The results are in: What do they mean?

As the results come in across the UK there are a number of headlines from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats to the rise of the SNP to the growth in votes for UKIP but with little electoral success.

As with every election night the stories and speculation focuses on the individuals. So there is lots to fill the airwaves of the futures of a number of high profile candidates from Nick Clegg to Ed Miliband.

But it’s important to remember that this is the first stage in the election story. Now there will be the results from the local elections where councillors in city halls across England were being elected. This second part if the story is really important.

If Act One is the election of a national government – that looks like (at 5.10am) to be dominated by the Tories then Act Two is who will be responsible for implementing the decisions of the central government across the cuts in public spending. It is this which is as significant I think as the results in Scotland. I say this because the vote in Scotland does not change the balance of power in Westminster it actually strengthens (in the short term) the power base of the Conservative economic policy.

It means that the austerity measures as outlined (and as implied) are likely to be implemented. And the pace and scale of the cuts will be similar to the last five years.

Why does this matter ? I think it’s important because at the local level (where the bulk of the cuts are directed ) the gap between city hall and Westminster will accentuate. And the gaps between the political classes (including the media) and communities and families and individuals dependent on the welfare state will widen.

It is these widening gaps which reflect growing inequality too which is the longer term story of the night. And they are ones we will return to.

Bookies sort political favourites from rank outsiders

Political betting is one way of forecasting how this election might go.

Working on the premise that bookies rarely lose money and always do their homework, the odds they are offering might give an overall picture of what the country will look like electorally on May 8.

There has been a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of the leaders of the two main parties. Despite being trusted more by voters, Prime Minister, David Cameron is neck and neck with Labour leader Ed Milliband, to be the PM, with both being offered at 10/11 on.

Just as the opinion polls see the Tories (6/1) with a small lead on Labour (16/1) with the smaller parties likely to hold the balance of power, no overall majority is a very short odds on prospect at 1/6.

But it is in some of the key marginals where the betting could help shed a light.

Thurrock, once a fight between Tories and Labour, taken by only 92 votes by the Conservatives in 2010, looks likely to be taken by UKIP if William Hill’s odds are to be believed. Despite Labour having Milliband’s key aide Polly Billington as candidate, Hill sees UKIP’s Tim Aker as the odds on favourite (8/13) to take the Essex seat.

Hampstead and Kilburn was the number two most marginal seat at the 2010 election, when Labour took it by 42 votes. The bookies are reflecting recent polling data by Lord Ashcroft that saw Labour up by 17pts and Tulip Siddiq, the candidate chosen to replace the outgoing Glenda Jackson, is 1/4 to win.

In Warwickshire North, the third most marginal seat in 2010, taken by the Tories by 54 votes, UKIP’s damaging effect could have most impact. The 0.1% Tory majority has now been transformed to a Labour lead of more than 10 percentage points and the party is very short odds at 2/7. UKIP has stolen a large number of votes from both the Tories and Lib Dems.

In another key marginal, boundary changes mean Labour is likely to take Lancaster and Fleetwood and William Hill offers 2/7.

Labour is short priced to win key target seats in the North West. Government minister and former TV presenter Esther McVey looks likely to lose Wirral West in a close race. Labour are 8/11 on, with McVey even money. Ashcroft polling in March saw Labour with a seven point lead.

Closer to home there’s no money to be made. Labour is short priced in the majority of local constituencies. In West Lancashire Labour is 1/66 for the win, cruising in nearby Sefton Central at 1/50 and in staunchly red Knowsley, it is an even greater 1/100. The Tories are odds on to take South Ribble at 4/11.

The interesting constituency at one stage was Southport, where the Lib Dems faced a threat from both the Tories and Labour. However, sitting MP John Pugh is 13pts up in polling and is now 1/3 to take the seaside seat.

What about the issues that don’t figure in the election campaign, but matter ?

The ways in which the formal election campaign and its associated conversations miss out the issues that touch most people, are ones I will come back to over the coming weeks.

It’s important to start though by recognising that the shared conversations between the politicians and the media rule out a whole series of voices and experiences.

The impact of welfare reform, which will be a centre piece of the next five years if the present Tory-led Government retain power, is ruled out of discussion by ministers.

And yet whilst the media may press them on the issue, the headlines focus not on an absence of an answer, but on the skill of avoidance.

All three of the major UK based parties are in favour of education and all three have a shared commitment to maintaining the new status quo on the roles of academies and trusts rather than local schools.

Indeed all three are also in favour of the status quo on how the NHS is organised.

However, they do differ on some things. But it is the shared consensus which is rarely up for discussion. Why? And why aren’t the voices of  those that rely on the services (not those who work in them) heard?

On May 7th local elections will take place too. Here, the absence of a rich and diverse debate is very evident. But does this matter? I think it does. Whoever wins nationally on May 7th will be putting in place spending plans which directly impact on local communities.

It will be City Hall making many of the cuts and therefore we do need to try and make the connections between the local and the national. Accountability only works if those that make decisions are open to challenge and are willing to engage with that challenge.


Unaccustomed as I am…..

This Spring sees the last lot of party conferences before the big event.

Some are specific national conferences, like the Conservative Welsh Conference that has just taken place.  Others are UK wide, like the Lib Dem conference due to take place later in March (13/14/15th) and Ukip’s event in Margate. Organisations such as “grassroots” organisation Conservative Home also hold events around this time.

Party conferences serve a wide range of functions, from policy-making, to socialising, from training to selling.  But the ones just before a General Election are those in which each party tries to make the event a “shop window” on vote winning policies and camera friendly delegates.

For everything happening on stage, there is as much if not more going on just out of sight.  The aim is to get the best camera angles, the best speeches, the most TV coverage.

Likely policy announcements are trailed weeks in advance with a drip-drip approach to media management.  Sessions are timed so that the most vote-worthy happen at the times most likely to provide an audience.  And of course the Leader’s speech is briefed out in advance and planned with a good clutch of soundbites in mind.

This might make attending conference as a delegate seem a little pointless.  But party members still compete for places at these events and put great stress on being there and taking part.

As a regular conference goer I find it fascinating to watch the changes that happen as the electoral cycle goes round.  Conferences shortly after an election can be loud and argumentative.  Those shortly before tend to be well disciplined and worthy.

In 2005, Florence Faucher-King published her work on the anthropology of party conferences. She spent years immersing herself in four different party cultures (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Green).  From who has votes to who has voices, this is a fascinating look at how the tribes behave.

But the tribe of members is arguably less important at a pre General Election conference than the tribe of media. This Spring, watch out for those manifesto moments.

(I’ll be taking a separate look at any comment worthy party conference happenings as this blog goes on. The BBC’s Parliament Channel often covers large amounts of each party conference so it’s the place to go to for conference obsessives).

Broken links!

Earlier this week (9 February)  the Conservatives gave away the list of constituencies the party is not targeting  in the General Election.  They did this by including the words “non target” in the URL of each candidate’s page on the central website.

A bit of an Ooops moment!

So we now know, from the Conservatives’ own material,  just how many seats they have already given up on.

Now every party has seats on which it concentrates and those that it knows it can’t win.  If you live in a tightly fought target seat you will soon realise because of the volume of leaflets.

But the Conservatives’ error in making their thoughts clear reveals two key points.

Firstly, there are political activists out there who will check things like URL titles.  Those of us who take great care over what we write and then hand over the production of the links to others have just had a warning!

Secondly , the Conservative list is strange.   Now I am not surprised that Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s former seat) is on the list.  But so is Norfolk North, Sefton Central and Rochester and Strood.

It isn’t that long ago that Norfolk North was a closely fought contest between the Lib Dems (current incumbent Norman Lamb MP) and the Tories.  It isn’t that long ago that Sefton Central (current incumbent Labour’s  Bill Esterson) was projected as a win for the Conservatives’ Debi  Jones.  And Rochester and Strood was the second UKIP by election win last year which surely the Tories should be aiming to take back.

I am sure there will be candidates up and down the country now telling central office to edit its website.  But for candidates who are not Conservatives this slip up is good ammunition.  After all, if a representative’s own party has made it clear he or she can’t win, why should anyone listen to requests for votes.