Friday, November 07, 2008

Glenrothes and election timing

Great predictions of our time and this one came true. I blogged a couple of weeks ago about Brown's visit to Glenrothes and suggested Labour were confident about winning as they would never have risked sending him into a losing battle. The Labour hold last night was therefore not unsurprising even if the majority and share of the vote were.

Don't however get carried away with the belief that Labour are back in election winning form. The real story from Glenrothes is that playing the anti-incumbency card can prove to be very effective. Labour mercilessly targeted the SNP candidate who happened to be the leader of Fife Council. Labour's challenge to the SNP focused on charges being introduced for services for the elderly. They ignored the fact that many of their own authorities have similar charges. And they hammered away at the same issue, attacking both the SNP led council and the SNP Scottish government. In other words, they used incumbency against the SNP despite being incumbents themselves. A very clever move that worked. There are clear lessons for us all in by-election campaigns: nail your opponents on their record.

Some of what happened in Glenrothes is a reflection of what is happening across Scotland generally. The SNP can now be held to account for their decisions and I also suspect there was a reaction to their arrogance.

The Glenrothes scenario however does not translate well over to the UK wide political agenda. There is no equivalent English dimension in England and in Wales, the Labour party (supported by the Welsh Nats) are the incumbents. Come a general election, attacking the Tories on their record in office over a decade ago may have some sway over voters, but not a great deal. The Tories' incoherent and rudderless approach to the financial crisis will have some sway as well. But the Labour government will not be able to use anti-incumbency. They are, after all, the government and there is no English government led by another party which can conveniently be blamed for unpopular political decisions.

Labour will therefore have to fight the next election, amongst other things, on their record. And that's why I feel there will be no election next year. Unemployment is set to exceed 2 million by next year, repossessions will be up, bankruptcies up, business collapses up. The recovery is more likely to happen in 2010 and Brown will need that to start kicking in before he risks an election.

Parallels are often drawn with the 1992 election where people opted for devil-you-know by voting back in the Tories despite their having been in office during the recession. But the Tories were defending a very comfortable majority of 100. They went on to win in 1992 but with a majority cut heavily to less than 30. And they didn't have millions of pounds of bad debt hanging around their necks, unlike the current Labour party (no doubt built up during what Brown calls the "Age of Irresponsibility". Labour's local organisation in large parts of the country has been shot to bits. It's not just in the marginals in the south where Labour's grassroots have rotted away. In their heartlands as well, they have organisations that are thin on the ground. I hear on the grapevine that Labour were canvassing in Glenrothes in the by-election without any previous canvass having been done in large parts of the constituency. The constituency was dependent on the national party to swing in to action to run the election campaign. Whilst Labour may not be troubled too much by weaknesses in their organisation in safe seats, in those where other parties are fighting them hard, Labour may not yet be able to sustain sufficient local activity to ensure the seat is held at the general election.

Organisation on the ground is one of the keys to winning a particular seat. Labour do not yet have either the grassroots organisation or the money to fight an election in 2009. The only scenario that would see an election next year is one in which Labour builds up a very large lead and sustains it for long enough through the summer for Brown to risk going in the autumn. And I cannot see circumstances which would create such circumstances.

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Unknown said...

I agree a Labour hold wasnt an awful surprise (resists the temptation to say I called it too lol) might have a point but there is always imponderable events and realistically is Labour likely to be in a better financial or organisational shape come 2010??

The converse could be true in that the pinch still wont have been felt in 2009 and things could get worse by 2010...this is a gamble Brown will have to consider. He may well bank on a surge upon the announcement of polling as long as Labour are within striking distance in the polls it is not implausible he will plump for 09...

Anonymous said...

Labour could of course use the anti-incumbency card in England in constituencies, which are part of a council led by Lib Dems or Tories, like they attacked against the SNP candidate because he was the leader of the Fife Council. And of course in Greater London they may attack the Tories because Boris is the Mayor, especially if he will fail. So it's a kind of diversion to the local issues, even though they aren't in stake in the parliamentary elections.

Anonymous said...

I think there COULD be an early election as a gamble on their "handling of the recession economy". Because if Labour's "actions" have worked in the opposite direction by 2010 wher people would be worse off than they are now, Labour will be comprehensively out.

I watch with great interest.