The polls still aren’t looking good for the Tories

It shouldn’t be, but this election remains close.

So there I was on Friday night, sitting next to Kelvin MacKenzie on the BBC News Channel's new Campaign Show, listening to the ex-Sun editor and right-wing rabble-rouser claiming that the Tories had "won" the first week.

His evidence? The next morning's YouGov daily tracker poll for the Sun, showing a 10-point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. The BBC's Laura Kuenssberg, who was also in the studio, chipped in to remind us -- and the viewers -- that even Alistair Darling had praised George Osborne's tactical brilliance in the opening days of the campaign.

But even in the midst of general election campaigns, politicians, and political correspondents, remain permanent residents of the bubble often referred to as the "Westminster village" (or, in the United States, "inside the Beltway"). Last week's "row" over National Insurance, for instance, dominated the political and media debate, but as the Indie's Johann Hari tweeted over the weekend, "I haven't heard a single real person talking about this National Insurance row. Has anyone? Amazing how pol coverage ignores real concerns."

So let's look at some of the weekend's polls that Kelvin was so keen to highlight as evidence for his claim that the Tories are "winning". The YouGov 10-point lead for the Tories on Satuday dropped to 8 points on Sunday and is down to 6 points today. The ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror showed the Conservatives ahead by 7 points, suggesting Cameron would be 15 seats short of a majority.

A BPIX poll in the Mail on Sunday also gave the Tories a 7-point lead. An ICM poll of the marginals for the News of the World, despite being spun by the Murdoch-owned paper as "good news" for Cameron, gave the Tories a 6 per cent swing from Labour in those seats -- 2 per cent down since January. Meanwhile, our own New Statesman poll of polls suggests a Tory lead, nationally, of a little over 7 points. It's difficult to disagree with a Bloomberg headline from yesterday:

UK Polls Before Manifestos Point to Hung Parliament

(Interestingly, as John Rentoul points out on his blog, eight out of eight of the nation's top pollsters have publicly predicted a Tory majority, not a hung parliament. Do they not believe their own "data"? Or is there something they know that they're not telling us? John has a useful guide to the opinion polls here. And as my old friend Alex Barker of the FT points out: "A unanimous consensus is always something to be wary of, particularly when it doesn't quite reflect the evidence available." Groupthink alert!)

So where is this imagined Tory boost, outside of the ICM poll in the Sunday Telegraph showing the Tories had doubled their lead over Labour to 8 points over the past weeks (but, with a 38 per cent share of the vote, still below the crucial 40 per cent share need to guarantee a parliamentary majority)? Where are the swing voters flocking to Cameronomics, with its intriguing combination of tax cuts, efficiency savings and deficit reduction?

According to the ComRes poll in yesterday's Sunday Mirror, the public don't seem to agree with the Westminster consensus that Osborne is getting the better of Darling, or the media consensus on Saint Vince as the best man for No 11:

Alistair Darling was voted the best chancellor with 23 per cent in our poll. Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable was second on 21 per cent with Mr Osborne trailing in third place with the support of just 19 per cent of those surveyed. The remaining 37 per cent are listed as "don't knows".

I think it was a mistake for Darling to concede, even if only on a tactical level, the first week of the campaign to the Tories. So far, this election campaign has been more like a phoney war, with no real blows landed by either side. I mean, will anyone actually remember Stuart MacLennan on 6 May, for example? I doubt it. The (unprecedented) televised leaders' debates starting this Thursday, however, could be game-changers.

Fingers crossed.

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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle