Friday, September 28, 2007

The sunrise and sunset times which may give Gordon Brown pause for thought

Recent council by-election results have been interesting.

Last week, Labour romped home in the home of the vital "Worcester woman" with a stonking 17.6% swing.

This week there have been vote share increases for the Tories in Dover (up 4.1%) and Portsmouth North (up 3.3%). But Labour's share also went up - by 3.2% in Portsmouth. There were 8.2% and 12.6% decreases in the Tory vote share in other Dover seats which were contested. In Cheshire they were up 2.1% in one seat but down 13.2% in another. In Corby the Tories were down 2.7%. And I am not entirely sure that a win in Sunderland is likely to put that seat top of the Tories' list. Thanks to John Hemming for his results list. Mark Pack provides an incisive analysis of recent by-elections in key seats here.

Being an old git, I go back to boring things like lighting up times and weather forecasts. These are the things which might feature low on the radar of those three upstarts, Balls, Miliband (E) and Alexander, who are advising Brown on the election timing. Being at that age when the weight of the testosterone in their bodies exceeds the weight of their brain cells, I suspect they are more on the balls of their feet wanting to knock the Tories out for another ten years.

But these things are top of the list with old fogies like me, when considering whether Brown will call an election this year (No, he won't - as I have already said - but then again, I have nothing to lose if I am proved wrong!).

Brown is worried about the SNP bounce, so let us focus on Ochil and South Perthshire constituency. The Labour MP there, Gordon Banks (no relation to the Pele killer shot-saving goalie, I presume) holds a majority of 688 over the SNP from the 2005 election. He is 1.5 percentage points ahead of them. Tight.

So let us consider the Labour activists who will be going out to canvass support in the week up to November 1st, if that is the date on which Brown calls the election.

I have been doing a bit of research on lighting up times in Alloa, which is at the heart of this constituency. I have got the data from the US Naval Observatory site here, using Longtitude/Latitude data from Multimap.

On the Friday before the election, 26th October, those activists will be canvassing in the dark from 17:49hrs. So they will find that many people will not open their doors to them in the evening. Also on that Friday, those activists will start to hear the odd whistle, bang and flash of light. The start of the Bonfire parties in the run-up to November 5th. Another reason for people to keep their doors firmly closed for fear of allowing pets and children to be further frightened by the fireworks.

As they go out canvassing on Monday October 29th, those activists will find that it is even darker in the evening. The sunset will be earlier at 16:42, due to the clocks going back on October 31st.

On the evening of Wednesday 31st October, the day before the election, those Labour activists will find that everytime they knock on a door they will either not receive a reply, or be met with a handful of sweets or, worse still, an earful of swear words ending with the preposition "off". It's Halloween. Best not to bother to try canvassing then.

On the actual election day, November 1st, the sun will not rise until 07:21 hrs, 21 minutes after polls open. Not a great incentive for people to bother to vote on their way to work. And the sun will set at 16:35, discouraging many people from voting after work.

Obviously these vote-discouraging factors may impact the SNP vote as much as the Labour vote, but will Gordon Brown want to gamble on that? And in other constituencies with similarly restricted light situations (most, if not all, of the constituencies in the UK), the Tories will be able to rely on their hefty postal vote share and their electorate with its high proportion of people with heated cars and the ability to vote during the working day.

A point about the weather. In the first week of November last year, the temperature on some days in Scotland barely got up to 4 °C. In Oxfordshire, it went down to -5.2 °C at one point. Again, not ideal conditions for getting the vote out.

Of course, Brown may go for October 25th, even though this seemed to have been fairly authoritatively ruled out earlier in the week, via Nick Robinson. That way, he will avoid Halloween, Guy Fawkes parties and clocks going back. But it will still be dark when most of the canvassing is being done in the evenings, and dark on election day from an early hour.

On October 25th in that weathervane seat of Basildon it will be dark at 17:45hrs. In Portsmouth North it will be dark at 17:53hrs and in Alloa the sunset will be at 17:51hrs. ...Not easy conditions under which to encourage those stubborn voters to venture from their comfy armchairs down to the polling booths.

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