Monday, 10 May 2010

Living in a marginal (4) - my final take on Hampstead & Kilburn

What a weird and wonderful week this has been. I still don't know what to make of the election results and nor, I think, do many far more seasoned experts. I sat up through Thursday night transfixed by what was going on but unable to make head nor tail of why the electorate had behaved the way they did.

The simplest thing to say is that it was a catastrophic night for the Liberal Democrats. The polling companies, who have supposedly perfected their "shy Tories" phenomena and other minutiae of their methodologies, got this one spectacularly wrong. Commentators who said that Twitter and the TV debates were having a massive effect on the voting may or may not have got things wrong. I think it'll take some pretty hefty studies to analyse exactly what the effects were. But ultimately, a lot of people claimed that they'd be voting Lib Dem on Thursday, and didn't. Maybe they thought they would at the time. Maybe they intended to and didn't bother. Maybe they just lied. Who knows. As for the Conservatives, the result is pretty much what they'd been heading for for weeks according to the polls, so they can hardly be too disappointed; that said, their biggest upset will come from not taking nearly as many seats from Labour as they would have liked. For Labour, this election represents relief. Dozens of seats which might have fallen didn't; and they managed to poach one or two back from the Liberals. We saw huge majorities for Lembit Opik and Peter Robinson - who both strike me as very decent people - toppled, while Julia Goldsworth lost her seat. At least Jacqui Smith is also gone, although it would have been nice to see the end of Ed Balls.

Hampstead and Kilburn was like a microcosm of the whole country. Labour hanging on grimly with Lib Dems and Tories breathing down their necks. The live twitter commentary from @whampstead was a joy, although by the time the result was announced I was on the tube in to work the next day. I've absolutely no idea what happened, so in a nutshell, a few brief points:

  • On a swing predicted by national opinion polls, Ed Fordham would likely have won comfortably - close for second between Glenda Jackson and Chris Philp
  • In terms of sheer volume of campaigning on the ground at local level, it would be neck and neck between Fordham and Philp, with Jackson miles behind
  • Glenda Jackson hardly has a reputation as a strong local MP. She could havrdly be described as having waves of local popular support
  • Putting those points together, a logical conclusion would be to assume that Fordham would take the constituency quite comfortably, with Philp in second and Jackson third
  • The bookies confirmed this, with PaddyPower giving odds of 2/5 Fordham, 5/2 Philp, 7/2 Jackson on the day of the election
 Quite simply, when I heard that Glenda Jackson had held on, I was flabbergasted. Despite occasional comments to the contrary, both Philp and Fordham fought relatively clean campaigns (anyone who thinks otherwise clearly hasn't been to many tight by-election fights). Labour simply didn't compete in the seat; I received one local communication from them in the entire campaign, there was an absence of social media activity, a dearth of advertising, and we got no "big guns" until the final week when we got Brown and Darling.

Yet somehow the Lib Dems failed to find the notional 474 votes to win that they required, and the Tories also failed to capitalise. What went wrong?

At a local level, I can only suggest that the "Lib Dems can't win here/Tories can't win here" material backfired spectacularly, and voters decided that voting Labour was the safest option. I suspect this, in particular, cost Philp, whose communications warning that it was "us or Labour" may have made voters think twice about voting Lib Dem in case the TORY got in. It's difficult to tell though.

Rather I reckon that H&K is simply an anomaly typical of what happened nationally on Thursday night: Labour managed to hold off some ferocious challenges and hang on to some seemingly impossible seats while haemorrhaging others. But I am very, very surprised that it happened here, given the effort put in by the other parties.

Good luck to both Ed and Chris in the future - both seem ambitious, personable chaps and are both young enough that they can do other things for another few years before trying again. And congratulations to Glenda who replaces Sarah Teather as my MP. I hope that the reputation which precedes her as lazy and uncaring of her constituency isn't the reality - my impressions of her at the hustings were very positive and if she can walk the wakl as well as she talks the talk, then she'll be terrific. I will make sure that I hold her to account - starting with her putting her money where her mouth is on full blown electoral reform before tackling her on localised issues.


  1. Excellent piece - I agree with all of the above.

    Worth adding as a postscript that Sarah Teather did win in Brent Central - another surprise result as most people seemed to think that would be harder for the libdems to win than H and K.

  2. It's not true that people lied to the opinion pollsters. Almost up to polling day, about 40% of voters were still "undecided". The doorstep buzz is that this appeared genuine, not people refusing to say how they intended to vote. With that many undecided, of course polls were likely to be wrong.

    It's no surprise to me that in the end many of these "undecideds" voted Labour to keep out the Tories. That fits both the national and the local picture. It's also logical - the closer the election became, people thought less about their anger against Labour and more about the reality of the wreckage a Cameron/Osborne government would do to the economy and nation.

  3. I'd also add, that a visible campaign is not necessarily an effective campaign. Labour was very active locally even if you didn't see it.

    And the Lib-Dem/Tory coalitions running both Brent and Camden councils were widely hated, and have fallen to Labour.