Monday, 10 September 2007

Gordon Brown and the election risks

The risks facing a new Prime Minister as complex, none more so on when to take the risk of an election. The following article has been submitted from a long time observer of the political process in the UK:

In the last two months there has been speculation that Gordon Brown might call an early election. What are the calculations of the risks involved that might determine his choice? The problem for all Prime Ministers is that they alone ultimately make the decision to ask the Queen for a dissolution of Parliament. The convention is that the Queen will not refuse a dissolution, if the Prime Minister has a majority in the House of Commons. This makes the burden of deciding whether or not to call an election an extremely anxious one for Prime Ministers, since a mistake can terminate their political career, not to mention those of many of their associates. Being able to decide the date of the general election (rather than having to serve a fixed term as under most other democratic constitutions) is a supreme advantage but also a supreme curse.

Some of the factors that the Prime Minister must consider are as follows:

1) The state of the opinion polls. The national polls moved strongly in Labour’s favour in July and August, opening up at one stage an eight point lead over the Conservatives. However in the last two weeks the gap has narrowed again.. Most Prime Ministers require a long period ahead in the polls before they will call an election. Margaret Thatcher even before 1983 when she had an overwhelming lead was very reluctant to call an election. James Callaghan famously refused to call an election in October 1978, when Labour had recovered in the polls to be level-pegging in the polls, and suffered a major defeat six months later. The most cautionary tale for Prime Ministers, however, is still Harold Wilson who had a ten point lead in the polls in the spring of 1970, called an early election for June, which everyone expected him to win, but he lost.

Other factors are at work too. The national opinion polls are supplemented by private polls, focus groups, and constituency polls. Unless all these are pointing in the same direction, they are likely to make a Prime Minister more risk averse. There is considerable evidence that Labour does consistently better in national polls than in actual polls, and part of this is because in many of the target seats which the Conservatives have to win to deprive Labour of its majority, local polling show that they are ahead or the contest is very even. Since there are a large number of target seats in London and the South East, this increases the risk of calling a general election on the basis of national polls.

2) A second issue is finance. A British general election campaign is short (typically just over three weeks) but very expensive, and one of the concerns of the Prime Minister is that he has enough funds to fight it, otherwise he could hand a significant advantage to his opponents. Labour’s finances are improving, but have some way to go. This is another negative factor.

3) A third issue is the rationale for calling an early election. This can add to the risk if voters and the media judge that the reason given for calling an early election is insufficient or bogus. This can then rebound on the Prime Minister and his party, as it did with Edward Heath in 1974. Gordon Brown’s reason for calling an early election looks superficially a good one, namely that he would be seeking his own mandate as Prime Minister. But the fact that he has now been two months as Prime Minister and has not announced that he needs to seek a mandate might undermine him, because voters might think the only reason he was calling an early election was because he was being opportunistic (seeking to exploit the temporary disarray of the Conservatives) rather than principled.

4) A fourth issue is opportunity. Some commentators have suggested that irrespective of any of the above, Autumn 2007 represents the best chance for Brown to win an election at any stage in the next three years (an election has to be called by June 2010). This is based on the disarray of the Conservatives in July and August, the Brown bounce in the opinion polls, which stemmed from the perception that this was a new government with new policies. Everything that happens from now on it is suggested will be less favourable. The economy might well go into recession, and house prices fall. Real wages may stagnate, credit may become tighter, and there may have to be sharp squeeze on public spending. All these would damage the standing of the Government and its popularity, since economic competence remains one of the key determinants of voting choices. In addition Brown may not be able to deliver changes to the NHS and other public services which the public see any differently from the changes of the last ten years. The danger that Brown may soon be seen as running not a new government but a continuation of the Blair Government is very real, and that too could mean that October 2007 is as good as it gets for Brown and Labour. The problem for Gordon Brown is deciding whether these risks outweigh the other risks that the poll evidence is not giving an accurate picture of Labour strength in key marginals. If he could be sure that Labour would be defeated if it went to the polls now, he would of course not risk it. He does not want to be the shortest serving Prime Minister since George Canning. But he cannot be sure. It is a balance of risks, and if as most people expect he does not call an election this autumn, he might come to regret it. But most Prime Ministers usually calculate that it is better to be in office than out of it.

No comments: