Book review: Total Politics Guide to the 2010 General Election

by Stephen Tall on December 8, 2009

One of the first publications from Iain Dale’s new Biteback publishing imprint dedicated to political books, The Total Politics Guide to the 2010 General Election (Eds, Greg Callus and Iain Dale) weighs in at just under 300 pages divided into two (unequal) sections: the first is a series of 14 articles examining different aspects of the coming election; the second non-half comprises over 200 pages of regional and constuency profiles. As you might guess, this is a for-geeks-only book. But, then, if you’re reading this review that label probably applies.

total politics gen elect guide 2010So, assuming you are a political geek, what treats await you?

It’s the first part you’re most likely to read in a single sitting (truly, if you find yourself reading the psephelogical section page-by-page you need help).

Peter Riddell – the political commentator’s political commentator – provides a brief but comprehensive overview highlighting the many ways in which the 2010 general election will mark a watershed, regardless of the victor: new constituency boundaries, increasingly regionalised swings now the two-party stranglehold has died a death, the high turnover (up to 40% of MPs in the new Commons might be newbies), and the increasing importance of new media in covering the election.

After that strong start, the rest of the book’s articles are more patchy. Particularly weak is Sky News’s Jon Craig’s 3-page chapter on how the media will cover the general election – trying to cram too much into too little space (television, newspapers, print), his is a very pedestrian, write-by-numbers article which under-estimates the audience for a book of this nature.

Greg Callus’s 4-page chapter dissecting the party’s likely manifestos suffers the opposite problem. It is densely written, capturing a lot of policy detail, but suffers from it. For a start, it’s an outsider’s account – which can have its strengths, but the policy emphases he accords to the Lib Dems are not ones I immediately recognised as a party member, with both the ‘green tax switch’ and lower taxes for the poor paid for by higher wealth taxes not meriting a mention. This was a chapter crying out for sub-headings, or (perhaps better) to have been presented in a table format for an easy-to-glance-at comparison between the parties.

The best, meatiest section without doubt is the 14 pages on the party campaigns, in which three party insiders present personal accounts of what will be happening behind closed doors in their respective parties’ campaigns. James McGrath (a political stategist who’s worked for the Tories) gives a valuable insight into the blues’ key players, and also sets out what he believes will be the party’s winning strategy.

Likewise LDV’s co-editor Mark Pack puts to good use his intimate knowledge of the people and internal politics which will determine the shape of the party’s coming campaign, the first in the Lib Dems’ post-merger history in which Chris Rennard will be absent. (Mark published his article here on Lib Dem Voice recently). Paul Richards’ article on Labour is less revealing, but he still makes a better fist of encapsulating a Labour strategy than Team Brown has done in over two years of trying.

Reading this section makes you realise how much better this book would have been if the editors had packed it with more ‘insiders’ opinions’. As it is, most of the articles are written from the outside looking in: interesting enough, but not worth the £20 entry price on their own. Even if current party employees and MPs feel too constrained to pen their honest views on elections past, present and future, there are enough people who are on the Westminster Village inside-track to have provided tighter, fresher, more original assessments of how the next election will look and feel.

If the comment section is a little thin, the constituency and regional profiles are more in-depth, providing tailored paragraphs on the 200 UK constuency ‘battlegrounds’, written by ComRes’s Daniel Hamilton, and headline data on all 650 Commons seats.

I can understand why the decision was taken not to profile all constituencies, but it can be a frustrating experience. For example, one of the Lib Dems’ most marginal south-west seats – the fabulous David Heath’s Somerton and Frome (notional majority: 595) – has nothing written about it; yet Bath, a relatively safe seat by Lib Dem standards, does. Likewise, two Tory-held marginals Lib Dems will be watching keenly with interest – Eastbourne and Guildford – are also lacking a profile. I could go on.

To be fair, co-editor Greg Callus notes the lack of comprehensiveness, and recommends readers who want more completeness to check out the indispensable – but more than double-the-price – Almanac of British Politics (Eds, Robert Waller and Byron Criddle). However, I still find the omissions surprising in a book whose target audience is political anoraks. At least the Politico’s Guide to the 2005 General Election (Eds, Simon Henig and Lewis Baston) provided clear logic for their choice of profiles, dividing all constituencies into one of three categories: targets, longshots and safe seats, and profiling in detail only the first of those.

After all, one of the most fun parts of these books is looking at past editions, and relishing with schadenfreude how what seemed to be self-evident fact at the point of publication has been overtaken by events. For instance, the Waller/Criddle’s 2002 Almanac said of Oxford East that “it has to all intents and purposes now become a safe Labour seat”; at the following election it became the second most marginal Labour seat in the country.

You can buy the Total Politics Guide to the 2010 General Election here (affiliate link).

You can buy the eighth edition of The Almanac of British Politics (2007) here (affiliate link).