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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.