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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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war