Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Labour's Election Prospects

In last Sunday's Observer, Nick Cohen challenges the conventional wisdom that the Conservatives, on present trajectory, haven't a prayer of winning the next election - assumed to be held at some point in the spring of 2005.

Cohen argues that the "anti-Tory coalition is falling apart", by which he means that the Iraq war has divided the centre-left with the Lib Dems nominally opposed to the foreign policy direction of the Blair government. He makes the point that, whereas in 1997 and 2001 Labour supporters were prepared to vote Lib Dem to defeat the Tories, this won't hold the other way: anti-war Liberals won't be prepared to reciprocate this time round.

He also argues that the Tories are in better shape than they seem (or as he puts it: "they aren't as "ugly, boring or stupid as they look"). To support this he points to the fact that they're more united and mobilised behind issues such as Europe, fox-hunting and asylum than they were in previous elections; he also notes the strange trend - found in at least the last four or five elections - for pollsters to consistently underestimate the level of Tory support in the country.

He then - before pointing to evidence that Gordon Brown would be more popular with the electorate - re-inforces the point that the "luvvies-for-Labour" phenomenon that we saw in the last two elections is likely to be absent this time.

Now, while being mindful that nothing is certain in politics (events, dear boy, events...), and being aware it might just be wishful thinking on my part, twenty quid says Nick Cohen is wrong for the following reasons:

Cohen refers to an "anti-Tory" coalition - but one could just as easily speak of an anti-Labour coalition and this is surely a more disparate and divided group? The Tories - having supported the war have attempted to back-track, with Michael Howard quoted as saying "if I'd known then what I know now, I wouldn't have voted for the war". This, it should go without saying, is hardly a coherent position - given that the Tories only know what they know now because of the invasion of Iraq. But the most important point here is that it isn't just me that thinks so: the story of the by-elections so far is not so much why is the Governenment doing badly but why aren't the Tories doing better? To form a government at the next election, the Tories really should be able to capitalise on Labour's difficulties. But they haven't, which leaves the Liberals...

Personally, I don't think the Lib Dems have a coherent position on the war either (they opposed it on the principle of UN-based legalism, which is fair enough - except they supported the Kosovo campaign, which didn't have UN cover either) but unlike with the Tories, it apparently is only me that thinks so; they have, without question, benefited electorally from their opposition to the war. However, there is good reason to think that this will not translate into their most ardently wished-for fantasy: to replace the Tories as the main opposition. For one thing, the Liberals can't quite decide whether they are a party of the centre-left of centre-right. This reflects the division within the party between social democrats and assorted hippies of various kinds and libertarian free-marketeers. To overcome this ambiguity, the Libs are fond of saying that they are beyond the conventional division between left and right in politics. But the left and right division does exist - and simply pretending that it doesn't isn't going to make it go away.

The other problem with Cohen's analysis is that it fails to take account of how voting preferences tend to change in the run-up to elections: whilst in mid-term, people tend to think in terms of "us", i.e. the "people" - and "them", i.e. "the government"; whereas when campaigning begins in earnest, the electorate see the parties much more in terms of representing a choice. In previous elections, this usually has translated into more support for the incumbents as people begin to think about the alternatives more.

Finally, on this point, I would argue that Cohen is over-estimated the impact of Iraq on the electorate. He has personal reasons for doing so, being one of the few left-wingers to give strong support for regime-change. But he should realise that foreign policy falls way down on the list of voters' priorities - behind the economy, crime, health-care and education, even in such a divisive war as this one has been.

And it is this understanding that makes me think he's wrong about the Tories as well; they may well be united on the issues of Europe and asylum (on the former, I'd disagree anyway) but the hapless Mr. Hague discovered that this is not enough to win the electorate over. It's doubly problematic for the Tories because it's not that people don't agree with the Tories on this issue; all the polls suggest they do - it's just that these issues aren't nearly as important as taxes, the economy, health and education: on all of these, Labour is ahead.

My money's still on a Labour victory, with a reduced majority. The basis of my argument is that people, if anything, have under-estimated the depths to which Tory fortunes have sunk. They have an ageing membership; their by-election results have been poor; they are still divided on Europe (this, combined with the percieved threat from Ukip, may push them into banging on about an issue that most voters don't really care about); and - above all - they have never regained their reputation for economic competence since the ERM debacle. Who was it that said: "it's the economy, stupid"?

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