Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Memo to Treasury: there are two lines on a debt graph

The above graph should make as clear as possible just why the Government's attempts to get Britain's deficit down are proving so difficult. There are two lines, not one - not only government spending, but revenue too. The second is just as important as the first. That's the key to why the Government's deficit reduction plans might not work - as some of us have been saying until we're blue in the face.

Today there's some proof. The borrowing numbers are in for the first month of the new financial year (April), and they are very bad indeed - the worst on record, in fact.

It's another indication of just how risky this rapid cuts-and-contraction package really is. If tax receipts lag with a slowing or slugging economy, the deficit won't go down as quickly as the Treasury thinks. No growth? No falls in state borrowing - and a huge amount of damage done to the credibility of official forecasting and policy.

All this while it's clear that the fiscal year 2010/11 was not as bad as even official figures told us at the time - let alone the nonsense spun by doomsters on the farcical Rally Against Debt. There is just no way that the UK was heading for any sort of sovereign debt or government borrowing crisis. Many forecasters thought that borrowing might peak at £180 back in 2008 and 2009, in the real trough of the financial collapse. In fact, the figure was £141bn - still nasty, but not as horrific as we thought we'd get. In fact, the number might now be coming down a bit faster if it were not for Chancellor Osborne's dire warnings and blood-curdling political warnings against the danger of 'total collapse' - and if we'd had a bit more growth.

So all that economic and social pain? It might just count for nothing in the end.

Site news

For various tedious and not-so-tedious reasons, this'll be the last posting for May. But this has easily been PPP's best month for traffic and visits, so I thought I'd thank you, loyal reader, for sticking with my rantings... Keep reading! And see you in June.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Oh Scotland, won't you stay?

Today is the day when some of the implications of the Scottish National Party's stunning victory in elections to the Edinburgh Parliament become manifest. Alex Salmond (above) is to lay out his party's vision for what moves towards independence might mean. And he's in London for discussions with UK ministers - during which he intends to press for further devolution and more powers for Holyrood. It's a painful and an ominous day for those of us who don't want Scotland to leave the Union.

That opposition on my part is intuitive, emotional and sentimental as much as anything. The arguments and practicalities are for another day, and we'll have them out soon enough. But start with the personal. Where would my own life and sense of place be, I wonder, without looking up at Edinburgh Castle for the first time when I was eighteen? Or wondering at Kelvingrove Museum on a warm Glasgow afternoon when I was twenty? Or peering into the mist off Ardvasar and Armadale as I crossed over to Skye in my twenties? Plenty of the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland feel the same. Adam Nicolson's moving Sea Room, about the Shiant Islands off Lewis, summons up the lyricism and the wonder that many of us feel once we get past Berwick or Carlisle:

[Then] I went to stand on the heights of Garbh Eilean, nearly six hundred feet about the Minch at its most languourous and seductive. The sky was draped with the weighless trails of evening clouds... Below them... every inch of the horizon was rimmed with distant sunlit mountains. My eye travlled them like a fell runner... In Sutherland, eighty miles away to the north-east, Foinaven and Ben Stack. Going south, Quinag about Assynt, Suilven and Stac Polly. Above Lock Broom, Coigach matches the ragged notches of Ann Teallach on its southern side. Behind Gairloch is Beinn Eighe in Torridon, south of that, Beinn Bhan behind Applecross. Each mountain in... 'the opposite continent' is the bass note to the human settlement at its feet... Compton Mackenzi said when he stood here that he felt 'swung between heaven and earth'. No place I know feels more like the centre of the universe.

Nicolson's romanticism is instructive as well as infectious. As David Mitchell has pointed out, the SNP aren't anti-English. Far from it. The two nations would probably be happy neighbours. But they certainly are anti-British. For they want that state - and my membership of and attachment to it - to come to an end. So while I'm toiling across a peat bog in Lewis, driving over a misty pass in the middle of the night on Harris, marvelling at the wildflowers growing on the beaches and machair of western Scotland, whether I'm climbing in the Cuillin and looking out on the Isle of Rum, while I'm standing on the edge of the world on northerly Unst or just pottering about on Stonehaven's dockside, I'd be in someone else's land, not my own.

What consequences would this have for recent immigrant communities who define themselves as 'British', rather than English, Scottish or Welsh? What would be the impact on the still-fragile constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland? No-one seems to know - concrete and political examples of the emotional and biographical strands of complexity that would be wrenched apart were we to divorce.

The real issue for me isn't that Scots would be worse off in the brave new world (though they might be). It's that I would feel spiritually and emotionally impoverished without the sense of the mountains and the wilderness at my back. Many millions would feel cut off from part of what they regard as their country, too.

So I'll be saying this to every Scot that I can find: oh Scotland, won't you stay?

Friday, 20 May 2011

The 'breakneck government' begins to slow down

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my biggest criticisms of the present coalition government is that it has gone about things far, far too quickly. In an apparent backhanded compliment to the man top Tories apparently refer to in private as 'The Master' - Tony Blair - Ministers have decided to race through the legislative programme of a generation in just five years.

Well, now they're beginning to run into the sands. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Everywhere you look, there are confusions, u-turns, slowdowns, backtracks. Actually, this might be a bit of a good thing. Someone at the heart of government - probably George Osborne, the Conservatives' chief political strategist - has in any case apparently decided that enough is enough.

Doctor-led commissioning and a fullblown internal market in the NHS is currently 'paused' for 'consultation', while the Liberal Democrats make a big fuss about how they 'won't wear' some of the more radical plans for enforcing open competition from the centre. David Willetts dropped the hot brick of extra places for those who could pay full fees (say £12,000-£15,000 a year) in about the time it took for No. 10 to phone him and issue some threats. Utterly, utterly irresponsible plans for cutting coastguard services (above) to the bone and concentrating them on just a few regional centres are being shredded. That's not a party political point, either, by the way, as Tory MPs with knowledge or experience of maritime communities will attest. Reforms to the House of Lords have been left extremely vague - and probably won't pass anyway.

Why the sudden flight? Well, for one thing the Government is now running into some of the usual flak any administration has to face - Ken Clarke's dreadful Wednesday after some seriously misjudged remarks about rape just one case in point. For another, it's finding that the administrative burden of so many changes is just too heavy. Most of its 'business plan' statements are being scaled down or pushed back under the pressure. Remember when I said that 'single payments' schemes from the DWP would run into technical problems? Er, right again. And so on. And on.

But most of all, you'll have spotted that all the madcap schemes about might have had serious and nastly repercussions further down the line. A serious winter beds crisis, a tanker disaster in which many lives were needlessly lost, or a queue of rich undergraduates at every college door - all of them have the potential to bring down a Minister, a Department, or even the whole govenrment. The coalition has begun to look before it leaps, which can only be a good thing.

Whether the government will start to suffer serious reverses is another thing. Its electoral position - or at least Conservatives' prospects - aren't too bad. But it's at least possible that the life cycle of new administrations is speeding up under the pressure of a 24-hour media and a more demanding public. Attlee's 1945 government didn't slow up until the exceptionally harsh winter and power crisis of 1946-47; Wilson's 1964 victory didn't go truly sour until the devaluation of the pound in 1967; John Major had a couple of years of popularity until the ERM crisis of September 1992. Disillusionment with some of the present adminstration's plans seems to have set in more quickly.

Have Ministers' vast ambitions built a barrier to their own success? That remains to be seen. Watch this space...

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Queen at Croke Park.

Never let anyone say that history doesn't matter. The Queen's tour of the south of Ireland this week - the first visit of a UK head of state for a century - is just one case in point.

A British monarch at the Garden of Rememberance, a site that commemorates those who died in the War of Independence against the British state? And at Croke Park (above), site of a British Army reprisal massacre in 1920? Nothing like it has been known in the history of the Irish state. These are not just baby steps we are talking about. Until recently most Britons, let alone the Queen, would have been unwelcome at Croke Park. It represents not only the beating heart of gaelic football, but a living symbol of Irishness and its struggle. Some Irish commentators and citizens are, inevitably, uncomfortable. Quite a few voices have been raised in objection. 'Too soon', some say; 'offensive and insensitive' add others. Some radicals and republicans doubt the efficacy and meaning of the whole visit.

But if not now, and in support of a long peace process that is now nearing its third decade, then when? A grown up and mature Irish state, examining itself now at a time of economic crisis and hardship, flanked by British and European wellwishers and friends, should now at last be able to look itself and its neighbours in the face and the eye. That confidence, rather than naysaying, would be the real triumph of 'Irishness' in this situation. It is now ninety years or so since the Republic of Ireland emerged - long, long enough to struggle with the intertwined unions and disunions of past, present and future.

One might have thought, just a few months ago, that those of us who believe in a much more sophisticated narrative of Irish, British and European interactions could afford to fall out - or fall silent. No longer. The gallant and tragic sacrifices of Roman Catholics serving in the uniform of the Police Service of Northern Ireland shows that there is still work to do - on all sides. One example is Peter Robinson's first-ever attendance at Catholic Mass at the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr (a gaelic footballer himself), a rather brave and dignified gesture in its way. And one that the citizens of the Republic can now mirror through their own lives and voices.

It is still a time to work for peace, to strive for reconciliation, and to speak up for the normalcy of neighbours. In that context we historians should act as responsibly as everyone else, and say: let the Queen visit Croke Park.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Britain's mid-terms: Conservatives advance, Liberal Democrats are hammered

...Oh, did I say 'tomorrow' when I last wrote, on Monday? What I obviously meant to say was 'Wednesday'. In the meantime I was hit by a particular spectacular outburst of 'essay-marking-itis', which was actually quite enjoyable in some ways. But anyway. I digress.

I said I'd come back to the results of last week's election and their implications for the two Coalition parties led by David Cameron and Nick Clegg (above). So here goes.

The Conservatives advance

The Tories did amazingly well last Thursday. Public sector cuts? A struggling economy? Policy imbroglios like tuition fees? Pah. In England, the Conservatives notched up more councillors and control over more local authorities - a feat not matched since 1998, in the pomp of New Labour. They even crept forwards a little in Wales, vital if they're to hold onto their seats there and push towards an overall majority come the next General Election. Chalk this up to two victories, one intellectual and the other political. The intellectual triumph of the Coalition has been to convince the public that everything bad that happens to the economy is Labour's fault - that Liam Byrne's notorious 'no money left' memo is right, and that the country is near bankruptcy. Not much could actually be further from the truth. But hey, it's how you tell them. The cunning plan on the political side has worked just as nicely. Essentially, the Conservatives have caused left-leaning Liberal Democrats and Labour tactical voters to desert the Lib Dems in their droves. That is why all - and I mean all - of the Conservatives' net council gains last Thursday can be explained by taking council seats from the Liberal Democrats, mainly in the South of England.

All of this means that David Cameron's position has been immeasurably strengthened. Holding off the Labour challenge while quietly euthanising his junior Coalition partners has meant that the Prime Minister is now lionised across the Centre and Centre-Right of British politics, and he's also increasingly feared on the Left. He might want to hold back on the sense of Flashman-style triumph, however. His party's share of the vote in England went up a great big one perecentage point on last year's vote, while Labour's rose by eight or nine points. The Conservatives went backwards in Scotland - yet again. And as Jackie Ashley has pointed out, Hubris is usually and inevitably followed by Nemesis. The day will come when Mr Cameron suffers serious reverses and needs all the friends he can get. Braying too much now will mean that his 'allies' melt away when he needs them.

The Liberal Democrats are hammered

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It's hard to know what to say really. In ascending order of awfulness, the Liberal Democrats went backwards in Wales, got slaughtered in England, and were obliterated in Scotland. There were very, very few bright spots on a terrible night. The party had in its very worst case scenarios worried away about suffering 600 losses in the English local elections. In the event, nearly 750 of their councillors lost their seats - a full third of all the outposts they were defending, not only in the North, to Labour, but also to the Conservatives across the South and South West. In Scotland, they lost seven MSPs to end up with just five - enough to form a quorum, perhaps, but not enough even to talk of a 'front bench' or 'backbenchers'. And where are the parties' electoral strengths in the Commons? Er, South West England, Northern cities and Scotland. It was just a fearful bucket of cold water to throw over a party that's got used to feel-good opposition. Organisationally, financially, and just in terms of sheer raw morale, the party cannot go through this again in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The Lib Dems would have been torn to shreds before they even reach the start line of a 2015 election campaign.

Now there are some crumbs of comfort. Where the party has a high-profile MP, and where activists are encouraged to hold the line, the Lib Dems' vote held up. In Eastleigh, Parliamentary base of outspoken Cabinet Minister Chris Huhne, the party did well. Similarly in Portsmouth, home of 'colourful' Mike Hancock, it was a good night for the Lib Dems. In Redcar, won on a huge swing from Labour in 2010, the party escaped with flesh wounds. Bristol Lib Dems might have lost control of the council, but they didn't lose many councillors - music to the ears of Bristol West MP Stephen Williams. But it's pretty thin stuff, really. Labour and left-leaning voters (who might turn to the Greens) are unlikely to turn up to save Lib Dems MPs in the next election - a poisonous situation. Fancy defending majorities of just a few thousand over the Tories in St Ives, Cornwall North or Taunton Deane? No? Me neither. And if I were Dunbartonshire East MP Jo Swinson or Edinburgh West's Mike Crockart, I'd be brushing up my CV right now. They're going to need a good resume when they're looking for a new job. Incumbency will help the Lib Dems less and less when new and larger parliamentary constituencies come into force - another cloud on a very, very dark horizon. The party just took an absolutely fearful shoeing, and they know it.

The one-sentence summary

David Cameron is getting stronger all the time, while the Liberal Democrats are fading fast: if they don't change something, they'll be able to meet in a phone box come 2015.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Holding Labour to a high bar

Well, let's see how the reality of Britain's 'mid-term' elections played out after my curtain-raising preview last Thursday afternoon.

First: Labour, led by Ed Miliband (above). How did they do in jumping the admittely high bar I set them last week? This was, if you remember: (a) win 1,000 English council seats; (b) help prevent a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament; (c) win an outright majority in the Welsh Assembly; and (d) try to help the 'yes' campaigners avoid getting completely buried in the Alternative Vote referendum.

So how did they do? Well, it was four strikes: no, no, no and no.

That's a pretty bad run.

Labour did, to be fair, make quite a lot of progress. If we run through the positive side of the equation, they gained 857 council seats (just about what I predicted); came just a whisker away from an overall majority of 31 in Wales (they now hold 30 seats); and at least, giving the conclusive thrashing the 'yes' campaigners got on AV, won't be losing any seats to the Liberal Democrats at the next election.

But even here, there are a number of great big flies in the ointment. Most of their gains were in the North of England, where they re-established their urban bases and ran the Liberal Democrats out of town. In Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle, the Lib Dems took a fearful pasting that they will struggle to recover from - if they ever can. But in the South, it was a different picture. Let's go to Swindon, Reading, Harlow and Dover - places that I've talked about before on this blog, and towns where Labour has held seats as recently as last year. What happened here? Well, a little bit of progress - gaining two seats in Swindon, three in Reading, three in Harlow, and four in Dover. But there was no real sense that Labour would win those Parliamentary seats back in a General Election: only Reading isn't under Conservative leadership today. That's a crushing blow to hopes of a majority Labour government any time soon. In Wales, similarly, almost all of Labour's progress was against the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party. Where they faced off with the Tories - in Carmarthen West & Pembrokeshire South, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Aberconwy and Clwyd West - they got just about nowhere. They need some of those seats, too, if they're to return to power on their own.

In Scotland, Labour took a phenomenal beating that will leave scars on the party's psyche for years to come. They got absolutely battered in their own back yard, in a result far, far worse than even the most optimistic SNP supporter dared dream of. I thought there was an outside chance of the nationalists being able to have their referendum with Green and Independent support at Holyrood. Never did I think things could get quite so bad for Labour north of the border. A fatal mix of complacency, poor leadership, a 'British' message about the Tories in a Scottish election and a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote stoved in Labour's electoral position. Their vote count didn't actually fall that much (by 0.5 per cent in the constituency part of the battle), but as other unionist parties retreat, the SNP advances. The whole debacle must raise questions about whether Labour can ever again rely on so many Scottish MPs at Westminster - in the event that Scotland stays in the United Kingdom at all, which must be now in doubt.

I'll have a look at the other parties tomorrow. But for now, there's a really important lesson here that's being overshadowed by the Liberal Democrats' grotesquely bad and almost pathetic performance. In their present shape, with their present image and in the present electoral landscape, Labour's chances of gaining an overall majority at the next UK General Election are not exactly zero, but they're certainly not approaching evens.

Tomorrow: the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

What can we expect from 'Super Thursday'?

It won't have escaped many people's notice - unless they're a political Rip Van Winkle - that today is one of the largest and more challenging set of UK electoral tests ever mounted outside of a General Election.

There are elections to the Scottish Parliament; the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies; most English councils; and the UK's second-ever national referendum. What will they hold, and what should we expect? I'm going to leave Northern Ireland out of the mix a bit here - except to add that the suspense there is about whether Sinn Fein will top the poll (unlikely) and thus nominate Northern Ireland's First Minister. It'd be a symbolic moment - but I'll blog about Ireland, North and South, next week I think.

So what to expect in Great Britain? As there are four elections, I thought I'd list useful numbers and targets to look for in each:

1. English locals: can Labour make 1,000 gains? The most respected experts on local authority by-elections and their relations to the national polls reckon that Labour should easily pass the 1,000 gains hurdle if their relatively strong position in national opinion polls is to be borne out on the ground. I think they might struggle. For one thing, just that lead in the polls has been melting away in recent days - an ominous sign as people actually approach the polling booth, and not the only way that the official Opposition resemble the years when they were led by Neil Kinnock. For another, Labour have had some trouble putting out candidates on the ground (being a councillor is an onerous job, after all), meaning that they can't reap the benefits of government policies everywhere they'd like. And lastly, the Lib Dems might do rather better locally than national circumstances suggest given the benefit of good candidates and incumbency. Many of their councils have bent over backwards not to make 'frontline' cuts. Tomorrow morning we'll be able to see if that was electorally worth it.

2. Scotland: can Labour prevent a pro-referendum majority at Holyrood? It looks pretty likely that there will now be a second term for the Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh, led by Alec Salmond. The SNP have been able to milk the First Minister's abilities and popularity to the full, and talk about 'speaking up for Scotland' at every opportunity - as well as pushing back their independence referendum. They've also been able to squeeze the Liberal Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Conservatives in a classic anti-Labour drive. Labour might actually do better than the last Scottish Parliament elections tonight, but still be in Opposition and in a worse position than before. Labour's tight-knit and battle-hardened organisation might muddy the waters a little, and the polls do tend to overstate the SNP, but the party seems unlikely to have a plurality of seats on Friday. Two things to watch: do the Lib Dems come fifth, behind the Greens, on the regional list voting? And more importantly historically and constitutionally, do the SNP have enough votes in Parliament to push through an independence referendum? They'll need 65. If they have say 54 seats and the Greens six, they'll be just five votes away. If the Lib Dems have those votes, and they've been absolutely battered down to six or seven seats, what's to stop them doing a deal with the SNP and the Greens on that vote? If the SNP can somehow push towards going it alone (still unlikely), it will transform the entire British electoral battleground and make a majority Labour government unlikely - ever again. It's a lot of 'ifs', but it is now at least possible.

3. Wales: can Labour win an outright majority? Labour's never taken an absolute grip on the Assembly in Cardiff Bay. The best they did was 30 out of the 60 seats in the first Welsh Assembly election in 1999. If they can reach the magic number of 31 seats - and the polls suggest this is quite possible - then they'll at least have one complete, gratifying and pristine victory on the night. Win only 29, and the storm clouds over Labour's electability will loom ever more menacingly. Five out of the seven Welsh Conservative seats are at least vulnerable to a Labour surge here. They could be critical in preventing a Conservative majority government in 2015.

4. The referendum: how crushing will the defeat for 'yes' really be? A referendum on the Alternative Vote system, under which voters rank parties and candidates by order of preference, was the bottom line for Nick Clegg (above) when he took his Liberal Democrats into a coalition government with the Conservatives. If his cause gets completely obliterated by an avalanche of 'no' votes, he'll probably look even more foolish than he will if the margin is smaller. With every percentage point of his victory, David Cameron will look stronger and stronger. It was he who decided to take the gloves off and throw the Conservatives' money and kudos behind the anti-AV campaign. It'll be a personal triumph and a political masterstroke if he wins by a landslide. He'll have to throw his Lib Dem colleagues some bones of course, lest Clegg be ousted in an internal coup, but he can live with watering down NHS reforms, putting off the election of Chief Constables and reforming the House of Lords. A 'yes' vote would have led many in his party to conclude that he was a serial loser. A massive tide of 'no' will show that he's a winner. Full stop.

So to sum up - if Labour make only say 800 English gains, if the SNP look like they can have their referendum, if Labour fail to win an outright majority in Wales, and if the 'yes' campaign get completely buried in the referendum, there's going to be a big old party in No. 10. Make no mistake about it - if all four of those tumblers fall into place, the Conservatives can pretty much govern for as long as they like. Barring a 9/11 or Iraq-style 'Black Swan'-level event, of course, and one'll come along eventually, but it might be a decade or more away.

It's more likely that Labour will make some solid, if limited, progress - and begin to put their troops and tanks back on Conservative and Lib Dem lawns. They'll make between 800 and 1,000 councils gains; they'll build a blocking majority against SNP plans in Scotland; they'll seize sole control of the Assembly in Cardiff Bay; and the 'no' vote in the referendum won't be quite so conclusive as most assume. But William Hague also rebuilt his local power base and elected representation in 1997-2001, winning Euro and council elections, and a fat lot of good it did him. It took nine more years for a Conservative return to power at Westminster. Ed Miliband's journey will probably be a long haul of exactly the same length - nine painful years - if he makes it at all.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Bristol street protests and the media

It won't surprise anyone who follows these things to hear that journalists don't always do their job very well. I have been a journalist, at an extremely above-board and by-the-book paper, so I do know something about this.

Recent dust-ups in Bristol's 'cultural quarter', Stoke's Croft - an area that's been transformed from the bottom up via a community collective, and is much the better for it - are a classic example of poor journalism. Art, music, teaching and food emporia have blossomed in the area - but there's the catch. Now developers want to move in and build flats and posh executive pads. The supermarket chain Tesco's has seized a piece of the action, and built a new shop slap bang in the middle of an area that prides itself on being full of independent, interesting, variegated shops and social enterprises. Lots of locals are very, extremely, totally hot under the collar about it. When the police entered a squatted house in the area on the evening of Thursday 21 April, all hell broke loose (above). You can watch some of the fuss for yourself here.

Even the BBC didn't exactly cover itself in glory on this one, focusing on the events rather than the background and some of the causes of the explosion. Most of the Corporation's report was a classic piece of 'churnalism' - repeating a police press release - rather than digging deeper. Veiled criticism from the local MP, Kerry McCarthy, focused on the instrumentals and the details - on overbearing police tactics. Further coverage has relied on writing up court reports. It comes to something when The Guardian's stories just repeat what the Police are saying. All this, rather than discussing the more interesting (and surely more enjoyable to write?) question of who is to make and carry out urban policy choices that make at least some sense. At the moment, what Jane Jacobs once famously termed the 'catastrophic money' wielded by developers like Tesco's will wipe out what's special about Stokes Croft - rather like the speculators who've moved into artistic quarters of East Berlin, thus obliterating the very reason why they were popular in the first place.

There was some rather more nuanced coverage in the local press, and on local TV and radio. The BBC eventually got its house in order and went out to actually ask people what had happened. But all of this still just didn't reflect the views of both sides - what you might have said was the precondition of good writing.

Want to take a very complex situation and reduce it to some pre-determined headlines that you've got written already? Maybe you should move to Fleet Street.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Canada's historic election: British conservatives mull their options

Well, coming back from the UK's two-week double Bank Holiday bender, electoral politics continues to be just as fascinating as ever. First up, in a packed week of votes, is Canada's general election - which has produced a decisive Conservative victory for the first time since the 1980s. The party's leader, Stephen Harper (above), has won the majority he's always coveted after governing for years as a minority Prime Minister. Sound familiar - if only as an ambition?

Several points occur, and will already have occurred to our Blackberry-wielding and politics-obsessed ruling classes:

1. Electorates are volatile. The proud Canadian Liberal Party, for so long the 'natural party of government', lost its status as the official Opposition, many of its 'safe' seats, and even its leader, in a historic landslide to both Left and Right of it that the party may never recover from. Academics in politics seem to be out of fashion - the Liberals' leader, Michael Ignatieff, is a prominent intellectual, historian and thinker. It didn't help him deflect many of the devastating attack ads launched against him. Gordon Brown, too, has a PhD and an intellectual, analytical bent. Didn't help him either. Voters seem to prefer rather more 'normal' and 'familiar' leaders these days - as Al Gore and John Kerry found to their cost in 2000 and 2004. In any case, some parties may still think that because they've always dominated the electoral landscape, they always will. They're wrong.

2. Third parties can break through. The left-wing New Democrats have replaced the Liberals as the official Oppposition in Canada's Parliament. They have over one hundred seats - a stunning advance, and one unparalleled in Canadian history. This is what the Liberal Democrats might have achieved in 2010, when Labour's 'near death experience' saw the prospect of being shoved into third place briefly flash across what was left of the party's collective strategic brain. Somehow - as in 1983, under challenge from the SDP/ Liberal Alliance - Labour managed to hang on to second place. From those fighting retreats much else has flowed - but need not have done. There might have been an SDP Government elected in 1983, led by Roy Jenkins, or a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition in 2010, with Nick Clegg in a much stronger position as Deputy Prime Minister, backed by 100+ MPs and more actual votes than Labour. Labour's survival was not inevitable - something the party's leaders would do well to absorb.

3. Older voters retain their hold over politicians. Young people didn't vote much in Canada's last election - and although it remains to be seen how much they did this time, all the YouTube and Facebooking in the world didn't help 'ABC'-ers ('Anyone But Conservatives') muster a convincing case for a broad 'rainbow' coalition. Quite the opposite - in fact, the prospect of a multi-coloured government in Ottowa seems to have scared off many small-'c' conservatively minded voters. The number of over-65s in the Canadian population has doubled since the war, and is set to go on rising. Fail to appeal to them - and the election starting gun was fired in a row over pensioner benefits in the federal Parliament - and you can forget about winning elections.

4. Conservative minorities can become Conservative majorities. Many people thought that Harper would stumble and bumble his way through minority government - and that Canada's 'natural' centre-left majority, expressed in the no less than four opposition parties, would see him off eventually. Not a bit of it. In fact he's ruled since 2006, with a shrewd mix of pro-business tax cutting, 'tough on crime' rhetoric and a series of populist spending pledges. It's been a tour de force for a man hardly noted for his charisma. Some British Conservatives are already rubbing their hands about what they could do in a post-Clegg general election. And although it's unwise to draw too many parallels, the split in Canada's 'progressive' vote might be replicated in the next UK general election. Should David Cameron wish to expel the Lib Dems from his government, and go for broke in a 2011 or 2012 general election, the Canadian example gives him every reason for hope that he will indeed win an overall majority.