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:


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.


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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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation