ʼ92 reasons to be cheerful. Or not

Why the 2010 election isn't 1992 all over again.

Polls apart

Labour optimists often cite the 1992 election, the last time a governing party won against the odds, as evidence that their side could still pull off an unexpected election victory. But compare Labour's poll ratings now to the Tories' ratings then, and the two pictures look rather different.

Back in February 1992, the Tories were actually ahead of Labour in the polls, averaging 41.7 per cent, while Labour languished at 39 per cent
(see chart). Later polls showed Labour pulling ahead but rarely by more than 2 to 3 per cent.

So while it is true that the polls underestimated support for the Tories (who eventually won 41.9 per cent of the vote to Labour's 34.4 per cent), they never suggested that a Labour victory was a fait accompli.

By contrast, the Tories are averaging 38.8 per cent in the polls, compared to Labour's 30.6 per cent. Due to the anti-Conservative bias of the electoral system, the result may be a hung parliament - but only if one assumes a uniform national swing. As the Tories enjoy a disproportionate lead in the marginals, they are likely to secure a comfortable majority with a lead of 5 to 6 points.

Labour has reasons to be cheerful at the moment, as the economy returns to growth and Tory unity shows signs of fraying. But the 1992 precedent is not one of them.

Eaton graph

Independents' day

One of the biggest upsets at the last election was in Blaenau Gwent. After resigning from the Labour Party in protest over all-women shortlists, Peter Law stood as an independent and overturned a Labour majority of 19,313. Could a similar thing happen elsewhere this year?

The Royle Family actor Ricky Tomlinson is considering standing for the Socialist Labour Party in Liverpool Wavertree (notional majority: 3,038), following local anger over Labour's decision to parachute a Londoner, Luciana Berger, into the seat. Elsewhere, the left-wing MP Bob Wareing, who was deselected in favour of the former minister Stephen Twigg, is standing as an independent candidate in Liverpool West Derby. Labour officials who have lined up Jack Dromey, the trade unionist and husband of Harriet Harman, to replace Siôn Simon in Birmingham Erdington have been warned that they risk attracting similar opposition.

Unlocking votes

Five years after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it was illegal for the UK to prevent prisoners from voting, the government is still procrastinating. In 2009 ministers promised to give all criminals jailed for less than four years the vote but, fearful of a backlash from the right-wing press, they have yet to do so.

Now, lawyers are warning the government that thousands of prisoners could sue if they are barred from voting in this year's election. Campaigners are calling for a last-minute amendment to the Constitutional Reform Bill, due to enter the Lords this month. Perhaps, since the expenses scandal may soon put some of them behind bars, MPs will be prompted to oblige.

All right on the night

It looks like election night has been saved. The government has thrown its weight behind a Tory amendment aimed at forcing councils to start counting votes within four hours of polling stations closing. At least 52 local authorities had been planning to delay until the next morning, prompting fears that the result would not be known until the weekend. Labour MPs have been granted a free vote on the matter, which is likely to be put to the Commons before May.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Everything you know about Islam is wrong

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.