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 editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.