In the run up to this election there’s a torrent of comment about unpredictability and possible deals. I have even heard people talk about another election shortly after this one. Certainly after the 2010 election many believed that a second election would follow quickly if a suitable deal couldn’t be done.
The most recent example of this is of course back in 1974. It’s this topic that formed the theme of this weekend’s BBC Radio Archive on 4 (7 Feb).
But we are in different territory now as the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (2011) not only tells us exactly when the next election should be, it makes it much, much harder to have one in between.
People from the US and other countries with fixed term elections must have thought us very strange pre 2010. A democracy in which effectively the Prime Minister could load the dice, time the economic tide, call a contest when he or she was already in the lead. As a political activist I remember the Gordon Brown election that never was. Half way through a leaflet delivery, with speculation at fever pitch that the PM was about to go to the Palace, I was phoned to say that Brown had announced there wouldn’t be an early poll. Very much a “calm down” moment. Steve Richards, in Whatever It Takes, paints a dramatic picture of the tensions around the decision on whether to call an election or not. The rest is history, but the point is that he (Brown) had the power.
So are we better off with Fixed Term Parliaments? It’s certainly more democratic if the PM can’t wield that power. And in planning terms, for politicians, business, the media and just about everyone else, knowing exactly when an election will happen must be a good thing. It is also delightful not to have to wade through the acres of ill- informed election date speculation in the press!
But nothing in politics is wholly good!
The US, with its fixed terms has election campaigns that start much earlier than ours. The temptation to “be first” to “go off early” to “get momentum going” means these get longer rather than shorter. In the UK we are experiencing some of this already. The first Monday after the winter break (5 Jan) saw just about every party doing election launches of one sort or another. Is this good? Well it means people have longer to think about issues but I wonder if many aren’t bored already.
And as for that possible snap election after May 7th. Difficult but not impossible. Commentator Mark Pack says look at the manifestos. So we shall.
Among all the pre-election coverage of policy launches and manifestos, we’ve now had the first pre-election human drama – a defection. Time will tell whether we’ll see more of these in the febrile atmosphere of the run up to May 7. But as the world of football has its transfer season, we may well be into the equivalent in the world of UK politics.
The January defection, of UKIP MEP Amjad Bashir to the Conservatives, had its element of slapstick. Did he jump or was he pushed? (UKIP would claim the latter). Was he in fact a serial rosette changer? (Respect claim him as a former member ). Are the Tories keeping him under metaphorical lock and key to avoid unfortunate remarks? (Blogger Guido Fawkes, in his usual inimitable style, thinks so)
Defections are not really about one-in one-out. Parties see these moves as primarily about publicity. And the publicity can be immense if handled properly . The trick is to surprise as many people as possible while manoeuvring for the best news coverage. Former Conservative MP Emma Nicholson’s defection from the Tories to the Lib Dems is a textbook case. The then Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown and colleagues had the announcement planned with military precision (as you would expect from a former Royal Marine). Every detail, from hand- delivered letters to Conservative office-holders in Nicholson’s Devon constituency to the exclusive BBC TV interview, was timed to the minute. Both Nicholson, in Secret Society, and Ashdown, in Diaries Volume 1, give inside information about the events of that December in 1995. The announcement on the 29th caught the usually quiet news period between Christmas and New Year thus guaranteeing even more prominent coverage. (And political geeks will also spot the significance of that date – William Ewart Gladstone’s birthday).
Defections during actual election campaigns do happen. 1994 saw a Parliamentary by election in Newham in East London. Candidate Alec Kellaway defected from the Lib Dems (for whom he was the official candidate) to Labour just before polling day. He had reportedly wanted to defect dramatically from the stage at the count but was persuaded to bring the announcement forward. Voters had the odd experience of seeing Mr Kellaway’s name on the ballot paper as a Lib Dem (as by then nominations were well and truly closed and the papers printed) while hearing that he was in fact now a Labour member. And in 1983, National Chair of Young Social Democrats, Keith Toussaint, moved from the SDP to the Conservatives during the campaign.
Lower level political defections are surprisingly common. At local councillor level most weeks see a story about someone “disgruntled” or “principled” changing allegiance.
But national level, and therefore politically significant, moves are both a lot less common and a lot more newsworthy. Will we see more between now and polling day? You know I think we might.