Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Return of the King II: Return Harder

Yes, yes, I was going to wait until the full driver line up was announced, but I doubt there’ll be much big news as we already have Schumacher for Mercedes, Button for McLaren and Senna for Campos.

In this article I’m going to examine the drivers who can hope for a tilt at the title. The next one (due sometime before February when testing starts) will cover rule changes, notably no more refuelling and an altered points system.

What’s interesting about 2010 is that there is a large range of genuine contenders, from a number of different teams. From McLaren Button will hope to retain and Hamilton to take the prize, Schumacher from Mercedes is a strong prospect, both Alonso and Massa could do it, and Vettel from Red Bull is a great driver.

In F1, the car does matter more than the driver. But the driver can, and does, make the critical difference when cars are identical or evenly matched. It pays not to neglect either one. Red Bull suffered some reliability issues with Vettel (his engine kept exploding) and I warned against backing a seemingly strongly placed Kovalainen because although his car was in a great position he never fails to underwhelm in a race. [All prices in the bit below are on Betfair at the time of writing].

First up, McLaren. Hamilton is favourite at 4.2 and Button is 5th favourite at 11. Hamilton is a better driver, I believe, by some distance, plus he’s been at McLaren since he was a toddler and he’s already had two great seasons and even the last, which began poorly, ended well. Button is a good driver, but his six Brawn victories were delivered by a car that was both ideally suited to his silky smooth driving style (a stark contrast with Hamilton’s) and streets ahead of everything else, slightly excepting the Red Bull. We’ll have to wait and see how testing goes, but if Hamilton doesn’t win it, I can’t see his team mate doing so.

Secondly, Ferrari. Alonso is second favourite at 5, and Massa is 6th favourite at 15.5. To me, those odds are wrong. Massa may be slightly inferior to Alonso (I’m not so sure, actually) but he is not more than three times less likely to win, unless last season’s crash did lasting damage. Alonso is very reliable and very quick, but he’s also an arsehead so Massa may not play as rear-gunner or a willing number two if asked to. These two are probably the most evenly matched driving pair of the top teams.

Thirdly, Mercedes, née Brawn. I bet Nico Rosberg is pissed off. I had him down as a reasonable contender, with true race pace unknown but a pretty good chance if Mercedes start as brilliantly as Brawn did (apparently Brawn/Mercedes did sod all development during 2009 meaning they’ve done tons for 2010, boding well for the German outfit). However, some say his team mate is the best racing driver of all time, and that as you get closer to him in the race for the title the odds on being coincidentally rammed off the track increase. Schumacher didn’t return last season due to his neck injury, so he must be pretty sure it’s healed. He’ll not only be a great driver (probably), but he’ll aid development of the car a lot and obviously has great personal chemistry with Ross Brawn, engineering genius and team leader. Schumacher is 6.4 and Rosberg is 17.5. I think Schumacher should be second or joint favourite, ahead of Alonso. I suspect the Mercedes may be the best car in testing, but that’s just a hunch.

Fourthly, Red Bull. Vettel’s 7.8, Webber’s 26. I think Vettel’s a shade long perhaps but Webber (who I consider middle of the pack, similar to Coulthard but more obnoxious) is about right. Vettel had the best qualifying record last season, which could prove handy this time as with no refuelling qualifying will grow in importance. However, he was as reliable as a Frenchman in a war, making some critical schoolboy errors or suffering mechanical failure or just bad luck (at Interlagos during qualifying, namely). The Red Bull is powered by Renault, entirely because the team has full confidence in the engines of Renault, and not in any way because they left it too late to get a Mercedes engine. I think Vettel’s a top driver, second only to Schumacher, but his reliability issues (both personal and mechanical) need sorting.

In order, the top drivers in my eyes are:

I can offer this early pre-season tip: wait until testing before putting money on anybody. Having an idea of driving talent is useful but the car does matter more. The people I’ll be keeping an eye on most of all are Vettel and Massa. They both stand decent shots (assuming their teams have sorted their cars nicely) but are longish, Massa especially.

Before 1 February (when testing commences) I’ll write a probably much briefer article about rule changes, and then the remaining pre-season articles (I intend to do at least one about who to back for the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles) will focus upon testing results.

Anyway, the first race is on 14 March in Bahrain, the first of 19 races. Hopefully I’ll have the same luck I had for most of last season when it comes to race predictions.

Morris Dancer

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Best constituency prices (December edition)

I've updated my tables of best constituency betting prices. The technology proved as tough as gathering the detail (my thanks to Rod Crosby and wibbler for directing me to google docs to help sort this out). Google docs moaned at the size of the tables, so I have split into two, A-M here:

and N-Z here:

There are bound to be some mistakes in here - please don't shoot the piano player.

I have marked each market that is new since the last time I looked at this in October and each market where the prices have changed since then (some of these changes are minor, some reflect the bookies converging on a single view. Some are more significant).

Some unconnected observations:

1) It's a shame that Victor Chandler appear to have withdrawn from this market.

2) I was surprised at how many markets have moved. Even allowing for the changes that were inevitable after Victor Chandler withdrew, a lot has happened in two months on these markets.

3) William Hill arrange their constituency markets in a manner most calculated to ensure that the casual punter can't find all of them.

4) Most of the bookies (with the honourable exception of Ladbrokes) could do with being introduced to the concept of alphabetical order.

5) Significant price movements are very much constituency-dependent, but as an extremely general trend, the Lib Dem prices have been shortening. Make of that what you will.


Saturday, 5 December 2009

No more tiers for Labour?

With Norwich at the centre of yet another political storm with the Climategate saga, it’s been a bit frustrating for Bunnco as Your Man on the Spot in Norfolk with the UEA in lock-down mode. Despite a bit of digging, there’s no juicy intel to report on the Climate story that hasn’t already been covered in WattsUpWithThat. But like the proverbial bus you can wait forever and suddenly two stories come along at once so in this article I’m going to write about something that we’d all thought had gone away – Local Government Reorganisation [LGR] in Norfolk, Suffolk & Devon and whether it tells us that Labour really has given up on winning in 2010.

Just when it looked like Labour had nothing to lose and was destined for cataclysmic defeat, the media narrative has changed and they might have something to play for after all. So you’d have thought that Labour strategists would be straining every sinew to protect as many English seats as possible from the Tory onslaught if they’re to be in with a chance.

But what’s this? Plans for local government reorganisation [LGR] in Devon, Suffolk & Norfolk have been reignited by Communities Secretary John Denham following a Court of Appeal ruling this week, which undid an earlier block to the process from the High Court dating back to July.

Normally this sort of thing would only be of interest to local political anoraks and readers of the Municipal Journal but over on the main site, Mike included the following paragraph in his post this evening,

“Among the other cabinet members who might be at risk I’ve noticed that Ben Bradshaw’s Exeter seat is more marginal with Thrasher and Rallings than with Anthony Wells. “

That’s right, Exeter is in Devon. So you’d have thought that it would be careless to say the least for Denham to knowingly jeopardise the risk of re-election for fellow top-table colleague, Ben Brashaw by pressing-on with yet another expensive and unnecessary public sector reorganisation in Devon if he could avoid it.

And that’s no mere assertion. There’s evidence for this. Cast your mind back to July and the Norwich North By Election, where Chloe Smith took the seat when Labour’s Ian Gibson stepped down over the expenses crisis.

But new baby-of-the-house Chloe Smith didn’t just win the seat from Labour by a whisker. The margin was 39.44% to Labour’s 18.12%. What local factors caused such a wide margin and a disproportionate swing from a previous Labour stronghold?

As Bunnco reported at the time, whilst the expenses backdrop and anti-politician narrative was strong, the leaflet that really drove the Tory vote in the final week was one that highlighted the council reorganisation issue. With a failing Labour Norwich City Council on the rack over a series of housing scandals, voters were galvanised to Vote Tory to save Broadland Council in the leafy suburbs, where MORI polling had shown a remarkable 94% satisfaction rating and district-council tax about half that paid in the Norwich City area. The Tories made it clear they’d cancel any Council reorganisation and reaped the votes accordingly, squeezing the LibDems in the process.

So, as a local voting factor, getting rid of local Councils in favour of so called Unitary versions is not exactly what you’d call a vote winner. In Norfolk, MORI polling confirmed a previous YouGov survey – LGR was rejected by voters by a margin of two-to-one. In Cornwall, the Tories romped home by a landslide in the June Elections. The former Labour strongholds in Northumberland are now led by a LibDem and the Tories have a stranglehold on other recently created Unitaries in Cheshire and Bedfordshire. In Devon itself, the Tories romped home last June as well. Unitary is electorally toxic for Labour.

In his post this evening, Mike’s identified Ben Bradshaw’s Devon seat as increasingly vulnerable and over in Norfolk, Norwich South is held by Charles Clarke, Great Yarmouth by Tony Wright, Lowestoft by Bob Blizzard and Ipswich by Chris Mowle. That’s five English Labour Seats that Labour really needs to hold if it’s to be in the running come Election Day.

Given the proximity of the election and the crowded Parliamentary timetable, Denham would have been forgiven for kicking the botched process into the long grass. After all, the hapless Boundary Committee had mishandled the sifting of the various options so badly that it had got nowhere after nearly three years of trying. He could have blamed it on the incompetent Boundary Committee, which he is abolishing in March anyway.

So why pick an unnecessary fight on five colleagues now with three months to go? It just doesn’t make political sense.

The LGR process was the brainchild of Hazel Blears during her time as Chairman of the Labour Party and later as Communities Secretary herself. Forget talk of council reorganisation leading to increased efficiencies and better accountability in local government, the motivation of the diminutive chipmunk-like Blears was quite simply to reduce the number of Tory councillors in the shires. Let’s do the maths. On my home-patch there are 420 Councillors in Norfolk of which about 300 are Tory. If the district and county councils were replaced with a single monster council with about 80 councillors, then the Tories might be deprived of 250 activists and organisers for the General Election.

So you can see the crude political logic for Labour but the figures on which the proposals are based are now three years old and the local government financial landscape has changed dramatically since the heady days in early 2007 when it seemed such a wizard wheeze. The savings from recent unitary conversions in Northumberland, Cheshire and Cornwall have failed to materialise and creating a new class of professional ‘Unitary’ Politician on bumper salaries isn’t exactly in tune with the public mood either.

Caroline Spelman and Bob Neill [Shadow Local Government minister] reassured their own activists this week that an incoming Tory Government would reverse the move if Labour managed to get the secondary legislation required through Parliament when the near-two-month delay for consultation that starts on Tuesday has elapsed.

There are very few Parliamentary sitting days between now and Easter and with plans to reform the House of Lords as well as a number of other scorched-earth policies to enact, it’s a surprise that business-managers have let the LGR issue to slip through the net to compete with more mainstream issues, especially with rumours of a March 25th election reaching fever pitch.

So the lesson from this little story is that either Labour is masochistic and willing to damage the re-election chances of 5 MPs south of the border, including 3 big-hitters, or they really have written-off the election and are pursuing a scorched-earth policy in three counties where, otherwise they have nothing to lose. Perhaps, for all the bluster, they are resigned to defeat after all.

Bunnco - Your Man On The Spot

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Welsh Marginals - part 3

We now come to southern Wales, but first a quick catch-up on the news, with Carwyn Jones being elected leader of the Welsh Labour Party. The new broom is already at work, it seems, today sacking the Finance Minister by press release. It's hard to say what impact the change of leadership will have on Labour's general election prospects; negligible either way I'd guess.

This is a region where there are a number of safe seats not really worth discussing in depth. Cardiff Central is a nailed-on cert for the Lib Dems and, for reasons best known to themselves, the people of Monmouth will continue to elect David Davies. Also, despite Labour's current predicament, there are seats they will not lose in an election where turnout will be reasonable, they can motivate their core vote with the prospect of an impending Tory government, and opposition parties' resources will be focused elsewhere. While Plaid in particular, and in one or two cases the Lib Dems, will be building here with one eye on the 2011 Assembly elections, in the 'safe' category I'd place Swansea East, Neath, Aberavon, Cynon Valley, Ogmore, Rhondda, Merthyr, Pontypridd, Islwyn, Caerphilly and Torfaen. Despite some iffy local election results (notably in Torfaen and Caerphilly) they'll stay red this time barring a game-changing event; the sort of game changing event outlined by the BBC's Betsan Powys:

"An extremely switched on Labour man whispered in my ear the other night that three prominent valleys MPs are planning to stand down at the General Election but are yet to say so. The same little bird made the point that when they go, there 'ought to be' all women shortlists in their constituencies. The thought of the mayhem that would cause brought tears to his eyes. He was laughing - at least I think he was."

Hm, that would be interesting. And how about we start the rundown of the marginals with...

Blaenau Gwent
I haven't a clue what will happen here. People's Voice are by no means a formidable campaigning machine, but people might just have got into the habit of seeing them as the 'real Labour party', and the official lot show no signs of ending their internal feuding. Mind you, will the prospect of a Conservative government change the dynamics? I'll predict this as a Labour gain, just for fun, but that's based on no info whatsoever.

The constituency of Carwyn Jones. Labour have a 17% majority here, and recent polls have this as a Conservative gain. Also in the Tories' favour is the Lib Dems' recent problems (many of their councillors have left) so their 8,000 votes may be squeezable. I'm not convinced, though. There are boundary changes, which although small are entirely unhelpful to the Conservatives. Labour also rebounded quite well in the 08 council elections suggesting that short-term factors depressed their vote in 04-05. I think Labour will hold on.

Cardiff North
The Conservatives have won this seat comfortably at every level since 2005. If Julie Morgan stands, Labour will lose. If she joins husband Rhodri in retirement, Labour will be hammered.

Cardiff South & Penarth
Demographic change, along with boundary changes which transfer Sully from the Vale of Glamorgan, make this seat vulnerable. Labour have the advantage that Alun Michael has high name-recognition, but they'll still be praying like crazy that the Lib Dems take this seat seriously (it is something of a long-term target for them) and take votes from the Tories. I have this one marked down, though, as somewhere which could swing by more than the average. A lot depends on whether Labour decide to invest in holding the marginals, or avoiding a rout and placing their 'Gustav Line' in seats like this. If they take resources out of places like Cardiff North and the Vale, they should hold Cardiff South. If they neglect it, watch out.

Cardiff West
Ditto Cardiff West. Again there are minor boundary changes which hinder Labour. There are interesting 4-party dynamics. After investing heavily in 2007 for little reward, it's rumoured that the Lib Dems aren't really targetting Cardiff West any more. Plaid, however, have 7 councillors here due to demographic change and Focus-type campaigning. Labour will no doubt try to persuade Plaid supporters to vote tactically to keep out the Conservatives, while also motivating their white working-class vote in Canton and Ely. I have Labour holding on by their fingernails. They've been phone-canvassing quite heavily, so we know at least that they're taking the threat seriously.

I'm having difficulty getting my head around the notion of Gower as a Tory target. But the recent polls are pointing that way, and it's got all the ingredients: a candidate who's fought it before and done well at the Assembly election, a third party vote for the tories to squeeze as the Lib Dems concentrate on Swansea, Labour also fighting on a different front in neighbouring Llanelli, demographic change. This goes against every historical instinct in my body, but go on then. Conservative gain.

Newport East
A seat the Lib Dems nearly took at the Assembly on a low turnout. They did come second (just) in '05, which is good bar-chart material, but I suspect it's too big an ask for them in this election. What could happen, though, is both the Lib Dem and Conservative vote increases, making this a 3-way marginal and an interesting betting opportunity. The Tories though will surely be targeting resources elsewhere, which brings us to...

Newport West
Many Conservatives are quite excited about the prospect of overturning Paul Flynn's 15 % majority. Labour face the challenge of fighting on two fronts in Newport, but I think Flynn's back-bench maverick persona will be an asset in this election. It won't be comfortable, but for me this is a Labour hold.

Swansea West
I think this is a much better prospect for the Lib Dems. The Labour majority is only 12.9%, and father of the house Alan Williams is standing down to be replaced as candidate by former Croydon Central MP Geraint Davies. The Lib Dems face challenges - the tuition fees issue won't resonate as much this time around with Swansea's students, and the guy who wore the yellow rosette last time will be wearing a blue one in 2010. But the Lib Dems' local election results are good, and they'll be throwing the kitchen sink at it. Lib Dem gain.

Vale of Glamorgan
Labour held on by less than 100 in the Assembly elections and John Smith is retiring. In boundary changes, the loss of tory-leaning Sully to Cardiff South is compensated for by gaining St. Bride's and Ewenny from Bridgend. Conservative candidate Alun Cairns may have the air of an overly-keen office boy on his first day at a firm of solicitors, but he's a solid campaigner and has been an AM for ten years. Should be a comfortable Conservative gain.

To summarise the overall picture, therefore, and for people to mock me when I get it wrong, currently I have:
Likely Labour - Swansea East, Neath, Aberavon, Ogmore, Cynon Valley, Rhondda, Merthyr, Pontypridd, Caerphilly, Islwyn, Torfaen (11)
Leaning Labour - Alyn & Deeside, Bridgend, Wrexham, Newport East, Newport West, Cardiff West, Blaenau Gwent (7)
Likely Conservative - Clwyd West, Preseli, Monmouth, Cardiff North, Vale of Glamorgan, Vale of Clwyd, Carmarthen West & South Pembs (7)
Leaning Conservative - Gower, Delyn, Montgomery (3)
Likely Plaid - Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Carmarthen East, Arfon (3)
Leaning Plaid - Ceredigion, Ynys Mon (2)
Likely Lib Dem - Cardiff Central (1)
Leaning Lib Dem - Brecon & Radnor, Swansea West (2)
And there are 4 where I'm sitting on the fence and saying 'too close to call' - Cardiff South, Clwyd South, Aberconwy and Llanelli.