It don't mean a thing, if you ain't got that swing. Photo:Getty
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What if the polls are wrong?

Averaged together, the polls still point to a Labour victory - but the picture is more complex.

Who’ll win next week? Frankly, it’s impossible to tell. When we average the polls together, it appears as if Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister in short order. But the reality is that the polls are diverging, making an average less useful than it appears. ICM, Ashcroft, Survation and Opinium tend to show Conservative leads of varying strength, ComRes an effective tie, while Panelbase, Populus and IpsosMori have tended to show Labour ahead. The question of the election isn’t so much “What if the polls are wrong?” but “Which polls are wrong?”

Labour’s campaigners on the ground are privately less positive than the more positive polls would suggest. The party’s own targeting strategy indicates a less than rosy picture. As I wrote yesterday, the party is still jittery about its prospects in Westminster North, Hampstead & Kilburn and Southampton Itchen, all seats that it held in 2010. Seats that ought to fall into the party’s lap, like Waveney and Stockton South look like more difficult fights than Labour might wish. The party underperformed its poll ratings in the local elections in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

That said, that might be as much to do with the lacklustre Labour campaign prior to those contests. This time, Ed Miliband is having the campaign of his life, which you'd assume will help Labour on the day. The bleak forecast of one insider before the start of the campaign – “You cannot make as many mistakes as we will make and not lose” – now looks wide of the mark. Labour's vote, meanwhile, increasingly resembles that of the American Democrats: it's young, diverse, urban and relaxed about turning out in midterm elections. It may be that Labour does better both than the polls and its previous showings over the last five years suggest. 

As for the grim noises being made by candidates in the marginals, that could easily be paranoia.  One Tory MP in a marginal remarks that “the second you relax, you’re dead”, while a Labour MP in a similar predicament says that he “would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t do enough to hold the seat”. So the pained expressions of Labour canvassers in the marginals could simply be a particularly exacting form of professionalism, although it’s worth noting that the same pessimism doesn’t seem to extend to their Conservative counterparts. But, one way or another, at least some of the pollsters will be left with egg on their faces next Thursday.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.