Tory majority, or Labour lead in a hung parliament? What a way to kick off . . .

The election campaign begins.

The choppers are out in force, with aerial pics of the Brown motorcade making the one-mile drive back from Buckingham Palace. My former colleagues at Sky News are in "split-screen" mode, with David Cameron on one half, gesticulating and pontificating, and a locked-off shot of a solitary policeman standing outside 10 Downing Street.

So what's the mood inside the bunker? A Brown aide tells me that the PM has a spring in his step. "He's at his best when faced with a tough challenge but he knows he has a plan, so he's fine," says the aide.

And I can believe it. I doubt that the Prime Minister will be punching the back of the front seat of his Jaguar this morning. Not if he's got a copy of the Guardian inside the car with him. The paper's latest ICM poll shows the Tory lead over Labour cut to 4 points for the first time in almost two years -- a lead that, if replicated on 6 May, would leave Labour as the largest single party in the House of Commons.

The Guardian's Julian Glover writes:

On a uniform national swing, these figures could leave Labour 30 seats short of an overall majority. Even if the Tories perform better than average in marginal seats -- as most people expect -- David Cameron would struggle to establish a secure parliamentary basis for power.

Amazing, eh? Who'd have predicted it? Not the great and the good of the anti-Brown lobby or commentariat. And certainly not the arch-critic of all things Brown, John Rentoul of the Independent on Sunday. Only a few weeks ago, John was telling me he had no doubt in his mind that Cameron's Conservatives would win a comfortable, double-digit parliamentary majority. This morning, according to a Paul Waugh tweet, John said:

Nobody, certainly not me, expected Gordon Brown to be in the position he is today.

Not quite. For the last time (I promise!), let me refer you all to the rather prescient column that James Macintyre and I wrote for the NS in June, in the wake of Labour's disastrous performance in the Euro elections, in which we referred to the "Tories' precarious electoral position" and concluded:

If . . . the Brown government can concentrate the country's attention on public services and public spending, Labour may well still stand a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election.

It's a suggestion, a prediction, that James and I have long stood by. Bring on 6 May!

UPDATE: Before I'm denounced by Tory trolls "below the line" as a "Labour spin doctor", let me apologise for failing to acknowledge above that there is, in fact, another reputable poll out today -- by YouGov for the Sun -- which tells a somewhat different story. The YouGov survey shows the Tories have reopened a 10-point lead over Labour -- which is, of course, the margin they need to maintain in order to win an overall majority next month.

So is the ICM poll just a "rogue", as some Tory sympathisers have suggested? Who knows? Don't forget: as a wise man once said, rogue polls tend to be polls you don't like. And even the YouGov survey shows an increase in the Labour share (from 29 to 31 per cent). So I still think there's reason for Brown, and Labour supporters, to be cheerful this morning.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.