Why the Tories are wrong to hope for a Thatcher-style poll recovery

Unlike Thatcher in the 1980s, the current Conservative Party does not enjoy the advantage of a divided left.

Having trailed Labour in every poll since 18 March (three days before George Osborne's fateful Budget), the Conservatives are consoling themselves with the thought that they have been here before. Margaret Thatcher, they recall, often lagged behind in the polls but twice recovered to win landslide victories in 1983 and 1987. At the Conservative conference earlier this month, David Cameron told a 1922 Committee/ConservativeHome reception that between 1983 and 1987, the Tories averaged just 24 per cent in the polls but went on to win a majority of 102 seats at the election. While he would "settle for less than that", he believed that "boundaries or no boundaries", the Tories could win. It's not just Cameron who is seeking to strike a more optimistic tone. Ken Clarke recently told the cabinet that "he had never been in a government that had been more popular at mid-term." With unemployment and inflation down, and the economy out of recession (although for how long remains to be seen), some Tories are beginning to dream of a majority again. But a closer analysis of the polls suggests that they're wrong to be so sanguine.

First, it's unclear which polls Cameron is referring to when he claims that the Tories averaged support of 24 per cent between 1983 and 1987. As UK Polling Report's comprehensive archive of polls shows, only once (on 12 August 1985) did backing for the party fall this low. Cameron probably meant to say that support for the Tories averaged 24 per cent at this stage in Thatcher's second term (as his personal pollster Andrew Cooper is reported to have told the cabinet), but even this claim doesn't stand up. In 1985, support for the party more often stood at around 33 per cent. The Thatcher recovery was not as great as the Tories suggest.

Second, unlike Thatcher, the current Conservative Party does not enjoy the advantage of a divided left. One of the biggest obstacles to a Labour majority in the 1980s was the strength of the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which won 25.4 per cent of the vote in the 1983 election and 22.6 per cent in 1987. It is the present weakness of the Lib Dems that is one of the biggest obstacles to a Conservative majority.

While it is the Tories who are in second place in most Lib Dem seats (38 compared to 17 for Labour), any gains they make from Nick Clegg's party are likely to be outweighed by the gains Labour makes as Lib Dem defectors carry the party to victory in Tory marginals (see Rob Ford's recent post "Who benefits from a Lib Dem collapse?" for more on this). We are seeing this trend at work in the Corby by-election, where a recent poll by Lord Ashcroft found that support for Labour had risen from 39 per cent to 54 per cent since the general election, while support for the Lib Dems had plummeted from 15 per cent to five per cent. Corby is one of 38 Labour-Tory marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory, showing the potential for Miliband's party to make significant gains even if Clegg's party partially recovers before 2015. In addition, while existing Lib Dem MPs, many of whom enjoy large local followings, are likely to benefit from an incumbency effect, it is the Tories, not Labour, who will suffer as a result (as I noted, Cameron's party is in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats).

Finally, while the Conservatives' core vote has held up better than many expected (the latest YouGov poll puts them on 33 per cent, down just three per cent since the general election), there is no evidence of the party advancing beyond this. The Tories are still in retreat in those areas – the north, Wales, Scotland – that denied them a majority at the last election. Rather than drawing false comfort from history, the Conservatives should focus on adopting the policies needed to change this, something they currently show little sign of doing.

The Conservatives hope that David Cameron, like Margaret Thatcher, will overturn Labour's poll lead before the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times