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. Now Anthony, you’re not saying election campaigns make no difference are you :-)

    My own view is we will see Labour attempt to focus on the dangers of a Conservative government – just how much and how quickly they are going to cut to reduce the deficit, threatening a double dip recession, another million unemployed, services slashed, etc. I seem to recall a drop in Conservative support in the immediate aftermath of the pensions policy announcement, and would expect maters like this to be highlighted as much as possible.

    I still expect a hung parliament, Cons the largest party.

  2. As I type they are debating the queens speech on Newsnight Scotland (or newsnicht as its nicknamed up here).

    If this is the level of debate the Queens Speech will have all the impact of spitting on a whale….

    Secondly I think the way in which over the last decade or so the government(s) have leaked news has undermined the importance of things like the budget. In an age of 24 news the impact of specific key events tends to get diluted.


  3. Could MP (and Lords) expenses still have a role? If the current Telegraph story is accurate.

  4. I don’t think the election campaign’s going to make much difference in Dartford this time. :-)

    I would still be surprised if the leadership debate takes place. There’s just too much chance of completely losing the confidence of voters if something goes wrong.

  5. The famous phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” was coined in ’92 when Bush41 (George H W) took on Clinton. The US economy was (well on the way) out of recession. The electorate remembered the pain, and, anyway, (un)employment lags. Bush41 lost.
    A recovery don’t butter no parsnips. A boom? Well …..
    Too late.

  6. I think the election campaign will impact the voter because it will be bruising & personal-probably dirty too.

    This will be initiated by Brown.

    What the impact is remains to be seen.

  7. Not sure how likely it is, but I do feel Labour are saving something up to throw at the Tories before the election. I’m not sure what it is, but I recall an interview with none other than Max Clifford where he said things would be divulged in an election campaign. I would guess that could have quite an impact.

    Does anyone know if there was any polling done regarding dealing with the economic crisis – specifically that David Cameron was an economic advisor to the Chancellor during the last serious recession?

  8. One more known unknown perhaps – to be resolved tomorrow evening – is the prospect of a Tony Blair EU Presidency . Yes, Blair has waxed and waned as a front runner, but it would be fascinating to see how his appointment might play out in the UK. I think it might rattle the Tories and boost Brown.

  9. Brown could also gain by starting the withdrawal from Afghanistan and bringing some troops home perhaps in May just before the election.


  10. Gary,

    Given the hounding Brown got for visiting Afghanistan during the Tory conference, If the public thought he was playing politics with troops on the ground to win and election the Tories could end with close to a 200 majority.

    he is already on dodgy ground calling an Afghan conference only weeks before an election will be called.


  11. I agree with Statto that we must remember that how election campaigns are fought can make a difference to the end result. But as you might imagine I can’t see it favouring Labour.

    To be sure Brown has been around long enough to have learnt some political tricks and has advisors who coach him more. But there is one trick they surely can’t trick away, namely, the magic word ‘CHANGE’. Mandelson sought to conjure up Labour as the party of change during their conference. But it was a laughably rediculous performance, “If I can come back (from a dodgy mortgage loan) then you can come back.”

  12. The reason why Labour are not doing worse in the polls is because the Tories are not enough of a change for more people, particularly after the expenses scanal.

    This is where the Lib Dems and other parties have a great advantage. We have seen other parties press home this advantage while the Lib Dems have not. But during the election campaign they will have a great opportunity to do this.

    When the election comes the majority of people in 80% of seats will vote for the party best positioned to beat Labour. I know that if I were in a seat where the Tories were best positioned to beat Labour I would grudgingly do so. I would need to take several baths before I felt clean again but I would still do it. A lot of other former Labour voters expect might simply stay at home.

  13. Another possible method for a change of Labour leadership is Brown resigning on grounds of ill-health (bad eye). This may seem very unlikely and uncharacteristic, but it was a rumour going around a few weeks ago.

  14. I should like to express myself mathematically more accurately by saying that the VAST majority of people in about 80% of seats will vote against Labour in sufficient numbers to deny them the seats.

    I just don’t think that, despite the intention voting figures, the general assessment of Labour has changed significantly since the time of the Euro election – Labour obviously has not changed significantly since that time. I know that people can be fickle and indecisive but surely there are enough not stupid people in this country who when they put their minds to it must agree with this.

  15. Didn’t seem that Brown got much joy out of the Queens Speech. I’ve never heard a PM called ‘surreal’ before – not even Harold Wilson managed that.

  16. The unknowns are known.

  17. @Colin – “I think the election campaign will impact the voter because it will be bruising & personal-probably dirty too.

    This will be initiated by Brown”

    How quaint a view you have about Cameron’s Conservatives. It’s as if Andy Coulson never happened. One of the reasons I have a very level of contempt for Cameron is his two faced attitude to the tone of political debate (didn’t he want to end punch and judy politics? Now he can’t string more than two sentences together without a soundbite). Between Coulson, Ashcroft and grubby deals with Murdoch, the Tories have hit the same level as McBride – they just haven’t been caught with their trousers down yet.

  18. Can Brown not put off the local elections until june to give Lab the maximum time for economic recovery without bad local results ?.I seem to remember this happened in 92 or 97.

  19. Alec-I recommend you read the reaction of some senior Labour Peers & MPs to the “Dividing Lines” Queen’s Speech.

  20. One of the reasons I dislike listening to people like Alec rant on is the way they simply cannot conduct any sort of discussion without making snide remarks about the character of politicans they don’t happen to agree with.
    We have listened month in month out to his diatribes about George Osbourne or David Cameron, his hopelessly inaccurate forecasts on the economy and heaven knows what else. Alec reminds me of the loud mothed guy on the barstool who interrupts you when you come in to order a drink and who proceeds to give all in earshot his unasked view on current affairs despite the fact that nobody wants to hear them.
    Private Eye used to run a series called ” Great Bores of Our Time’. Maybe they should add another character to their hall of fame.

  21. My own view is that there will be no major single event that dramatically changes the polls over a short period. Just a slow narrowing over time, but best case for Labour I think is to narrow it to 6-8%. (I can’t see Labour polling more than 32-33% best case. But that zone is particularly interesting as the Conservatives need to be achieving 42% or so to ensure victory.

    Of course, as the polls stand, Cameron is on for a comfortable victory with a 12-14% lead. And if we are still sitting at this kind of level when the election is called, then I think Cameron has it in the bag. Around 9-10% and the campaign will still play a part.

  22. I think that events can no longer benefit the Labour Party. What people are missing, is the press, especially television. People watch,listen to, read the papers. Witness the Queen’s Speach, it was largely trailed as rubbish and the flack afterwards was devestating. People have made up their minds, unless the press changes, a landslide will be a understatement.

  23. @GLEN OTTO
    I agree with you Glen. I always give Cameron credit for getting the Tory name mentioned on the BBC without the beeb employee spitting in disgust at the same time. This is a priceless achievement from the Tory point of view. The hang um and flog um brigade of Norfolk should not forget it.

  24. @MICHAEL
    I suspect some dirt or alleged dirt regarding Lord Ashcroft is in the offing. The Guardian mentioned something yesterday and I think the Indy mentions something today.
    Frankly, I think its reached a point whereby Brown is so damaged that Tory problems would have to be BIG to have an impact on the outcome of the GE.

  25. @Nick Keene
    Dont go on the Guardian CIF site then Nick. The denial and bile spilled on there beggers belief.

  26. King Harold – bad comment drives out good.

    If you have a forum/blog where lots of comments are crackpot rants and sensible people get ripped apart, the sensible people stop commenting and you end up with a place that it is entirely crackpot rants and trolls. c.f. Comment is Free and Guido’s comment threads, and hence the reason why I’m a bit anal about it sometimes .

  27. @ Statto

    I think you will find that Conservatives can probably scrape a majorty with a 5-6% lead (4.5 point swing) as the swing is thought to be greater in the marginals and less so in the safe seats.

    Putting this in perspective, Tynemouth, the seat the Tories need to win to get a majority of 1 requires around a 6 point swing.

  28. Just out of interest why is the above comment “Awaiting Moderation”?

  29. Has anyone heard why the MORI poll done at the weekend hasn’t been published yet? Rather strange to wait so long after the fieldwork.

  30. May have been a poll for a private client – or the voting intention question could have been for cross break purposes on a question that wasn’t time sensitive.

  31. Things do seem pretty hopeless for Labour. The Known Unknowns (wonderful term!) don’t seem drastic enough in the right ways to effect a reversal of Labour’s fortunes. A change of leader might win the party a few points but none of the candidates fielded as potential replacements for Brown (Miilliband, Johnson etc) seem popular or substantial enough to effect a big enough boost to the party. Competent, clever ministers perhaps but leaders?

    An end to the recession – nice headlines for a few days but ultimately just words until the effects start being felt by large numbers of people, which seems unlikely within a 6 month window. Besides, there is a widely held view that we’d merely be recovering from an illness brought on by Brown anyway (not saying this is entirely the case but many people think it is). Plus there’s still the little matter of that monstrous debt.

    The budget – I don’t think there’s anything Labour can do with it that will be sufficient to change voters’ minds.

    Leaders’ debates – as Anthony says, these are likely to favour Brown. Even if Brown exceeds our very low expectations, that’s hardly a triumph and he’d have to sustain it without putting his great clunking fist in his mouth. His track record on this doesn’t bode well.

    My view is that only a huge Tory disaster of some sort could turn voters around now. I’m sure Lord Mandelson is hard at work on that one …

  32. @Andrew

    I would be extremely surprised if 6% lead were enough for a Con majority.

    The Politics Home marginals poll, conducted 11-21 Sep predicted a Con majority of 70 seats. The general polling at the time was around 40/27/18, a con maj of 58 on uniform swing. So it might help pull in 6 extra seats at this level of support.

    A much large effect was the Lib Dems holding on to far more of their seats than the polls predicted. As many of these are Con targets, this effect help counter the other.

  33. @ Statto

    I am basing my analysis on the Tynemouth seat which needs a swing of just over 6 points. This would just give a majority to the Tories.

    Based on a uniform swing this would require a lead of 9 points in the national opinion polls so on that basis you are right.

    It all depends on how this swing be distributed on the night.

  34. @Statto
    Ipsos Mori out on Sunday in the Observer.

  35. Anthony Wells

    I was questioned for the MORI poll. Questions about swine flu and attitudes to the English NHS response. No voting intention question.

  36. @Andrew Myers
    From what I have learned on this site from my betters, the Tory lead in some regions is dramatic, south east as you might expect, and als the midlands equally strong. Further, it was claimed that in the north the big 2 were level pegging.
    This must work out well for the Tories overall ?

  37. @King Harold

    You’ll find regional breakdowns in the full report here:

    The swings are dramatic in some regions, but point to only a slightly better position for the Tories than a uniform swing.

    Indeed for me the tactical voting and personal vote was the most interesting section, suggesting the Lib Dems get up to a 10% boost in areas where the battle is with the Cons, hence why they are predicted to keep most of their seats despite a drop of around 5% in national polls.

  38. oldnat – are you sure that was MORI? NOP did a poll on swine flu for the BBC, presumably about the same time.

  39. Anthony Wells

    I was sure till you asked! I might have been distracted by the very attractive voice of the Irish lady asking the questions :-)

  40. Oldnat,

    is that one of the dangers of telephone polling, you’ll say anything to someone who sounds nice….


  41. Peter

    I’m certainly much more likely to give up my time to talk to her! :-) Not many opportunities at my age. :-(

  42. The parallels between Brown and the John Major of 1997 are amazing. Every single piece of news we see is somehow bad news for Brown. I really can’t see that changing and see no hope whatsoever for the Labour party in the coming election.

    Of course Gordon Brown is no doubt hoping against hope that the parallel is between himself and the John Major of 1992 which in some ways (not PM by public vote) is closer. I seriously doubt that Cameron will be chancing his arm strolling on Brighton beach though so to my mind 1997 it is.

  43. Statto:

    With respect you’re getting confused between the Conservative lead and the swing to the Conservatives. The swing the Tories need is about 6%. That would be equal to a Conservative lead of 9%. The two are separate.

  44. Only events on the night can tell us, but my view is that Andrew Myers is right.
    The Conservatives performance in the marginal seats is even better than their national showing. The predicted swing in many of the marginals, particularly in the Midlands is enormous.
    The last time i looked in depth at this it was predicted that although Labour were Neck and Neck in the North West, the Tories would take 17 seats in this region.
    I believe a 6% lead would deliver a very small working majority for the Conservatives. Saying they need a 10-12% lead is stretching the truth. Sounds a bit like an article for The Mirror.

  45. I still think that Mrs. Thatcher passing away before May would have a significant influence on the floating voter, a series of programmes on Thatcher’s Britain and then the funeral could very well focus the mind anti Tory vote and link Cameron with the party of Thatcher in a way that he has avoided thus far.

  46. Interesting that Jon K has identified Mrs Thatcher’s death as a possible “game changer”. It’s something I have heard a few times in other comments pages.

    My view is that her death would not likely change much. Yes, it might encourage a few more wavering Labour supporters to get to the booths, but I would have thought most of them would do so in safe Labour constituencies.

    I can’t imagine that her death would scupper the Tories in the marginal seats (Midlands, Essex, Kent) that she herself was so successful at winning over 3 general elections.

    What does everyone else think?

  47. @Andy

    I’m not confusing leads and swings. I was contesting Andrew’s assertion that a 6% lead would be enough to win outright (because of a bigger swing to Con in the marginals). The evidence suggests the marginals effect is fairly small for the Conservatives (though small may be important when things are close). Apologies if that wasn’t clear.

  48. @Danny Boy

    Sorry to repeat myself, but the Politics Home marginals poll took all these big regional swings into account, and came up with a majority of 70 (cf. 58 on a uniform swing). That doesn’t look like making 6% lead enough to me.

    Of course, as an earlier post says, it depends where the swings happen on the night.

  49. Statto,

    Danny Boy’s point is that it doesn’t make a 10-12 point lead requisite either. On UNS a 9 point lead will do. And surely you must accept that the Conservatives are likely to do slightly better in marginals, even if you don’t think it will make a difference worth 3 points on their lead.

    My guess is that a lead of 7 points would probably be sufficient, but I don’t think a 7 point lead on 5th May would leave the Conservatives feeling comfortable.

  50. Matt,

    I would go one further in saying that Jon K is writing more in hope than genuine understanding of the likely impact of Lady Thatcher dying.

    In my view, such an event is unlikely to have any significant impact on current voting intentions. In terms of media coverage, it is wishful thinking to assume that this will remind people of wicked nasty Tories and make them turn away from Cameron.

    Far more likely effects are to remind people:

    a – it is more than 20 years since Mrs T left downing Street;
    b – it is more than 30 years since she was first elected;
    c – she was a very successful PM;
    d – she took over from a Labour government which had left the country in a mess

    Younger voters who have based their impression of Mrs T on post 1990 BBC coverage may suddenly find themselves reappraising their prejudices.

    There is also likely to be some sympathy effect from older people who voted for Maggie in the 80s but switched to Blair after 1994.

    Such voters stirred to “return” to the Conservative fold are likely to far outweigh any traffic in the other direction.

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