It might seem a strange moment for a LibDem to say this, with our party striding forward in the polls, but as always we should treat them with a pinch of salt. Indeed, let’s remember that some countries ban opinion polls during the last weeks of a campaign, so that they don’t become a deciding factor in themselves.
But the real scandal isn’t that the polls suggest that voters are now seeing through Messrs Brown & Cameron. The real scandal is how the percentages of popular vote transfer into seats. I expect arm-chair psephologists have already gone to the BBC website and used their ‘seat calculator’. And here’s what it predicts on the basis of one of today’s opinion polls, the one which is least favourable to the LibDems. Remember that all present results put the three parties so close to each other that it is ‘within the margin of error’:
Conservative — 33% — 239 seats
Labour — 30% — 291 seats
LibDems — 29% — 91 seats
A single percentage difference between Labour and the LibDems and Labour could have 200 more seats and be the largest party even though they do not win the popular vote. These figures — and the calculations are similar with so many other polls — surely demonstrate once again how bad, how unfit for purpose our electoral system is. The irony is that the party most adamantly opposed to electoral reform is the party with so much to lose through it: the Conservatives might think they have a right to a mandate, but the voting system they support might well decide otherwise.
Breakfast interview on BBC radio this morning for me. Douglas Hurd before me sounding quite cock-a-hoot about the whole thing. I was more guarded: these are both exciting and disconcerting times — it’s always a strange experience when you have to work with people who are your natural opponents. But, as I said, this isn’t a marriage or fling — we don’t have to find the Tories lovable or even alluring — this is a business working relationship. And now they will have to get on with the job.
What I didn’t have chance to mention is how discombobulating all this must be for many Conservatives. One leading Oxfordshire Tory who lives in the Banbury constituency was only last week describing ‘the Liberals’ as ‘dreadful’ and saying that in America ‘liberal’ is an insult, and that it should be here too. I say to you, Cllr Keith Mitchell: you are all Liberals now.
And that is the other point that wasn’t fully discussed on air: the amount of ground the Tories have given in creating a coalition agreement that has so much good LibDem policy. Some highlights:
- restoring the link between pensions and earnings
- raising the tax threshold significantly so as to help the poorest
- real reform of the banking sector
- introducing a pupil premium to assist those in the most deprived areas
Let me make it clear right from the beginning: the Conservatives can’t be trusted. After a General Election in which their leader, the man who is now buttering his toast in Downing Street, appealed to the lowest instincts of loathing and jingoism, in which their mantra was one of entitlement to power, combined with disdain for any radical change, and in which they began by allowing one of their frontbenchers to play dog-whistle politics, calling homophobes to their side, they remain a backward-looking, small-minded party, a party defined more by its phobias than any finer aspirations. Paradoxically, my distaste for them is what makes me stomach, just about, the coalition that has come into being.
Don’t get me wrong: my dislike of Tory politics is equalled by despair at the Labour Party. They too have become a party so instinctively of the right that they have lost the right even to mouth the word progressive — think how the divide between rich and poor has increased under their watch, while our civil liberties have been undermined in the name of a national security which has become more perilous precisely because of the unjust military escapades in which they embroiled us.
With whichever party negotiations had been successful, there would have been both ideological disagreement and a clash of approach. But, frankly, there was only one set of discussions that could have created a coalition. Discussions with Labour were not, on the present arithmetic, going to provide a workable majority, especially when some of their members would have rebelled on fundamental issues like voting reform. The only practicable possibility was an accommodation with the Tories.
Elections are over — for now — and I have had chance to catch up on sleep, after the marathon of Thursday and Friday. You will no doubt know the result in Banbury: we came second, improving our vote and putting ourselves in a strong position for the coming years. This was also reflected in the local elections where we did creditably in several seats.
I want now to thank all of you who supported our campaign for real change in North Oxfordshire, whether it be by being one of our local candidates, or delivering leaflets, or putting up a poster, or just turning up at the polling station and voting. It’s was so encouraging to find people coming forward, offering to help and wanting to be put of our movement. We have built up momentum and our next step is to ensure we not only keep that but we help it increase.
As you know, this was the first time I had stood for Parliament and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. If I were to pick out one element I found most rewarding it would be the visits to schools, listening to students’ views and engaging with them. But that was one high point among many. It was also a real pleasure to work with an enthusiastic and growing team, and to be standing in an area I know so well.
On election night, one of the journalists present asked me whether, if I was given the opportunity, I would stand again. I had a one-word answer: absolutely.
So, yesterday, urged on by the success of LibDems like Evan Harris (and realising that my intended also lives in a world that tweets), I joined twitter. I have not yet got the hang of it, but I enjoy the challenge of writing in only 140 characters — my challenge is to find as use up the characters with as few words as possible: the revenge of the polysyllabic!
You will have also noticed that my number of posts has decreased as the election comes closer and I am increasing my numbers on the doorstep to ridiculous levels. Keep the comments coming, though! I will read them around midnight.
So, that’s that out of the way. While your local candidates hust in churches, classrooms and town halls, the Leaders of the three main parties had the hall of the University of Birmingham in which to debate. Here’s a personal take on last evening.
The big headline is Labour’s failure to recover: Gordon Brown didn’t really turn up. He went through the motions, a breathless litany of numbers, without really getting across a strategy or agenda. People who vote Labour will do so despite the Prime Minister rather than because of him.
The debate was between Nick and Cameron. The snap-shot polls after the debate suggest that audiences divided nearly evenly between the two. Stop and read that sentence again: in an election that was said to be the Tories’ to lose, they just can’t land a knock-out blow. What Cameron did for me last evening was remind me (as if I needed it) why I am a Liberal — and how desperate our right-wing opponents are getting faced with their failure to have this election ‘in the bag’.
Cameron talked of his values but, scratch the surface, and what lay beneath was something mean-spirited and intolerant. His values are cheap and nasty. Let’s take two points:
In any other election, the eye-catching campaign for a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ would have caught the public imagination. But there has been so much drama, so many surprises and — since yesterday — such serious gaffes that this has been pushed down the agenda. And that’s a pity.
OK, so the Robin Hood Tax is a re-branding of a old proposal, the Tobin Tax named after the American economist who first proposed it in 1972. It’s a levy of a fraction of a per cent on every financial spot transaction, with the money raised intended to combat poverty.
OK, it’s controversial. Many journalists, and some economists, have thrown cold-water over it, particularly in the right-wing press. They say that it will hurt the poor by adding costs to transactions. Perhaps it concerns them more that they claim it will damage banks’ profitability.
OK, it can’t happen with a click of the fingers. To work properly, avoiding gaping loop-holes, it will need to be by international, cross-currency agreement.
Now, there’s a headline you didn’t expect to see in this constituency. But, if the Oxford Mail website is to be believed, I am set for an historic victory in this constituency. On latest figures, the Liberal Democrat candidate would gain 46%, far, far ahead of the Conservatives (10%) with Labour behind them (6%).
Obviously, I welcome this recognition that a return to Liberalism (for, truly, this was once a Liberal stronghold, a century ago) is best for North Oxfordshire. I blush to think that my performances at hustings might have consolidated our standing, but I do have a slight worry.
The same poll puts the Greens on 34%.
The voters of this constituency are ready, I am sure, for change, but somehow I sense that the sackcloth and hessian prescribed by the Greens might not be for most people living here. Green might be the colour of wellies but it is not the colour of politics.
Of course, it may be that Tory members have taken so seriously Mr Cameron’s message that green is the new blue that they ticked the wrong box. Even if we assume every Green is a closet Tory (or vice versa), the LibDems would, on these results, score a narrow victory.
Or maybe, just maybe, there’s something wrong with this sort of uncontrolled, unscientific poll.
I sigh. The asti spumante will stay on ice. For now.
One of the most enjoyable events of the election so far has been the ‘Question Time’ arranged at Banbury School by one of the sixth formers: well chaired, with a packed room, it also drew some of the sharpest questions to date.
One of the things that struck me during it was the number of young people in the room who were opposed to the European Union. They are, of course, not alone — I know there is suspicion and concern among other residents of North Oxfordshire. In that situation, I must say, the response from the two old parties that ‘it’s to our benefit to be in the EU’ might be true but it is certainly not enough.
Our political system has failed us in so many ways and this is certainly one of them: politicians have been too frightened to talk about ‘Europe’ so they have stifled any debate on the issue. I remember previous elections when the LibDems tried to push the issue onto the agenda but Labour and the Conservatives both ran a mile. Hopefully, finally, as our political world changes, they can’t hide any more.
As reported on the Banbury LibDems website, one of my first acts of this general election campaign was to sign the Royal British Legion pledge ‘to do my bit’ for the Armed Forces family. I was very happy to do so and to commit to finding ways to help our troops and our ex-servicemen and women in Parliament.
Whatever we think of the government’s decisions on military escapades around the world, I think it’s important that we differentiate between the decision-makers and those on the front-line — between the donkeys in Westminster and the heroes out there. Of course, one of the best ways to support our troops would be to vote against illegal wars. I am proud to be of a party which voted consistently against the invasion of Iraq. I welcome the fact that Banbury’s most recent MP voted once against the war but I wish he had done so earlier and consistently, as the LibDems did.
And supporting the armed forces also means making the right choices about military equipment and weapons in the future. The biggest decision will be Trident, and I have given my line on that already. It’s interesting to see in The Times today that former generals are singing from the same hymn sheet — saying that if we want to invest in our forces, it may be best not to have a like-for-like replacement for Trident. Will Labour and the Conservatives listen to the advice of the experts, I wonder.