Friday 19 December 2014

The General Election Officially Starts Today

Today what is known as the ‘long campaign’ for the General Election begins. This means that political parties, candidates and their election agents are required to record campaign expenditure and keep within spending limits. The long campaign ends 25 days before polling day and the ‘short campaign’ begins, with different, lower spending limits.

It has not always been this way, but since the present coalition government introduced fixed term Parliaments of 5 years, we now know when general elections will be held for sure, well almost. Under the old system there was a 5 year limit on Parliaments but the Prime Minister could call a general election at any time of their choosing. If Parliament went a full term, then we would have a long and short campaign but of course with the date being possibly variable, only the short campaigns were definitely regulated.

Even now a Parliament might not last 5 years if the government loses a vote of confidence amongst MPs then a general election follows. One minor effect of all this is that candidates no longer have to call themselves ‘Prospective Parliamentary Candidates’ (PPC), to avoid incurring campaign expenditure, they can now be called ‘Parliamentary Candidate’, from anytime they become such.

In practice the campaign will begin in January after the holiday, and we will have 5 months of it, pretty solid in the media I expect. This forthcoming general election is incredibly difficult to predict, so for psephological anoraks like me, this is going to be fascinating, for the rest of the general public, not so fascinating I dare say, but it is an extremely important election for all kinds of reasons.

The opinion polls are all over the place at the moment, I have seen one poll putting Labour in a 5 point lead and another putting the Tories in a 4 point lead, just this week alone. One thing is clear though, the old two (and a half) party system has broken down and UKIP, SNP, PC and the Greens are all polling well at the expense of mainly the Lib Dems but Labour and Tory too. I think there is a very good chance that neither the Tories nor Labour will win 300 seats, let alone the 326 needed for an overall majority (perhaps less given that Sinn Fein MPs have not in the past taken up their Westminster seats).

One of the main arguments put forward in favour of our First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system is that it produces a clear winner and so stable government. But the last general election did not provide a clear winner and next year’s looks to be even more unlikely to produce a decisive result. If there is one positive to come out of the election, it must be a commitment to change the FPTP system in favour of a system that reflects the more diverse nature of electoral politics in the UK now. We shall see.

What about the Greens, how will we fare? Well, FPTP makes it very difficult for new parties to win representation but I’ve become increasing confident of us retaining Caroline Lucas’s seat in Brighton Pavilion. Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft gave her a 10 point lead in his most recent poll of the constituency.       

I think we may spring a surprise or two, particularly in the south west of England, and so I am hopeful we will win a handful seats, but maybe more importantly gain a goodly number of strong second place finishes, on which we can build for the 2020 general election, and who knows we may get a more favourable electoral system then too.

But it is not just about winning, it is what you do when you win that counts, (a win being the SNP, PC and Greens and any other progressives holding the balance of power) and my main hope for this election is that it is watershed election when everything changes, like 1979 (for the worse), and that is what is sorely needed. The result may be the beginning of the 35 years of neoliberalism being finally consigned to the dustbin of history. Let’s hope.

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