Electoral future shrouded in mystery
-Justin Fisher is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Magna Carta Institute at Brunel University. The opinions expressed are his own.-
Barring a huge surprise, it seems most likely that the general election will be held on 6th May 2010 — the same day as the local elections.
Quite apart from the saving to the public purse in holding simultaneous elections, there is also a potential advantage for Labour in that turnout should be a little higher than if elections were held on separate days.
Labour voters have tended to be more ready to abstain in the past than their Conservative counterparts, though the impact of higher turnout will, in truth, probably be enjoyed more by candidates in local elections than those in the general election.
Less certain is the outcome of the election, though it is likely is that the election contest itself will be very exciting.
Elections where there are potential changes of government are always exciting up to a point, but the uncertainties of this contest make 2010 particularly compelling.
In some ways, it is a surprise that the outcome should be so uncertain. After all, the Conservatives have been fairly comfortably ahead in the polls for over two years and after David Cameron’s speech at the party’s conference, they recorded a poll lead of some 17%.
At the end of 2009, most polls put the party’s lead at around 10%, roughly the same as it was at the end of 2008, but some way below the halcyon days of leads in excess of 20% that were recorded not so long ago.
The lead is still sizeable, but recent polls suggest a trend of the shrinking of the Conservative lead. This may well continue – and four months is a long time.
Coupled with the narrowing of the Conservative lead is the issue of electoral geography. The Conservatives face a few problems, here.
One issue is the distribution of the Conservative vote — in the pure terms of electoral success, it is not distributed as ‘efficiently’ as that of Labour — large majorities are often piled up in safe Conservative seats, meaning that high vote shares may not translate so easily into high seat shares.
The boundary reviews which are incorporated into the forthcoming election will help a little, but the problem will still remain.
Coupled with that is the sheer number of seats that the Conservatives need to win from other parties. While the party made some headway in the 2005 election, it is still worth noting that the Conservatives won fewer seats in 2005 than Labour did in its electoral nadir of 1983.
From this base — and assuming that they do not lose any seats — the Conservatives still need make around 120 gains just to enjoy a tiny majority.
That figure brings with it certain challenges. Repeated evidence shows that intense campaigning at constituency level yields electoral payoffs, but only if those efforts are targeted effectively at the seats that the party most needs to win.
Previously, the Conservatives have fallen short in this respect, sometimes running their strongest campaigns in their safest seats.
The party has improved here, with better targeting, and this trend looks set to continue with the active organisational input of Michael Ashcroft. However, effective targeting also requires effective central management — research indicates that central coordination is key to constituency level success overall.
However, as the number of target seats rises, it becomes more difficult to coordinate and resource targets effectively — party resources are finite and become more stretched as the number of target seats increases.
In 1997, for example, Labour’s target list amounted to around 90 seats and the party’s electoral strategy was implemented very successfully.
In 2001, Labour had over 140 targets and the impact of its constituency campaign efforts was significantly lower. Given that the Conservatives need to gain around 150 seats to enjoy a majority that Labour currently enjoys, the effective management of these targets will be no mean feat.
And what of Labour? Will Gordon Brown’s ‘better the devil you know’ strategy pay off? Certainly, it is the case that economic optimism is continuing to rise pretty rapidly.
This time last year the net score (optimists minus pessimists) for the household financial situation over the next twelve months was -46. It now stands at -13. And longer term projections are also improving — YouGov asks people how well off they think they’ll be in three years or so — the current net score is +10 and rising.
The economic competence gap between Labour and the Conservatives is also narrowing (albeit quite slowly) — the Conservatives are now ahead by nine percentage points compared with fourteen last summer.
And, the government continues to see the fruits of its anti-recessionary measures. Despite a small dip in December, increasing numbers regard these as being effective. If, as expected, economic figures in January suggest that Britain is (at least temporally) out of recession, this will be a significant boost for Labour.
But for all these pieces of good news for the government, Labour too, has problems. It is, after all, still well behind in the polls.
Gordon Brown remains relatively unpopular and rather fewer people trust Labour to make the right decisions on tax and spending than the Conservatives. Most people expect taxes to go up after the election, but more expect this to happen under Labour. And, of course, Labour has to defend large numbers of vulnerable seats.
Just under 90 Labour seats can be classed as marginal in the traditional sense (with a majority of less than 10%).
All in all, from the vantage point of early January 2010, the election result is anything but certain. Both major parties face very significant challenges, and the outcome may well be a second election within 12 months of this May.