March election: for and against

The case for an early election is stronger

The weekend brought more speculation over a 25 March election, with Labour officials reported to have told Gordon Brown that the party machine is ready to go.

Ed Balls appeared to pour cold water on the idea on GMTV this morning when he said: "In all my discussions with Gordon Brown, with Peter Mandelson, it's never, ever come up, the idea of a March election. But we are ready whenever." However, those who follow Claud Cockburn's advice to "never believe anything until it's officially denied" may disagree.

Here's a summary of the case for and against a March election:

For

1. Official figures due out in January are expected to show that the economy has finally emerged from recession. Brown could argue that Labour's fiscal stimulus prevented a depression. By May, the economic recovery may have slowed.

2. It would allow Brown to go to the country before tax increases such as the new 50p top rate kick in next April. For an idea of what a difference this can make, compare the reaction to the abolition of 10p tax before and after it was implemented.

3. The Budget could be delayed until after the election, allowing Brown and Alistair Darling to avoid another set of universally negative headlines over tax rises, spending cuts and the deficit. The earliest possible date for the 2010 Budget is 9 March, after the last possible date -- 1 March -- on which Brown could call a March election..

4. An early election would limit the amount of time the Tories have left to spend the millions they have raised. During the election campaign all parties are subject to spending caps.

5. A March election would diminish the impression that Brown has had to be dragged kicking and screaming from Downing Street. The longer he waits, the weaker he seems (John Major syndrome).

6. A May election would allow Eurosceptics to punish the Tories over their Lisbon U-turn by voting for Ukip in the local elections while still backing David Cameron in the general election. An earlier vote would rob them of this option. Recent polls have shown support for Ukip rising from 2 per cent to 4 per cent.

Against

1. By postponing the Budget until after the election, Labour could be credibly accused of hiding spending cuts from the voters. The Conservatives could damn Brown as "the man who went to the country without a Budget".

2. The dark nights could lower voter turnout. Paul Waugh notes: "Given that most people vote after work -- and that on 25 March 2010, the sunset time even in London will be 6.22pm -- I wouldn't put my house on it."

3. An early election would dramatically reduce turnout for the 6 May local elections and could further eat away at Labour's councillor base.

4. A March election followed by local elections on 6 May would cost taxpayers more. Alex Smith, over at LabourList, argues: "[T]he cost of holding two elections within six weeks of each other would be excessive -- and would be deemed to be excessive by the public."

I'm in favour of a March election, but Labour MPs must avoid talking up an early election until they get confirmation from the top. Just remember what happened last time . . .

 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.