This morning, I had a feeling that the Telegraph’s story about Tory preparations for a Boris Johnson coup was going to be the big story of the day, hence why I dashed off a quick post about it. In my defence, how was I supposed to know that the Prime Minister would manage to forget what football team he supposedly supports?

Yes, I know it’s trivial to care about what football team a politician supports, but I think it also shows just how manufactured Cameron’s public image is that he felt the need to invent one, instead of just honestly saying that he was never that much into club football but enjoyed watching England. But that would be an honest answer and thinking outside the box, which isn’t the sort of thinking you hire a PR man for.

Even that failed to distract from the main story of this election: everyone except Nicola Sturgeon going slightly batshit about the rise of the SNP. Today we had Nick Clegg making comments about how he wouldn’t go into any deal with the SNP, which of course had various members of the party up in arms and pointing out that it wasn’t his decision. Not that the media ever actually pay attention to the ways political parties work, of course. Clegg responded by sending out an email to members that walked back his comments somewhat.

However, what concerns me in all this is that general message going out here is that the SNP are to be excluded from power (and especially UK-wide government) at all costs. There’s a concept in political science (and part of my dissertation) called the ‘structure of competition for government’. This is related to the overall party structure in a polity, but relates how parties interact in government formation. For instance, until 2010 Britain had a closed structure of competition – only two parties got to be in Government, and they alternated with each other. Other countries (Sweden, for instance)have more open structures, but the parties tend to be structured in blocs (usually of left and right) and while there’s movement between parties, there’s normally alternation between the two blocks and no crossover between them. There are also very open systems like the Netherlands, where a variety of coalitions come together in government with no real fixed pattern.

The interesting thing about Britain is that the structure of competition has blown wide open since 2010, with the old two-party structure seemingly gone. We’re in a position where a new – and possibly much more open – structure is being formed, and this election will be crucial in that process. However, while we may get an open structure, it will also be a very skewed one if one party remains locked out of power because all the potential partners for them won’t come to any agreement with them. That doesn’t have much effect when it’s a small fringe party with a handful of seats but when it’s a party with a significant number of seats it has a major effect on government formation. You can ignore them all you want, but they can still vote in Parliament.

As examples, consider what’s happened in Sweden and Germany recently. Both have relatively large parties that are excluded from being part of government formations (the Sweden Democrats on the right in Sweden, and Die Linke on the left in Germany), but taking them out of the equation makes it very hard for traditional groupings of parties to form a majority. In Sweden, neither left nor right could get a majority, and Germany had to have a CDU-SPD grand coalition because nothing else would form a workable majority.

Beyond the whole issue of telling the people of Scotland that their votes don’t count if they cast them for an unapproved party, excluding the SNP from any say in power runs the risk of leaving no workable coalitions except for a grand coalition between Labour and the Tories. I still think it would take us two inconclusive elections to get the point where one could be formed, but we’re going to get to a point where that’s the only logical solution left on the table. Well, we could go for electoral reform and an entirely new system that reflected the people’s views much better than the current one, but that would be really crazy talk.

After that long rant, and because it’s getting late we’ll combine today’s obscure party and dip into Election Leaflets with the Pirate Party. They’re standing six candidates in the election on the typical Pirate programme of internet activism and digital rights, but what I think is interesting is the look of their literature which manages to break out from the usual bright primary colours and smiling photos of the candidate style of usual election leaflets. It’s something different, and they’re raising important issues (even if I’m far from being convinced about their stance on copyright) that others aren’t, so maybe something of them – either design or policy – might be picked up by other parties in the future.

Twelve days to go. Hopefully the press won’t have completely exploded in incandescent fury at the SNP and demanded the tanks be stationed at Berwick by then.

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Don't worry David, I've never gone back on my word.

Don’t worry David, I’ve never gone back on my word.

I think we might be in the election silly season, as today we’re getting swamped by odd stories and speculation. This includes the idea that if the Tories don’t get a majority, David Cameron will step down and allow Boris Johnson to be appointed Tory leader without an election so he can try and form a minority administration.

So far, so silly, but if they do try it, they might want to take heed of the words of a Daily Telegraph columnist writing at the time of Gordon Brown replacing Tony Blair:

The British public sucked its teeth, squinted at him closely, sighed and, with extreme reluctance, decided to elect him Prime Minister for another five years. Let me repeat that. They voted for Anthony Charles Lynton Blair to serve as their leader. They were at no stage invited to vote on whether Gordon Brown should be PM.
I must have knocked on hundreds of doors during that campaign, and heard all sorts of opinions of Mr Blair, not all of them favourable. But I do not recall a single member of the public saying that he or she was yearning for Gordon Brown to take over. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t remember any Labour spokesman revealing that they planned to do a big switcheroo after only two years.
It is a sad but undeniable truth that there are huge numbers of voters (including many Tory types) who have rather liked the cut of Tony’s jib. They have tended to admire his easy manner, and his air of sincerity, and his glistering-toothed rhetoric. They may have had a sneaking feeling – in spite of Iraq – that he has not wholly disgraced Britain on the international stage; and though you or I may think they were wrong, they unquestionably existed.
In 2005, there was a large number who voted Labour on the strength of a dwindling but still significant respect for the Prime Minister. They voted for Tony, and yet they now get Gordon, and a transition about as democratically proper as the transition from Claudius to Nero. It is a scandal.

The same columnist was equally scathing about the idea of the new Prime Minister relying on other parties to support him:

in revelations that yesterday rocked Westminster, it emerged that Sir Menzies Campbell has been engaged in talks with Gordon, about a “government of all the talents”, which must be faintly mystifying to all those Labour candidates, activists and voters who have been engaged in fighting the Liberal Democrats. They thought they were campaigning for Tony Blair – and it now turns out there was a secret plan to bring in Gordon Brown and assorted Liberal Democrats, including good old Paddy Pantsdown.
Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t remember the electorate being asked their views of a Gord-Ming Lib-Lab coalition. It is fraud and double-fraud.

It was ‘a scandal’ and trying to build some form of coalition in that situation was ‘fraud and double fraud’.

I’m sure we all eagerly await the same columnist – one Boris Johnson – denouncing this proposed move in the same terms.

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A late post today because I’ve been out for most of it (in London seeing The Commitments, if you want to know) so perhaps not been given the election my full and undivided attention.

We’ll start with today’s dip into Election Leaflets which also gives us the first (and no doubt last) instance of a new feature: Candidate Nominative Determinism Of The Day. This is won by the Conservative candidate in the Highland constituency of Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, one Edward Mountain. I expect the ‘Winner Climbs Mountain’ headlines are already drafted for the post-election coverage.

Further south, long term followers of British political blogging may like to note that the original blogging Tory Boy, Peter Cuthbertson, is now the Conservative candidate for Darlington.

Elsewhere, we find that David Cameron is continuing to prepare for the debate he won’t be having with Ed Miliband, by becoming the only party leader who won’t meet with Joey Essex. It’s starting to feel like Alastair Campbell may actually be right for once when he asks if Cameron’s heart really is in it. I do worry if his equivalent of Liam Byrne’s letter is already written, only this time there really is no money – or anything else – left.

Some useful information now available on Your Next MP, including this very interesting list of the number of candidates being stood by each of the parties. There are a couple of glitches in it, but plenty of interesting parties standing across the country, and definitely some stuff there to write about. Hopefully, I’ll have the time to feature a minor party of the day in these roundups after today. The list also has details of all the parties registered with the Electoral Commission who aren’t standing candidates, containing everyone from 2015 Constitutionalists UK to Yourvoice, the latter of whom are probably still smarting from the £5000 deposit they lost after getting a little more than 0.1% of the South East vote in the European Parliament election last year.

Finally, not a good day for Tories being asked questions. George Osborne doesn’t seem to know where the money to fund his pledges is coming from, while here in Colchester an attempt to get a straight answer about a dogwhistling pledge from the Tory candidate to replace me on the Council got a rather obfuscating response. That sort of response doesn’t really work round here, and so we discovered that our local Tory candidate is fully supportive of his local friends’ rather nasty promises.

Starting tomorrow, we finally get the parties remembering that they ought to publish their manifestos sometime before people start voting, and with postal votes going out soon they can put it off no longer. I’m not expecting to find out too much new when they do come out as the big headline announcement about Labour’s is that they’re now ‘a party of fiscal responsibility’. You can see why people are more excited by Hillary Clinton’s announcement that she’s running for President than anything that’s going on in our election campaign.

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johnmajorsoapboxAnother day, another series of set-piece speeches and photo opportunities. Marina Hyde in the Guardian does a very good job of catching the sterility of this election campaign, where the general public are being kept as far away from it as possible as battlebuses flit from one business park to another, hi-vis jackets are donned and removed, things are pointed at, activists wave signs and everyone leaves with the feeling that this wasn’t why they got involved in politics, journalism or even coach driving.

The Guardian also reports that many local campaigns are dreading the prospect of a visit from a party VIP, and I know exactly why. From my experience, there are two types of VIP visit during an election campaign. The best is when someone turns up with a few other people in tow, gives a quick speech at the election HQ, poses for a few photos with whatever national and local candidates are around, then asks ‘right, where are we going to canvass?’ You get the benefit of everyone feeling happy because they’ve been praised (elections rely on volunteers giving up lots of time to do very dull clerical tasks at the HQ), but you also get a bunch of people out knocking on doors, which means you get loads of data and people get to learn from watching an experienced campaigner at work on the doorstep.

The other kind are when you have to organise a media event like the ones Marina Hyde discusses in her piece. This normally involves getting lots of people to stand around waiting for the VIP to appear while you silently lament the number of leaflets that could be delivered or doors that could be knocked on in that time, before someone delivers a speech, takes a couple of questions from journalists, shakes a few hands and then disappears off to the next photo, normally surrounded by various people whose exact role is never clear except that ‘they’re from HQ’. Suggesting to these people that they might want to use some of their time helping out with the local campaign will be meant by a look of utter dread at the idea of knocking on a door, followed by them remembering an urgent phone call they have to make.

Offer a campaign a lot of the first type of visit and they’ll be happy. Offer them one of the latter and they’ll be fine with it because of the local headlines it’ll generate. Offer them a few and they’ll really start grumbling about how much of their time is being wasted on media stunts when they could be doing something much more important. The door knocking and leaflet delivery will rarely get much coverage on the news – and when it does, it’s usually just as a bit of filler imagery – but there are lots of constituencies (and hundreds of council wards) where that will decide who wins the seat, not who happened to stop by for a few minutes.

There’s a chance that someone will respond to the claims of lack of authenticity in the campaign and ‘spontaneously’ discover a soapbox to stand on and do some campaigning in a busy town centre, but I suspect even that will find itself sterilised of all meaning and contact with regular people.

I’ve spent most of today in the University library (but it’s the University of Essex, so you can only criticise me for looking at the election from high up in a concrete tower, not an ivory one) but a discussion elsewhere does prompt me to ask a question: what is Cameronism? Or in more basic terms, why does David Cameron want to be Prime Minister for another five years? What does he want to do in that time? He’s been in Downing Street for five years, and I’m still none the wiser as to what he stands for other than a Conservative-tinged brand of managerialism (‘a long term plan’, ‘living within our means’ and the like) but no great vision for what he wants the country to be. I know conservatism is generally resistant to ideology, but this is taking it to an extreme, and I think it’s why the Tory campaign in this election seems aimless. Last time he could get by (but still not actually win) by being not-Gordon Brown, but right now I feel I could make a better shot at defining Milibandism (and Robert Peston’s comparison of him with Thatcher’s pre-1979 election position is interesting) than I could at trying to justify the existence of any kind of Cameronism.

Or maybe I’ve missed something? Outraged Tories eager to tell me the finer details of Cameronist thought can feel free to use the comments box to begin educational process.

Leaflet of the day doesn’t come from this campaign, but this fine specimen of the 1950 Liberal campaign I discovered through Twitter:


Truly, a different era of campaigning, though anyone who’s ever edited leaflets for candidates will know that some of them still think a thousand-plus words treatise explaining the finer details of their dispute with someone is just what voters are waiting to see on their doorstep.

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Except for viewers in Scotland

Except for viewers in Scotland

This was meant to be a relatively quiet period in the campaign, wasn’t it? Thanks to Nicola Sturgeon doing moderately well in the leaders’ debate on Thursday, it seems the right-wing press have gone back to their 2010 election manuals and begun monstering her the same way they did with Nick Clegg. This time around, it seems that the whole thing hasn’t yet launched #nicolasturgeonsfault into the forefront of Twitter’s global trending topics, but the advances in social media have meant that a whole story was rebutted and the reporters were on the back foot trying to defend it before the paper itself had even published.

Of course, there weren’t legions of cybernats in 2010 either, so there wasn’t anyone there to attribute the whole thing to an MI5 plot and as proof of the establishment’s desire to crush the dreams of an independent Scotland. In that spirit, I would therefore point out that the obvious beneficiaries of this are the purely Scottish newspapers, as it will likely drive down sales of the Telegraph north of the border. Yes, instigating a potentially international crisis in order to drive newspaper sales is the stuff of a more ridiculous Bond movie, but I’m pretty sure I could get at least one of the papers to believe that the SNP want rid of Trident to give them a base in which to store Alex Salmond’s stealth boat. Then again, we’ve yet to hear the sages of English High Toryism weigh in on this yet, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Simon Heffer blaming it on a Scottish-French plot, meaning England must be prepared to defend itself from a revival of the Auld Alliance.

More seriously, a lot of people are wondering who benefits from this story, and the more general attacks on Sturgeon and the SNP, but I think it shouldn’t be looked at on its own. The Tories are trying to spread a message – it’s in a lot of their leaflets, and David Cameron uses it the phrase almost as often as ‘long term economic plan’ – that the only alternative to single party rule is a ‘coalition of chaos’. Anything that gets people confused about just what one of the other parties wants or might do is, in this view, good for the Tories. It’s also why they won’t talk about any of their own potential coalition partners, because they want to distance themselves as far as possible from any coalition talk. We can expect a lot more of this over the next few weeks, and we haven’t even got to the rerun of 2010’s ‘a hung Parliament would be a disaster’ theme yet. There’ll likely be another concerted attack on the Greens at some point soon, followed by a ton of hyperbole about the vast ideological chasms that divide Liberal Democrats and how Vince Cable and Tim Farron will undermine any future coalition with the Tories. By the last week of the campaign, we’ll likely be back to the ‘vote Tory, or the country gets it‘ messaging they were using last time.

One other thought that comes from this is that we were to get a Tory majority, we’d be treated to the spectacle of David Cameron attempting to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU against a background of an increasingly unhinged and Europhobic right-wing press. Cameron himself has shown he has no problems with insulting those he would hope to negotiate with, but given that the press is now being used to leak details of private meetings with ambassadors, what could we expect to see while he’s trying to negotiate with other countries? Trying to do something as complex as renegotiating EU membership is going to be a complex process, and doing it against a cacophonous soundtrack of Johnny Foreigner bashing orchestrated by press barons who would be quite happy to see a British EU exit would add even more complexity to it. To be honest, it feels like a surefire recipe for absolute chaos and something certain to derail any long term economic plan in a short-term mess of bickering and xenophobia.

So, having thought I’d be short of material for the weekend, I can boot writing about the Why Vote books to tomorrow, but rest assured that the one I’ve already finished has given me plenty of material. If you want to read about ill-though-out policy proposals in the meantime, may I direct you to the post I wrote this morning?

And finally, two of the more amusing bits of election news of the day. First, George Galloway managed to get into a spat on Twitter with a brewery after he took offense to a fairly innocuous message from them. Unfortunately, Courage is already trademarked by another brewery, but I would hope that we can all soon get to sample their Strength and Indefatigability ales alongside it.

Alongside that, we learn of another UKIP candidate standing down close to the election. For once, this isn’t because he’s done or said anything wrong, but because he’s got a new job. Congratulations to him, and let’s all wish him well and hope there’s no version of UKIP in the country he’s going to work in who’ll accuse him of taking a job from a citizen of that country.

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Another day, another debate. It didn’t turn into the seven-way shoutathon that I feared, but there were points when there were lots of people talking over each other – usually 2 or 3 of the men – though Julie Etchingham managed to keep them away from the worst of it.

The polling results seem to be coming up with a variety of results, and I think that’s because of two factors. First, there’s a partisanship factor, as people are inclined to think ‘their’ leader won, but secondly because it’s very hard for people to consistently judge who ‘won’ the debate. A lot of the variation between the polls could well be a result of question design – the criteria people are applying will vary a lot according to how they’re asked.

I think that to get a more useful response, you’d need to combine the result of various questions, but that would take a lot more time than the snap judgments required by the media. For a simple take, I think the ‘who did worst?’ questions may give a more honest response. Invert the scores from those and who’s ‘least worst’ may be more of an indication of the national mood than ‘who won?’

For me, there were no knockout blows or career-ending gaffes – though the fact-checking on Farage’s HIV claim could have some interesting results – and I think they’ll all come away from it thinking they did what they needed.

I think Nicola Sturgeon delivered the best performance of the night, and if she was leading a party that stood outside Scotland, things would get very interesting. Farage isn’t trying to broaden UKIP’s appeal, but is trying to work up their base and make sure it gets out to vote, but I also expect a lot of potential UKIP voters wouldn’t have been watching tonight.

Clegg, Miliband and Cameron all came out pretty evenly across the night, and while I can see Cameron’s reasons for not going to the debate on the 16th (even if I still think he should be empty chaired for doing so), I don’t know why Clegg isn’t going to be there. Is it too late for him to change his mind? Miliband wins by being equal to Cameron, so he’ll be relatively happy, but someone should tell him not to stare down the camera every time he talks.

For Bennett and Wood, just being on the stage was a boost for their parties, and like Farage they were aiming for a certain section of the audience. What might be the biggest boost for the Greens is Sturgeon criticising the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour. English voters enthused by her message might well go to the Greens as the nearest alternative.

And one final thought: I’d love to see a survey that looked at how much people thought the women talked compared to the men. They might be surprised by this finding:

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Battle for Number 10: Morning after thoughts

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

To the real victor, the front page spoils.

In no particular order:

The real winners last night were Jeremy Paxman and Channel 4. Given the chance to do what he does best and forensically interview leading politicians, Paxman was at his best. Both times, it felt a shame that the interview had to come to an end when it did: Cameron’s because he was on the defensive and clearly wanted it over, Miliband’s because he’d come to life and was clearly ready for more.

Kay Burley was as terrible as you’d expect. Fawning over Cameron, then continually interjecting and interrupting when Miliband was on, she was poor as a moderator, and helped the sections with the audience feel very much like filler sections in between the two Paxman interviews.

No one won, but Miliband didn’t need to. The Tory message has been that Ed Miliband is barely capable of tying his own shoelaces while David Cameron is the strong and capable leader capable of negotiating our relationship with the EU. Neither of those look like good arguments after last night, and the danger of setting such low expectations for Miliband is that it’s very easy for him to overcome them.

‘Cameron scared of debates’ is still a story. One of the messages being repeated in a lot of the morning reporting is people asking why they couldn’t have a head to head debate, or wouldn’t it be good to see them having a head to head debate. Agreeing to some debates means people are still asking why he didn’t agree to the full set of them.

We need more in depth interviews in the campaign. The Paxman sections were the most interesting part of last night, and needed to be longer, and some of the more interesting political moments of the last few years have come in proper interviews – James O’Brien and Nigel Farage, Eddie Mair and Boris Johnson, for instance – and the campaign would benefit from a lot more of these and a lot less photo ops and press conferences. A tough, forensic interview of a senior politician, going on for half an hour or more, is a pretty rare event nowadays, and last night showed it could be much more effective than another Q&A with an audience.

Will the story of the election now be Cameron vs Miliband? Last night framed the election as two-way fight between them, and the post-debate coverage is barely mentioning the other parties. Will this framing persist and keep portraying the election as between the two big parties – and will this effect the polls? – or will the start of the campaign and next week’s seven-way debate open it all up again?

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