The Known Unknowns

There was some speculation in the last couple of days about whether the Queen’s Speech will shift the political terrain. We won’t know until the next round of polls arrive, but I would be very surprised if they were the beginning of any significant change for the reasons Danny Finkelstein set out this morning: the Queen’s speech and the government’s legislative plans for the coming months will have completely passed by the vast majority of the electorate.

As the months go by we keep seeing things that might have potentially changed the situation slipping past without any obvious change in the big picture: one was the party conference season, then the Conservative response to the ratification of Lisbon. I’m doubting the Queen’s Speech will be the one either. Looking at what’s left before the campaign itself, I think there are only about four “known unknowns” left in the months ahead that might be noticed by enough people to make a significant change to the political terrain (though of course, there could be any number of unknown unknowns that we can’t predict).

1) The budget
Not many events in the political calendar really get noticed by by the wider public. The exceptions are probably the conference season (most people don’t watch the actual conferences of course, but some of the saturation coverages gets through), and the budget, which people pay attention to it because it directly affects their wallet. Certainly before elections governments use them to curry public favour with good news stories and tax cuts, but they are not an automatic positive if they are perceived as dishonest, unfair or incompetent, nor if the government is forced to hike taxes or deliver bad news. In the present situtation, Alistair Darling is likely to have very limited room for manoeuvre: he won’t have money for tax cuts, and if he does scrape something together it risks backfiring when questions about repairing the public finances are asked. Still, there is potential here, especially if Darling can deliver some good news. This brings us to…

2) The end of the recession
Economic optimism has already returned. There are several different trackers following people’s expectations on the economy, they have all come back strongly since 2008 and early 2009, with some in positive territory. However, it does not seem to have produced any meaningful recovery for Labour. However, I’m still not ready to conclude for certain that it’s not going to have an effect – if an improved economy is going to improve Labour’s position in the polls, I think the trigger may be when the recession formally comes to an end, when the good news will no doubt be plastered across the media and the government will be primed to capitalise. That was expected in the last lot of quarterly economic figures, but never arrived. With the rest of Europe emerging from recession it must be very likely that the next lot of figures will show the formal end of the recession.

3) The last chance for a Labour change of leadership
The endless media speculation of whether Brown will stay or go is gradually drawing to a close, we will get to a point where it is so close to an election that Labour really cannot change their leader. We’ve long since passed the point when there could be a formal challenge, we may be past the point where an open rebellion by MPs to oust Brown is feasible. It’s probably still just about possible that a cabinet delegation go to Brown at the start of January and quietly tell him that he no longer has the necessary support to continue and should stand down for the sake of the party. It is looking increasingly unlikely, but if it does happen it obviously has the potential to change everything.

4) The leaders’ debates
They’ve never happened before, and if they happen this time we can be fairly certain they will get huge attention and viewing figures. With the attention they receive they certainly have the potential to change things around. However, realistically the chances of them helping Labour must be very low. When it comes down to it polls constantly show that people like David Cameron and dislike Gordon Brown – increased focus on the choice between the two men will likely help the Conservatives. David Cameron is seen as charismatic, he is an interesting speaker with emotional intelligence and ability to connect with the public. These are not, to put it kindly, Gordon Brown’s strengths. One thing in Gordon Brown’s favour is expectations – polls show that people overwhelmingly expect David Cameron to win any debate, so the pressure will be on him to deliver, and Gordon Brown won’t have to do much to surpass expectations.

I think the one with the most potential to change things is a change of Labour leadership, but I think it is now very unlikely. I would be surprised if the budget made much difference, and the debates (if they happen) are more likely to help the Conservatives. From my four known unknowns I think the one with the most chance of changing things is when the end of the recession is announced. Who knows what effect any unknown unknowns might have, but the number of opportunities for Labour to turn things around are rapidly dwindling.


151 Responses to “The Known Unknowns”

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  1. Peter,

    My compliments. A very succinct analysis of how to win Westminster elections.

    I am sure it holds equally true in Scotland, save that the electoral landscape is more complicated.

    For the SNP, I am sure that the primary focus is and will remain the Holyrood elections, where the dance is quite definitely a quadrille and not a waltz as at Westminster. In the Westminster ballroom, the most that the SNP can hope for is to tread on toes and trip up the leading couple to the point where they expel you from the dance floor – giving you what you want.

    Paul

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