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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.