The election is not on a knife edge

Written by Dan Hodges on 30 January 2015 in Opinion
Opinion
  

Forget the hype. The 2015 general election is not balanced on a knife edge. Nor is it  “too close to call”. Barring a political deus ex machina, the only question that now remains is will the Tories manage to secure a majority, or will they be returned to government as part of a coalition or  a minority administration.
 
Labour’s hopes died this week. And not just because we have finally reached “crossover”, the point where the Tories poll ratings finally nudge ahead of Labour. Polls go up and polls go down. We can expect a switchback ride between now and polling day. But slowly and surely the Tories are expanding the electoral envelope. They are starting to break 33% - 34% consistently - within touching distance of the 36% people claimed was impossible for an incumbent government.
 
Labour’s poll rating, meanwhile, is heading in the opposite direction. And there is a reason for this. As polling day approaches, the voters are beginning to tune Labour out. There have been many times over the past four and a half years where Labour MPs and advisors have excitedly told journalists “we have earned the right to be listened to” on issue x or y. And perhaps that was the case. But people aren’t listening now.
 
Before Christmas Labour strategists were convinced George Osborne had blundered. The decision to cut public expenditure to a percentage of GDP not see since the 1930s had presented them with an opening. Then they saw a new opportunity. The long predicted winter bed crisis finally materialised. For a week it dominated the news bulletins. Labour hammered home the message “you can’t trust the Tries with the NHS”.
 
And nothing happened. Labour’s poll ratings continued to fall, and the Tories continued to edge up. For all the talk of political moulds being broken, what we are currently witnessing is political gravity starting to re-assert itself.
 
To believe the next election will result in anything other than a Tory victory, you have to believe the following three things. First, that there will be no further organic decline in Labour support. And to do so flies in the face of historic precedent. This week, the Telegraph’s James Kirkup produced an informative  graph that showed with only one exception, in every election since 1992 Labour has ended up with worst support on polling day than at the 100 day from the election mark. In 1997 it dropped 13 points. In 1992, 8 points. In 2001, 7 points. In 2005 ,3 points. The exception was 2010, where Gordon Brown managed to claw back a single point.
 
The second thing you have to believe is that there will be no “Prime Minister Miliband” factor. That when it comes to the moment of decision, and undecided pens waver over ballot boxes, the prospect of Ed Miliband actually taking up residence in No 10. Downing Street will have no influence. Again, that requires quite a mental leap.

To put things in context, based on Ipsos Mori’s polling of opposition leader’s approval ratings, just before the 1983 election Michael Foot had an approval rating of -39. In 1987 Neil Kinnock was -30. In 1992 he was -7. In 1997 Blair was +22. In 2001  Hague was -29. In 2005 Howard was -10. And in 2010 Cameron was +3. Since 1979 no opposition leader who has had a negative approval rating has gone on to become Prime Minister. Ed Miliband’s current approval rating stands at -35.
 
The third thing you have to believe is that between now and polling day there will be no further transfer of votes from Ukip to the Conservatives, or from Labour to the Lib Dems. I personally thought we would only see the Tories edging into the lead when Ukip switchers began to return to the Tory fold, and that we would not see that happening until relatively close to polling day. But in fact, the Tories have moved ahead before we’ve even seen any significant decline in Ukip’s poll share.

This week Ukip have been polling in the range 14% - 16%. Ukip will not poll at that level – or anything like that level – come polling day. And the broad rule of thumb is that the Tories reclaim Ukip voters by a ratio of around 2:1 over Labour. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems currently remain marooned on 8%. It is inconceivable that they will not see at least a marginal recovery from that position. And whatever support they do recoup will come primarily at Labour’s expense.
 
The problem is the “too close to call” narrative is simply too seductive. It stirs the blood, tightens the sinews. “Which way could it go?! Who knows?! Can Labour hang on? Will Cameron sneak past? Can the Lib Dems save themselves? Will the People’s Army storm the Westminster battlements? What about the Green surge? And the Tartan surge?”.
 
But step back, and what do we see? We see – sorry to use a proscribed phrase – politics more or less as usual. A government takes some unpopular decisions, experiences a mid-term slump, it then loosens the purse strings as polling day approaches, its support recovers, the opposition runs out of steam, the voters shrug and say “better the devil we know”.
 
We’ve seen it before. And we’re seeing it now. Believe the next election is on an knife edge if you want. But it’s not.

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