Best-laid plans of the Tories and Labour for 2015 General Election could be scuppered this autumn, writes George Kerevan
FOR the time in two years, the Tories have a lead – narrow, to be sure – in the polls for the 2015 Westminster election. The last time the Conservatives enjoyed a lead in a national opinion poll was in March 2012. So, game on.
To be strictly accurate, there are two new polls showing the Conservatives in front (from ICM and Ashcroft), but two more with Labour still ahead by one point (YouGov and Populus). Which means we have four polls agreeing that the two big Westminster parties are now neck and neck, inside the statistical margin of error.
The new polls will boost Tory morale ahead of the European elections – momentum counts in politics, as Alex Salmond will tell you. If the Conservatives dig deeper into the poll results, they will find even more to their liking: they lead Labour by 18 points on who is deemed best to run the economy, while David Cameron beats Ed Miliband in popularity by 14 points.
I’m unfazed by Miliband’s poor popularity rating; opposition leaders rarely have the opportunity to shine outside the election campaign proper. But Ed should be worrying about the Tory lead in perceived economic competence. At no point in the last four years – despite austerity – has Labour bested the Conservatives on this measure. Now with the economy expanding like an express train (admittedly because of a housing bubble) the “feel-good” factor can only benefit Chancellor George Osborne’s team.
On the other hand, Ed Miliband and his team show no signs of panic, suggesting that they are in for the long haul. Instead, Miliband Minor is doggedly trying to set the political agenda. Sticking to his own message is the best antidote to narrowing polls. So Miliband cannily deflected news of the Tory poll lead by announcing new guarantees on GP waiting times for England.
Miliband is aware the electorate is in a volatile mood. The latest Ashcroft poll indicates that 52 per cent of voters are open to switching party between now and the general election. Of course, that favours Ukip as much as the Tories or Labour. If Ukip were to secure more than the 3 per cent of the vote they won in 2010, and take more support from the Tories than Labour, David Cameron will lose his majority.
Miliband can also take comfort in the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post system. Even with his new poll lead, Cameron could not command an overall majority. But all Labour needs to become the largest party (and woo Nick Clegg) is a tiny swing of 1.75 per cent.
However, countervailing forces are at work. Recent polling data shows the Tories are doing much better in the south than Labour. To win a majority of his own, Miliband needs to capture seats in the affluent southern half of England. Meanwhile, in Labour’s northern redoubt, Ukip has started to attract support. John Denham, one of Miliband’s closest allies, admits that Labour had made “a complete hash” of its response to Ukip.
Then we have the Scottish wild card. A surge in Conservative support will help the Yes campaign – working-class Labour supporters in Scotland will be more likely to vote for independence if the alternative is another five years of Tory government from Westminster. That prospect is already causing tensions in the Better Together camp. This week, the London right-leaning media has been carrying reports of talks between senior Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat figures, with a view to having Douglas Alexander take charge of the No campaign from Alistair Darling (who has been somewhat mute of late).
At this stage in the electoral game, organisation begins to take over from high politics. Cameron is said to be focusing on the so-called “40/40 strategy” for securing victory. Under this plan, Tory resources will be concentrated on 40 key constituencies with Conservative MPs defending small majorities – the so-called “defensive” seats – and on 40 winnable “attack” seats held by Labour and the Lib Dems. However, a recent report claims that in the 40 probable most winnable constituencies, the Tories have selected candidates for only 28.
Labour seems to be in better organisational nick, having selected candidates in 104 of its 106 target seats, and with full-time organisers already at work in 102. Yet the economic wind now seems to be favouring the Tories at long last. One pointer: the latest Euro poll puts the Conservatives ahead of Ukip, with Labour in third place.
Nevertheless, I can’t seem to work up much enthusiasm about the 2015 General Election. It’s not just the looming Scottish referendum that is the problem. This Westminster campaign does not seem to be about anything in particular, far less nation-building.
Cameron offers a passable impression of being the manager of a small cardboard box company in the Midlands – effortlessly bland, reasonably competent, synthetically charming, and totally lacking in vision. Who cares? Miliband is tacking leftwards, to be sure, but you can’t believe his heart is in it. He offers retail politics: a potpourri of minor policy items but adding up to not very much in particular.
On strategic fiscal and monetary matters, there is little difference with the Tories. Here is Ed Balls speaking, not George Osborne: “We will have to govern with less money, which means the next Labour government will have to make cuts too… We will get the current budget into surplus as soon as possible in the next parliament… We will keep the benefits cap… We will cap structural social security spending.”
Of course, if there is a Yes vote on 18 September, all bets are off as far as the 2015 General Election goes. It is not even clear if Scottish MPs would get to take their seats. A putative Labour majority might find itself suddenly shorn of its necessary Scottish back-benchers. Equally, what moral authority would Scottish MPs have at Westminster?
Stand by for a UK National government to negotiate the terms of Scottish independence, followed by another general election in 2016?