Parties, swings and roundabouts
With the polls too close to call, writes Eddie Ford, neither Labour nor Tory strategists can be happy
Now that their manifestoes have been published, the general election contenders are bombarding us with pledges.
David Cameron has promised to scrap inheritance tax on homes worth up to £1 million, spend an “extra” £8 billion on the NHS by 2020 and resurrect the dream of a property-owning democracy by giving 1.3 million housing association residents, mainly very poor, the right to buy: zombie Thatcherism. As for Ed Miliband, he is now portraying Labour as the party of “fiscal responsibility” that will cut the deficit every year. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats have said they would not form a coalition with the Tories if they insist on forcing through £12 billion in cuts to social security - rather, it should be £3 billion. Nick Clegg claims that his party will add “heart to a Tory coalition” and “brain to a Labour one”.
Though we are told by some that there is a “stark” choice facing voters on May 8,1 in reality the current general election battle does not amount to much more than managerial politics - the actual substantive difference between all the parties is pretty narrow. “Seven leaders and not one socialist”, as this publication said last week about the seven-way TV debate. True, the United Kingdom Independence Party and its “low tax revolution” may be to the right of the Tories, and the Greens with their “peaceful political revolution” are currently to the left of Labour - but that is essentially a matter of shading, not distinct lines of demarcation or competing world views. Sorry, Socialist Resistance and other such comrades, but the Greens are not socialist or a working class party in any meaningful way whatsoever.
One thing is for certain, however, which is that the outcome of the general election is near impossible to predict - an unprecedented situation in many respects. For instance, an “exclusive” poll conducted on April 11 by The Daily Telegraph has Labour and the Tories almost exactly level-pegging - the latter on 31.8% whilst Labour have 31.7%. A week before, the same survey had the Tories on 32% and Labour on 31% - too close to call. Similarly, an April 13 Lord Ashcroft poll has both parties deadlocked on 33%.2
Interestingly, these polls raise the possibility that one of the parties could lose the popular vote yet still end up with the majority of seats in the House of Commons - complicating the Lib Dems’ promise to let the party that wins the election have “first go” at forming a government and/or a coalition, especially given their historic commitment to voting reform (ie, proportional presentation). Anything is possible, so to speak, with the ‘first past the post’ voting system, in a period where electoral support for the mainstream parties is visibly eroding.
Then again, other polls in recent weeks have come out with quite different results. Hence a Panelbase survey on April 9 had Labour with a 6% lead and a Survation poll for the Mirror on the same day has the party with a 4% advantage - though the same poll shows Cameron retaining a 12% lead on the question of who would make the best prime minister. But proving that it is all swings and roundabouts, an ICM telephone poll conducted on April 13 puts the Tories ahead by 6% - with support for the Lib Dems unchanged on 8% and Ukip dropping two points to 7%, which leaves them tied for fourth place with the Greens (the latter recovering by three points after having fallen to just 4% in March).3
As an aside, it is worth noting that telephone and internet polls tend to come out with different results - amongst other things, telephones favour the Tories and the internet inclines towards Labour.4 Thus the current 10-day average among telephone polls has the Tories securing 35.5%, with Labour on 33.5%, but the average online polls have the Conservatives trailing by two points (34% to 32%). The Lib Dems on 8% more or less get the same level of support regardless of which polling technique is used, but the story is quite different when it comes to Ukip and the Greens. The latter only average 4.5% with online firms, but get 6% with telephone polls, whilst the situation for Ukip is reversed: it averages a very respectable 15.5% with internet polling, yet slumps to 11% over the phone. Phone polls have tended to be more accurate: in 2010, for example, they were in general closer to the final outcome (internet surveys overestimated Lib Dem support to quite a degree). Of course, polling methods are bound to change if only for the simple reason that internet polling is considerably cheaper, can collect more data quicker and panels become increasingly representative of a population, as they grow in size.
Anyhow, the wider political significance of these varying polls is that any increase or decrease in levels of support for the minor parties could possibly determine the fortunes of either Labour or the Tories. Fairly obviously, any drop in Ukip support is more likely to benefit David Cameron’s electoral chances and, where the opposite is the case (higher Ukip, lower Greens), Labour would normally expect to gain. The Lib Dems do seem to be regaining a measure of support, getting up to 14% in some polls. Meanwhile, as indicated above, backing for the Greens and Ukip appears on average to be slipping - from a peak of about 18%, Ukip is now at 12% or less; the Greens are down to 5% or thereabouts from a previous high of around 8%. Indeed, it is far from impossible that both Ukip and the Greens might end up with no MPs at all between them - indicting the manifestly dysfunctional electoral system. Smaller parties like the Greens and Ukip might be able to win by-elections here and there, but in a general election resources of such parties have to be spread over many constituencies.
Overall though, most polls give Labour either a slight lead or show them level with the Tories. For what it is worth, at the time of writing TheGuardian’s updated average of recent polls puts the Conservatives on 33.7% and Labour on 33.6% - but only because of that ICM result heavily skewing the results towards the Tories.5 Translated into seats, or insofar as you can make such a calculation, the Conservatives are marginally ahead on 272, with Labour on 269, while the Lib Dems have 29, Ukip 4 and the Greens one. With 650 seats in the Westminster parliament, you currently need 323 MPs to win a vote of confidence - assuming that once more there will be five Sinn Féin MPs who do not take up their seats.
Neither Labour nor the Tories can be happy with the poll findings, as they indicate failing strategies. With Labour, we have its notorious - or at least strongly rumoured - ‘35%’ approach: that is, the task is to secure the 29% of voters who backed Labour in the 2010 general election, and then add on another six per cent of Lib Dem or other defectors in order to inch over the winning line. Thinking big. Labour’s last election victory in 2005, which saw it win a majority of 66 seats, was achieved on a vote share of 35.2%. If that is the plan, then Labour is consistently short by a couple of percentage points.
Nor are the Tories doing much better - worse if anything. The Lynton Crosby-directed strategy of endlessly going on about the economic recovery, about how the good times are just about to happen, and there must be no return to Labour “madness”, does not appear to be reaping any particular rewards in the polls. Nor have the personalised attacks on Ed Miliband paid off. According to the script, dutifully followed by the rightwing press, the Labour leader should have completely crumbled under the pressure by now - revealed as a gaffe-prone idiot who is not prime minister material.
In other words, the Tories are guilty of mixing their messages. On the one hand, Miliband is incompetent. On the other hand, as pointed out back in January by Chris Patten, former chairman of both the Conservative Party and the BBC - they should fear the Labour leader, not Nigel Farage, as Miliband is “highly intelligent” and a “good debater”.6 Hence Cameron’s fear of a two-way debate with him. As a result, the Tories and their media supporters are getting a bit desperate. Firstly, we had both the Mail and Telegraph claiming on April 10 to have uncovered the unsavoury secrets of Miliband’s “tangled love life” - which turned out, in the words of Times columnist Janice Turner, to be the rather uninteresting fact that before he was married he had “dated a bunch of hot, clever and successful women”.7 If the Tory press thought that was going to dent the Labour leader’s support, then they really are losing touch.
Then we had the pathetic comments by Michael Fallon, the defence secretary. He suggested that the Labour leader would betray his country in the same way that he apparently stabbed his brother, David, in the back during the Labour leadership elections - by “bartering away” the Trident missile system in return for a deal with the Scottish National Party that would see him into Downing Street. As one commentator put it, apart from being a move that saw the Tories “retoxified” as the nasty party, this just highlighted the Tory “confusion” about Miliband - is he a “useless dweeb or a power-hungry cad?”8
But the big story about the general election is Scotland, of course. According to the very latest surveys, the SNP is on 52%- giving the party an overwhelming 28-point lead over Labour north of the border.9 Support for the Conservatives is at 13%, down one point, with the Lib Dems up three points to 6% - and the Scottish Greens have dipped by one point to 3%. Unsurprisingly, support for Ukip in Scotland is negligible. Ominously for Miliband and Jim Murphy, there is strong evidence that the growth in SNP support is mainly attributable to disaffected Labour supporters. The last time any party won by such a margin was during the 1955 general election, when the Tories got 50.1% of the vote in Scotland.10
The SNP may now be on the cusp of that sort of victory - presently projected to win 54 of Scotland’s 59 seats, effectively wiping out Labour. Or, to look at it another way, whether optimistically or pessimistically, the combined Labour-SNP share of seats in Westminster is 326 - enough to survive a confidence vote, albeit uncomfortably close.11 The total Conservative-Lib Dem share, however, has fallen below 300 seats, and even by gathering up all possible sources of support - Ukip’s four seats and the Democratic Unionist Party’s nine - David Cameron has an uphill task to get the bare minimum needed to form a viable government. But certainly not impossible, depending on the exact way that the votes fall.
According to convention, the largest party in the Commons gets the first bite of the cherry. There has been premature talk of a deal between Labour and the SNP, but clearly Ed Miliband would much prefer to come to some sort of arrangement with the Lib Dems - assuming they are not reduced to an ineffectual rump that can nearly fit once again into the proverbial London black cab. It is surely the case that, apart from Nick Clegg, most senior Lib Dems - let alone the ordinary membership - would be a lot happier to find themselves in partnership with Labour as opposed to the Tories. Vince Cable, after all, used to a Labour member - in 1970 he unsuccessfully contested Glasgow Hillhead and nine years later he sought the Labour nomination for Hampstead, losing out to a certain Ken Livingstone (who failed to take the seat).
Talking of the Lib Dems, we in the CPGB have to admit to being surprised by the lack of splits within the party - eg, no crossing of the floor to Labour. We were also wrong to think that the Lib Dems under Clegg would be a purely slave party, with the Tories perhaps giving them a clear run in certain constituencies. Apparently, there is now some talk of a post-election split over the coalition issue (why did we do it?), but for the time being the party remains united and disciplined.
Yes, if there was a Labour-SNP deal of some description after the general election, that would give the establishment the heebie-jeebies - even if a less panicky section might regard it as an opportunity to tame the SNP by incorporating it into the Westminster fold. But, having said that, there is no doubt that the SNP leadership is anticipating another referendum in the fairly near future - definitely not a generation away. From this separatist perspective, a Tory-led government would make more sense. Quite clearly, it would make an independence campaign/vote much harder if the SNP were constantly propping up a Labour government in the Commons over this or that bill l
1. Polly Toynbee, ‘Blair-plus? Hardly. This is a bold, persuasive manifesto’ The Guardian April 12.
3. The Guardian April 13.
8. Jonathan Freedland, ‘The Tories’ wobble shows they don’t know how to fight Ed Miliband’ The Guardian April 10.
10. Or, more accurately, the combined votes of both the Unionist and National Liberal and Conservative parties.