As the festive season approaches the political and media classes play their own party game which is as familiar as ‘pass the parcel’: guess the election date.
The end game of a five-year Parliament approaches, and an unpopular Prime Minister tries to keep his options between March, May and June, the last a non-runner. He knows he has a reputation as a ditherer, who forever will be remembered (like Jim Callaghan) as the PM who failed to call an election when the polls were briefly favourable.
Another spectre haunts Gordon Brown and draws comparison with Callaghan. First, there is the fear of being boxed in, as the days of a fag end Parliament count down. Second, if he loses, he would go down as one of the few PMs who never won a popular mandate (Alec Douglas-Home joining Callaghan as the only other post-war examples).
The logic of an early election on March 25th seems to be that it contains some small element of surprise, after all the money going on May 6th. It gives a pretence of choice and decisiveness, and perhaps most importantly, rules out the need for a Budget (which must be held by April 5th) which would underline the grim times and state of the public finances.
Whenever the election comes it is going to be the most different yet north and south of the border thanks to the existence of the SNP administration. This is going to make it a much more different post-devolution Scottish election than the elections in 2001 and 2005.
The Scottish election will have a sense of being similar while being different. The similarities do need to be stated. A recent poll of what Scots saw as the top UK election issues for them saw 63% cite unemployment, 36% tackling drug abuse and 26% reducing immigration, figures that are not that different from the rest of the UK.
Private Tory polling indicates that 75% of Scots think that the SNP is ‘ineffective’ at Westminster, which is being used to try to undermine the point of the Nationalists in a UK contest.
Yet Scotland will be very different. First, the presence of the SNP administration will mean they can intervene in the election and not be completely sidelined. Second, are the numerous ways Scotland and England have been diverging on policy issues and in particular on public services.
The Scottish election and its result will emphasise this difference. Scotland is the one part of the UK exempt from the Cameron bounce and charm. The Scottish Tories have been flatlining in the polls and going nowhere for a decade.
The Tories north of the border can at the most expect to increase their tally of seats from the current one to between three to five. This will bring Scotland full square back to its own Groundhog Day of ‘the democratic deficit’: of Scotland not voting Tory, but getting a UK Tory Government.
Except it will be a much more complex ‘democratic deficit’ than we have previously had, aided by devolution and the presence of the SNP in office. It is also highly possible that the scale of the Conservative victory might be very narrow to non-existent, which could result in the Tories having to seek coalition partners, govern as a minority government, or even face, emerging as the largest party, and being excluded by a Labour-Lib Dem deal.
Part of all this doubt is the anti-Conservative bias of the electoral system requiring the Tories to be broadly 9% plus ahead of Labour in votes to win a majority of one seat. With most of the polls narrowing – and most within a range of 6-13% Tory lead – thus giving an overall 9-10% lead, it is clear that the election is not completely a foregone conclusion.
Some of this is due to Labour not being completely dead despite everything. The party has also shown its capacity for self-preservation and closing ranks. Whatever the limits of this lot this is not quite the rotting smell of the last days of the Major Government.
Gordon Brown has many flaws, but he has the stamina of the long distance runner, and has been underestimated by his opponents for too long. It was Brown who pulled the 2005 election out of trouble for Blair. Brown is despised to the point of obsession by a group of ‘Broon’ haters who refer to ‘Zanu Labour’ and even think he might postpone next year’s election.
David Cameron has weaved a contradictory narrative these last four years, full of Blairite style, but little content, and seems content to have not radically changed his party. Two thirds of voters consistently say the Conservatives have not changed.
Where Cameron has got into trouble recently with centre-right voters is in his abandoning of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. This seemed to many Tory voters as just another betrayal of their core values and made Cameron seem like the rest of the political classes. It has cost the Tories votes, and will continue hurting them into the election.
Despite that acute soothsayer William Rees-Mogg (or ‘Bill Mogg’, as he is known to his friends) predicting that the next election will be ‘not a landslide but a wipe out’ shaped by Labour’s failings and unpopularity, we are heading for murky as well as stormy waters.
This is the world of close election results, at least in terms of seats if not votes. Think of 1950, 1951, 1964, the two 1974 elections and 1992. At least every ten to fifteen years Britain has a close election which asks questions of our political classes and political system. Six of our seventeen post-war elections, over a third, have been close affairs.
Often these elections act as transitions from one political age to the next, showing the tensions building up in voters: the slow decline of Attlee’s Britain, the Tory Governments in 1964 and 1974 imploding, or Conservative unpopularity in 1992 being less crucial than nervousness about Labour.
What is also a recurring feature, although not certain, is that one close election can lead to another one soon after. Here is one distinct possibility for 2010: of Labour ‘losing’ in that it loses its overall majority and any mandate to govern, while it still being unclear who has ‘won’.
This unclearness will be less marked if the Cameron Conservatives are returned with a small overall majority, but just as likely is a Conservative Party which has ‘won’ the election in votes, but not quite in seats. Then we are into a host of unpredictable scenarios which will test our political classes and parties just at the time when trust and confidence in them is at an all-time low. Who knows at such a time: cometh the man cometh the hour. Nick Clegg or even Alex Salmond might find himself the kingmaker.