Is the general election all over bar the shouting?
-Justin Fisher is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Magna Carta Institute at Brunel University. The opinions expressed are his own.-
With the election now just under seven months away, the starting guns for the campaign were fired at the party conferences. This general election looks like the most eagerly awaited since 1997, and could lead for some significant changes for each of the three largest parties.
The Conservatives have led in the polls since October 2007 (following “the election that never was”) and throughout 2009, the lead in YouGov’s polls has never fallen below 7 percent. On the face of it, it could appear that the Conservatives are home and dry. Yet, recent polls and the party conferences have thrown out some out some conflicting messages.
Labour’s conference, for example, appeared to demonstrate a surprising degree of party unity, buoyed no doubt by Peter Mandelson’s conference address. The party may be deeply concerned about its predicament (and some may be resigned to its apparent fate), but there was little of the obvious in-fighting that has characterised Labour over the past few years. Indeed, there seemed to be more of that at the Liberal Democrats’ gathering.
The Conservatives were surprisingly measured. Presumably they wanted to avoid charges of triumphalism. Ever since Neil Kinnock’s exuberance at the pre-1992 election rally, parties have feared such a charge (even though there is no real evidence that Kinnock’s behaviour made a jot of difference to the 1992 result).
The Conservatives also made the surprising decision for George Osborne’s speech to be fairly downbeat – promising significant cuts. This was an exercise in “telling it how it is”, they claimed, which would generate public support. They may be right, of course, but it could be a risky strategy.
Perhaps the trump card for the Conservatives, however, was leaving the leader’s speech until the last day of the conference, thereby maintaining interest in the conference and creating an air of expectation. What the Conservative conference also did was create much clearer water between the parties. Until now, the party has presented itself as occupying the middle ground without going into great detail.
Yet, David Cameron’s speech in places was more reminiscent of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her pomp. Out went the warm platitudes about environmentalism and in came savage attacks on “big government” and its apparent culpability in the current economic difficulties. The coming election may then have a more overtly ideological air than recent contests.
If the conferences gave us some slightly surprising messages, the polls too suggest the next few months are going to be a very interesting time. During the conference season, YouGov produced daily polls, which showed some fascinating trends.
As expected, the Lib Dems’ poll rating moved upwards during their conference (heightened exposure is usually beneficial to this party), and in days before the beginning of the Labour conference, the Lib Dems were very close to Labour. Indeed, one poll put Labour in third place. But the Lib Dem gains soon died away and they ended the conference season on the same rating as they began it.
Labour’s rating also rose during its conference. But critically, it also rose steadily during the Conservative one following Osborne’s speech, suggesting that the public may be squeamish about “telling it how it is” – even if they say that’s what they want. The Conservatives, by way of contrast, pretty much flat-lined until Cameron’s leader speech, which went down very well and restored the Conservative poll lead from 9 percent to a healthy 17 percent.
All of this suggests that the Conservative lead may be a little “softer” than has been commonly assumed. Polling data on the economy is also sending out some slightly conflicting messages. Generally speaking, incumbents have tended to benefit from rising levels of economic optimism. And the so-called “feelgood factor” is rising rapidly in Britain. Bearing in mind that the net score of “optimists minus pessimists” rarely rises much above zero – even in boom periods – it is significant that the YouGov index has risen from -63 in September 2008 to -16 in September 2009.
There is generally a lag between upturns in optimism and upturns in incumbent support, so this should benefit Labour closer to the election (though equally, we might have to have seen Labour’s poll rating rise more already). Coupled with this, the government is receiving increasing credit for its action over the financial crash.
According to YouGov, a growing proportion is of the view that the government’s measures are working. Again, this should benefit Labour in the coming months. Yet, one of the other key economic indicators in elections is that of economic competence – who do you think will run the economy most successfully? Here, the gap in favour of the Conservatives is widening, suggesting electoral trouble for the government.
These difficult circumstances have prompted Gordon Brown to call for televised leaders’ debates. We’ve been here before, of course. But previously, the calls have always come from the opposition. In many ways, Brown has little to lose but everything to gain if these debates occur.
Cameron is a much more popular leader, so if Brown “loses” the debate, it will make little difference. But if he outperforms Cameron, he could do his party’s prospects significant good. David Cameron is the Conservative’s trump card – he is a very popular leader.
But, the Conservative Party is not as popular as him, and if Brown makes some ground in these debates, the election may just be a little less predictable than current polls suggest. Gordon Brown and Labour are still well on the back foot, but with just under seven months to go, there may be still be some surprises come next May.