UK Politics

Election countdown: 95 weeks to go

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Media captionWas election fever in the air at a particularly stormy prime minister's questions?

There are now just 95 weeks to go until the scheduled date of the next UK general election. Here's the state of the race.

The week at a glance

If there was any doubt that the election campaign was well under way (bizarre as that may seem two years out from the election), then the past few days have well and truly ended it. The fallout from Labour's row with Unite rumbled on. Ed Miliband announced changes designed "to mend not end" relations between Labour and the unions, but David Cameron had fun at his weekly question time saying the unions still run Labour "lock, stock and block vote". Miliband sought to fight back by targeting donations Cameron's Conservatives have got from hedge fund bosses. It all led to what Speaker John Bercow called quite possibly the noisiest Prime Minister's Questions he had seen. Then, on Thursday, Chancellor George Osborne ruled out tax rises to cut the deficit if they win the election - seen as attempt to put Labour and the Lib Dems on the back foot.

The state of the polls

(Recap for new readers: David Cameron's Conservatives went into coalition with Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats after the 2010 general election. Ed Miliband replaced Gordon Brown as Labour leader. The coalition's main priority has been cutting the UK's deficit. but Labour says it is going "too far too fast". Meanwhile a new electoral force has emerged in the shape of the UK Independence Party...)

Candidate news

With the national focus still on Labour's links with its biggest backer, it was perhaps inevitable that Unite-supported candidates already selected to stand in 2015 would come under the spotlight.

Some, including Darren Jones in Bristol North West, and Luke Pollard, in Plymouth Sutton, have been forced to issue statements to their local newspapers reassuring voters that their selection was "fair and transparent". They must be hoping it is not a sign of things to come when the campaign proper gets under way.

Unite failed to get its candidates on to the ballot in 13 constituencies, including Weaver Vale, in the North West of England, where former ICI worker and Northwich councillor Julia Tickridge has this week been selected by Labour.

Ms Tickridge, who is, among other things, a qualified International Wine Challenge judge, according to the Labour Uncut blog, was selected from an all-woman shortlist. The seat is currently held by Tory Graham Evans with a majority of just 991.

Elsewhere, former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly, who successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination, lost out to 22-year-old local councillor Vicky Fowler in the battle to be Labour's candidate in Nuneaton, reports the local newspaper.

Someone still employed by the BBC, London TV reporter Warren Nettleford, also missed out on the chance to be a Labour candidate this week. Unison trade union official, and deputy leader of Dudley Council, Pete Lowe, has been selected to fight Stourbridge, a seat currently held by Conservative Margot James.

Liverpool city councillor Louise Baldock, a former member of Labour's ruling National Executive Committee, has been selected to fight the key battleground of Stockton South, reports The Northern Echo.

Council by-elections

A bit of good news for the Lib Dems this week, as they took two local council seats from the Conservatives.

Steve Riley gained the Aylsham ward of Broadland District Council on a 16% swing from the Tories, and Jeanette Halliday won the Abingdon Fitzharris ward of Vale of White Horse District Council, on a 7.6% swing.

Elsewhere, Labour's Amelia Rout saw off a challenge from UKIP to hold on to the Silverdale and Parksite seat on Newcastle-Under-Lyme Borough Council.

Labour also snatched a seat from the Tories on Dartford Borough Council.

And the party held on to a seat on North Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council, with more than 84% of the vote, in a two-horse race with the Conservatives caused by Norma Redfearn's election as North Tyneside's mayor.

What the pundits say

Who says the Westminster commentariat have no influence?

Ed Miliband's declaration on Tuesday that he wanted to "seize the moment" over the Falkirk selection row could have been scripted by the Observer's political editor Andrew Rawnsley, who, in his Sunday column, had this advice for the Labour leader: "In this crisis, he has a great opportunity - but only if he seizes it and with urgency."

Ann Treneman, the Times's sketch writer,, was impressed by Mr Miliband's speech, dubbing him "New Ed", a man who looked like he actually wanted to win the next election.

Others were less convinced. Ben Brogan, in The Telegraph, said: "Mr Miliband is in a political hole. His speech may gain him some reprieve, but he is not in control of events, and is not strong enough to be sure that his party, let alone its union members, will line up behind him."

Rafael Behr in the New Statesman thought it was a "shrewd" speech: "The sceptics, not all of them Blairites, note that Miliband has a habit of making speeches full of brave intent, then failing to follow them up. A continual source of frustration has been that the Labour leader seems neither angry nor effective enough. Maybe that is about to change."

The Labour leader - whose PMQ mauling last week at the hands of David Cameron is thought by some to have been a catalyst for his union speech - fared much better in the Commons bear pit this week.

"Yesterday's speech combined with today's performance at PMQs has put Miliband in a far better position. This crisis no longer looks like being one that could engulf his leadership," wrote James Forsyth in The Spectator.

Daniel Finkelstein, in The Times, was among those who saw Labour's selection woes as a sign of a party system in its death throes, urging open primaries for all candidate selections and direct elections for the prime minister, along American lines.

There were few voices this week standing up for Labour's union links, but Seamus Milne, in The Guardian said the real problem was that the unions are not influential enough.

Lessons from history: August 1985

This far out from the 1987 general election, and the biggest battle of Margret Thatcher's second term, her defeat of Arthur Scargill's miners strike, was slowly playing out. Although there were front page reports of the collapse of several prosecutions of miners following violence at the Orgreave coking plant, on page two of The Times was a report saying "disenchanted" Lancashire miners had lost faith in Scargill's National Union of Mineworkers, and were considering breaking away and joining a more moderate union.

The defeat of the strike, which Scargill had claimed would "roll back the tides of Thatcherism", was seen by many Conservatives as a high point in Baroness Thatcher's premiership. It was a similar strike which had effectively destroyed the previous Conservative government of Ted Heath.

The Labour opposition, which under Neil Kinnock had begun the modernisation process that culminated in New Labour's victory a decade later, struggled to make strides back towards government at the 1987 general election. Despite running a campaign which was widely praised as professional, it won only 229 seats and 30% of the vote, compared with the Conservatives' 375 seats and 42% of the vote.

Compiled by Alex Hunt, Brian Wheeler and Chris Davies.

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