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.

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