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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.