Compare and contrast – Atul Hatwal writes that a Labour victory from the current position would be unprecedented, Dan Hodges writes that a Tory victory is still the most likely outcome of the election. On the other side of the political fence Paul Goodman writes that a Conservative victory is impossible and Matthew D’Ancona that Cameron is perilously close to blowing it. Peter Kellner has also written a scenario as to how David Cameron could win here, though I think he’s done it more as devil’s advocate than as a prediction!
They aren’t of course necessarily contradictory, it is not a given that somebody has to get a majority. I think the essential problem is that there are significant obstacles facing both main parties and, if you want to spin it that way, significant reasons why both sides “can’t win”. Equally, there are ways both sides could clamber over those obstacles with a bit of luck on their side. You may, at this point, want to get a cup of tea – writing about the problems of both sides, and why they might not be problems may take some time….
…Back with me?
To start with the Conservatives, Paul Goodman does a good job of identifying some of up the problems that currently stand in their way of winning an election. Firstly, there are several social groups where the Conservatives particularly struggle, putting a cap on their potential support – Paul mentions the failure of the Conservatives to win support from ethnic minority voters who demographically or attitudinally might be expected to vote Conservative but don’t, but one could equally well point to the fact that people in the north are less likely to vote Conservative, or the party’s collapse in Scotland. This is, in many ways a problem with the failure of the Conservative party’s modernisation. It’s hard and takes a long time with little in the way of immediate returns. Past Tory leaders have repeatedly been forced into appealing to their own core votes, decisions that were probably tactically correct in the short term, but which in the long term further entrenched negative views of the Conservative party that prevent them widening their support. To give a current example, I suspect the cut in the 50p tax rate probably didn’t do as much short term harm as people think (my guess is the budget damage came much more from the granny tax and the appearance of incompetence) because the majority of people already think the Conservatives favour the rich above normal people. It did, however, further entrench that view and makes it more difficult for the Tories to change it in the future.
If the Conservatives first problem is the limited upside to their support because they are still toxic to much of the electorate, Goodman’s second issue is UKIP – the availability of an alternative party on the right. I’ve written about UKIP’s support in more detail here. In short UKIP support does come disproportionately (though not exclusively) from the Conservatives and isn’t just, or indeed even mainly, about Europe. It is about immigration and general dissatisfaction with government performance or modern Britain. The biggest increase in UKIP support came as a result not of anything related to Europe, but as a result of the budget and the omnishambles period. In one sense I think Paul worries too much about UKIP here, in the absence of UKIP those voters would still be disillusioned and unhappy, they’d just find other outlets to register their dissatisfaction. Where UKIP’s presence does make it more of a problem is that, as Matt D`Ancona writes, it provides a gravitational pull on the right, meaning the Conservatives have to be wary of leaving too much space to their rear lest UKIP prosper too much. I do also ponder exactly how the Parliamentary Conservative party will react if UKIP come top in the European election next year and the inevitable spike in normal opinion polls that will follow a strong European election performance… especially if the election debates are being negotiated at the time. Having lost an election to Cleggmania David Cameron probably won’t want to risk Faragemania, but in the event that UKIP are ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the polls it may be difficult to argue that Farage should not be included in the debates.
The biggest problem for the Conservatives though is simply the high bar they need to get over to manage an overall majority. On a pure uniform swing the Conservatives need an ELEVEN point lead to get an overall majority. The more commonly cited seven point lead is based on a (reasonable enough) assumption that Liberal Democrat support will be down at the next election which reduces the sort of lead the Conservatives need.
Seven percent, however, is still a formidable lead to achieve to get a majority of just one. Tony Blair in 2005, Thatcher in 1979, Wilson in 1964, 1966 and Oct 1974, Heath in 1970, MacMillan in 1959, Eden in 1955, Churchill in 1951 and Attlee in 1950 all got overall majorities with lower leads than the seven percent Cameron achieved in 2010. The main reason the Conservatives didn’t win in 2010 is not the proportion of the votes they got, but how those votes translated into seats. Given the likely failure of the boundary changes, the situation will probably be the same at the next election.
I particularly dislike arguments based on “this has never happened before therefore it can’t happen” (beautifully parodied here), so the common argument you hear of “no government party has ever increased their share of the vote so the Conservatives can’t win” should carry little weight. There have only been 18 elections since WW2, and in 3 of them the governing party has increased their share of the vote. Those were special cases of course – they were short Parliaments, so they don’t count. If the Conservatives do increase their share of the vote then I expect this case would also be dismissed as a special case, because it was a hung Parliament, or because the third party’s support collapsed or whatever excuse people come up to make the data fit their rule. Nevertheless, it does go to underline the sheer difficulty of what the Conservatives need to achieve in order to win a majority.
Those then are the obstacles facing the Conservatives – they need an increased lead over Labour to win, yet the potential to gain new support is limited by the party’s toxic image and their existing support is being nibbled away by UKIP to their rear. How can they win from there?
First there is the question of whether the Conservatives really would need a lead of 7 points. Peter Kellner floated this idea in his piece this week, suggesting the Tories could win with a 4 point lead.
There are a couple of reasons why the Conservatives could outperform UNS in a election that was otherwise quite static. The first is that while one of the reasons for the perceived bias in the electoral system, smaller electorates in Labour seats, will remain at the next electon, another reason may diminish. One of the reasons the Conservatives win fewer seats than Labour on the same shares of the vote is that Labour and Lib Dem voters have historically been much more likely to vote tactically for each other. This means that in seats where the Conservatives get between 35-40% of the vote they normally fail to win the seat due to tactical voting against them, while Labour will often win the seat on the same share of the vote because their opposition is split between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. In 2010 there were 66 seats where the Conservatives got between 35% and 40%, they won 30 of them (a hit rate of 45%), there were 78 seats where Labour got between 35% and 40% and they won 47 of them (a hit rate of 60%).
We already know that the 2010 Lib Dem voters who are least likely to have stuck with the party are those who actually identified most with the Labour party, and who were presumably voting Lib Dem for tactical or protest reasons. Now, I am sure when push comes to shove some of those will end up holding their noses and voting tactically for the Lib Dems anyway – but some won’t, and if Labour identifiers are less likely to tactically vote Liberal Democrat at the next election than they were at the last election the Liberal Democrats will be losing votes where they need them the most and Labour will be gaining votes in seats where those votes are of no use to them… the effect would be to reduce the anti-Conservative skew in the system and deliver a Conservative victory on a smaller lead. We cannot tell if this will happen, it is practically impossible to predict tactical voting decisions in advance when people themselves probably won’t make sure decisions until very close to the election.
A second factor is the incumbency bonus. The Conservatives gained a large number of seats from Labour at the last election and in those seats they will have the benefit of a “double incumbency” bonus – that is, in most cases Labour will have lost the incumbency bonus their former MPs enjoyed at the 2010 election, while the new Conservative incumbents will have built up their own personal vote. In a largely static election or an election with a small swing against the Conservatives that will provide an extra buffer for Conservative MPs. A good example of this is the 2001 election. The election produced a 1.75% swing from Labour to Conservative, which should have resulted in the Conservatives retaking 15 seats from Labour, but because those new Labour MPs benefited from incumbency and the Conservatives had lost it they only took 5 (and managed to lose one the other way).
These factors mean the bar for the Conservatives may not be quite as high in practice as it appears in theory, but that is not much good if you are 10 points behind. To win the Conservatives need to retain the level of support they got at the last election and probably (assuming Labour gain at least some support – I’ll come to them later) gain some more on top of that. There are two reservoirs of potential extra votes for the Conservatives – people who voted Conservative in 2010 but no longer say they would and people who did not vote Conservative in 2010, but would consider it. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the Conservatives in 2010 were at their maximum level of support in 2010 and ignoring that second group – they are very real indeed. Looking at the big Lord Ashcroft poll from November, 16% of people currently saying they’d vote Conservative are people who did NOT vote Conservative last time round.
Not only is it possible for the Conservatives to get extra votes they didn’t get last time round, they are actually doing it. That 16% of current Tory voters is about 5% of people voting. Those voters come mostly from the Liberal Democrats and from 2010 non-voters, though there are also some people who voted Labour in 2010 who would now vote Tory. As to why the Conservative party has picked up these voters, back in July Lord Ashcroft did another big survey that segmented out the people the Conservatives had lost, gained and kept. The biggest defining factor for these “Joiners” as he called them were people who trusted the Conservatives more than Labour on the economy, or at least, trusted Cameron & Osborne more than Miliband & Balls. Ashcroft found a similar pattern amongst those who said they would consider becoming joiners (or “Considers” in his parlance) – their defining characteristic was that they trusted Cameron & Osborne more than Miliband & Balls.
So while the Conservatives undoubtedly do have a cap on their potential support due to their toxic reputation with some groups, the extra support is there to be won, and can be won on the basis of the economy and people’s preference for Cameron over Miliband. Other research by Ashcroft shows these Conservative joiners are also more socially liberal, more likely to be the sort of people who are attracted by Conservative support for things like gay marriage and, at this point, we come into conflict with the other side of the equation, the 2010 Conservative voters who the party has lost.
The Conservatives got 37% at the last election. Currently they are around about 31% in polls. Looking again at Lord Ashcroft’s poll from November, the two biggest chunks have gone to don’t know, won’t vote or won’t say or UKIP. Looking at Ashcroft’s segmentation, these voters tend to be people who don’t think David Cameron has performed well in government or don’t think the Conservatives share their values, yet who also have negative opinions of Labour and the Liberal Democrats and normally prefer the Conservatives to Labour. Ashcroft’s polling suggests the most powerful message to these lost Conservatives will be a tactical one – that voting UKIP would risk letting in Labour and Ed Miliband. While UKIP support is not mainly driven by the European issue, if David Cameron does come out with a strong message on renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Europe I suspect it could speak to their values and help them believe the Conservatives understand people like them, though I am conscious that allowing doubt over Britain’s future membership of the European Union to fester could be an extremely high risk strategy for the Conservatives.
Turning to Labour (and for those of you starting to flag, we are two-thirds through!) the arguments about the difficulties they face boil down to two. First there is the question of whether their mid term lead in the polls is really of the sort of scale that a successful opposition should be achieving. Secondly is whether their undoubted lead in voting intention polls is undermined by more lacklustre figures on things like Ed Miliband as a potential Prime Minister or economic trust (the latter is often tied up with lots of internal Labour party politics and positioning which I won’t get into!)
The general pattern for opposition parties is for them to gain support during the middle of a Parliament as people are disappointed or angered by the government and want to register a protest, either by telling pollsters they’d vote elsewhere or by registering protest votes in elections that they don’t see as mattering that much. As the election approaches incumbent governments tend to do more crowd pleasing things to win back support, and people tend to think of their vote more as a choice between alternative governments, rather than just a way of protesting against the incumbent, and almost always this results in some degree of swing back towards the governing party. This pattern was largely broken in the 1997-2001 and 2001-2005 Parliaments, given that Labour remained pretty popular throughout both and there were never big opposition leads to begin with. It re-established itself to a degree in 2005-2010.
Now, if we look back through history oppositions that have gone on to win the next election have normally enjoyed mid-term leads of 20 points or more, oppositions with lower leads mid-terms have generally ended up losing. By that yardstick, Labour isn’t doing well enough to win, this is not the sort of lead that winning oppositions tend to mark up mid-term. Just as with the “no government has increased its vote” thing I discarded earlier, just because no opposition has even gone on to win the election without getting their mid-term lead up to 20+ points, doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be done. This time could be different, I’ve written about this at much more length here but there are two main things to consider. Firstly, the arguments about Labour not being far enough ahead assume they are not going to get further ahead in the future. Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives weren’t miles ahead at this stage either, it was the winter of discontent that did that and pushed them over the top.
That’s an argument about events coming along in the future though, and they can cut both ways. A more interesting consideration is whether these are mid term blues at all or whether we are seeing a more substantial and permanent realignment of support. The vast majority of Labour’s increased support since the general election is not from people switching from the Conservatives, it is from people who either did not vote at the last election, or people who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election. I think the problem for the Liberal Democrats is much more serious than mid-term blues and the support that has moved from the Lib Dems to Labour may be a lot “stickier” than mid term support has been in the past. I wouldn’t, therefore, spare too much worry to the “Labour need to be further ahead” argument. In normal circumstances they would, but these aren’t necessarily normal circumstances.
What I think should be more worrying for Labour are the underlying figures on Ed Miliband and on economic trust. People’s preference for Prime Minister normally goes hand-in-hand with their voting intention. If you graph the two questions side by side they move pretty much in parallel, with the governing party normally doing a little better on the PM question as it is, after all, easier to look Prime Ministerial when you actually are Prime Minister. When IDS was Conservative leader the Labour lead in voting intention was, on average, 16 points less than Blair’s lead over IDS as best PM. When Michael Howard became Tory leader the gap between his performance as best PM and the Conservative VI lead fell to seven points. That shrunk to 5 point when David Cameron took over and once Gordon Brown replaced Blair the Conservative lead in voting intention was almost identical to the Conservative lead as best Prime Minister. With Ed Miliband that small difference has become a vast gulf, when I wrote about this last year the average gap was 18 points. Since then Labour’s lead in the polls has inched up a bit, but Miliband’s rating as best PM hasn’t. In recent month’s the gap between preferred party and preferred PM has been 20 points.
There is a similar but smaller gap on economic policy. There are all sorts of different ways that economic trust is asked – a straight question on which party people trust the most shows them neck-and-neck, whereas questions asking if people trust Cameron & Osborne more than Miliband & Balls show a lead for Cameron & Osborne. Either way, it is the same pattern of Labour leading in voting intention but doing less one on important underlying questions.
The question is whether this matters? Clearly, at the moment, people think Cameron would make a better Prime Minister and either prefer the Conservatives or rate the parties equally on the economy… yet Labour have a substantial polling lead. Clearly it isn’t a deal breaker! On the other hand, it could become more important and influential as the election approaches and voting decisions become more of a choice between alternatives than just a way of signalling dissatisfaction with cuts and austerity. Once again, we don’t know what will happen, and the present polling cannot tell us.
In closing both the Conservatives and Labour face obstacles, but neither’s are insurmountable. It is perfectly possible to come up with plausible scenarios where either side win – or to spin the figures to claim the other side cannot possibly win. Personally I am happy to admit I don’t know what will happen, there are too many big unanswered questions about the economy, the Eurozone, the debates, the European elections, how the end of the coalition pans out, and how public opinion evolves as the election approaches that it is impossible to make an informed prediction without. With some honorable exceptions, I suspect in many cases people’s predictions this early say a lot more about their own personal preferences or what political axes they have to grind against their party leaderships than what is likely to happen at the next election.