Not there yet

Channel 4 today have an interesting YouGov poll of marginal constituencies, which portends a possible Conservative landslide of 150 seats. Labour would crash to a worse defeat than 1983, though a slight improvement on the Tories showing in 1997 and again 2001. What this may show, as well as Gordon Brown's unpopularity, is a new volatility in the electoral system. There's now a substantial bloc of perhaps a third of the electorate without an emotional attachment to any party. When they swing, they swing together. The result, in our first-past-the-post system, is a succession of landslides and the elected dictatorship that that implies.

But back to the new findings. "The seats that will decide the next general election are moving Conservative in a big way," says Peter Kellner. In fact, the Conservative lead in these 60 battleground seats of 13% is in line with the broader national picture. At least this shows that the marginal seats are fairly typical: election results under our system are more representative than its opponents pretend.

On the surface, then, things are looking good for David Cameron. But the deeper findings are slightly less clear-cut.

On the one hand, the Tories are now seen by a majority of voters as "united", as opposed to Labour, perceived as split by four out of five of those questioned. David Cameron, too, is doing much better than Brown. His performance is seen as "good" or "fair" by 71%; 59% rate Brown as poor, bad or dreadful. Cameron is seen as preferable as prime minister to Brown by 40% to 22%, and to a putative David Miliband by 39% to 16% (some good news for Brown in there somewhere, then).

The figures also confirm that if Brown went any new leader would face overwhelming pressure to call an election. 59% would expect an election within at most 6 months of such an eventuality, with only 22% willing to let Parliament run its course.

The Conservative Party is no longer seen generally as the "Nasty Party"; unfortunately, Labour isn't either, with only 21% viewing such a designation as fair. The figures for the two parties on this question are, in fact, almost indistinguishable. So while Cameron has successfully neutralised that old lie, Labour's record of authoritarianism, media manipulation and barely-disguised mutual hatred hasn't brought them the title either. Since the phrase "Nasty Party" was only coined at a time when the Tories had long been out of office, it's difficult to tell just how many people would have described the Conservatives as the "Nasty Party" ten or twelve years ago. Nevertheless, if it is true that a reputation for nastiness, won during the 1980s, helped keep the Tories out of power for over a decade, then Labour have grounds to hope that their wilderness years might not be so protracted.

It would appear indeed that Labour still maintains some of the fund of public goodwill that swept them to power in 1997. They may be damned as incompetent and feuding, but they aren't yet actively hated. Perhaps they would need to pull off a fourth election victory to earn true public scorn.

In more less than brilliant news for the Conservatives, 55% view David Cameron as a "lightweight". Even worse, 59% agree with the proposition that "it is important to have experienced people running the economy at the moment", as against only 31% who thought "fresh thinking" mattered more. This suggests perhaps that Labour is having some success pinning the current crisis on the global economy. It is a global crisis, of course. But as today's European Commission report makes plain, Britain is likely to suffer more than most.

For me, perhaps the most revealing (and, for Tories, disquieting) set of questions concerned how perceptions of the Conservatives meshed with views on the economy. Respondees were given four options. 34% - the highest number - thought both that the Conservatives hadn't changed much, and that it was not competent to run the economy. Those people might, of course, all be Labour voters. But then 28% conidered that changes to Conservative policy and/or personnel rendered them more competent to run the economy. Against this 12% - presumably all ultra-loyal Conservatives - thought that the Tories were just as competent as they always had been. The least popular answer was "The Conservative Party has changed a lot - it's far less competent to run the economy than it was." Only 5% went for that.

Insofar as the Conservative policy has changed in relation to the economy, it is in the direction of Labour: accepting the minimum wage and Bank of England independence, and also promising to match Labour public spending commitments. George Osborne has repeatedly shied away from promising tax cuts (except in inheritance tax), to the chagrin of some supporters; this poll result suggests that this is politically astute. But the lavish and wasteful public expenditure of Gordon Brown's years may well be unsustainable by the time the Conservatives get into power. More importantly, tax cuts would help to jump-start the economy.

The poll, then, sees the electorate (or that part of the electorate that really matters) unimpressed with Gordon Brown and prepared to switch to the Conservatives. The appetite for real Conservative reform and a change in direction is not yet there. David Cameron, for the moment, looks to them like a continuation of New Labour by other means. That is certainly how he presents himself. Given the havoc that the Labour years have wreaked on the national finances, I for one will be hoping that he is prepared to be rather more radical in government.


Anonymous said…
Major's government lost the '97election not because they were the 'nasty party' but because, like Brown's government, they seemed like incompetent weaklings at the mercy of events.
Lokking at the Tory front bench I can't say I feel any great confidence in the future.
Anonymous said…
Polls under report Tory support, as conservatives are less likely to tell pollsters anything, they tent to see politics as a personal thing not to be shared as opposed to the left who see it as a shout scream and march around type of thing.
Anonymous said…
An interesting theory. The usual explanation for "shy Tories" is that so many people have been brainwashed by the BBC that the Conservatives are the bad guys that they can't bring themselves to admit to it. I think I prefer your idea - if only because I recognise it in myself.
Anonymous said…
So you managed to overcome your shyness in order to write this blog? I think you're talking about a very small group of people. In the distant days when I canvassed for the Labour Party the aggressive self-identification of Tory householders could be quite threatening.
Anonymous said…
Milton, if you read Pinkers, the blank slate, politics section the research says exactly that....they have scanners that can see in the brain these days :0)

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