Thursday, December 27, 2007

Can the Conservatives win (or Labour manage to lose) Southampton Itchen & Southampton Test?

swing when your winning...

The two seats that cover the bulk of Southampton geographically have just selected their prospective Conservative parliamentary candidates.

For most of the post-war period, Southampton was considered something of a political bellwether in that the party that formed the government tended to win the parliamentary seats in the city. That changed largely as a result of the last boundary review which made both seats considerably better prospects for Labour- much of the suburb of Woolston came into the seat of Southampton Itchen from the Eastleigh constituency, St Lukes (or Bevois as it is now styled) moved out of Itchen into Southampton Test while the Test constituency lost the leafy (historically ultra-Tory) suburb of Bassett to what is now known as the Romsey & Southampton North constituency.

There are some further boundary changes in train but they should not radically effect the results in either Itchen or Test; currently Labour's Alan Whitehead in Test has a notional majority of 7018 (17%) based on the boundaries next time while John Denham has a majority of 8484 (21%). On that basis, the Tories have something of an electoral mountain to climb. Southampton Test is Tory target seat 175 and Southampton Itchen is number 198 on the basis of the pure maths alone, taking into account the new boundaries. Both Denham & Whitehead have been selected by Labour to contest the seats again and they enjoy all the campaigning benefits of being the incumbents, not least the £10k communications allowance they awarded themselves last year!).

Over the last two general elections, the Labour vote has held up remarkably well in comparison with the national position. I think this was due in large part to Labour's ability to out campaign the Tories, their then dominance in local government in the city, the failure of the local Conservative Party to pick well known local candidates to contest the seats and a strong Lib-Dem challenge squeezing the Tory vote.

Another factor is the undoubtedly significantly personal vote both Denham & Whitehead enjoy for not having just been around for a long time (Denham & Whitehead were both comparatively high profile Councillors before their election as MPs) and both were undoubtedly boosted by their position on the war (Denham having a very good resignation, Whitehead also being implacably opposed).

However all is not doom and gloom for the Tories; far from it. Partly as a result of some disastrous policy decisions (and encouragingly for the Tories they still don't seem to recognise this) Labour lost majority control of the Council some years ago. The weakening of their local government base has undoubtedly also weakened their campaigning base as a time when the Conservatives are newly resurgent.

Despite Denham enjoying something of an Indian summer as a newly appointed Secretary of State, both the Labour candidates are beginning to look decidedly well worn; Denhams performance on the politics show a couple of weeks ago was pretty dire, despite trying to appear hip over issues of the day, he actually came across as a bit naff, not to mention ill-informed. Whitehead will never hold government office again and after the burgergate scandal and his efforts to really concentrate on one policy area in the form of the enviroment at the exclusion of all others, he hardly comes across as a rounded individual, let alone a balenced one. Then there is Denham's weird (and it is weird) attempt to justify the underfunding of Southampton City Council. Councils are resource hungry beasts of course and I have yet to meet a councillor who does not believe at least some areas of his or her authority need additional resource but Labour's record in Southampton is so lamentable as a result of the skewed funding formula that you would think that he would want to keep his head down. Far from it- he has embarked on a letter writing campaign to the press on a battle he can never win for surely residents always want more money for their area even if it is at the expense of another!

There are signs that the local Conservatives have learnt from past mistakes too; this time they have picked two tough, articulate, plausible, indeed likable local candidates to contest the seats. Unlike recent challengers, Denham & Whitehead now face opponents who are well known locally and candidates who have the platform of being local councillors (as they both were) to raise their profile and show what they can do in government (albeit at a micro level).

Another piece to the puzzle is the Lib-Dems; they polled remarkably well in both Southampton seats at the last general election but there are signs that their star is waning in the City. at the last election they got properly thumped- having made some disastrous policy decisions of their own- which again for some reason they are still campaigning on! They have also lost the telegenic Mr Kennedy (it will be interesting to see how Mr Clegg performs) and the big issue of the war is in abeyance. The war is interesting in that because they were high profile opponents of it, it did not damage them electorally. However, next time round, I would imagine the issues the country vote on nationally will by and large be the issues that Southampton votes on too and that could be very dangerous for Labour in the city if they are starting from what could perhaps be an artificially high base...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A narrow victory...

Well I have to admit that Huhne did very much better that I expected in the Lib-Dem leadership contest. Clegg's eventual victory was by the narrowest of margins considering he started the contest as the run-away favorite.
Part of the reason for Clegg's disappointing result must be his lacklustre campaign as he toured the country 'stirring up apathy' to use Willie Whitelaw's phrase. However, Huhne, for once, did cut it. Long-term Huhne watchers may not be surprised that his campaign team fought a bit grubby at times (the 'Calamity Clegg' clip is compulsive viewing for political anoraks) or personal, accusing Clegg of 'flip-flopping' over policy but he articulated policy differences too (Trident, housing, education for instance). During the course of the election, Huhne defined himself as the greener, more left-leaning candidate.
So what now for the Huney-monster? He gave a generous and graceous speech conceding the leadership so presumably he will get his reward of shadowing the chancellor from the Lib-Dem benches. Of course a feiecely ambitious Huhne will be sorry that he came so near and yet so farfrom grabbing the crown. One person who certainly will be relieved is Maria Hutchings. Leaders of national political parties rarely lose there seats and Ms Hutchings as the Conservative Party candidate for Eastleigh must be eyeing Huhne's notional 502 majority.
Clegg too gave a good speech upon his election but he has a mountain to climb. Squeezed by the Tories who unashamedly have parked their tanks on his lawn, he will be compared at every PMQs to the surprisingly deft performances of his predecessor. The need to develop distinct and populist policies for the Lib-Dems especially now the Iraq war is hopefully in abeyance has never been greater. Personally, I doubt they are up to it- but then the Lib-Dems always seem to have a capacity to surprise!

Monday, December 03, 2007

The gaffer returns!

2 a week John, 2 a week

Another day, another pretty lame performance from the hapless John Denham who I see on the BBC has now taken to styling himself as the 'Secretary of State for Innovation'. On Sunday's BBC1 'The Politics Show' not only did he refuse to debate the merits and demerits of nuclear power ("there is a government review and I'm not going to speak out of turn about that") but he was factually incorrect too ("China is building two coal fired stations a year"- in fact they are building about 104 per anumn).

Most patronisingly of all on Labour funding scandals, he said he would like a consensus from all the major political parties on how money is raised and spent and that this would 'help the public understand.'

Actually what people want is for Labour functionaries and politicians to keep within the law and review the undemocratic block funding influence on labour of the unions.

People understand perfectly clearly what is going on.