It’s still about the economy, stupid

On their own, opinion polls offer little more than a fleeting glimpse of a point in time, a snapshot of the immediate thinking of a sample of the electorate – they are dated before the ink is dry. Different polls have their own biases depending on the sampling methods they use and, dare I say, the association of particular media outlets or individuals associated with the polls. These differences are often slight, and looking at a number of polls within a recent timeframe does broadly afford the viewer clear trends in current voting intention.

Between election cycles, observers and hacks spend a considerable amount of time using polls to reinforce current conventional wisdom. The most interesting points in any cycle are those in which the direction changes, where one party usurps the other at the top of the voting leaderboard, and when this happens the commentariat shifts into overdrive. Just as Manchester City usurped Liverpool with days to go in the Premier League, so have the Conservatives usurped Labour in two new polls released today for the for the first time since George Osborne’s “omnishambles” budget in 2012.

Back then, the Conservatives faced the double jeopardy of sweeping opposition to austerity and shaky economic forecasts. The Conservative-led Government was almost two years into a legislative term that had yet to yield visible results, and Labour took an 8-point lead in the Guadian/ICM poll in April 2012 at 41% and the Conservatives fell to 33%, their lowest showing since before the 2010 General Election.

Labour has fluctuated in polls since the 2012 Budget between 41% and 36%, but has consistently kept a distance of several points between themselves and the Conservatives. Today’s ICM poll is interesting in two respects: first, the Conservatives have retaken the lead as the party that would – were an election held today – receive the most votes. However the second respect is, at this stage, the more salient one: the Conservatives have not so much leapfrogged Labour as wheezed ahead of them into a 2-point lead four-fifths of the way into a marathon. Labour have dropped 6 points, which brings its own worries for the party and its leader, Ed Miliband. However, just as worrying for the Conservatives should be the rise in support for UKIP, perhaps to the tune of 5% (putting them at around 15% overall). The Liberal Democrats have also moved up 1 point to 13%, but this remains consistent with their longer term stagnation at between 10-15% and will not cause any shockwaves among observers.

If the General Election one year from now replicates these polls, the likely outcome is that Labour will be the largest party (just) in a hung parliament as a result of Labour’s continuing (but diminished) geographical bias. This is not the first time that Labour has led the pack in Opposition into the final stretch of a legislative cycle before stumbling; indeed they led in most polls right up until the 1992 General Election, where the Conservatives’ victory over Neil Kinnock’s party was hailed as an unlikely one after the event. Then, as now, the voters harboured an uncertainty great enough to deny the Opposition a victory, despite their considerable concerns over the stability and capability of the incumbents. The Conservatives’ recovery in the polls mirrors the economic recovery that voters have been reading about in their newspapers and watching on television reports. This recovery is being described as ‘tentative’ with decreasing frequency and more media outlets are covering sustained (and thus, normalised) economic growth and consistently falling unemployment.

Labour has therefore made quality of living its key battleground on which it will fight for the hearts and minds of the nation’s voters – positing a ‘crisis’ to be fixed in place of the vanquished economic one in the battle of rhetoric. As Labour continues to struggle to convince voters that it is a trustworthy governor of the nation’s economy, so they have turned their attention to quality of living in a bid to convince voters that the recovery is benefitting the few and not the many, and that they are a viable alternative to further austerity measures and cuts in public spending.

If the economy continues to grow and unemployment continues to fall, the Conservatives will find it easier and easier to say ‘mission accomplished’ and secure the seats that will make them at the very least the leading party in British politics beyond 2015. Regardless of one’s view on the success or failure of this ‘mission’, an economy that continues to grow across the next 12 months will likely prove that old political adage (borrowed from across the Atlantic) about voting intentions ever true: ‘it’s about the economy, stupid’.

Grand coalition is a marriage of convenience for Austria’s ailing duopoly

Like their German neighbours, Austrians go to the polls at the end of this month to elect their national representatives. As with most well-established democracies, Austria has a major party of both the centre-right (the Austrian People’s Party – ÖVP) and centre-left (the Social democratic Party of Austria – SPÖ). Unlike many of its counterparts, however, Austrian government since 1945 has been characterised by grand coalitions formed by these two parties, who in the past have together controlled more than 90% of the seats in the Austrian parliament. The current grand coalition is led by SPÖ Chancellor, Werner Faymann – and this doesn’t look likely to change after the election.

Austria’s 2008 Federal Election results

This year, the ‘duopoly’ may not even receive the backing of 50% of Austrian voters, as the Austrian party system continues to fragment, most visibly on the right. Like its counterparts in other parts of Europe, Austria’s Greens (The Green Alternative) have a formidable parliamentary presence, winning 20 seats in the last election in 2008, and they are also polling even strongly (at around 15%) this time around in the opinion polls.

Both the SPÖ and the ÖVP look set to poll lower than they have previously, continuing the long term decline in the support for these two major parties. Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), an historic ‘third party’ in postwar Austrian politics, has splintered over the past 10 years, however they still hold 34 seats in the Austrian parliament and look set to maintain a similar number this time around. The splinter party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), and new outfit Team Stronach led by Austrian-Canadian billionaire, Frank Stronach, will have contrasting fortunes. The BZÖ, founded in 2005 by former FPÖ leader and government Minister Jorg Haider, seem set to lose the bulk of their seats to Stronach’s party – which stands on a distinctly anti-system and anti-Europe platform.

The FPÖ still suffers from the perception among sections of its formerly faithful voters that its far-right platform was watered down by the participation in government with the ÖVP at the turn of the millennium. Over the past decade therefore, for those of us who study political parties and European government, this has resulted in a fascinating fragmentation of the Austrian far-right.

So what will the Austrian government look like after the vote? It seems as though the SPÖ are set to remain the largest party, although they and the ÖVP have been embroiled heavily in corruption scandals recently – compounding their electoral decline and the weakening of the duopoly that has in many ways been maintained by the cartelization of politics in Austria. Despite the weariness of the Austrian electorate towards its government, it seems likely that the government that forms after 29 September will be another, by now not-so-aptly named grand coalition, probably lead by the SPÖ once more. An alliance of the left between the SPÖ and the Greens would still struggle to command a majority in the legislature, and that is assuming that any such alliance would have the full backing of the two parties’ were it to be a plausible majority outcome.

What may well emerge then is a tired grand coalition, which will leave Austrians questioning the way politics is done more so than when the FPÖ matched the ÖVP for seats in 1999, bringing forth an alliance of the centre- and the far-right which made leaders in neighbouring European democracies uneasy. The FPÖ might play their part once again, but with its own hand in recent scandals, and the Greens the stage really is set for more of the same. How  another marriage of convenience will affect the waning popularity of Austria’s shrinking political giants is likely to be the main focus of analysis after the election.

Merkel will be Chancellor, but in what government?

There has rarely been a more likely largest party outcome in a German Federal election than that predicted for the poll later this month. The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) led by incumbent Chancellor Angela Merkel is currently polling in the early 40s in most opinion polls of likely voters, with the Social Democrats (SPD) trailing back at 25-30% in the latest polls.

The CDU’s current coalition partners, the Free Democrats (FDP), a liberal ‘third party’ and historic kingmaker in German politics, may struggle to reach the 5% threshold or 3 Bundestag seats required to give them a share in the proportional allocation of seats in Germany’s mixed-member electoral system. Approximately half of the Bundestag’s Members are elected by the same method as we are accustomed to here in Britain, the other half are distributed proportionally to those parties clearing either threshold via national party lists.

The right-of-centre CDU and the business-friendly FDP have long been natural bedfellows and have entered into numerous governments together since the Republic was founded in 1949. However, the FDP are feeling the rough side of being the junior partner in a coalition government. Having been involved in all but 2 governments formed between 1949 and 1997, the FDP now – and especially since German Unification – have considerable competition from smaller political parties on the left – most notably the Greens, for the role of coalition kingmaker.

The Social Democrats haven’t enjoyed sweeping nationl appeal since being replaced by the CDU in 2005 as the largest party, even though the two parties governed together in a grand coalition between 2005 and 2009. At the last election in 2009, Merkel extended her party’s lead and returned it to its more natural alliance with the FDP. However, with the considerable fall in popularity of the FDP since 2009, and the rise and rise of the Greens in national as well as regional elections, there is talk of an historic CDU-Green coalition, which would command a parliamentary majority. Merkel has always responded cooly to such speculation, and a wonderful quote from one of her colleagues perhaps summed up the likelihood of such an outcome: “can you really see Angela Merkel in dreadlocks?”

I would not be astounded by a CDU-Green coalition,  for stranger things have happened in politics (and German regional politics is home to a diverse range of coalitions). However I still think that another CDU-FDP coalition (Merkel’s preferred option) will ultimately prevail, just. i say this even though there is apparently some public appetite for a grand coalition between the two largest parties for the third time in the Republic’s history.

This is Merkel’s election to lose. The safe ‘Manager’ of Europe’s largest economy is also a safe electioneer, and the SPD, under Peer Steinbruck, lacks much of a kick, or a particularly effective opposition to Merkel’s CDU. They seem a long way from the heady dream days of a left alliance – when the SPD and the Greens governed between 1997 and 2005. All that said, keep an eye on the vote in Europe’s powerhouse later this month, the outcome will shape the direction of the EU over the next four years, and depending on the mathematics, the negotiations in the government formation process could be very interesting Indeed.

Leading an Opposition, finally

(c) The Guardian

If last week’s vote in the House of Commons on the Government motion for UK intervention in Syria showed anything, it is that parliamentary democracy is alive and well and operating in the Westminster. The Prime Minister is absolutely correct in his assessment that the British public is war-weary, and that it does not want to foot the bill, or the body count, that another Middle Eastern war may bring.

When the Parliament votes against the government of the day, especially when that government commands a majority, not only does this provide an unmissable opportunity for political journalists to go into hyperdrive, it also gives provides an excellent case study into the present workings of parliamentary democracy.

Much has been made of Ed Miliband’s behaviour in the days leading up to last week’s vote, and he has been accused in some quarters of flip-flopping on the issue of offering support for the motion to join the US in a Syrian intervention – at first apparently offering his support to the Prime Minister, then cooling that support, before withdrawing it. One much-quoted Conservative source referred to Mr Miliband in the hours after the vote late in the evening of 29 August as a “copper-bottomed shit”, rather ironically mimicking the foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker from the satirical series The Thick of it.

Unfortunately for Mr Miliband, the cynical observer would find it difficult to call his performance anything short of a U-turn, which seemed to be based on the initial premise that supporting action in Syria would make him look tough on chemical weapons, tough on the causes of chemical weapons…and when it became clear that the British public, and vast swathes of his own MPs, were not supportive of military intervention – he U-turned.

The assessment that the Labour Leader making political meander across the piste is a fair one, but it is also fair to note that in the end, Mr Miliband – as the leader of the Opposition – did his job. He did so in two ways, first he listened, and was responsive to, the fears and concerns of his party and the public (albeit after making the mistake of coming out too strongly in the first place in support of a government motion that had little rhyme or reason to begin with).

(c) The Guardian

The Government was guilty of assuming, almost automatically as has been the way since the 1990s and the beginning of the era of humanitarian intervention Blair-style, that we would intervene side-by-side with ‘our closest ally’ as fait accompli. Haunted by the spectre of an illegal war in Iraq, Parliament was faced with it’s first exercise in displaying any fabled lessons learnt. Mr Miliband (who was not even an MP when the House of Commons voted to invade Iraq in 2003) was particularly determined in his position that MPs must wait to receive the report of the team of UN Weapons Inspectors in Syria before any decision on military intervention could reasonably be made.

It was in this last regard that Mr Miliband performed his task as Leader of the Opposition most robustly, demanding clear evidence linking the Assad regime to the chemical attacks which resulted in the tragic deaths of so many civilians in Syria. Not only that, but he also demanded a plan from the Government that went above and beyond strike now, work the rest out later. It was a demonstration that the House of Commons still holds the Government to account.

Of course, this leaves more questions than answers for the future not just of British intervention overseas but also for the timeline of action in Syria itself. For all the snide remarks that Britain isn’t a necessary ally in any intervention from US Secretary of State, John Kerry, President Obama has nevertheless scheduled a vote in Congress next week (although he has no obligation to do so), to display to the world that he has the support of US political representation behind him.

Ultimately however, the timing of the vote in Parliament last week was a key indicator that the Prime Minister believed that he had the votes to guide the motion through – that, on some fundamental level, we simply had to engage. As it turns out, he was incorrect. Ten years after the vote to enter the illegal war – times have changed, Prime Minister. Welcome to the game, Mr Miliband.

A Levels: Don’t let the shifting goal posts spoil your day

For many students, A-Level results day marks the first day of the rest of their lives. Andy Irwin tells students to celebrate their successes and look to the future despite uncertain times and shifting goalposts.

When I got my A-Level results on a grey day (much like today) in August 2008, I congratulated myself on having made my way through two years of education that I simply saw as an inconvenient bridge between my GCSEs and going to university. My further education experience was akin to being stuck in purgatory, an obstacle I had to overcome before doing something I had decided I wanted to do even before I finished primary school. Back in 2008, the Talking Media Heads were all wobbling their jowly disapproval and clucking irritably about another increase in the number of A level pass grades and ‘A’ gradesBack then, everyone was doing too well, and the talking heads concluded that my A Levels were just too easy, and that was that. University applications were through the roof, up-up-and-away. Too many people were going to university. Grumble grumble.

This morning, it became clear to me after I watched a group of A level students pick up their results that the same Talking Media Heads will devalue students’ achievements by bitching at pretty well whatever trends and vital statistics are crunched and spat out in the late hours of the morning on results day. Today, there’s been a second-drop-in-two-years-O-M-G in top grades, but the overall pass rate has risen again. This country is going to the dogs I tell you.

In two years time again, AS Level results will no longer count toward students’ overall A Level grades, with the ‘important’ exams taken at the end of two years of teaching. There are pros and cons to this, but the issue is often compresed into the solitary matter of how to avoid students being taught to pass exams rather than to become accomplished learners and critical thinkers. Perhaps this would be neither a perception nor a reality if teachers weren’t constantly pressed to meet unhelpful and marketised targets, but that is probably for another day.

One point, however, remains constant. If you have worked hard in further education, or even if it has simply helped you to come one step closer to whatever it is you want to do, then you should be celebrating tonight. If you’ve just had your results, celebrate for yourselves and your friends. If you’re one of those who like me is watching those embarking on their post-further education path, have a little drink on them – for posterity, you understand.

Two positive things to remember for those of us who are fretting over the futures of the next generation of further education leavers:

1) For those transitioning to higher education, the ever expanding support services and students’ unions provisions up and down the country mean that HE students are as well-looked after and catered for as they have ever been, at a time when the university experience is pervasively seen (in my opinion positively) as more than just an academic experience. It is also a life experience – with more opportunities to expand your skills and network now available than you can shake a student loan at. Even the word ‘Transitioning’ is more than the meaningless buzzword it appears to be, as institutions make unprecedented and detailed preparations to welcome students to their new homes and new lives.

2) The number of young people choosing apprenticeships and on-the-job training is increasing. About bloody time too. The worst effect of neoliberalism on many British young people’s aspirations derived first from the Conservatives’ and then New Labour’s disgraceful devaluation of the apprenticeship and vocational training in general. Tony Blair’s swaggering desire to see 50% of young people go to university during his Premiership was not ludicrous because on some level we couldn’t possibly have 50% of young people going to university, it was ludicrous because it concreted the sense that university was, on some fundamental level, the only way to go. It most certainly is not, and I am reminded of one of my oldest friends from home in Preston, who has never been to University (which has done his life prospects no harm) saying to me when I was 17: “just remember, Andy, it takes a lot of philosophers to change a light bulb, but it only takes one to call an electrician.” His point: it takes all kinds of people to make a world. The rise in the number of young people actively choosing vocational training and apprenticeships is encouraging, and hopefully it is not merely a symptom of unaffordable tuition fees or the perceived saturation of the graduate market.

There are reasons to be cheerful then, and if you are one step closer to your dreams this evening, then get out there and enjoy yourself, and just for one day, ignore all those news stories telling you that whatever you’re doing, you’re screwed – because you’re not. Raise a glass.

Andy Irwin