the SNP to pass legislation organizing an independence referendum, an electoral promise of the SNP. But in a party traditionally divided between ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘gradualists’, Salmond seems to be playing the gradualist path as his victory speech made it sound as if the SNP would rather work step-by-step, gain by gain rather than going to hold a referendum right away.

The SNP’s victory came much at the expense of the LibDems, who lost all its seats in mainland Scotland and all of them to the SNP. Most notably, the party’s traditional heartlands in the Highlands and in Aberdeenshire fell to the SNP on a huge swing towards the SNP. The SNP, notably, represents the areas covered by the Westminster constituencies of former LibDem leaders Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell. The LibDems were confined to the old Liberal strongholds in Orkney and Shetland. In other constituencies, the LibDem vote’s collapse largely benefited the SNP. Labour was unable to make even minor gains in the national vote share, and perhaps most remarkably its traditional Scottish heartland in densely populated industrial central Scotland and Glasgow was infiltrated throughout by the SNP. The SNP now holds the most seats in Glasgow – traditionally a strongly Labour area – and all but one seat in Edinburgh is held by the SNP. Iain Gray managed to hold his seat, which saw a smaller swing towards the SNP, with a 151-vote majority. Labour is now almost entirely shut out north of Glasgow and central Scotland, with the SNP reigning supreme with large majorities in the vast majority of seats in the Highlands and North East. The Conservatives lost votes and seats, the LibDems collapsed to a pitiful 5% on the list vote and the Greens failed to make any significant gains anywhere.

Wales

Once again, a plug for Britain-vote’s excellent guide to the Welsh elections offered here.

Wales is the Labour heartland of Britain since the 1920s and Labour has been the largest party in all elections since then save for the 2009 Euros Labour rout. Labour did badly in the 2007 elections because of Blair’s unpopularity, and needed to form a coalition with Plaid in order to govern. Plaid had sought a coalition with the Tories and LibDems, but ended up forming the ‘One Wales’ coalition with Labour. Labour’s First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, in office since 2000, stepped down in 2009 and was replaced by Carwyn Jones. Jones is seen to be a competent and capable leader, able to be an advocate for Wales against the unpopular the Tory-LibDem coalition in Westminster. Unsurprisingly, Labour polled well throughout the campaign while Plaid polled below its mildly successful 2007 showing.

The preview post explains Wales’ MMP electoral system, with 40 constituency FPTP seats and 20 regional seats allocated to ‘equalize’ representation according to votes cast. Therefore, parties doing excessively poorly in the FPTP seats will be compensated by regional seats.

Con % +/− Con seats +/− Reg % +/− Reg seats +/− Total +/−
Labour 42.3% +10.1% 28 +4 36.9% +7.2% 2 nc 30 +4
Tories 25% +2.6% 6 +1 22.5% +1.1% 8 +1 14 +2
Plaid 19.3% -3.1% 5 -2 17.9% -3.1% 6 -2 11 -4
LibDems 10.6% -4.2% 1 -2 8% -3.7% 4 +1 5 -1
Others 2.8% -5.4% 0 -1 14.7% -2.9% 0 nc 0 -1

Labour’s vote increased substantially, but gained only four seats overall as a lot of that vote piled up in the Valleys, an intensely Labour area. Labour gained Blaenau Gwent (a very working-class area in the Valleys) from retiring leftie independent Trish Law (who gained the seat in a by-election in a 2005 election, after her late husband, Peter Law, an ambitious Labour AM turned into populist left-wing independent died). It wasn’t much of a contest, as Trish Law retired and the Law-outfit (People’s Voice) is in ruins and ran an outsider who polled 18.8% to Labour’s 64%. Outside of that, it gained Cardiff Central from the LibDems, Cardiff North from the Tories and Llanelli from Plaid. Its majorities in the Valleys are amusingly but unsurprisingly massive. But Labour failed to gain target seats from the Tories in Pembrokeshire, and therefore didn’t win the absolute majority it wanted. It could form a stable minority or continue its deal with Plaid for another term.

The Conservatives managed to do quite well, after a decent showing in 2007 where it had the advantage of opposition, its supporters turned up and allowed it to hold its ground well. It picked up Aberconwy from Plaid, where Plaid was hurt by the retirement of Gareth Jones, who had won in 2007 only thanks to a large personal vote. It also picked up Montgomeryshire from the LibDems, on a large 9.5% swing from LibDems to Tories.

Plaid did poorly, but its strongholds in Y Fro Gymraeg are solid enough to withstand such loses. It did lose Llanelli to Labour, and its vote fell slightly in three of its five constituency seats. In Gwynedd, the local populist party Llais Gwynedd managed to poll 15.5%, largely at Plaid’s expense.

The Liberal Democrats lost two constituency seats and one seat overall, though from my vintage point I’m surprised that their overall vote share didn’t suffer more than it did.

UKIP had hoped to make a breakthrough in Wales, but polled only 4.6% (up 0.7%) on the regional lists and failed to win a seat. The BNP’s vote fell nearly 2% from its strong 4% showing in 2007. The Greens similarly failed to make a breakthrough, stagnating at 3.4% of the regional list vote.

A post on the results in Northern Ireland, England and the UK-wide AV vote will follow once those results are done. At this stage, with 94% declared, no to AV wins 70-30. Counting will be held tonight in the Leicester South by-election.

Oldham East & Saddleworth (UK) by-election

Map of Oldham East and Saddleworth

The first by-election of the British Parliament since the May 2010 general election took place yesterday, January 13, in Oldham East and Saddleworth. This by-election came in somewhat unique circumstances, after an election court voided the result of the original vote in May 2010 after LibDem candidate Elwyn Watkins, who lost by 103 votes in May, petitioned for the result to be voided based on the nasty campaigning between former Labour MP Phil Woolas and Elwyn Watkins back in May. Attacks on Watkins by Woolas apparently breached the terms of the Representation of the People Act 1983 by making false statements about his personal character. Woolas, known not only for his controversial statements on Islam, also has a long history of making contests very nasty since 1995.

Oldham East and Saddleworth, which basically covers the eastern part of the largely working-class town of Oldham in addition to the middle-class commuter town of Saddleworth was created in 1997. Prior to that, most of it had been in Littleborough & Saddleworth, a traditionally Conservative seat where the Liberals, not Labour, were the main rivals. The area’s history of nasty contests began with the 1995 election in the old Littleborough & Saddleworth, held at the peak of John Major’s unpopularity. The Tories’ vote collapsed by 21 points, to the benefit of the LibDems’ Chris Davies, who gained the seat with a 4.7% majority over Labour’s Phil Woolas. The by-election campaign was particularly nasty, with Woolas accusing Davis of being “high on tax and soft on drugs”. The inclusion of more working-class parts of the old Oldham Central & Royton were unfavourable to Davies, who lost to Woolas by a 6% margin in the 1997 election in the new seat. Woolas’ majority reached 8% in 2005, but the seat has never been particularly safe for Labour, unlike Oldham West and Royton. In 2010, Woolas, who experimented with some particularly nasty methods again, held on by a hair against LibDem opponent Elwyn Watkins. The Conservatives, which lack a good organization and local government base in the constituency, recovered from their 1995 drubbing only in 2010, when Kashif Ali managed to increase the Tory vote by 8.7% to win 26.4%. The BNP, which had won 11% here in 2001 in the aftermath of race riots, won 5.7% in 2010. There had been rumours that BNP leader Nick Griffin might stand in the by-election, but did not in the end. The BNP’s organization in the area collapsed after their 2001 boom, and the party has been going through internal feuds since their disappointing 2010 showing.

Aside from the unique circumstances of this election, and the unique fact that the LibDems were the ones with the power to move the writ for the by-election (instead of the incumbent party, as is usually the case); this by-election was all the more interesting because it is the first one since the formation of the ConDem coalition in May. Both parties stood candidates after all, but all eyes were on the LibDem vote. Their vote here is probably largely centre-right, being concentrated in the middle-class areas of the seat such as Saddleworth, of a type which might be amenable to voting Tory in other, more “traditional” constituencies. Yet, polls have been showing that the LibDems have suffered a lot from going into coalition with Cameron’s Tories and that they were leaking lots of vote from their left to Labour. The results of the by-election provide an interesting look at the LibDem’s vote:

Debbie Abrahams (Labour) 42.14% (+10.27%)
Elwyn Watkins (Liberal Democrat) 31.95% (+0.32%)
Kashif Ali (Conservative) 12.83% (-13.62%)
Paul Nuttall (UKIP) 5.81% (+1.95%)
Derek Adams (BNP) 4.47% (-1.25%)
Peter Allen (Green) 1.52%
The Flying Brick (Monster Raving Loony Party) 0.42%
Stephen Morris (English Democrats) 0.41%
Loz Kaye (Pirate Party) 0.27%
David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis Party) 0.19%

Labour holds the seat with a majority of 10.2%, which means a majority and a popular vote share higher than 2005 and 1997 (the Labour majority in 2005 was actually higher than that of 1997, which is not all that mind-boggling given that Labour was on the offensive against a non-Tory incumbent in 1997). Its vote share is up 10.3%, a figure similar to its vote increase back in the 1995 by-election. Yet, the LibDem vote is also marginally up. The headline figures thus hide something. The Liberal Democrats picked up tactical votes from the Tories who voted LibDem to throw Labour out. This resulted in the Conservative vote collapsing to an all-time low, lower than even 1997. The Liberal Democrats picking up votes from their right was at the same neutralized by what was probably a pretty important leak of votes from its left to Labour. Labour’s vote, after all, went up quite dramatically and it can really only be at the expense of the LibDems. Turnout was 48%, which is good for a winter by-election, and this definitely helped Labour. The LibDems moving the writ for an election in early January was deliberate to minimize Labour turnout, but a Labour GOTV campaign proved quite effective. Paul Nuttall, a UKIP MEP, won a good result – polling ahead of the BNP here of all places, and likely picked up a few Tory votes. The BNP might have suffered from its internal divisions, a higher than expected turnout or its inexistent local organization in Oldham.

Extrapolating the world from a by-election is always a dreadfully bad idea, but doing so from the first by-election in a Parliament is even worse. Yet, the results of the by-election here are unambiguously favourable to Labour. On balance, they are unfavourable to the Liberal Democrats given that they benefited from Tory tactical voting which compensated for a big leakage to Labour. In other constituencies, where the LibDems don’t have a strong base and are on the long-shot offensive from third or distant second, they will not benefit from such tactical voting. In fact, they’ll suffer from it. The image is bleak for the Tories, but I wouldn’t take too much out from this by-election. A by-election in a seat where contests are usually Labour vs. Conservative with the LibDems a non-threatening third would perhaps be more interesting and more informative.

Thirsk and Malton 2010

Thirsk and Malton (source: Ordnance Survey)

The delayed poll in the UK constituency of Thirsk and Malton was held on May 27, instead of May 6 because of the death before the election of a UKIP – only the eight candidate to die during a campaign since 1918 (though it already happened in 2005…). Thirsk and Malton is a large rural seat in the south Yorkshire covering the Ryedale and the Vale of York (which are also the name of the two old seats which made up the new Thirsk and Malton). This agricultural seat, relatively well-off for a rural area, is, like most of south Yorkshire, very very strongly Tory and the area has returned Tory MPs vitam aeternam (though a Liberal won a 1986 by-election in Ryedale, but lost in 1987), and according to Wikipedia, since 1885 at least (it’s another of those few areas which have voted Tory since the Victorian era). Here are the results:

Anne McIntosh (Con) 52.87% (+1%)
Howard Keal (LDem) 23.30% (+4.5%)
Jonathan Roberts (Labour) 13.55% (-9.8%)
Toby Horton (UKIP) 6.56% (+3.5%)
John Clark (Liberal) 3.72%

Turnout was 50.3%

I know it’s more than tempting to twist this as a by-election and early test for the very mediatized Tory-LibDem coalition government, but it isn’t a by-election, and an election held so soon after the regular election is still, usually, in a government’s honeymoon period and at a time when the recently thrown-out government is divided, absent and embroiled in a leadership contest, reducing their media visibility as a viable alternative for those partisans opposed to the government. It isn’t different here, and it would extremely stupid to try to pick out stuff from these results.

If the LibDems are to suffer loses from their association with the Tories, it isn’t in seats like this, but rather in Labour-LDem marginals or seats where the LibDem electorate is young, socially liberal and by tradition and ideology quite anti-Tory. The LibDem voters here are certainly not of that type. The bottom line is that this is not the type nor place to test LibDem support post-coalition, though the decent Liberal Party (which are nowadays to the left of the LibDems) showing could be a result of that (and the UKIP showing could be either sympathy votes, anti-coalition Tories or people voting UKIP because it won’t impact the final result much).

United Kingdom 2010: Results and Analysis

The United Kingdom’s general election last night, on May 6, is certainly one of the most interesting and poignant election in a longtime, beating out, in my mind, even Obama’s 2008 election. Even now, nobody knows what the hell happened and what will happen. It was an unpredictable wild contest.

All but one of the 650 constituencies up for election are in, only Thirsk and Malton, where a UKIP candidate died before the poll, will vote later, on May 27. Turnout was 65%, up around 4% since 2005. There were long queues at certain polling stations in places such as Sheffield, where the local returning officer closed the door at 22:00 and shut out some people from voting. In other places, certain voters were issued with ballots at 22:00 and allowed to vote after the legal closing time. Some stations ran out of ballots, or had problems because uni students turned out to vote without their voter card. The chaos at certain stations led to scenes of anger by shut-out voters, who tried to block ballot boxes from exiting the station to go to the count centre, and the BBC was also quite angry at the situation. A reform of the polling booths law is likely to come up soon.

The results are as follows, excluding Thirsk and Malton, with changes on 2005 notionals, excluding by-elections:

Conservatives and Speaker 36.11% (+3.8%) winning 306 seats (+97)
Labour 29.02% (-6.2%) winning 258 seats (-91)
Liberal Democrats 23.03% (+1.0%) winning 57 seats (-5)
UK Independence Party 3.10% (+0.9%) winning 0 seats (nc)
British National Party 1.90% (+1.2%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Scottish National Party 1.66% (+0.1%) winning 6 seats (nc)
Greens 0.96% (-0.1%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Sinn Féin 0.58% (-0.1%) winning 5 seats (nc)
Democratic Unionist Party 0.57% (-0.3%) winning 8 seats (-1)
Plaid Cymru 0.56% (-0.1%) winning 3 seats (+1)
Social Democratic & Labour Party 0.37% (-0.1%) winning 3 seats (nc)
Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force 0.35% (-0.1%) winning 0 seats (-1)
English Democrats 0.22% (+0.2%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Alliance Party 0.14% (+0.0%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Respect-Unity Coalition 0.11% (-0.1%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Traditional Unionist Voice 0.09% (+0.1%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Christian Party 0.06% (+0.1%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Independent Community and Health Concern 0.05% (+0.0%) winning 0 seats (-1)
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition 0.04% (+0.0%) winning 0 seats (nc)
Scottish Socialist Party 0.01% (-0.2%) winning 0 seats (nc)
All others 1.08% (+0.0%) winning 1 seat (nc)

There are a few general discernible trends in this election, but the major trend is that the election was awfully local. There were wild swings to and from certain parties in various parts of the country, some safe Labour seats fell to the Tories while some marginal Labour seats held on. Some seats which should never have fallen did, and some seats which should have fallen did not. The national swing is 5%, but it was very far from a universal swing (another shot in the back of the classic UNS), with some very low swings in some areas and a high number of seats bucking the trend. A look at those areas later on.

The discernible trends in this election are that Labour held up better than expected, and that Cleggmania died out badly and the LibDems had a rather bad night after the weeks of euphoria, which didn’t really die off at any point during the campaign. The daily pollsters did very badly, but the exit pollsters got it almost spot on down to the last seat numbers, and UNS didn’t fail as badly as expected (partly the result, I’m sure, of the poor LibDem result). What the pollsters did get right, however, is that the Tories, while largest party by far, lack an overall majority of seats and the next Parliament will be a hung one: the first since February 1974.

To begin the actual analysis, here are the results by major regions:

England: Con 39.6% (297), Lab 28.1% (191), LD 24.2% (43), UKIP 3.5%, BNP 2.1%, GRN 1% (1)
East Midlands: Con 41.2% (31), Lab 29.8% (15), LD 20.8% (0), UKIP 3.3%, BNP 3.2%, GRN 0.5%
Eastern: Con 47.1% (52), LD 24.1% (5), Lab 19.6% (2), UKIP 4.3%, BNP 2.1%, GRN 1.5%
London: Lab 36.6% (38), Con 34.5% (28), LD 22.1% (7), UKIP 1.7%, GRN 1.6%, BNP 1.5%
North-East: Lab 43.6% (25), Con 23.7% (2), LD 23.6% (2), BNP 4.4%, UKIP 2.7%, GRN 0.3%
North-West: Lab 39.5% (47), Con 31.7% (22), LD 21.6% (6), UKIP 3.2%, BNP 2.1%, GRN 0.5%
South-East: Con 49.9% (75), LD 26.2% (4), Lab 16.2% (4), UKIP 4.1%, GRN 1.4% (1), BNP 0.7%
South-West: Con 42.8% (36), LD 34.7% (15), Lab 15.4% (4), UKIP 4.5%, GRN 1.1%, BNP 0.8%
West Midlands: Con 39.5% (33), Lab 30.6% (24), LD 20.5% (2), UKIP 4%, BNP 2.8%, ICHC 0.6%, GRN 0.6%
Yorkshire and the Humber: Lab 34.7% (32), Con 32.5% (18), LD 23% (3), BNP 4.4%, UKIP 2.8%, GRN 0.9%
Northern Ireland: SF 25.5% (5), DUP 25% (8), SDLP 16.5% (3), UCUNF 15.2% (0), OTH 7.1% (1), APNI 6.3% (1), TUV 3.9%, GRN 0.5%
Scotland: Lab 42% (41), SNP 19.9% (6), LD 18.9% (11), Con 16.7% (1), UKIP 0.7%, GRN 0.7%, BNP 0.4%
Wales: Lab 36.2% (26), Con 26.1% (8), LD 20.1% (3), PC 11.3% (3), UKIP 2.4%, BNP 1.6%, GRN 0.4%

Analysis of England, Wales and Scotland

The marking thing about this election, noted above, is the absence of a large, quasi-universal swing or trend from one side to another. There were some large swings in certain seats, but it’s hard to discern a general common trait about those seats or regions, though I personally noticed that there were large swings in safe Labour seats, maybe the result of voters voting as a protest vote against the ‘owners’ of the place when it’s safe to do so and is unlikely to cause a change of hands in the said seat.

The Tories gained 100 seats exactly (slightly less excluding by-election gains they held). Most of those seats tended to be marginal seats, where the race often depends on the national mood and turnout patterns within the seat, or more middle-class areas gained by Labour in its 1997 landslide and narrowly held onto by Labour in 2005. The Tories also gained twelve seats from the LibDems, most of which had been gained by the party in the Tory landslide defeat of 1997. One of those seats is Winchester, a famous seat where the LibDems won by two votes in the 1997 election and held it in a subsequent by-election as well as 2001 and 2005. The Tories lost 3 seats (excluding the Speaker’s seat), all to the LibDems: Solihull (technically a hold, but a notional gain), Eastbourne and Wells. In Norwich North, traditionally a Labour area, the young Tory MP held on by a comfortable margin of around 10% after a 2009 by-election gain. In Crewe and Nantwich, another Tory gain from Labour in a 2008 by-election, the Tories won by a large margin, 46-34 over Labour. Birmingham Edgsbaston had been a seat everybody had been talking about as a must-win Tory gain if they wanted to win nationally. Labour held on to it 41-38, though Labour lost seats which were notionally safer than Brum Edgsbaston. The Tories will also win in Thirsk and Malton on May 27, giving them 307 seats overall.

Labour lost 94 seats, all but a handful to the Tories. They did however win back three seats: in Chesterfield, they defeated the LibDems in Tony Benn’s old seat, they gained back Bethnal Green & Bow from Galloway, and they picked up Blaenau Gwent in the South Wales coalfields from Dai Davies, an Independent who won a 2006 by-election to replace Peter Law, who had won as an Independent Labour candidate in 2005 in protest at Labour’s all-women shortlist in the constituency. Davies has likely been hurt by some poor decisions of hers.

The LibDems had a poor night. The Cleggmania seen in polls absolutely didn’t translate into increased support for the party, which has in fact suffered a net loss of 5 seats and a gain of only 1% in the popular vote. The reason hasn’t been satisfactorily explained yet, but it’s likely that voters were convinced at the last minute that the election was still a two-horse race, or Labour voters who had toyed around with Nick Clegg decided to vote Labour in fear of a Tory government. Increased media scrutiny of the LibDems and poorer debate performances in the last two debates certainly didn’t help. However, the traditional problems of the LibDem strategy should also be noted: vote spread too thin around the country or poor strategic choices in terms of constituencies. The party suffered 13 loses overall, compensated by 8 gains. In Cornwall, where they held all 6 seats prior to the election, they lost three. It could partly be the result of an unpopular move to a unitary authority in 2009, a move backed by the local LibDems, but I think the LibDems suffered the consequences of that in the 2009 locals rather than in 2010. It should also be noted that the Tory majorities in Truro & Falmouth and Camborne & Redruth were extremely thin (less than 1%). LibDem hopes for gains in Oxford, a major student town, were dashed with a Labour hold in Oxford East and the defeat of the LibDem incumbent in Oxford West. Another student town where the LibDems had hopes was Durham, but Labour won 44-38 there. Perhaps the student vote didn’t turn out as much as it should, or it could be related to the student registration problems in certain places. The LibDems gained 8 seats in all. In Norwich South, the seat with the lowest vote share for the winning party, the LibDems very narrowly defeated Labour MP and internal Brown enemy Charles Clarke, while in Burnley they finally gained the seat infamously known for its 2001 race riots after successes at the local level since the last election.

There were a number of rather shocking results. In Redcar, a very safe working-class Labour seat (held in 1983, so it’s safe), the LibDems won a massive victory with a huge 21.8% swing to the LibDems. The closure of the Corus steel plant in Redcar likely explains the result, along with local government LibDem strength, but it remains the major English shocker of the night. In Montgomeryshire, held by the Liberals/LDs since 1983 (and excluding a one-term Tory between 79 and 83, since 1880) and by Lembit Öpik since 1997, the Tories won a shocking and unexpected victory on a 13% swing to them. Lembit Öpik’s flamboyant and controversial style likely did him in. There were also large swings to the LibDems in Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney, a safe Labour seat in the South Wales coalfields, were the Labour share dwindled from 61% to 44% while the LibDems saw their vote increase by 17%. Labour held the seat, but it was surprisingly close for a safe Labour seat. The result in Pontypridd was also close, with a 13% swing to the LibDems. Demographic changes and younger professionals moving into this once-coalfield seat likely explains the result there. Also in Wales, Plaid failed to gain Ynys Môn (Anglesey), held by the party’s leader in the Assembly, though it isn’t all that shocking given that no incumbent has lost re-election on the island since the 1950s.

In England, Labour held on to Luton South, where its retiring MP was embroiled in the expenses scandal. The Independent in Luton South, Esther Rantzeen, who stood on an anti-sleaze platform, did horribly with just 4% of the vote. Hazel Blears, another Labour MP embroiled in the expenses scandal, held on in Salford, winning 40% against 26% for the LibDems and 21% to the Tories. Jacqui Smith, the former Home Secretary and expenses scandal culprit, was defeated in Redditch by a decisive 44-30 margin by the Tory candidate. A number of cabinet ministers lost their seats, but no high-ranking cabinet ministers lost in the end. Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood came close to having a “Portillo moment”, but held on 38-35 against the Tory’s Antony Calvert.

% majority in each constituency

In Scotland, the trend there bucked the trend south of the border, with Labour actually increasing its vote share to 42% by 2.5%. Also amusing is the fact that no seats changed hands in Scotland. The SNP, which forms government in Holyrood, up for re-election in one year, will likely be quite disappointed. Salmond had a goal of 20 seats for the party, though most bookies thought 8 seats would be the SNP’s seat count. It failed to win Ochil and Perthshire South, where Labour increased its majority and the SNP vote fell; and Labour’s majority in Dundee West increased from approximately 5% in 2005 to 20% this year. Glasgow East, a safe Labour seat won by the SNP in a shocking 2008 by-election, wasn’t even remotely close: Labour’s defeated 2008 candidate won 62-25 against John Mason, the incumbent MP. Overall, the SNP increased its vote share only marginally to 19.9%, placing it second, but still far from its 29% level in the European elections in 2009 or the 33% in the Holyrood election in 2007. The LibDems had hoped to win Aberdeen South and two seats in Edinburgh (two seats which they only narrowly lost, though), but its seat share remains stagnant and its vote fell nearly 4%. The LibDems also lost Dunfermline and West Fife, a 2006 by-election gain from Labour, to its original 2005 winner. Gordon Brown also saw his majority in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath increase, now a crushing 50% majority over the SNP. The Tories only marginally increased their vote share and they failed to win either Dumfries and Galloway from Labour, or two SNP seats which were on the party’s target list. Even if Cameron forms a government, the Tories will have but one MP from Scotland.

The SNP’s Welsh allies, Plaid Cymru, did poorly, with their vote down to only 11% in Wales. They won back Arfon, notionally held by Labour, but they fell short by a large margin in Ynys Môn and they fell far, far short of winning back Ceredigion, a narrow LibDem gain in 2005 where the LibDem majority increased substantially. The margin in Ceredigion is now 50-28.

The Greens broke through in Brighton Pavilion, winning their first seat ever (on less than 1% of the national vote) and marking one of the first seats won by Greens in a FPTP national election. MEP Caroline Lucas defeated Labour 31-29, while the Tories polled a rather poor 24% of the vote in a race rumoured to be a two-way Green-Tory contest. The Tories, however, did win Brighton Kemptown and Hove, both won by Labour in the past three elections. The Greens victory in Brighton Pavilion reflects a winning strategy for such parties, especially the Canadian Greens: focus almost all resources on one seat with a star candidate and bomb that seat with leaflets; while forgetting other seats. The Greens did that and it paid them dividends, though overall the party’s share of the vote actually fell slightly and in most other constituencies it did as well. The Greens also did well in Norwich South, their ‘second target’, with 15% of the vote. It polled barely over 2% in both Oxford seats.

George Galloway, Respect’s sole MP and a major victor of the 2005 election, moved from his constituency of Bethnal Green & Bow to Poplar and Limehouse, and he took a trashing there, winning only 18% of the vote against 40% for Labour and 27% for the Tories (who didn’t win the seat after all). In Bethnal Green & Bow, Respect’s candidate won 17% and third-place. Respect’s best result was won by Salma Yaqoob in a massive mud-sliding contest in the new seat of Birmingham Hall Green: Yaqoob won 25% and second place, narrowly ahead of the LibDems and not too far from Labour’s 33% of the vote.

The BNP’s leader Nick Griffin was standing in Barking against high-profile Labour MP Margaret Hodge, and the leader’s result was quite bad for the party and reflects poorly on the party’s overall results. Griffin won only 15% of the vote, the BNP vote actually down on 2005 and still in third place behind the Tories (18%) and far away from Labour, which won 54%, up 4% on 2005. Overall, however, the BNP’s vote increased to 1.9%, likely its best result in a general election to date, and the BNP was the party, with the Tories, that saw its vote increase by the largest amount (+1.2%). This is likely due to running far more candidates than in 2005, though the BNP increased its Westminster presence in the North East. The BNP’s result is not as bad as it’s made out to be (nor is it all that good), but in Barking, it’s very bad and at the local level, the BNP lost all 12 seats in the Barking and Dagenham borough council, where all seats are now held by Labour.

UKIP’s former leader Nigel Farage, injured in a plane crash the day before the vote, was standing against the Speaker in Buckingham. John Bercow, the Speaker, is not entirely popular, especially in his own party, where his pragmatic and liberal stances are not all that welcome. Yet, Farage didn’t make an impact and there was no late sympathy vote. Farage ended up in third, with only 17% and behind an anti-Bercow independent who polled 21%. Bercow’s vote, however, was down roughly 11% on his 2005 result.

Elections in the UK are often fought on bases of classes, and those patterns have remained largely stable since 1935. On a map, the Tories win the most land area (as they did in 2005), because they represent largely sprawling rural or suburban areas. The party’s strongest majorities are found, obviously, in the South-East and East, though in rural and very wealthy areas as a general rule. As previously mentioned, the Tories gained ground from Labour either in seats were the boundaries make them closely split between Labour and Tories, or in more well-off urban and suburban areas won by Labour in its 1997 landslide (eg, Lincoln and so forth). In other rural areas, old patterns based on historical religious adherence, die hard. Cornwall, parts of the South-West and Wales have always been weaker Tory land because the Tories were historically seen, especially in Celtic Cornwall and Wales (Montgomeryshire, Brecon and Radnorshire), as the English Anglicans in opposition to non-conformist Celtic Cornwall. In Wales, the Tories have usually found strength in wealthy areas (Cardiff North, the Vale of Glamorgan) but also areas with a large number of English retirees (Pembrokeshire) and areas more English than Welsh (Monmouthshire). Scotland actually used to be a strong Tory area, but Thatcher’s policies and the SNP killed it off. Thatcher was unpopular by the end in Scotland, and the SNP appealed to those voters who had voted for the Unionist Party of Scotland (merged into the national Tories in 1965) because of the Unionist’s Scottish Protestant rhetoric. Labour has been reduced in this election to its base in working-class (usually old mining) areas. Almost all Labour seats are found in urban or densely-populated industrial valleys, giving the impression on a general map that they’re a small party. Labour’s best areas are in the Welsh valleys (the Rhondda etc), Liverpool and surrounding industrial hinterland, coal mining areas in the Yorkshire and Derbyshire, the mining stronghold of County Durham, Scottish mining areas in central Scotland and Fife, the Black Country around Birmingham, and the working-class areas in East London (or similarly working-class areas in western-ish London) and other cities including Glasgow. The Liberal Democrats have strongholds built largely on persons rather than demographics. While they do well in traditionally Liberal areas such as Cornwall, the Scottish Highlands or eastern rural Wales, personality encourages a lot of their vote. The LibDems, as mentioned in previous posts, often take different rhetoric to win different seats. It can sometimes even be borderline populist and nationalist, such as in Burnley, or Cornish nationalist as with Andrew George in St. Ives. As evidenced by the result in Ceredigion and especially Westmorland and Lonsdale, their MPs often have a large sophomore surge. That being said, there are some traditionally LibDem demographics: students (Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Cardiff Central, Manchester Withington), young professionals and wealthy liberals (parts of south London), and some strength in certain resort towns (Torbay, Southport, Eastbourne). Sometimes, the LibDems win under slightly disconcerting circumstances (in some cases, gay opponents: Norfolk North and Simon Hughes’ 1983 by-election win in Bermondsey). The LibDem’s weird patterns of support, which are generally well spread out and peaking only in a handful of seats, account for their weak results under FPTP. However, the LibDem strategy of working hard in certain seats to win them and hold them makes sure that on 23% of the vote, they manage 57 seats in 2010 rather than 23 on 25% in 1983, so it has its dividends as well.

A note on local elections: after 157 of 164 councils declared, the Tories hold 65 (-8), Labour has 37 (+15), the LibDems have 13 (-4) while 45 remain NOC (-3). The Tories lost 121 seats, now holding 3364 councillors against 2857 for Labour (+414) and 1615 for the LibDems (-141). A notable Labour gain is in Liverpool, where the LibDem majority has been defeated. In the London boroughs, Labour has picked up a good number, and Barking and Dagenham is an entirely Labour council. The BNP has only 19 councillors left, down 26. More results here.

David Cameron is favoured to form cabinet, and negotiations are underway as this is posted with Nick Clegg’s LibDems. Labour had called by election night for a Lib-Lab pact, but Clegg had said during the campaign that the party with the most votes and seats should have first digs at forming a government. Hope for a Lib-Lab pact is extremely low, and Labour already rebuffed SNP offers at a grand Labour-LD-SNP-SDLP-Plaid coalition. Cameron yesterday highlighted the common ground between LibDems and Tories, but there remains significant differences, most notably on Europe, immigration and electoral reform. Electoral reform remains a top priority for the LibDems, but the Tories are the most reticent of the two major parties (Labour called by election night for some sort of talks on the matter) for electoral reform. The Tories might bury LibDem calls for electoral reform by accepting to long-winded committees on the matter or STV voting for the Lords or local elections. The LibDems ought to be cautious and intelligent when talking to the Tories. If there was to be a deal, an informal deal between both would be far better for the LibDems than a formal coalition, where the LibDems would obviously have the shed their ‘alternative’ image and would be associated by voters with Tory policies. It also remains to be seen if the LibDem electorate, a lot of which vote for the party because it’s neither red nor blue, would be happy about a Lib-Tory deal. If talks fall through, Cameron could still form a minority cabinet relying on on-and-off support from Northern Ireland’s unionists, the LibDems or even the SNP-Plaid for a majority on various matters. However, such a minority wouldn’t be as stable as Harper’s minority in Canada, given that Labour is probably structurally and financially stronger than the Canadian Liberals and could afford to defeat Cameron in the House and force a snap election. It is quasi-certain anyways, however, that the current Parliament won’t last as long as its predecessor and an election might be held as soon as winter.

Northern Ireland

Its best to analyse politics in Northern Ireland separately from the ‘other island’ because of the major differences. Northern Ireland has 18 constituencies (which also serve as multi-member STV constituencies for the Assembly elections). Politics remain sectarian in Northern Ireland despite the power-sharing in Belfast and the end of the Troubles, and political parties reflect those sectarian lines. However, the increase of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland will sooner or later trouble the delicate balance of power between the two major sectarian forces. Northern Ireland’s 18 MPs are ignored in times of majorities, but in times of hung parliaments, the unionist MPs are courted actively. The Tories in the past sometimes depended on support from unionist MPs, and Sinn Féin’s abstentionist MPs reduce the magic majority line from 326 to 323 in 2010. The unionist MPs might come in vital for a Tory minority government.

In Northern Ireland as a whole, Sinn Féin topped the poll with 25.5% of the vote, up 1% on 2005, while the DUP share of the vote fell 8.7% to 25%. The SDLP, the second nationalist party, saw its vote go down by only 1% to reach 16.5%, while the second unionist party, the UUP/UCUNF won only 15.2%, down 2.6% on 2005. The non-sectarian liberal Alliance won 6.3% (+2.4%) while the hardline anti-power sharing TUV won only 3.9%.

In Antrim North, Ian Paisley Jr. had no trouble in the race to succeed his father, winning 46.4% against 16.8% for Jim Allister, the TUV leader and former MEP. While Paisley Jr’s result is down 10% on 2005, he maintains a comfortable 29.6% majority in the seat. Allister’s result is rather bad and would only yield a handful of Assembly seats next year if the numbers hold up.

Reg Empey, the leader of the Ulster Unionists, was standing in Antrim South, the only seat where Empey’s UUP-Tory coalition had a real chance of winning. Despite a 3.6% swing from the DUP to the UCUNF, Empey is 3.5% behind incumbent DUP MP William McCrea with 30.4% against 33.9% for the DUP incumbent. The TUV polled 5.4%. Empey’s defeat will likely call into question his leadership, which is already rapidly evaporating, but also the continued existence of a clearly dwindling UUP, especially in face of the 2011 Assembly elections, where Martin McGuinness could become First Minister on the back of unionist divisions.

The shock came from Belfast East, the seat held by incumbent First Minister Peter Robinson, also leader of the DUP, since 1979. Robinson temporarily stepped down as First Minister earlier this year after it was revealed that his wife, Iris Robinson (formerly an MP as well) had sexual affairs and illegal financial dealings with a teenager. A poll had shown he wasn’t at much risk in a Protestant DUP stronghold, but they failed to see the wave, which came not from the nationalists or UCUNF, but from the non-sectarian Alliance. Its candidate, Naomi Long, elected Lord Mayor of Belfast in 2009, won 37.2% of the vote against 32.8% for Robinson, on a massive 23% swing to the Alliance from the DUP. Robinson remains as First Minister, but his authority is severely shaken by this shocking defeat.

In Belfast South, the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell had been elected in 2005 thanks to vote splitting between the unionists, but this time around he had no trouble winning. His share of the vote increased by nearly 11% to reach 41%, giving him a 17% majority over his closest rival, the Democratic Unionist Jimmy Spratt, who won 23.7%. Anna Lo, an Alliance Assembly member of Chinese descent, won a very pleasing 15% of the vote, which shows her popularity as an Assembly member (it isn’t an ethnic vote, obviously, only 3% of the constituency’s population is non-white) and the party’s appeal in the seat. McDonnell’s large victory reflects Sinn Féin’s drop-out in his favour, but also the growing Catholic population in the seat.

Gerry Adams managed to increase his vote in Belfast West, Sinn Féin’s heartland, to 71%. In Belfast North, despite a 7% increase in its vote share, Sinn Féin failed to wrestle the seat from the DUP, which won 40%. However, Sinn Féin’s 7% increase here is larger than the SDLP’s 4.5% slide, reflecting the growing Catholic population in the seat and maybe a sign that Sinn Féin might be able to win it in the future.

Lady Sylvia Hermon, North Down’s MP, was the UUP’s sole survivor in 2005, but she left the party after it allied with the Tories and stood for re-election as an Independent against Ian Parsley, the Alliance-turned-Tory guy. Parsley obviously wasn’t a top-caliber opponent to a very popular local MP. Hermon won 63%, up from 50% in 2005, against Parsley’s 20.4%. The Alliance suffered from Hermon’s popularity and their vote slid by 2% to only 5.6%.

Another setback for the Robinson clan was in Strangford, Iris Robinson’s old seat, where she was retiring (obviously). The DUP’s vote slid nearly 9 points to 45.9%, mainly to the benefit of the UCUNF, which won 27.8% (+6.4% on 2005). The DUP held on narrowly in Upper Bann, with 33.8% against 25.7% for the UCUNF and 24.7% for Sinn Féin, which placed a disappointing third after a poll had showed them in a strong second to the DUP.

The DUP held on in East Londonderry with a 15% majority on Sinn Féin while high-profile DUPer Sammy Wilson won re-election in East Antrim with a 22% majority on UCUNF.

Sinn Féin faced a very, very tough contest in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, a majority Catholic seat but one where a united unionist front can win. Rodney Connor, the unionist unity candidate, was the favourite against Sinn Féin incumbent Michelle Gildernew. Gildernew held on by four votes about a number of recounts against Rodney Connor. Both polled 45.5% of the votes. Because Gildernew was threatened, the SDLP’s vote was massively squeezed, being halved to reach only 7.6%. If the SDLP had dropped out to save Gildernew, it would have been a much easier election for Gildernew.

Sinn Féin easily held on in Mid Ulster (Martin McGuinness’ seat), Tyrone West and Newry & Armagh. The SDLP’s former leader, Mark Durkan, was re-elected in Foyle with a 12.7% majority over Sinn Féin, though both parties vote slid, likely in favour of Eammon McCann of the far-left People before Profit, which won a record 7.7% in the seat. The SDLP’s new leader, Margaret Ritchie, held on in South Down, with a comfortable 19.8% majority over Sinn Féin, despite the retirement of popular SDLP MP Eddie McGrady.

The DUP will send 8 MPs against 5 Shinners, 3 SDLPers, one Alliance and one independent – for the first time since its creation, Northern Ireland will not be represented in Westminster by a unionist majority (10 unionists in 2005, now down to 9 against 8 nationalists and one non-sectarian).

Election Preview: UK 2010

The United Kingdom votes in its long-anticipated general election on Thursday, May 6th. For an election which was awaited by so many electoral pundits, it has not let them down one inch. The inclusion of three TV debates between the three major leaders – a novelty in British elections – has changed the general outlook of the election vastly. Whatever the results may be, it will likely go down as an historic election of sorts.

The Liberal Democrats’ historic surge since the first debate, up to 33% in some polls and rarely falling below 28% or so since then, is obviously the most striking aspect. Because of the appeal of their new, young, charismatic leader, Nick Clegg; but also because of a general antipathy towards Conservatives and Labour. The LibDems have an unusual electoral coalition, including various groups of voters which on the outside are worlds apart on policies in a number of cases. They don’t have any old lasting strongholds (except Orkney and the Shetlands!), like Labour has in the coal fields or the Tories in rural England, meaning that their electoral successes often come from a localized message against their party of choice or policy of choice. If not, it comes from a personal vote.

The result is that it renders even more useless the holy universal national swing (UNS) calculators. Those little gadgets work on the flawed assumption that the national swing from one party to another will be the same in all constituencies, in all regions. The UNS is a good thing to sell papers and grab headlines, but it isn’t the most useful of electoral outcome predictors. The LibDem surge renders it all the more useless.

The current lines in polling seems to have the Tories at around 33-36%, Labour and LibDems usually at 28% each, giving or taking a few points. The polls have been remarkably stable in that range, though YouGov’s daily tracker today had the LibDems down to 24% – something not yet backed up by any other pollster. In terms of seats, the UNS and other predictors seem to indicate that the Tories would be the largest party in a hung parliament with somewhere in the high 200s-low 300s in terms of seats, with Labour likely in second with somewhere between 210 and 250ish seats. The LibDems would likely be between the high 70s and mid 90s. A poll in marginal constituencies indicates a Tory majority of two, but if there’s one thing I am allergic too, it is those polls in ‘marginals’ or in specific constituencies.

This would result in a hung parliament, which would mean that no party would have an outright majority. There are a lot of possible consequences of this, including a minority government similar to Canada, a Tory deal with the Northern Irish unionists (or SNP, but only if the Tories are very close to an overall majority) or a coalition deal between one of the parties and the LibDems. The LibDems will probably be in a good position to ask for a number of concessions on stuff such as electoral reform or working with Labour on condition that Brown goes, so I would personally argue that there’s a better chance for a Tory minority government than the Tories agreeing to LibDem electoral reform and forming a coalition with them. However, there is an outside chance that Labour could push Brown out and agree to work with the LibDems, but it would require the Tories to be far away from the majority threshold, and at least the tolerance of other parties such as Plaid or the SNP.

There have been differing analyses of where the new LibDem vote comes from exactly, but given the topic, it’s better to wait until the 7th to see the results. The LibDems would be leading, according to YouGov’s last regional breakdown, in the South-West, which would indicate their resistance in all 6 Cornish seats but also pushing through in Devon and around Bristol where they’re already naturally strong on balance. In London, they could win marginal Labour seats in Islington and that general area of northern London. In Birmingham, the bookies seem to be betting on the LibDems picking up the new inner city seat of Birmingham Hall Green. In Liverpool, the constituency of Liverpool Wavertree, a rather well-off seat in the middle of deprived Liverpool could be won by the LibDems, who could also pick up Burnley, famous for its race riots in 2001 and for being the original base of the BNP. In the mining Labour heartland of the North-East, the LibDems could pick up seats in Newcastle and Durham (City), bourgeois enclaves in proletarian land.

The minor parties, namely the Greenies, UKIP and BNP will each have their eyes seat on one seat each. The Greenies hope to pick up Brighton Pavilion, a Labour-held seat where the incumbent is retiring and where the Greens are running their leader and incumbent MEP Caroline Lucas. The LibDems seem to have informally ‘dropped out’, leaving the seat wide open for Lucas, who is the favourite in this very hip and young seat in the coastal resort of Brighton. Former UKIP leader and incumbent MEP Nigel Farage is taking on the Speaker, John Bercow, in his Buckingham seat. As per usual, neither Labour nor the LibDems are opposing the Speaker, who is a former Conservative. Farage is unlikely to win. The BNP will watch the east London seat of Barking, where its leader Nick Griffin (also an MEP…) is facing the Labour incumbent. Barking is a white working-class Labour stronghold, but the BNP’s rhetoric plays well in this area close to major immigrant areas in Tower Hamlets. Griffin is unlikely to win, but the BNP wishes to do well enough to increase its representation on the borough council (all London boroughs are also up on May 6, with a number of other seats in English local government). The controversial George Galloway won a shocking and controversial victory in Bethnal Green & Bow in 2005, in a race dominated by the Iraq War in the Bangladeshi heart of London. Respect, Galloway’s party, has since gone down the route of civil war and divisions, and got creamed in recent electoral outings. Galloway is now running in the new seat of Poplar & Limehouse, next door to Bethnal Green & Bow, probably to lose as a candidate rather than as an incumbent. Some say Galloway’s standing might split the left vote and allow the Tories to pick up Poplar & Limehouse (which includes the gentrified Docklands, where I assume there’s a base of Tory support). Respect is also going to watch Birmingham Hall Green, where Salma Yaqoob is running and already won the support of some Labour members.

Ed Balls is the only important cabinet minister facing a tough fight in the new seat of Morley & Outwood, and given that he is a likely leadership contender if/once Brown leaves the leadership, his victory or defeat will be a mjaor point. Jacqui Smith and Tony McNulty, two of the largest names involved in the 2009 expenses scandal will likely go down to a hard defeat.

The race is also being played in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where issues are sometimes different.

The Conservatives are looking to make major gains in Wales, where they currently hold (notionally) three seats against 30 for Labour, 4 for the LibDems, 2 for Plaid and one seat held by an Independent. The Conservatives did top the poll here in the European elections, which marked the first time since 1918 or so that Labour didn’t top the poll in its Welsh heartland. From their three seats today, the Tories would like to gain at least five seat to have a Welsh caucus of eight seats. The LibDem surge seems to have affected Wales as well, though seemingly to a lesser extent, which means that the LibDem’s on-the-wire victory over Plaid in Ceredigion in 2005 will likely be secured and the LibDems may target seats such as Swansea West. Plaid is seemingly polling quite poorly, but Labour’s decline might help it gain Ynys Mon and win outright in Arfon (held by Plaid, but Labour on notionals). A Plaid gain in Ceredigion, however, seems more and more unlikely.

The SNP is putting a lot of stock into this election in Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament, led by the SNP, is up in May 2011. However, Scottish voters seem to prefer Labour at Westminster and the SNP in Holyrood. However, the SNP did rather poorly in 2005, polling roughly 18% to the LibDems’ 22%. Their vote will undoubtedly go up, and they could gain around two seats from the six they currently hold. The LibDems in 2005 had managed to coalesce a part of the Scottish anti-Labour vote, which usually floats between them and the SNP, so them improving on their 2005 result even minimally would be excellent and allow them to gain ground in Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

In Northern Ireland, much has been made of the electoral pact between the Conservatives and the Ulster Unionists, forming the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists-New Force (UCUNF). But the pact was not approved by the UUP’s sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down, who left the party and is standing for re-election as an independent and is very likely to win. Lady Sylvia has been close to the Labour Party in the past, and she said that she was not a Tory. The UCUNF’s only major hope is in Antrim South, where its leader Reg Empey faces incumbent DUP MP William McCrea. The bookies seem to be betting on Empey for a narrow win, but a p0ll by the Belfast Telegraph says otherwise. Empey’s defeat would call into question his leadership and maybe the party as a whole (if he loses, 2010 could be the first election since… the 1800s that the Ulster Unionists do not win a single seat), especially in regards to the 2011 Assembly elections and the prospect of the Shinner Martin McGuinness become First Minister on the back of Unionist division. In Antrim North, the old patriarch of the DUP, Reverend Ian Paisley is stepping aside in favour of his son, Ian Paisley Jr., who is facing his father’s former hardline ally, Jim Allister and his new anti-power sharing Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in his first electoral outing. The goal for Allister is not to win, but to make a strong showing as to better position the TUV to win seats in the Assembly next year. The Telegraph says that TUV would win up to 5 seats on its current numbers. The other race to watch is in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, a majority Catholic constituency held by Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew (and held by hunger striker Bobby Sands for a very short while in 1981) but one where a unionist unity candidate could conceivably win. The unionist parties (DUP and UCUNF) agreed on the candidacy of Rodney Connor, who must be the narrow favourite in the seat, which is, ironically, the birthplace of the late 20th century Sinn Féin party. However, a poll by the Telegraph has Gildernew leading him by just one point – 44 to 43. The SDLP did not drop out here, but Sinn Féin did in South Belfast, where the SDLP’s 2005 gain was on the back of unionist divisions. With Sinn Féin out there, and the Catholic population increasing, the SDLP will hold on rather easily.

There’s a mock election poll running on this very blog – down the right-hand side. After 34 votes, the Tories are ahead on here with 32% against 26% for the LibDems. The Greens are third with 12%, while there’s a massive tie for fourth with Labour, UKIP, BNP and SNP each at 6%. Mebyon Kernow and Plaid have 3% each. This would give a Tory majority of 94, with 148 LibDems, 89 Labour and 40 others…

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