Gordon and Brenda – A date for Tuesday?

The interesting thing about the Ipsos MORI poll in the Observer today is that the percentage of respondents saying Brown should call an autumn election is 39%. In last Wednesday’s YouGov poll this was 29%. Of course, these are polls done by different pollsters. But I wonder whether perhaps there is a growing body of people, after all the speculation, who are saying “Oh, go on then – get it over and done with, Gordon”.

I notice that we are repeatedly being told that there won’t be an announcement this week – Gordon is going to wait until the Tory conference is over, apparently. So we are told.

Is it the old cynic in me, or does this make me certain that the old blighter will jump in his Rover, Brenda-bound, tomorrow or Tuesday to go for October 25th? (He has to allow 17 working days between going to the Queen to ask her to dissolve parliament and polling day – meaning, by my calculations, he would have to, at the very latest, go up the Mall with the early morning traffic on Tuesday).

This would completely wreck the Tory conference. Just imagine all those MPs having to hurriedly book out of their hotels, forfeiting their payments, and abandoning Cameron to address one of Britain’s finest collection of chairs on Wednesday.

I really can’t believe that that old political calculating machine, old Brownie, will collate all his various polls, focus groups reports, seaweeds and teabags and come to the conclusion that he will go to the polls on November 1st or that it might be a good option to leave open (Bearing in mind Haloween on Oct 31st, clocks going back on Oct 28th, bad weather, fireworks, particularly bad prospects for Scotland). The last time the UK had a general election after October 25th was 72 years ago in 1935.

And I really do think that Brown is going to have an enormous problem with just saying “ho hum, no election this year” after all this fuss.

By the way, forget everything I have written on this subject up until now!

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Tory definition of "family" is disgracefully exclusive


When you are a parent, you pick up words of wisdom from the strangest of sources. There’s a Disney film called Lilo and Stitch (above) that gave us much amusement as a family. A cartoon set in Hawaii, it tells the story of a little girl called Lilo who is left orphaned with her adult sister, Nani, after a car crash kills her parents. The two sisters are joined by a strange alien creature who is the product of an illegal genetic experimentation on another planet. After 90 minutes of mayhem, the creature, Stitch, domesticates itself and becomes part of the family with Lilo and Nani.

There is a tear-jerking final sequence when it is explained that families come in all shapes and sizes and that we should cherish the family we have, in this case two orphaned sisters and an alien odd-ball.

This is a film David Cameron could do with watching.

The tax cut for families which he was proposing has now morphed itself into an increase in tax credits, as Vince Cable has highlighted today:

It would appear that the so-called Tory tax cut for families is not a tax cut at all, but an increase in tax credits’ a means-tested benefit subject to enormous complexity and problems with mistaken payments.

The problem with this whole thing is the families excluded from the measure. Firstly, single parent families. It is wrong to make generalisations about these families. It is very difficult to find relationship break-ups which are not accompanied by enormous heartache and which do not involve single parents working very hard, under extremely trying circumstances. Secondly, the measure excludes families where the parents have not married. Personally I know of such an example where, quite frankly, most people don’t realise the parents aren’t married. They are extremely loving and caring parents and have been in partnership for well over 15 years.

But most sadly, the Tory married couples’ tax credit increase will exclude families where one parent has tragically died. This will include families of those who die in the service of their country.

The Tory party really is surpassing itself in smug self-righteousness when it is engineering giving away public money and excluding widows bringing up children on their own.

The lesson of October 1974

I have been taking a little look back at autumn elections since the war.

It’s 33 years since the last autumn election. All the intervening general elections have been in May, June or April.

There was an October election in 1964, when the Tories were defeated by Harold Wilson’s Labour. There were also October elections in 1959 and 1951. The latter one of that couplet was due to Labour whittling away their thin majority. The election had a 82.6% turnout and resulted in a change to a Conservative government. 1959 had a 78.7% turnout and the Tories held on to power.

The October 1974 general election had a 72.8% turnout and resulted in Harold Wilson’s Labour government transforming itself from a minority one to a majority one – just.

The thing about 1974 is that the country had been going through what can be fairly described as its biggest crisis since the war – the The Three Day week with energy shortages, power cuts, television stations closing down at 10pm etc etc. It was “Dunkirk spirit” time. In February 1974, Ted Heath had asked: “Who runs Britain?”. The answer came back “Not you, mate” and Harold Wilson, in eight months, brought the country back to a semblance of order.

But the reason for the October election was clear. The country was coming out of a crisis. The government was in a minority of 33. Harold Wilson quite properly, and unavoidably, went to the country for a larger mandate, which he received.

I suppose you could say that the precedent of 1959 supports Brown calling an autumn election which he can expect to win.

The other precedents, particularly 1974, suggest that he will only win if he manages to convince the electorate that he is seeking their mandate in the interests of the country.

I am yet to discover any convincing reason, which is in the interests of the country, for Brown to go to the polls this autumn. There is no crisis. His government has a majority of 60+ and 2.5 years left to run.

If Brown goes for an autumn election he is going to need all his considerable powers of persuasion to convince people that he is not just doing it because he thinks he can win now and might lose later.

PA seemed to have got carried away visa vis this week’s by-election results

I have corrected my earlier post as I was misled by this Press Association report.

When I read this week’s by-election results on John Hemming’s blog, I thought John had maybe posted the wrong results, having already read the PA release! Such was the disparity between the report and reality.

Summary: The PA report said Brown was in turmoil after the Conservatives swept ahead in by-elections key marginal seats:

With results in from eight out of nine of Thursday’s council by-elections, Conservatives had snatched back the projected lead. Labour held six seats but, on the basis of results at Portsmouth and Northamptonshire, Tories look on course for a sweeping parliamentary victory at Portsmouth North constituency and a closer one at Corby if there were an early poll.In Dover the 5.5% swing in a Kent County Council contest for Dover Town – which covers more than a quarter of the Commons constituency’s electorate – would be enough for Conservatives to take it.

The actual results show:

Portsmouth: Tories up 3.3% but Labour held the seat with a 3.2% increase, four points ahead of the Tories.

Northamptonshire: Labour stonked the seat with a 718 majority. Labour share went down 8.7% but the Tories’ share went down also by 2.7%.

Dover: There were three by-elections. The Tories’ share went down in two of the seats by 8.2% and 12.6%. The bigger turnout/coverage seat was the town seat where the Tories increased their share by 4.1% but Labour still beat them by 512 votes and were 12 points clear. Count them. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12!

In Cheshire, the Tories went down by 13.2% in one seat and up by 2.1% in the larger county seat but the LibDems went up by 5.7%.

That’s a very mixed picture which certainly does not justify a report saying the Tories are poised to win the relevant parliamentary seats. I suspect it would take someone from the University of Plymouth’s politics department to analyse what these results indicate for future parliamentary contests in Corby, Dover and Portsmouth North, but it certainly doesn’t look conclusive enough to justify the sweeping predictions of Tory victories in the PA’s report.

The Norfolk Blogger and David Rundle mention a Tory press release which seems to have been at the foot of this nonsense.

I thought the PA were meant to be independent and objective? Perhaps they got carried away in the heat of the moment…

The sunrise and sunset times which may give Gordon Brown pause for thought

Recent council by-election results have been interesting.

Last week, Labour romped home in the home of the vital “Worcester woman” with a stonking 17.6% swing.

This week there have been vote share increases for the Tories in Dover (up 4.1%) and Portsmouth North (up 3.3%). But Labour’s share also went up – by 3.2% in Portsmouth. There were 8.2% and 12.6% decreases in the Tory vote share in other Dover seats which were contested. In Cheshire they were up 2.1% in one seat but down 13.2% in another. In Corby the Tories were down 2.7%. And I am not entirely sure that a win in Sunderland is likely to put that seat top of the Tories’ list. Thanks to John Hemming for his results list. Mark Pack provides an incisive analysis of recent by-elections in key seats here.

Being an old git, I go back to boring things like lighting up times and weather forecasts. These are the things which might feature low on the radar of those three upstarts, Balls, Miliband (E) and Alexander, who are advising Brown on the election timing. Being at that age when the weight of the testosterone in their bodies exceeds the weight of their brain cells, I suspect they are more on the balls of their feet wanting to knock the Tories out for another ten years.

But these things are top of the list with old fogies like me, when considering whether Brown will call an election this year (No, he won’t – as I have already said – but then again, I have nothing to lose if I am proved wrong!).

Brown is worried about the SNP bounce, so let us focus on Ochil and South Perthshire constituency. The Labour MP there, Gordon Banks (no relation to the Pele killer shot-saving goalie, I presume) holds a majority of 688 over the SNP from the 2005 election. He is 1.5 percentage points ahead of them. Tight.

So let us consider the Labour activists who will be going out to canvass support in the week up to November 1st, if that is the date on which Brown calls the election.

I have been doing a bit of research on lighting up times in Alloa, which is at the heart of this constituency. I have got the data from the US Naval Observatory site here, using Longtitude/Latitude data from Multimap.

On the Friday before the election, 26th October, those activists will be canvassing in the dark from 17:49hrs. So they will find that many people will not open their doors to them in the evening. Also on that Friday, those activists will start to hear the odd whistle, bang and flash of light. The start of the Bonfire parties in the run-up to November 5th. Another reason for people to keep their doors firmly closed for fear of allowing pets and children to be further frightened by the fireworks.

As they go out canvassing on Monday October 29th, those activists will find that it is even darker in the evening. The sunset will be earlier at 16:42, due to the clocks going back on October 31st.

On the evening of Wednesday 31st October, the day before the election, those Labour activists will find that everytime they knock on a door they will either not receive a reply, or be met with a handful of sweets or, worse still, an earful of swear words ending with the preposition “off”. It’s Halloween. Best not to bother to try canvassing then.

On the actual election day, November 1st, the sun will not rise until 07:21 hrs, 21 minutes after polls open. Not a great incentive for people to bother to vote on their way to work. And the sun will set at 16:35, discouraging many people from voting after work.

Obviously these vote-discouraging factors may impact the SNP vote as much as the Labour vote, but will Gordon Brown want to gamble on that? And in other constituencies with similarly restricted light situations (most, if not all, of the constituencies in the UK), the Tories will be able to rely on their hefty postal vote share and their electorate with its high proportion of people with heated cars and the ability to vote during the working day.

A point about the weather. In the first week of November last year, the temperature on some days in Scotland barely got up to 4 °C. In Oxfordshire, it went down to -5.2 °C at one point. Again, not ideal conditions for getting the vote out.

Of course, Brown may go for October 25th, even though this seemed to have been fairly authoritatively ruled out earlier in the week, via Nick Robinson. That way, he will avoid Halloween, Guy Fawkes parties and clocks going back. But it will still be dark when most of the canvassing is being done in the evenings, and dark on election day from an early hour.

On October 25th in that weathervane seat of Basildon it will be dark at 17:45hrs. In Portsmouth North it will be dark at 17:53hrs and in Alloa the sunset will be at 17:51hrs. …Not easy conditions under which to encourage those stubborn voters to venture from their comfy armchairs down to the polling booths.

Boris – not funny and not clever

It has taken me a while to work out my precise view on Boris Johnson. Trying to pin him down is like trying to pin down a pregnant jellyfish on a ship during a force ten gale.

The moment you say that he is not a very serious politician, the reply comes: “Ah, but he is funny!” Haven’t you got a sense of humour?”

Then you say that he is not very funny and the reply comes “Ah, but he has a very fine intellect.”

So let’s take that second one first. Is he “funny”? Well yes, on “Have I got news for you”, we have all chortled at him. But I think it is worth nailing down why we have laughed at him on that programme. He is no Paul Merton, who is able to reduce everyone to fits of giggles by a quick deadpan one-liner or an extended foray into whimsy. Boris cannot do stand-up, for example. I saw him try at the Brit Awards once. It was embarrassing. What Boris does is to play the incompetent host. Everyone laughs at him because he cocks up everything. He fluffs his lines, he forgets what he is doing, he makes some totally random remark, he sits there with disheveled hair and shambolic suit. Paul Merton and Ian Hislopp say something funny about him, gently taking the rip, and everyone is in stitches. Hilarious. Boris knows the joke is on him but he forges on, undaunted, retaining an internal dignity, if not an outward dignity.

But does that amount to being “funny”? Well, not in the way that Frank Skinner is “funny”, no. Boris is funny in the way that an absent-minded College lecturer is funny as he hilariously messes up using the overhead projector and then makes a self-deprecating remark to the students.

Boris is perhaps “funny” in the sense of the traditional incompetent clown, who tries to ride a wiggly bike and ends up on the floor besides the bits of ex-bike. Even then, I can’t imagine Boris cutting it as a circus clown and I suspect he could take quite a few lessons in comedy from the Chuckle Brothers (those titans of comedy who have now, incidentally, clocked up 20 years on Children’s BBC television).

And there’s the rub. Does the “funny” incompetence of a semi-competent clown qualify Boris to run London?

“Oh no, comes the reply, but he’s got a very fine intellect”.

The jellyfish slips from our grip – for the moment.

OK, let’s look at that “intellect”. Yes, Boris has sufficient “intellect” to write very pungent and wide-ranging articles for the “Daily Telegraph”.

But is that “intellect” the necessary kind of “intellect” to run London? Let’s take a couple of examples.

In 2005 when interviewed by the Daily Mirror, in the middle of an election campaign, Boris was asked for his view on drugs. That was reasonable lien of questioning in an election campaign and given that Boris has made a lot of, typically chaotic, statements about drugs.

The reply from this man of “fine intellect” was:

I can’t remember what my line on drugs is. What’s my line on drugs?

Let’s do “funny” first. That isn’t funny in the sense of someone telling a joke or making a quip. It is funny in the sense that I laughed when I heard it because it was an example of Boris being “the thnking man’s idiot”. He is supposed to be a politician but when asked a completely innocuous and standard question he falls apart at the seams. I laughed at him. But then people would say – ‘oh well, he meant the remark to be funny’. Ah yes. That old smokescreen. Make a cock-up but then say you were being funny to cover your tracks. Boris seems to use that little ruse very often.

Let’s do “intellect” now. So, Boris Johnson, has a “fine intellect” they say. But he doesn’t have sufficient intellect to remember a simple couple of sentences on one of the most prevalent areas of public policy debate – drugs. But there is another point. Look at some Boris Johnson’s past quotes on drugs:

Yes, cannabis is dangerous, but no more than other perfectly legal drugs. It’s time for a rethink, and the Tory party – the funkiest, most jiving party on Earth – is where it’s happening.

I think I was once given cocaine but I sneezed so it didn’t go up my nose. In fact, it may have been icing sugar.

Responding to an Oxford contemporary who said Johnson had never taken drugs, the Tory MP for Henley said: ‘This is an outrageous slur…of course I’ve taken drugs.’

Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP for Henley, said: “I tried it [cocaine] at university and I remember it vividly. It achieved no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever.” He added that he had smoked “quite a few spliffs” before he went to university. He said: “It was jolly nice. But apparently it is very different these days. Much stronger. I’ve become very illiberal about it. I don’t want my kids to take drugs.”

…So, those quotes reveal a fluid attitude to drugs, expressed in typically colourful language. Fair enough. The Conservative party policy has been changing also and they now call for cannabis to reclassified from Class C to B. It has to be said that the basis for this policy change, an alleged scientific observation on the “changing” strength of cannabis, has been vigorously challenged by scientists, not least by scientific journalist, Ben Goldacre.

The point is that Boris Johnson’s quotes on drugs have been so colourful and fluid, and the Conservative party’s view on drugs has been so flexible, that it is not surprising that Boris found himself unable to “remember” his line on drugs. (Perhaps he was struggling to reconcile his past statements and cross-match them to Conservative policy – a task a bit like playing three dimensional chess in a thunderstorm.) But for someone aiming to be the most powerful directly elected politician in the UK, is it too much to ask that he should steer a simple enough line through the key area of drugs policy so that he has sufficient intellect to remember it?

I would cite another example concerning Boris Johnson’s “intellect”. This morning he took part in, for him, a typically chaotic interview with James Naughtie.

Johnson was asked about his London policy goals. His first response was that he wanted to improve democracy in London, intimating that Ken Livinsgtone rules without sufficient cognisance of the views of the London Boroughs. Fine. But when asked to give an example of what he meant, Johnson resorted to his normal, whimsical claptrap. He said that he had recently passed a row of old Victorian terraced houses in East London which were ear-marked for demolition. That’s terrible, he said. It shouldn’t happen, he implied. Ok then, Naughtie said, what would you do about that? Would you stop that happening? “Er…I would let the boroughs know my opinion that future generations would not appreciate them knocking down such fine buildings”.

So, after saying that he wanted to improve the democratic say of the boroughs over the mayoralty, Johnson cites an example where he, as mayor, would tell the boroughs what to do. Brilliant. What a fine intellect that man has!

When further asked what he would do to achieve one of his main stated aims, to help people onto the housing ladder, Johnson cited the example of housing organizations who offer shared equity. He waxed quite lyrical about this and said he would “help” such schemes. Ah. I see. So no doubt this would mean setting up something like a Mayor’s Housing Commission to look at ways to encourage boroughs to expand shared equity schemes and do things like passing on shared equity rights when a property is sold on, wouldn’t it?

It’s already happening.

Brilliant “intellect” that. I have to give him credit. Say that you would do something that is already happening. Brilliant.

In summary, Boris Johnson is only funny in the role of an incompetent clown and does not have sufficient “intellect” to do basic political tasks, like articulating simple policy statements.

The biggest swearer of them all?

I’ve presented myself, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, at the odd doorstep.

Suffice it to say that I can do the various spiels in my sleep. For example, I take great pride in being able to do the residents survey spiel in record time and without pausing for breath:

“Hello/I’m/ calling/on/ behalf/of/ the/lib/ dems/doing/ a/
survey/of/ local/views/ if/you/ are/able/ to/fill/ it/in/
please/leave/ it/hanging/ out/of/ your/letter/ box/and/
we’ll/pick/ it/up/ in/twenty/ minutes”

(It has to be said like that, without pauses – very fast. Otherwise the person breaks in to say that they haven’t got time to do a survey. But if you get to the end of the sentence they realise you are going to leave them in peace and they are all right about it.)

So, I have been able to witness the reactions of a large cross-section of the Great British public, when they are faced with a representative of a political party on their doorstep.

I am happy to report that, by enlarge, the average great British person fluctuates between friendly and pleasantly semi-comatose in this situation. It is very rare to encounter someone angry or even “shirty”.

But I have been able to compile a graded list (below) of the angry/shirty types, starting with the mildest, with an indication of their prevalence in, say, a smallish town of 30,000 inhabitants, together with my normal reaction.

1. The “That’s none of your business” type

The “That’s none of your business” is normally said in an affronted tone, very much along the lines of “Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells”. They normally stamp their little foot as they say it. I smile sweetly and mark these down as “Conservative”. There are probably about 70 of these in an average 30,000 town.

2. The “Not interested – I am Conservative!” type

Again, that response is said in a most affronted tone. Again I smile sweetly and add the remark “Thank you very much indeed for that most valuable information” before turning and leaving. There are normally about 200/30,000 of these.

3. The “Rant Rant Rant pedestrianisation Rant Rant Rant foreigners Rant” type

There is a special column on our sheet for this type. It’s called the “anti” column. They are against us but it is not clear what they are for. I smile very sweetly and nod very earnestly as they pour out their bile and then thank them very much for their views (on one occasion I did lose my patience and told one of these types that they were talking rubbish). About 8/30,000.

4. The mild swearing type.

A “fork” escapes their mouth. Another sweet smile and mark them down as “anti”. About 15/30,000

5. The off the scale swearer

I have only ever met one of these. The exchange went like this (I have converted his swear words into everyday words):

Me: Good evening, Mr xxxxx? I am calling on behalf of the Liberal Democrats doing a survey of local views….”

Resident: You can forking well fork off, I am forking well eating my supper and I am going to forking well tear that up! (points to survey sheet).

Me: (enthusiastically) Well done! (well, I thought that he deserved congratulations for being able to eat his supper and tear up the paper).

Resident: Fork off! Fork you! You punt!

Me: Well done!

Resident: Pish off! Look after the forking foreigners! You’re a forking winker!

Me: (changing tack on entering this, for me, new area of voter/politico discourse, making up new responses) God Bless you! (I don’t know why I said this but it just seemed a good way of trumping his anger)

Resident: Fork off!

Me: (now standing on the public pavement) God Bless you!

Resident: Fork off!

Me: God Bless you!

At this point, the resident had belatedly realised that whatever he said, I would stand on the pavement for the rest of the evening saying “God bless you!”. He therefore retreated into his house. I was, fortunately, younger and fitter than him.

I think the incidence of such militant swearers is probably about one in every 150,000 people in the UK. I marked him down as “the antiest of antis” but that was a somewhat insufficient description of the man. To do his reaction justice, I think that a balloon (rather like those balloons which fly about a forty foot above garages sometimes saying “Sale now on”) should be flown above his house saying “Do not call on this man”.