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Mr Brown Goes to the Palace

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IMG_0366Finally! The production we’ve all been waiting for, Mr Brown Goes to the Palace, has opened at last. There’s something very British about the way everyone has known for months that the election was going to be on 6 May, but that it’s only now that we officially know it.

This point is so obvious it tends to be overlooked, but in the last thirty years, the incumbent party has only lost the election once. There have been five wins for the party in government, one win for the challenger. That was in 1997, when John Major took the power to declare an election whenever he liked it to one extreme: it was declared on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, and held on 1 May. That’s a full two weeks longer than the current campaign. Maybe Major thought that if the country had a long hard look at Blair, they would recoil in revulsion. He was right, in a way, it’s just that it took ten years for the effect to fully kick in.

The power to choose exactly when to have an election conveys a gigantic advantage to the incumbent. It’s one of the reasons incumbents now tend to win UK elections. There is no statutory framework for the timing, beyond the requirement to call it within five years of the last one. (Note, it doesn’t have to be held within five calendar years, only called.) We’re so used to this that we tend to forget how unusual it is, in the context of the democratic world’s electoral systems.

Brown had his chance to use the power of timing the election, in the autumn of 2007, and lost his nerve at the last moment. But he still has one absolutely gigantic factor in his favour this time, and that is the way Parliamentary seats are distributed. The Boundary Commission is independent and no one is accusing it of tweaking the system on behalf of the government, but the fact is that Labour have an enormous statistical advantage going into the election. The simple way of putting this is to say that votes in the country are worth less than votes in the city. That’s because the Boundary Commission has struggled to keep up with the historic drift of Britons out of cities into the country – a strange trend in a global context, since pretty much every other country in the world is moving the other way. The only hard figure I could find for the shift came from 2002, when a net 115,400 people moved out of the city – that’s a town the size of Exeter disappearing every year. The trend may even be accelerating. A study based on GP rolls found that 243,700 people left London in the 12 months to June 2006.

In general, those people are moving to the country, where they will find their vote counts for less. Country constituencies are bigger, in population as well as geographical terms, than urban ones; urban votes are disproportionately effective in winning seats. Because Labour’s support skews urban and the Conservatives’ skews rural, this translates into a big advantage for Labour. How big? Well, this non-partisan article from the House of Commons magazine, dating from 2006 when the election was a long way off, reckoned that the Tories needed to win the election by a margin of 10 per cent in order to have any majority at all.

By what Dame Edna would call a ‘spooky’ coincidence, ten per cent happens to be the Tories’ lead in the most recent YouGov poll.  Normally, a lead of that size would translate into a huge Parliamentary win. (Blair in 2001 won a majority of 166 with a lead of 9 per cent.) But, I say again, the system is so weighted against the Tories that this is the minimum lead they need to feel confident about any majority at all. They’re not bleating in public about this, presumably because it would make them look like losers, but I bet it’s occupying a lot of thinking behind the scenes. The Tories won’t have forgotten one of the most amazing facts about the 2005 election. In England they actually beat Labour by 57,000 votes – but ended up with 93 fewer seats. That isn’t especially fair, but it should make things interesting.

Comments on “Mr Brown Goes to the Palace”

  1. A.J.P. Crown says:

    The power to choose exactly when to have an election conveys a gigantic advantage to the incumbent. It’s one of the reasons incumbents now tend to win UK elections.

    Is there any evidence of this providing an advantage? Don’t forget that, apart from President Carter in 1980, an incumbent always wins every other US presidential election, but the date of it is fixed.

  2. carrion says:

    The power of incumbency in American elections is fundamentally different, because the loose ties of party membership mean fundraising is conducted individually by Congressmen and presidential hopefuls, which weights in favour of incumbents. Also, comparing Presidential elections in America with General elections in this country is simply not comparing like for like – the incumbency benefit comes from the President being an individual executive figure who can stand apart from his party if need be. The common American phenomenon of a split government (Republican president, Democrat congress) could not occur here; the fact that it can there also helps incumbency, because you can limit the domestic agenda of a president without chucking him out – this is what happened both to Reagan and Clinton, and to many presidents before them.

    The reality is, the power to call elections can cut both ways. Leave it to the last minute and it’s transparent that you’re afraid of going to the country; call a snap election and your opponents may be caught off guard. On balance, i think it’s an advantage. However, Labour need the higher turnout at local elections to avoid decimation there, so they’re often tied to the local election date, if they have already chosen to call it within a window that includes it.

    Fixed term parliaments would result in a concurrently more fixed electoral cycle, which would be a good thing from the point of view of electoral registration drives, fundraising and so forth. I think it’s an unfair power asymmetry for the governing party to have that power, but the British acceptance of it is part of the British fetish for strong government and almost unlimited government power, which the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty entails.

  3. I don’t think this is susceptible of proof, since there are so many variables. Also, I suspect we may be defining incumbency differently. But over the thirty years, the governing party in the US lost in 1980, 1992, 2000, and 2008, whereas in the UK, they only lost in 1997.

    • A.J.P. Crown says:

      Well, I was deliberately only counting second presidential terms in order to try and make an equivalent to an incumbent British administration (I don’t think using any helpful definition of the term you can count Gore as an incumbent in 2000, for example). Also, depending on which 30 years you choose to include, the UK incumbent also lost in ’79. Between 1979 and 2009, I make it a 2-2 draw.

      As you say, there’s no proof that choosing the election date will help you win, because there are too many other variables; in my opinion, the advantage is mainly held by political journalists who are stuck for a topic.

  4. Camus123 says:

    The big question is a different one, surely. If Labour come out with a ten seat majority versus the Conservatives, as you seem to be implying, how long will Brown last and what sort of a government will you get?

  5. Julia Atkins says:

    What is interesting though is that the Labour hierarchy seems to have decided that the battle is lost and are not unhappy letting Cameron and gang
    deal with the economic crisis. The real struggle is going on behind the scenes between Blair and Brown proxies for the Leadership. David Miliband versus Ed Balls. Both are staunch neo-liberals, defenders of the Thatcher consensus and the Atlantic alliance, but you’d never guess that from the heat being generated in the corridors. Balls is being backed by most of the unions with Unite in the vanguard. Will all the new candidates they’ve sponsored in ‘safe’ Labour seats follow their advice and vote Balls or will the ‘limousines for hire’ group in the Lords promise them untold wealth if they vote for Miliband, once Patricia Hewitt’s protege.The desperation was revealed when Lord Mandelson pushed through Tristram Hunt’s candidature in a safe Labour seat. The Constituency Party secretaryis standing as an indy against Hunt. All this infighting could become academic if enough Labour voters stay at home and punish their Party by letting it bleed. And now back to Lanchester who is about to make a few early predictions based on a Countryside Alliance opinion poll, sponsored by a pesticide firm.

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