Why the Tories shouldn't assume that history means they'll win in 2015

Past trends suggest the Tories should overtake Labour, but history is a less helpful guide to this election than any other.

After the Tories ended 2013 trailing Labour in the polls for the fourth Christmas in a row, former Downing Street strategist Andrew Cooper (the founder of Populus) his attempted to raise his party's spirits by posting a series of electoral stats that appear to suggest Miliband is destined for defeat in 2015. They are: 

All of these are true and reason to be sceptical of predictions of Labour victory, but none of them suggest defeat for Miliband's party is inevitable, or even that a Tory victory is more likely than a Labour one. 

Labour hasn't polled over 50% under Miliband (its highest rating to date is 46%, achieved in a MORI poll in November 2012) but in what looks increasingly like a four-party system, with UKIP consistently polling around 12%, this matters less than Cooper suggests. In a divided system, dramatically changed from the days when the Tories and Labour won 97% of the vote between them (as in 1951), parties no longer need a high share of the vote to win. When Tony Blair won a third term in 2005 he did so with just 35% of the vote, the lowest share of any winning party in British electoral history. With the boundaries unchanged, Labour could conceivably win a majority with as little as 34%. (Pollsters have also adjusted their methods to take account of "shy Tories", which had previously inflated Labour's vote).

To this, Cooper's riposte is that the UKIP surge will prove transitory. "UKIP got 17% in 2009 Euro elections & 3% in GE the following year, 16% in 04 Euros & 2% in GE the next year," he tweeted. But while UKIP is unlikely to poll above 10%, it will almost certainly improve on its 2010 performance and poll well above 5%, enough to inflict significant damage on the Tories. 

For similar reasons, while Labour's vote share is likely to decline before May 2015 (it currently averages 38%), this does not represent a barrier to victory. One key point in the party's favour is the unusually low level of switching between the two main parties (just 5% of 2010 Conservative voters currently back Labour), with most of the increase in its support due to Lib Dem defectors. This means that falling support for Labour doesn't automatically translate into rising support for the Tories. 

The exodus of voters from Clegg's party (what I call Labour's "firewall") is the main reason why, despite suffering its second worst defeat since 1918 at the last election, Labour has now led in the polls for more than three years. Significantly, as Lord Ashcroft's recent study of 2010 Lib Dem supporters noted, they are less likely to return to the fold than other voters. Ashcroft observed that "those who have moved to Labour are the most likely to say they are sure how they will vote (78%). This compares to just over a two thirds of those who say they would vote Conservative (69%), just under two thirds of those who say they would vote UKIP (62%) and less than half of those who would vote Green (42%)."

If this patten is repeated at the general election, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats - there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory. As Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey recently remarked, "The collapse of the Lib Dem vote with most going to the Labour party means that the Tories have probably lost two dozen seats before they even get out of bed."

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; Cameron's party is in second place in 38 of the Lib Dems' 57 seats. But analyses like Cooper's rarely take any of this into account. 

While Miliband's ratings are below the level normally associated with victory (MORI's most recent poll gave him a net rating of -23 and he trailed Cameron by 15 points as preferred Prime Minister in the most recent YouGov survey), we are in the historically unprecedented situation of all of the main party leaders suffering negative ratings (Cameron is on -13 and Clegg on -29). In this "plague on all your houses" state, leader ratings may be a less reliable guide to voting intention than in the past (and recall that Thatcher and Heath won despite the superior ratings of Callaghan and Wilson). Miliband's ratings might be lower than those of William Hague, but unlike Hague his party has led in the polls for more than three years (Hague's Tories led only during the fuel protests). 

Cooper's error is to assume that history is a reliable guide to the outcome of the next election. That the reverse is true was demonstrated by Oxford psephologist Stephen Fisher's recent calculation that, based on past trends, the Tories have a 57% chance of winning a majority and an 88% chance of being the largest party, a prediction that even the most optimistic Conservative would regard as far-fetched. 

The "iron laws" cited by Cooper are superficially impressive but consider those that have been broken in recent history. Before 2005, no Labour leader had ever won three consecutive elections, and no party had ever won with 35% of the vote. Before 1979, no woman had ever become Prime Minister. Iron laws are only true until they aren't. By May 2015, we could easily be writing that "Labour has become the first opposition to win without at least being once over 50% in the polls" and that "Ed Miliband has become prime minister with the lowest personal ratings of any opposition leader", or, alternatively, that "David Cameron has become the first prime minister to serve a full term and increase his party's share of the vote since 1900". The only iron rule of the next election is that there aren't any. 

David Cameron speaks with Ed Miliband as they stand in Westminster Hall on June 21, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump