Election Diary (2), 2 May 2015 — E-day minus 5
It begins to look as if Labour’s support is slipping away in England, which is serious, and probably still drifting away in Scotland, which may not affect Ed Miliband’s chances of forming a government provided that the direction of drift is to the Scottish National Party. (There’s even some evidence that Scottish Labour is gaining votes from Conservatives voting tactically to keep the SNP out, the ultimate irony!) But according to the well respected Lord Ashcroft’s polls, the UK national trend seems to favour the Tories:
23 March Con 33%, Lab 33%, Lib Dem 8%, UKIP 12%, Green 5%
30 March Con 36%, Lab 34%, Lib Dem 6%, UKIP 10%, Green 7%
13 April Con 33%, Lab 33%, Lib Dem 9%, UKIP 13%, Green 6%
20 April Con 34%, Lab 30%, Lib Dem 10%, UKIP 13%, Green 4%
27 April Con 36%, Lab 30%, Lib Dem 9%, UKIP 11%, Green 7%
But the polls can be read in any number of ways. The editor of LabourList, Mark Ferguson, sees them criss-crossing from day to day:
http://labourlist.org/2015/05/latest-polls-put-labour-marginally-ahead-and-suggest-miliband-has-won-over-voters-during-the-campaign/ (Mark Ferguson, 1 May)
http://labourlist.org/2015/04/what-do-the-polls-tell-us-its-still-tight-but-the-tories-may-have-a-small-lead/ (Mark Ferguson, 30 April)
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The pundits are however beginning to realise that the question “Who goes into No 10?” will depend, not on whether the Tories win more seats than Labour, or vice versa, but on which of the two biggest parties can win the support of more MPs from the other parties than the others in the vote on a Conservative (or possibly Labour) Queen’s Speech or vote of confidence. The LibDems continue to insist that if they hold the balance of power, they will “talk first” to the biggest party, but depending on the arithmetic, it looks as if neither Labour nor the Conservatives will be able to count on an overall majority (326 seats) even with LibDem support: and since the SNP have effectively promised their support to Labour — unconditionally, by the way — SNP plus LibDem support would probably win the day for Miliband. On the other hand, Nick Clegg’s preference as LibDem leader seems clearly to be another coalition with Cameron, even though a solid bloc of his party members would sooner support Miliband. As matters stand, it looks as if even without the LibDems, Labour could probably rely on support from the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the SDLP and a handful of others, theoretically exceeding Tories’ supporters in UKIP, perhaps the DUP (who are keeping their options open), and a few others. Hence the bookies’ current (2 May) odds on Miliband for prime minister. But as the poll commentators love to say, it’s too close to call, it’s all to play for, it will go down to the wire — unless of course that slim but growing Tory lead over Labour swells even more in the final days and puts them too far ahead for even the all-conquering SNP to trump it; in which case it’s curtains for Ed. And for the rest of us.
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Labour’s Liam Byrne must rue the day in 2010 when he left that jokey note for his Treasury ministerial successor. Predictably enough, the Tories, who either have no sense of humour or correctly judge that the electorate has no collective sense of humour, have made hay with it. The Guardian’s columnist Gaby Hinsliff, writing in the May-Day issue, commented: “That ‘There’s no money left‘ note has played a bigger role in the Conservative campaign than many ministers”, while the same paper’s political gurus, Wintour, Watt and Clark, described in the same issue how in the final Question Time Leaders Debate Cameron had “produced a copy of the notorious note left by the former Labour chief secretary Liam Byrne in 2010 saying ‘there’s no money left‘.” Unfortunately for all of them, the Guardian itself reproduced, a couple of millimetres away from the Wintour-Watt-Clark article’s (mis)quotation of the note, a facsimile of the note itself. It says, “I’m afraid there is no money.” Presumably whoever designed the Guardian’s layout for that day had a sense of humour, unlike whichever sub-editor was on duty at the time.
Apparently Ed Balls imprudently pointed out recently that the Byrne note had been a joke, something that a few of us had spotted several years ago, although as jokes go, this one was in exceptionally poor taste. Balls’s revelation provided yet more ammunition for an allegedly ‘undecided’ voter in the Question Time debate to fire at the unfortunate Labour leader. She told him angrily that it was no laughing matter that the Labour government had caused the country to run out of money. Two points on that unhappy episode: first, the angry ‘small business’-woman who excoriated Ed had apparently been invited to take part in the programme as one of the ‘undecided’ section of the carefully balanced audience, but turned out to be the business partner of a Tory MP, and a signatory of the notorious open letter from a raft of managers and owners of small businesses damning the Labour party and calling for another Conservative government. So her ‘undecided’ status may have been of rather recent origin. Secondly, as every economist and most business people ought to know, countries and governments don’t run out of money, because unlike households they can always raise what they need by printing it (“quantitative easing”), through additional taxation, or by borrowing, if necessary at costly rates of interest, although the Tory-led coalition government could and indeed does borrow at what must be historically among the lowest rates of interest on record — in fact a very good time to borrow.
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I have mislaid the website address of a comment on a blog post somewhere pointing out that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has made ‘confidence and supply agreements’ superfluous. Under these agreements, a smaller party used to promise to support a minority government in votes of confidence and votes on its budget, while reserving its right to vote against the government in votes on other issues, deciding its position on these from issue to issue. The FTPA however lays it down that a government defeated in a vote other than a vote of confidence, even on a major issue, is not required to resign, and indeed may not do so: it must resign only if defeated in a vote of confidence. Not only does this make a change of government between fixed-date elections much more difficult, even when it’s plainly necessary: it also puts much greater power into the hands of small parties which want to influence the policies of a minority government without bringing that government down. It also enables the small parties to support a minority government in confidence and budget votes but not necessarily to support it on other issues without the need for a ‘confidence and supply agreement’. I bet the shrewd Ms Nicola Sturgeon has spotted this.
The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is increasingly, and rightly, seen as a serious nuisance. It contravenes a basic principle of the Westminster system under which a government that repeatedly fails to get parliamentary approval for its major policy proposals must resign, leaving the Monarch to exercise her personal prerogative by deciding whether to ask someone else to try to form a government capable of securing parliamentary approval for its programme, or to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections. The Act lays down procedures that make it absurdly difficult for either course to be followed, even when there’s a general cross-party consensus that the only way to break a political deadlock is to hold fresh elections. Meanwhile, the new Cabinet Manual which has crept almost unnoticed into our constitution (see https://barder.com/4361) as effectively abolished that particular royal prerogative and transferred the rights and duties of the politically neutral and objective Monarch to the political party leaders — not, in my view anyway, at all a desirable change. And finally the introduction of the fixed term parliament has lumbered us with an interminably long election campaign period, boring most of the country half to death, exhausting our political leaders, and leading to bad tempers, personal abuse and eventually a brazenly open auction of electoral bribes by the end of the campaign. Among the first acts of the new government after next week should be to repeal the Act.
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Like Odysseus getting himself tied to the ship’s mast to prevent him yielding to the temptation to answer the seductive call of the sexy Sirens, Mr Cameron has promised that if returned to office the Conservatives will pass a law preventing themselves from increasing any of the three taxes which produce most of the government’s revenues. Labour should query the efficacy of this ridiculous device and demand that the Tories should also promise (“pledge”) a second law, making it illegal for parliament to repeal the first one. I believe that it was Labour which started the ludicrous practice of trying to tie its own hands by putting its policy objectives into law. Fortunately these self-binding laws are unenforceable — otherwise half of the current government’s ministers and half of their Labour predecessors would have ended up in prison.
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“EU leaders are considering military action against human traffickers of migrants when they gather in Brussels later today“. (BBC Television News, midnight, 22-23 April 2015)
Air-raid shelters in Brussels must have been seriously overcrowded.
“Pope Francis has conducted a raft of reforms whose importance cannot be understated.” (Financial Times editorial, 18 April 2015)
Oh, come on: they can’t have been all that unimportant, surely?