Labour

Decisive victory for Clegg

Following the first leaders’ debate on ITV tonight, Nick Clegg took 46% in the ComRes poll (Clegg 46, Cameron 26, Brown 20) — as much as Brown and Cameron put together. In the YouGov poll he took 51 points against Cameron 29 and Brown 19. There were, of course, a number of unscientific polls conducted on newspaper websites, but they do nothing more than reflect their readers’ opinions. The real, scientific, polls are unequivocal.

If this were replicated in an election (of course, it won’t be, but the illustration is still valid), it would result, according to the BBC website’s calculator, in 530 seats for the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons — a majority of 410 seats: a landslide beyond all conception and all precedent.

Liberal Democrats were, of course, looking for Clegg to make up ground tonight. Brown is generally considered to be undervalued and Cameron overvalued, a view not supported by tonight’s public response. Conventional wisdom suggested that Clegg needed to be up with the others, and it would do Lib Dems good because of the exposure. But the scale of the Nick Clegg result was absolutely devastating: an absolute majority of votes in one poll, an equal vote with the other two parties combined in the other.

Where did the debate landslide victory come from?

There were three factors, I think.

First, Nick Clegg made a point of answering the question. I followed the BBC comments page while watching the debate, and — leaving aside the obviously partisan comments — this was commented on again and again. He not only answered the question, but made a point of looking at and referring to the questioner to see if they thought he was answering the questions. Brown famously jibed at Cameron ‘this is answer time, not question time’, and, certainly, Cameron’s unwillingness to give an actual answer told against him. But Brown’s own attempts fell flat as well. My feeling is that Brown really was trying to answer the questions from time to time, but he was held up by his own opaque language: beginning a sentence with “Net inward immigration…” three times does not make for a good connection with viewers.

Second, the Lib Dem manifesto published this week was a clear winner in terms of the power it gave to Clegg over the other two. The manifesto sets out in detail exactly what the Lib Dems would spend and what they would save. Neither Labour nor the Tories — as Clegg pointed out — included figures in their manifestos. Cameron tried to have a bit of a go about the figures, but it is never easy to argue with a man on his own turf: Clegg knew his manifesto and his figures much better than Cameron did, and Brown made no attempt to overturn the Lib Dem figures at all.

Third, Nick Clegg positioned his two opponents very clearly in his own address as the ‘same old same old parties’. The bickering between Brown and Cameron which followed underlined that again and again. Clegg certainly benefited from the game that Brown and Cameron tried to play. They were almost deferential in their treatment of him, and when Cameron did attempt to question Clegg, it fell rather flat, especially on immigration, which should have been his strongest suit. Brown again and again tried to say that he and Clegg were agreeing. Unfortunately for him, Clegg refused to play along. This was all especially important because, at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the bulk of Tory/Labour jeers are often enough to drown out Clegg’s comments. In a studio, with a studio audience and clear rules, this extraneous factor was taken away.

What difference will all this make? That remains to be seen — over the next few days, as the pundits weave their theories, and as the spin-doctors from left and right attempt to demonstrate (as William Hague is already attempting) that, despite all the opinion polls, their candidate won after all.

There may be more polls tomorrow, and they may give a different result. But, for now, based on this debate only, and without any particular connection with other realities, the result is a clearer victory for Nick Clegg than any Liberal Democrat could have hoped for.

BBC praise for plans

Stephanie Flanders, BBC economics editor had this to say about the Lib Dem manifesto: “The Liberal Democrats may be only the third largest party at Westminster – but when it comes to tax plans, they punch above their weight. Their manifesto has a lot more numbers than either of the other parties. That deserves some credit. Their tax proposals are also by far the most ambitious we’ve seen this week. Whether they would do what the party says they would do is another matter.”

On Labour and the Tories, she was less kind: “The Labour and Conservative manifestos are very different. Labour’s was big on words – and detailed promises and commitments which we had heard before. It put government at the centre. The Conservative version is longer, but lighter. About a third of its 118 pages actually contains written text – the rest is made up of pictures, fun facts, and (yes) blank pages to give readers a rest. Their focus is on the private sector – and on individuals.

“But the two documents have one important thing in common: neither of them makes any further contribution to public understanding on how Britain’s £167bn budget deficit is going to be cut. And they both leave plenty out.”

The Lib Dem manifesto is about four key policies —

• Fair taxes that put money back in your pocket.
• A fair chance for every child.
• A fair future, creating jobs by making Britain greener.
• A fair deal for you from politicians.

In the words of Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats: “We’ve had 65 years of Labour and the Conservatives: the same parties taking turns and making the same mistakes, letting you down. It is time for something different. It is time for something better.”

The manifesto itself is a pretty hefty document — strengthened, as Stephanie Flanders points out, by pages and pages of detailed costings. This is not pie in the sky, these are workable plans which — if the situation did transpire that we were in government with members of other parties willing to work with us — would form the blueprint for economic recovery. Sustainable economic recovery that is, because, despite the promises of the last four chancellors (Lawson, Clarke, Brown, Darling) the Labour/Conservative or Labservative economics has done nothing but cycle us through boom and bust.

If the full document is more than you want to read right now, here are the key points in a bit more detail:
fair taxes
that put money back in your pocket
• The first £10,000 you earn tax-free: a tax cut of £700 for most people
• 3.6 million low earners and pensioners freed from income tax completely
• Paid for in full by closing loopholes that unfairly benefit the wealthy and polluters

a fair chance
for every child
• Ensure children get the individual attention they need by cutting class sizes
• Made possible by investing £2.5 billion in schools targeted to help struggling pupils
• Give schools the freedom to make the right choices for their pupils

a fair future
creating jobs by making Britain greener
• Break up the banks and get them lending again to protect real businesses
• Honesty about the tough choices needed to cut the deficit • Green growth and jobs that last by investing in infrastructure

a fair deal
by cleaning up politics
• Put trust back into politics by giving you the right to sack corrupt MPs
• Restore and protect hard-won British civil liberties with a Freedom Bill
• Overhaul Westminster completely: fair votes, an elected House of Lords, all politicians to pay full British taxes

More questions than answers

As the great-grandson of a railwayman, and the grandson of a railway missionary, I love trains, railways, railway stations and rail travel. My natural inclination is to back them. So I’m in a slightly funny position with the consultation on Stratford’s prospective Parkway Station. The public consultation is very short — 4 March to 19 March — and the consultation presentation leaves many more questions than it answers. The consultation documents are in the form of posters, and the consultation website gives virtually no more information.

The questions I would expect to be answered in a consultation of this kind are as follows:

  • What routes are being served, and what are the train operator plans for the future of these routes, if the station is built?
  • What is the capacity of the route to take on more passengers?
  • What evidence is there that opening a new station will increase passenger numbers?
  • If the new station will not increase passenger numbers, what is the predicted impact on existing stations?
  • In the case of Stratford-upon-Avon, I have some other, very specific questions. Stratford is (or was, last time I checked) Britain’s third most popular tourist destination. It will play a leading role in the Cultural Olympiad as part of the 2012 Olympics. It is home to the world’s most famous theatre, and the world’s most famous theatre company, and also to the Shakespeare birthplace trust. Parkway stations, such as Warwick Parkway, are typically constructed on out-of-town sites to give easy parking for local people to commute to perhaps London or Birmingham. They provide ample parking, hence the name Parkway and relatively easy access from motorways. It’s true there are people who have to go from Stratford to Birmingham or London, though my local station of Honeybourne is a deal more convenient, faster and more cost effective for trips to London, and Warwick Parkway is available on the other side of Stratford. But most of the potential growth in rail use for Stratford is inward, not outward: tourism is destined to play an even larger part in the town’s future, with the reopening of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre next year.

    Therefore, I would want to know:

  • What testing has been done of likely tourist uptake of the new station?
  • Given that tourists can walk from the existing station into the town, what is the likely response to having to walk to a bus, and then take the bus into town, only to have to take it out later in order to return?
  • What negotiations have taken place with train operators to ensure good links with fast services? Even from Warwick, it is quicker to drive to Coventry to take a train to London than to take the Chiltern line from Warwick Parkway
  • I am not saying that these questions are unanswerable. But, despite laudable sections on environmental and flooding impact, the consultation posters significantly fail to answer the basic rail-industry questions, and, equally, the more specific Stratford-facing questions.

    I would very much like to be able to support the creation of a new station. However, on the evidence presented to me, I don’t believe I can. Right now — and I would be only too happy to be proved wrong — this seems to be yet another grandiose public construction scheme of the type that is plaguing this area, whether Labour-led (“Eco”-towns) or Conservative (Bancroft and Bridge).

    If they know why they are doing this, please would they tell us? Otherwise, it is time to learn that just because we can build something, it does not mean that we should.

    Wrong answer too late.

    In tonight’s vote the Commons opted for a national referendum on the Alternative Vote as a replacement for our current first past the post system. The referendum would cost an estimated £80m, but, because the Government has delayed so long (almost 13 years, in fact), it is unlikely that the bill will be passed before the General Election, and therefore even less likely that any referendum will take place.

    More seriously, Alternative Vote is not a true proportional system — up to 49 per cent of the votes would still be discarded, meaning that a government can still be elected with an absolute majority on around 30 per cent of the total national vote.

    This paragraph is going to be short and mercifully simple. But if you lack the Liberal Democrat passion for discussing complex voting systems, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph.

    So: in first past the post, you put down one X on the ballot paper, and, late that night, the candidate with the most Xs wins. The candidate may have gained not much more than 1/3rd of the total vote, and, often, only three quarters of the voters will have voted. As trust in politics declines, the numbers voting shrinks, and so our elected leaders have less and less of a mandate. The alternative vote system gives you a 1-2-3 etc choice of your favourite, second favourite, and so on. When the votes are counted, the least successful candidate is eliminated, and their second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. This carries on, until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote, and they are the winner. All the remaining votes are discarded. Although this is marginally more successful at giving people an MP they are happy with, it does not mean at all that the government is elected based on the votes cast across Britain. There’s a variation, AV plus, which I won’t go into, which is a much more proportional system. Truly proportional voting comes with the Single Transferable Vote, which is hideous to work out on paper, but which computers can do as easily as AV, AV plus, or even first past the post. And, these days, even the government has computers.

    So where does that leave us? The one thing that the Alternative Vote Labour has pushed for tonight will give us is a system where it is much harder for a Conservative government ever to be elected. Gordon Brown may be counting on getting the support of Lib-Dems because of his fig-leaf gesture towards a proportional system, but, in truth, this is tinkering with the electoral system in order to change the result of future elections.

    If Labour had done this, as it originally promised, when it first came to power, then we might have avoided much of the collapse of trust in politicians of the last ten years. Even Alternative Vote reduces the number of ‘safe’ seats which play no real role in an election. And it is in the safe seats that we have seen the greatest abuse of expenses. But this death-bed conversion smacks of nothing more than desperation. And it is a desperation which will surely further undermine the residual confidence the electorate has in government.

    Quite simply, it is the wrong answer, too late.

    Back to Top