Sean Fear’s Friday Slot

Sean Fear’s Friday Slot

    Was Gordon Brown Right to Back Out?

It’s hard to imagine that two months ago, Labour were leading the Conservatives by 10-13% in opinion polls, on the back of a highly successful party conference, and momentum for an early election appeared unstoppable. Yet, instead of calling an election at, or straight after, his party conference, Gordon Brown waited for the Conservative Party to have their conference, enabling them to regain the initiative.

Since then of course, very little has gone right for Gordon Brown, and it is now the Conservative Party that enjoys a double digit lead. Did he therefore, miss a golden opportunity to finish off David Cameron’s leadership, by leading Labour to a sweeping victory?

It may be cold comfort to supporters of the Labour Party, but I believe he made the right decision, from his party’s point of view, in awaiting the public response to the Conservative conference. Had he called an election just before the Conservatives met, news of the first days of the campaign would have been dominated by coverage of the Conservatives, and in particular, George Osborne’s initiative on inheritance tax.

Almost certainly, this would have boosted the Conservative Party’s poll rating at the start of the campaign. Additionally, opinion polls throughout September had been extremely volatile, with the Conservatives advancing to level-pegging with Labour at the start of the month, before falling back at the end of the month. To me, that suggests that Labour’s big lead was very fragile, and liable to fall away very rapidly once the Conservative Party came back into the news.

The counter-argument is obviously that Labour might very well win an overall majority, even with a very small lead over the Conservatives, in terms of vote share, and could be sure of emerging as the largest single party, even if their vote share was slightly less than that of the Conservatives. Now, there is every risk that Labour will lose the next election. That is quite true, but it also misses the point that winning, with a significantly reduced majority (the likeliest outcome in my view) would have placed Labour in a terrible position, during the next Parliament. The record of John Major’s administration suggests that winning narrowly, after previously winning well, is worse than losing.

Gordon Brown’s real mistake, clearly, was allowing election speculation to get out of hand. He might just as well have telephoned David Cameron, and told him he should get ready for an election campaign. Any decision to call an election should have been taken swiftly, with a view to catching the Conservatives off their guard.

There were several local by-elections last night. One by-election is being held today, in Chelmsford, and one is being counted today, Harrow, Cannons. In addition, a by-election was held in Moyle District Council, in Northern Ireland, on Wednesday, but, so far, I have been unable to discover the figures, although Sinn Fein held the seat on the first count. Usually, I would wait before posting, but I’m off to the office Christmas lunch.

Brighton & Hove City: Regency: Green 749, Conservative 397, Labour 376. Green hold. This was a good result for the Green Party, who usually perform badly in local by-elections. However, their support is quite firm in their areas of strength, where the population is secular, left wing, urban, professional, and university-educated.

London Borough of Chiswick, Riverside. Conservative 1207, Labour 414 , Lib Dem 250 Green 103. Conservative hold. This was a strong performance from the Conservatives, but the swing is exaggerated by the fact that each of the Liberal Democrats and Greens only fielded one candidate in 2006.

Test Valley District, Romsey Curpenham Lib Dem 793, Conservative 460, UKIP 73. Lib Dem hold. There was a reasonable swing to the Liberal Democrats, compared to May, which will encourage them in a key marginal seat.

London Borough of Southwark, Riverside: Lib Dem 1114, Labour 691, Conservative 260, Green 122, UKIP 49. A solid win for the Liberal Democrats in a safe ward.

Reigate & Banstead District, Earlswood and Whitebushes
Conservative 421, LibDem 380, Labour 152, UKIP 113, Green 54. Conservative hold, but with a strong swing to the Liberal Democrats.

Merthyr Welsh Borough, Treharris
Independent 405, LibDem 328, Labour 317 Independent 81. Independent hold, but with a good Liberal Democrat performance, after leaving the seat uncontested last time.

Surrey Heath District, Bagshot.
According to Mark Senior, the figures are Lib. Dem 720 Conservative 590. Liberal Democrat hold.

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