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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Yesterday should have been Labour's victory lap

He changed the forecast, we changed the weather. But still it rains.

The Labour Party should have rested on its laurels in the Autumn Statement. While Gideon name checked his Tory colleagues for their successful lobbying, he should have been reading out the names of Labour members who changed his position.  I'll let the Tories have the potholes, (even though it was in Labour manifesto) but everything else was us. 

He stopped his assault on tax credits. Not because he woke up in his mansion in a cold sweat, the ghost of Christmas Future at the foot of his bed, ringing out the names of the thousands and thousands of children he would plunge into poverty. Nah, it's not that. It's as my sons might say "no way George, you got told!" The constant pressure of the Labour Party and a variety of Lords in a range of shades, supported by that media we are all meant to hate, did for him. It's the thousands of brilliant people who kept the pressure up by emailing politicians constantly that did it. Bravo us, boo nasty George!

As Baron Osborne thanked the Tory male MP for his brilliant idea, to spend the Tampax tax on women's services, I wanted to launch a tampon at his head. Not a used one you understand, I have some boundaries. He should have credited Paula Sheriff, the Labour MP for making this change. He should have credited all the brilliant women's groups, Yvette Cooper, Stella Creasy, Caroline Lucas and even little old me, for our constant, regular and persistent pestering on the subject of funding for refuges and women's services. 

On police cuts, his side should not have cheered him at all. We are now in a position when loud cheers are heard when nothing changes. So happy was his side that he was not cutting it, one can only conclude they really hate all the cutting they do. He should not have taken a ridiculous side swipe at Andy Burnham, but instead he should have credited the years and years of constant campaigning by Jack Dromey. 

I tell you what Georgie boy can take credit for, the many tax increases he chalked up. Increases in council tax to pay for huge deficit in care costs left by his cuts. Increases in the bit of council tax that pays for Police. Even though nothing changed remember. When he says levy or precept it's like when people say I'm curvy when they mean fat. It's a tax. 

He can take credit for making student nurses pay to work for free in the NHS. That's got his little privileged fingers all over it. My babies were both delivered by student midwives. The first time my sons life was saved, and on the second occasion my life was saved. The women who saved us were on placement hours as part of their training, working towards their qualifications. Now those same women, will be paying for the pleasure of working for free and saving lives. Paying to work for free! On reflection throwing a tampon at him is too good, this change makes me want to lob my sons placenta in his face.

Elsewhere in Parliament on Autumn Statement day Jeremy Hunt, capitulated and agreed to negotiate with Student Doctors. Thanks to the brilliant pressure built by junior doctors and in no small part Heidi Alexander. Labour chalks up another win in the disasters averted league.

I could go on and on with thanks to charities, think tanks, individual constituents and other opposition MPs who should have got the autumn cheers. We did it, we were a great and powerful opposition, we balanced the pain with reality. We made Lord sorry the first Lord of the Treasury and his stormtroopers move from the dark side. We should have got the cheers, but all we got was a black eye, when a little red book smacked us right in the face.