Don't be fooled by the economic recovery, the odds are still against a Tory win in 2015

The challenges facing the Conservatives are mostly structural and may be impossible to overcome.

The extraordinarily rapid recovery of Labour's popularity following its poor share of the vote in 2010 (29% - a 25-year low) should not be construed as evidence of Ed Miliband’s irresistible charisma. It was simply the inevitable consequence of the entry of the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives, which left the left wing of the electorate with nowhere to go but Labour. Other parties used to carp that the Liberal Democrats stock in trade was appearing all things to all voters, thus enabling them to pick up the disillusioned voters of both the Conservatives and Labour. Not anymore. Polls indicate that the Lib Dems will lose about half of the 22% they managed to win at the last election, with most of it going to Labour.

But whilst the left has been united, the right has splintered. UKIP’s rise to national prominence has seen it take votes from all parties but most of all from the Conservatives (polls indicate that around 60% of UKIP supporters voted Conservative in 2010). Nigel Farage's party looks likely to do particularly well at the European elections in May 2014 (it always punches above its weight in the Europeans) and will likely reach the apex of its popularity just 12 months before the general election.

Some of this support is likely to ebb ahead of the 2015 election, particularly as it becomes clear to voters that a high UKIP vote will make a Miliband premiership more likely. But it is a near certainty that UKIP will build significantly on the 3% it polled in 2010, and that this will come largely at the Conservatives’ expense. Neither is the oft-mooted suggestion of an electoral pact between the Conservatives and UKIP likely to prove a neat solution either. Personal antipathy between David Cameron and Farage makes a full-scale pact nigh impossible, but there have been suggestions that the party could make deals with individual eurosceptic Conservative MPs. Polling data suggest this would do little good, however. This is because a hypothetical pact with UKIP causes a full quarter of the Conservatives’ current supporters to jump ship, with 5% going to Labour.

This encapsulates the Conservatives’ catch-22 going into the next election: try to hold the 'centre ground' and they encourage voters on the right to switch to UKIP, but try to shift rightwards or form a pact with UKIP and they stand to lose many more moderates.

The Conservatives’ challenge is compounded by the enduring difficulty they have connecting with ethnic minority voters. Data from the Runnymede Trust indicates that just 16% of non-white voters plumped for the Conservatives at the 2010 election, whilst 68% voted Labour. Since the Conservatives’ last majority victory in 1992, the contribution of ethnic minorities to the UK population has roughly doubled from 7% to 14% (figures from the 1991 and 2011 censuses for England and Wales). If the party cannot rein in Labour’s advantage then it may well find that demographics have moved decisively against it.

So could David Cameron’s personal popularity and campaigning abilities shoot Ed Miliband’s fox? Since the dust settled on the Labour leadership contest back in 2010, the Conservative Party has been smiling inwardly (and indeed outwardly) at Labour’s folly in plumping for 'Awkward Ed' Miliband over his brother, 'Dashing David'. There are two reasons why this is likely to prove a false comfort.

First, Britain’s is not a presidential system. Cameron is certainly more popular than Miliband – 37% say he would make the best Prime Minister versus 23% for Miliband. Yet history shows that success on this measure is not a guarantee of victory. Margaret Thatcher trailed Jim Callaghan by nearly 20% on the same question in 1979 and yet won a comfortable majority. John Major and Ted Heath were hardly barrels of charisma either. Second, Cameron is nowhere near as popular now as he was at the last election. His current net approval is -11%, at the last election it was +33%.

Labour strategists fret that their poll lead is 'soft'. Yet even their worst recent poll, an outlier which showed the Labour lead at just one point, would give the party a majority of four seats. The Conservatives by contrast could not win a majority even with a lead of 7% in 2010. With the economy improving, the likelihood is that the next election will be close in terms of national vote share, yet the obstacles in the way of the Conservatives even remaining the biggest party are so great, and the hurdle for Labour becoming the biggest party so low, that the distribution of seats looks likely to fall decisively in Labour’s favour. 

David Cameron with Ed Miliband as they stand in Westminster Hall ahead of an address by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on June 21, 2012 . Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.