Let the force be with you

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There has been a lot in the British papers on the new Conservative Party leader David Cameron. Onetime Conservative M.P. Matthew Parris has an interesting piece in the Sunday Times; the theme is that "the Force" is with him. Margaret Thatcher, was with Tony Blair, now is with David Cameron. In U.S. politics, it was with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and with Bill Clinton in 1992, and it is now—with whom? Unclear.

Parris seems to be right. An ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph now shows the Conservatives leading Labor, with Cameron and Gordon Brown the party leaders, by a 40-to-37 percent margin. This is the first time since August 1992 that the Conservatives have gotten as much as 40 percent in a poll. A similar result comes from the Times's YouGov poll. But you should note that YouGov's methodology—as I recall, it surveys a set sample of voters by Internet—is controversial among polling experts.

Note: Under the current districting, a 40-to-37 percent lead would not be enough to give the Conservatives a majority in the House of Commons. Using the formula from this Electoral Calculus Web site, Labor would have 333 seats, Conservatives 272, and Liberal Democrats 11.

It must certainly strike readers as anomalous that a Conservative popular vote advantage would produce a Labor Party majority (a bare majority, since there are some 650 seats, with none of the British parties competing for Northern Ireland seats), but that's the way the current redistricting works, for several reasons: (1) Heavily Labor seats in industrial areas are losing population and cast few votes; (2) the current seats are based on the census taken in 1991, since when Conservative areas have gained population and most Labor areas have lost; (3) Labor did a much better job of gaming the purportedly nonpartisan redistricting process last time. On current district lines Conservatives would need something like a 7 percentage point advantage in the popular vote to win a majority of seats.

The result of a 40-to-37 breakdown would represent a 74-seat gain for Conservatives, only a 23-seat loss for Labor, and a disastrous 51-seat loss for the Lib Dems. Lib Dems would be relegated to the Celtic fringe, with the single exception of Simon Hughes's Southwark seat; they would lose everything in the southwest belt from the southwest London suburbs to Cornwall, where they did well in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Conservatives would represent most seats in southern England outside London, where they would have a respectable minority of seats. This is the part of Britain—south of Cambridge, east of Oxford—where housing values are highest, and where New Labor did very well in 1997 and 2001. Conservatives would have five seats in Wales (compared with two now) and four in Scotland (compared with one now). If you like micropolitics (as I do), here is William Rees-Mogg in the Times speculating on the Cameron Tories' increasing appeal in Somerset, in the southwest of England, where they seem to threaten not Labor but the Liberal Democrats.

My understanding is that there will be a new districting plan, based on the 2001 census, in place for 2009, when the next general election takes place; it could be delayed until as late as 2010 or could be called earlier by the Labor government. Governments are reluctant to go more than four years between elections, since holding off till the fifth year is taken as a sign of weakness—and because the opposition front bench is entitled to be briefed by civil servants during the fifth year of a government. Why Britain takes so long to redistrict its seats—it could have redistricted them on the basis of the 2001 census by 2005, if not 2001—is unclear to me. But I am told that Labor gamed the system very ably the last time out and that the Conservatives are prepared to do a better job of it this time.

I close with an interesting column by Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer, the Sunday edition of the left-wing Guardian. Rawnsley points to the tension between Tony Blair's and Gordon Brown's approaches to Cameron. I wrote back in 2002 on the agreement by Blair and Brown, reputedly reached at an Islington restaurant called Granita, that Blair would be party leader and Brown shadow chancellor.