The man who sheds daylight on poll date

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Indy Politics
For some time now, Brian Pearson has been wishing he had a bet on the date of the general election. Eighteen months ago the administrator of the Association of Electoral Administrators took a phone call from a House of Commons official who wanted to know the date of the 1997 local elections. Ever since he has been convinced that it would be on that day, 1 May.

The received wisdom was behind him, and it ran as follows: Point one: an election before 27 February would be undesirable because the new electoral register comes into force on the 16th. Returning officers need a week to get it up and running, and would object to an election on the 20th unless it were strictly necessary.

Point two: the clocks go forward on 30 March. Before that, voters would be subjected to a dark night and probably bad weather to boot. That would mean a low turn-out.

Point three: an election in the first three weeks of April would be a bad idea because the campaign would span the Easter break at the end of March. There are 17 days between the dissolution of Parliament and the election, not counting Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays, so an early- April election would mean an extra two days' preparation time for Labour. The last election that spanned Easter was in 1979.

Point four: local elections take place on 1 May, so a general election in the last week of April would simply double the agony for voters, leading again to low turn-outs.

Point five: elections have always been on Thursdays, because it has been the case for 60 years. Maundy Thursday is one of the few days apart from weekends and bank holidays on which polling is not allowed.

So, 1 May is the first sensible date on which to hold an election. Or is it? There are three good reasons why John Major may differ. First, he might be forced into an early election. The Government is certain to lose its majority in 10 days after the Barnsley East by-election, and it could have a minority of one after the Wirral South by-election, which must take place by February. Reasons two and three are based on more cynical calculations. A polling day before the clocks go forward might encourage voters to go home and put their feet up rather than dragging themselves out after work. That would help the Conservatives, whose supporters are known to be far more determined to vote than Labour's.

The final reason is that a quarter of the 44 million electors will have moved house or become 18 since the old register was drawn up, and could miss out on their votes if polling day happened before the new version came in. Again, an early election would mean a low turn-out and good news for the Tories.

No one wants a Christmas election, of course, so calm is likely to reign for a few weeks yet. But come the New Year a new slogan could be circulating in Smith Square: Vote Early, Vote Tory.

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