Now relax, it's a dead cert

The voters may be disappointed with Labour, but they believe it can do better in a second term

Here is an election forecast. In less than three months, Tony Blair will lead Labour to an unprecedented second full-term of office. Not new Labour, but plain vanilla social democratic Labour. Moreover, Labour's majority will be of landslide, not merely decisive, proportions. That is the inescapable conclusion of any dispassionate analysis of January's six opinion polls.

Not convinced? Consider the following psephological exhibits.

First, the January polls average out at Labour 49 per cent, Conservatives 32 per cent. This would swell Labour's current majority of 179 to 229, if converted into seats on election day. Labour's 17-point lead is identical to the lead it enjoyed at the same moment before the 1997 election. No postwar government has been so far ahead four months before an election, not even the post-Falklands Thatcher government in early 1983.

Second, no opposition party has come anywhere near closing a gap of that size in the run-up to the election. Most voters have decided by now, and the rest will largely cancel out. Moreover, except at snap elections, governments invariably improve their position slightly, as disappointed supporters come off the fence and return to the party fold. The one exception was 1979, when the winter of discontent killed off the limping Callaghan government, but even that was worth only 7-8 points to the Conservative opposition.

Third, if the media presidentialise the election into Blair v Hague, Labour wins hands down. Voters may tell the pollsters that Blair is smug, arrogant and out of touch, but in the same breath they say that Hague is weak, opportunistic and wholly implausible as a prime minister. By a 20-point margin, they prefer Blair as the next prime minister. This is double his 10-point margin over Major in January 1997 and larger, for that matter, than either Thatcher's or Major's edge over Kinnock before the 1987 and 1992 elections.

Fourth, personal economic optimism is on the upswing. At +8, the "feel-good" index (the percentage of optimists minus the percentage of pessimists) may seem modest. But it is higher than at the same point before the Conservatives were re-elected in 1983 (-3), 1987 (+7) and 1992 (+2). Personal economic optimism has been an astonishingly reliable predictor of electoral support for governments since the 1970s. The imminent cut in interest (and mortgage) rates, combined with 3 per cent growth and 1.5 per cent inflation, makes it set to rise further.

Yet nobody, including Millbank, quite believes the figures. Labour's growing lead is seen as souffle about to collapse. Focus groups emit a disappointed, weary scepticism. Friendly academics such as Patrick Dunleavy, writing in the Sunday Business, sketch nightmare scenarios of inaccurate polls, big Labour abstentions, and the waning of tactical voting.

Labour's huge lead looks suspect because it appears to be at variance with what voters increasingly think about Labour's record. Disaffection with the government began in early 2000 and has accelerated since. Every month until that time, according to Gallup, more people were satisfied than dissatisfied with the government's record, and believed it to be honest and trustworthy rather than not. Since then, the balance of opinion has been consistently negative.

Thus, the same MORI/Mail on Sunday poll that gave Labour an 18-point lead in late January reported a clear majority disagreeing that the government has "upheld high standards in public life" (52 to 41 per cent) or was "whiter than white" (84 to 10 per cent). The mid-January MORI/Sunday Telegraph poll reveals a parallel contradiction on the NHS. For the first time during the Blair government, more were "dissatisfied" than "satisfied" with the NHS, with majorities believing that the government had broken its pledge to cut waiting-lists and that hospitals had become dirtier. Yet when it came to voting intentions, the identical group of respondents put Labour 21 points ahead.

The apparent contradiction is fairly straightforward. Ask voters to judge the Blair government against some ideal standard and the response soon turns negative. Ask the same voters to compare the government with the opposition and the response, although still negative, looks very different. The mid-January NOP/Sunday Times poll asked whether the NHS is better or worse than it was four years ago: 34 per cent said worse, 31 per cent said better. But asked which of the two main parties they would trust most to look after the service, Labour trounced the Conservatives by 56 to 26 per cent. Why?

The clue lies in the same voters' response to a third question. Asked if they thought the NHS would be better or worse after another four years of Labour, 50 per cent said worse, 24 per cent said better. It is not simply, or even primarily, distrust of the Conservatives that makes Labour the default party for the health service. Disgruntled about the present, Britain's supposedly hard-bitten and cynical voters retain a residual optimism that a second Labour administration will deliver.

The same pattern applies to the other public services. Poll after poll reports that most people are unhappy about the government's record on public transport, policing and, though less strongly, schools. Yet, as the table on page 11 shows, the voters' trust in Labour rather than the Conservatives to improve these services has remained remarkably intact since April 1997, just before Labour was elected. (And the figures are based on a poll last November, when the government was less popular.)

Despite its patchy record, Labour has moved further ahead of the Conservatives as the party for education, law and order and (surprisingly) defence. On health and transport, which have rightly borne the brunt of media criticism, Labour's lead has slightly slipped, but it remains substantial.

Most significantly, Labour has surged ahead as the party to run the economy. In April 1997, Labour still trailed the Conservatives, by a 7-point margin; last November, it was preferred by an 18-point margin. Every previous Labour government, with the partial exception of 1945, has ended after a single term with a record of economic failure, its reputation for governing competence irreparably damaged. Not this time.

Here lies the source of Labour's prospects of comfortable re-election. Campaigning on the economy alone would almost certainly deliver a decisive majority. Campaigning on promises to improve public services alone would probably produce a win.

Combining both into the simple message that the first Labour government has produced the strong economy that a second Labour government will use to fund public services should have a double appeal, enough to deliver the second landslide signalled by the polls. In Britain, "it's the economy plus public services, stupid".

Ivor Crewe is the vice-chancellor and professor of government at the University of Essex. He will be commenting regularly on the polls for the NS in the run-up to the general election