One of the essay titles that I can choose to write 3,000 words about for my masters module on British Politics is ‘Can Labour win the next general election?’. Given that the questions were set some months ago, I’m guessing that they were expecting me to address the likelihood given a Conservative opinion poll lead of 20% plus. But now, at least temporarily, the rules of the political game have changed with those of the economic game. Keynsian economics is back from the dead and dead political ducks might just be learning to fly again.
So far in October, three opinion polls from two different organisations have shown Labour’s poll deficit to be in high single figures (either 8 or 9%). With the exception of one 9% lead in a September poll, this is the first time since April that the deficit has been that low, with no fewer than 20 polls having shown a Conservative lead of 20% or greater during that period. Throughout those past few months it was widely, and understandably, assumed that a Conservative majority in the Commons was now a given and that whilst Labour could probably expect to claw back some ground, its task was to limit the size of the Tory majority. But with the change in the political narrative back towards Gordon Brown’s home ground and a growing awareness that the Tories at worst have nothing to say about the economy and at best have something to say but lack the courage to articulate it, suddenly the poll ratings are tipping back in Labour’s favour. Today’s poll from ComRes showing an 8% Tory lead could indicate a move into narrowly hung parliament territory, albeit with the Tories overwhelmingly the largest party. If a few more polls are published over the next few weeks showing the Labour defecit in single figures, or at worst below the 12% mark, we will be moving away from the Labour meltdown scenario. Rather, the narrative will become a much more traditional one: a moderately unpopular, mid-term government against a superficially popular but untested opposition. With probably 18 months to go until an election in May 2010 and a volatile economic situation, suddenly that Tory majority doesn’t look like so certain a thing.
It is worth looking at some historical precedents for previous five parliaments to consider what electoral outcome we might be expecting in 2010 given where the polls are at this stage. The table below looks at the averaged polling figures from the 17th, 18th and 19th months out from each of the last five elections – for 1987 and 1992 these are just from the ICM Guardian polls (source here), for later elections they are for all commercially published national polls in those months (source here):
|Election||Polling period||Mean Conservative Share||Mean Labour share||Lead/defecit for eventual election winner||Change in governing party’s vote share between polling period and election||Polling companies|
|1987||Nov 1985 -Jan 1986||32.7%||34.7%||-2%||+10.3%||ICM (x3)|
|1992||Sep 1990 -Nov 1990||35.3%||49.3%||-14%||+7.7%||ICM (x3)|
|1997||Oct 1995 -Dec 1995||25.8%||56.2%||+30.4%||+5.6%||ICM (x3), NOP(x3), Mori (x3), Gallup (x2)|
|2001||Nov 1999 – Jan 2000||29.3%||50.4%||+21.1%||-8.4%||ICM (x3), Mori (x5), Gallup (x2)|
|2005||Oct 2003 – Dec 2003||32.7%||37.4%||+4.7%||-1.2%||ICM (x3), Mori (x4), Populus (x3)|
Now there are all sorts of caveats here – in particular that polling methods have changed and improved over recent years, particularly since the 1992 debacle. However, it is worth noting that in three of the past five elections, the governing party has improved its performance on the polls at this stage of the electoral cycle by in excess of 5%. And a 5% improvement in Labour’s vote share over the most recent polls would be more than enough to put the party back in contention for largest party status at the next election, so long as Labour’s improvement was not matched by the Conservatives taking votes from other parties or the growth in support being concentrated in the safest Labour seats. The most recent ComRes poll shows a split of 39/31/16/14 (Others) – if Labour can take one percent from the Conservatives and two percent each from the Lib Dems and Others, giving a 38/36/14/12 split, the UKPollingReport swing calculator gives Labour 321 seats, short of a majority but far enough clear of the Tories’ 275 seats to prevent its tally being equalled by a Tory-Lib Dem coalition and leaving Clegg only one way to jump if he wanted a place at the Cabinet table.
It is of course, entirely possible to argue the opposite: after all, in two cases the governing party’s vote dropped during the period, and it could be suggested that the 1992 result is an anomaly, given that the polling period encompasses the bloodletting preceding the defenestration of Thatcher. However, to my mind this doesn’t feel like a 2001 or 2005 scenario. In those cases the government was, if not popular, then considered to be head and shoulders above the opposition in terms of competence and had a settled lead in the opinion polls. The polling period in 2003 incorporates the removal of Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader. There was little way other than up for the Conservatives from that particular nadir. In 2008, however, we have a generally unpopular government set against the most ‘with it’ opposition that Labour has faced since 1997, but about whom doubts are beginning to emerge. That resembles far more the situation faced by the Conservatives in the years preceding both 1992 and 1997 – and in these cases the governing party increased its vote share over the following 18 months by 7.7 and 5.6% respectively. There is, in theory at least, no reason why Labour could not achieve something similar.
Don’t get me wrong – David Cameron remains the hot favourite to be Prime Minister after the next election, although rumours of a landslide may be overstated. But it is very hard to predict how the issue of the economy will play out over the next 18 months – it is possible that the Tories will get their act together and capitalise on the recession, or that by May 2010 the first ‘green shoots of recovery’ (© Norman Lamont, c 1992) will be showing and Brown will reap the benefit. It is also worth remembering that Cameron will be fighting against a natural tendency in tough economic times for key sections of the electorate to move leftwards – as the US is demonstrating – even if the left-most major party is already in government. Regardless of how much Labour’s previously slavish adherence to neo-Thatcherite economics has contributed to the current economic state of the UK, the party is far better placed ideologically to attune itself with the new international mood of state interventionist and regulatory action (see here for Tories whinging about the newly statist and anti-free market Sarkozy).
It could be that the latest polls prove as transitory as the ‘Brown bounce’, or they could be the start of a real move back towards Labour – only time will tell. But one thing is clear, the economy may be a basket case, but British politics are beginning to look a lot more interesting than they have for many months.