Friday, 30 April 2010

E-Day minus six

Probably the greatest speech I ever heard was delivered by Tony Blair just after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. The party conference was taking place in Brighton that September and we met in a frenzied and anxious climate. Police with sub-machine guns checked delegates in and out of the secure areas and an air exclusion zone was in place over head. Amid the turmoil and shadow of indiscriminate terrorist violence, Blair was lucid, inspirational and visionary. His eloquence stood in stark contrast to the bumbling incoherence of his counterpart across the Atlantic, George W Bush.

A lady sitting alongside me in the conference hall was clearly moved by Blair’s oratory. She confided that she wasn’t a fan of the Labour leader and often disagreed with him politically. But when he spoke, she always found herself pulled at an emotional level. Against her better judgement, she ended up applauding.

This ability to inspire and galvanise others has nothing whatever to do with the speaker's political persuasion or the nature of their policies. It is a magic that can be used in a thoroughly manipulative and sinister way by a dictator or demagogue. Equally, it can motivate large numbers of people to do a great deal of good or accept the necessity of change.

Barack Obama has this magic, for instance. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had it too, by the bucketload. In the UK, Blair and Thatcher are the obvious examples. Politicians with a charisma and presence that transcends the political divide and reaches out to unexpected audiences.

Gordon Brown doesn’t have the magic. He never has. His appeal, in fact, has never extended beyond his natural political constituency. While he could quite happily survive as the ‘Iron Chancellor’ under Blair, he has been grievously exposed since the former premier disappeared to pursue his career as speechmaker, academic and Middle Eastern peace envoy.

His weaknesses are well documented, of course. The notorious temper. The willingness to blame others for disappointments or problems. It’s only now, however, that we can see why Blair was so desperate to cling on to power for as long as he did. During the election campaign, Brown has revealed a desperate insecurity, most notably in the so-called ‘Bigotgate’ incident, in which he said nasty things about pensioner behind her back. Having handled his initial encounter with the old lady perfectly well, he then became a bundle of nerves in his waiting car. The conversation had been a ‘disaster’ and would no doubt be used by the media to undermine his campaign.

Thoroughly shaken up and humiliated by his return visit to home of the voter at the centre of the row, my guess is that he spent the next 24 hours churning over the events in his mind. When he appeared in the final of the televised debates, we saw a man who seemed to be at the end of his tether and certainly at the end of his tenure. Someone who needed a lie-down and a break from politics. Cameron scored points when he described Brown as looking desperate. The tragedy for the UK is that Brown’s message about the risks posed by the Tory leader and his would-be Chancellor George Osborne are entirely correct. The fragile recovery is indeed likely to be jeopardised by their proposed policies. No one, however, is listening. Brown is the wrong man to deliver the message. He also seems to be jinxed. This morning, while he was making an open-air speech, a car crashed nearby, temporarily distracting the attention of journalists, police officers and passers-by. The metaphorical significance wasn’t lost on the press pack.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party missed some truly golden opportunities to unseat Brown – the most obvious being the aftermath of last year’s dismal Euro elections. The party and its leader made their political bed together and they are tucked in as tight as a pair of doomed lovers under the swaddling blanket of a Blackpool B&B.

So where do we go from here? Cameron doesn’t have the magic either. If he did, he’d be 10 or 15 points ahead of Brown. The reality is that the public hasn’t bought into the new-look Conservative Party or its old Etonian mouthpiece. Nick Clegg has taken as much advantage of this fact as his sprinkling of talent and the current electoral system allow. All of which leaves us in a very extraordinary position with less than a week to go until the big day.

My calculation is that Brown’s microphone moment tipped the balance just slightly towards Cameron. It’s not that Labour voters will jump ship to the Tories, but a few will be less inclined to turn out in some of the key marginal seats. We also know that Conservative support tends to be underestimated in polls because people are embarrassed to admit that they’re voting for the party. We can therefore assume that Cameron is perhaps good for another couple of per cent on top of his headline poll figures.

It’s difficult to make any firm prediction, but here’s my hunch. Cameron will get a very small overall majority. I think he will gain slightly in the final polls as we countdown towards next Thursday and squeeze out an extra, hidden vote on the day itself. The mathematical calculations are difficult for him, the system weighted against the Tories and the challenge pretty daunting. I do, however, think we ought to be looking beyond the hung parliament scenario towards another possibility: a Conservative government without much authority or mandate, struggling to win every vote in the House of Commons and dreading every potential by-election. Think John Major in the final death throes of his disastrous government. Or Harold Wilson back in the mid-1970s.

I doubt Cameron has any real game plan for this situation. But then he probably doesn’t have much of a game plan for any situation. His supporters will settle for him making it to 10 Downing Street. With a fearsome austerity package on the horizon, the Eurozone potentially imploding and another financial crisis looming, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Who'd want to be a bookie?

My prediction for the forthcoming general election in the UK is that pretty much anything can happen at this stage. It’s probably worth taking a punt at Ladbrokes on some particularly far-fetched scenario. Having been involved at some level in all the campaigns between 1983 and 2001 – twice as a parliamentary candidate – I can honestly say this one has all the predictability of that ash-blowing volcano in the south of Iceland.

Although I personally hope for the return of a majority Labour government, I think we can safely say this is the one thing that’s not going to happen. Labour had a couple of clear opportunities to dump Gordon Brown, but failed to take them. This will prove to be a historic error of judgement. I fear the very best Labour can hope for at this stage is to end up as the largest party in a hung parliament. Even then, it may be that this status will be bestowed upon them through a bankrupt electoral system which theoretically allows a party which comes third in the popular vote to form a government.

Imagine the scenario suggested by some recent polls of Labour receiving a vote of around 28% and the Lib Dems running the Tories neck-and-neck in the low thirties. Because of the concentration of Labour votes, Brown could end up with more MPs than David Cameron and a great many more than Nick Clegg. The more I ponder it, the more I believe that this is exactly the result the country needs.

Think about it. Cameron – a well-meaning toff, peddling a pretty vacuous ideology – would be put firmly in his place. The Tories, having believed the election was there for the taking, would probably turn in on themselves. The right-wingers, who have been biting their tongues while their leader does the washing up with Ecover and fumbles through interviews on gay rights, will have their day. They’ll say the Notting Hill set around Cameron and Osborne pursued an experiment which ultimately ended in failure.

The Lib Dems would be buoyed by a spectacular performance and be an extremely strong bargaining position, no matter how many seats they’d won. The promise of a breakthrough, which David Steel and David Owen never managed to deliver, would have come out of the blue through a cult of personality fostered by our first-ever TV debates.

Labour would quickly say goodbye to Brown. He wouldn’t go gracefully, of course, if he’d won the largest number of seats in parliament, but his position would be completely untenable. Although it’s possible that the party might make the wrong choice of a replacement (Harriet Harman is popular with trade unionists and constituency activists), they would also have an opportunity to start afresh with David Miliband.

And the one thing that no party would be able to resist at this stage would be some kind of meaningful electoral reform. If a truly perverse result emerged, the public would suddenly take an interest in a subject that has previously been an arcane conversational topic at Hampstead dinner parties. Particularly following the expenses scandal, no one would accept the idea of Labour forming a government having come third.

One of the things that’s often forgotten in the discussion about a hung parliament is that the Lib Dems aren’t the only players. Remember how Ulster Unionists helped to keep John Major’s pathetic excuse for a government clinging on to power in the 1990s? I suspect the DUP might exert some influence again during a particularly volatile period in which dissident Republican groups have resumed a bombing campaign in Northern Ireland.

And perhaps it could go down to the wire? What if a Green MP is elected in Brighton? Not beyond the realms of possibility. Or how about Thirsk and Malton? This newly-created seat will hold its poll on 27th May following the recent death of the UKIP candidate John Boakes. It’s notionally a safe Tory constituency, but in a finely balanced parliament, maybe it will be fought as a highly significant by-election.

Truly now, anything’s possible. Peter Kellner – a pretty sober polling pundit –recently put the odds on a Nick Clegg premiership at about 10-1. Unlikely, to be sure. But, as he pointed out, people have scooped prizes from longer odds at the racecourse.

Phil Woodford was Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate in Epsom & Ewell in 1997 and Kingston & Surbiton in 2001.