A wind tends to run through the media’s coverage of politics. A collective view is formed that everything is going right for one party and wrong for its opponents. News is reported selectively to fit that thesis. Currently the wind is at David Cameron’s back. Why? Traces of economic recovery are visible, the Tories have taken a break from infighting and headline-grabbing incompetence, Labour’s lead in the opinion polls has narrowed.
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband spent the weeks before parliament’s summer recess tied up in a debate about his relationship with the trade unions which is necessary, but introspective.
By contrast, the Conservatives are advertising themselves as being ready for battle. That is certainly the spin successfully put on their recruitment of Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s former election strategist. The signing of a big hitter from the US Democratic Party was depicted as a coup for Mr Cameron. It also served as a reminder that Mr Miliband has yet to appoint a replacement for Tom Watson, his campaign co-ordinator who resigned in June amid the controversy over allegations of candidate selection-fixing.
Mr Cameron, meanwhile, has been employing the services of the Australian Lynton Crosby, his campaign consultant, who is credited in part with restoring discipline and fighting spirit to the Conservative benches.
So, it is easy to build an account of Conservatives on the march and Labour yielding under pressure. Yet how reliable is that analysis? The crucial piece of evidence on which the story hangs is the shift in opinion polls. Although there is plenty of variety between the different surveys, a trend has emerged that shows Labour drifting away from the doubledigit advantage it once boasted. The question is whether that indicates irresistible Conservative momentum and an inevitable Miliband decline.
A longer view suggests not necessarily. The periods in which Labour has pushed ahead have coincided with a patch of egregiously inept government – the “omnishambles” Budget of 2012, which led to panic in the Conservative ranks and a Ukip surge in by-elections and council ballots. The underlying picture has barely shifted in three years. Labour’s core vote is bolstered by disgruntled former Liberal Democrats, giving Mr Miliband a slight advantage over the Conservatives, who appear able to call reliably on the support of roughly a third of the electorate, but rarely more.
British politics has been stuck in the same rut since the 2010 general election: there are not enough people who trust Labour to run the economy and too many people with a visceral dislike of the Conservatives for either side to win a majority. Ukip and the Liberal Democrats cloud the picture but the blue-red contest is fairly stable and immune to the wild swings of the media weathervane.
It is convenient to pretend that the frenzied cycle expressed by rolling television news, and accelerated by Twitter, feeds directly into parties’ popularity. This is the political equivalent of the dubious hypothesis that financial markets, in which millions of trades are made every second, give prices for assets that accurately reflect those assets’ value. In reality, there is much meaningless noise, making it harder to discern a clear signal of what is happening. Most of the country has no interest in the daily obsessions of the Westminster village. London SW1 is surely the most atypical postcode in the country; as such, it is not a safe vantage point from which to read the national mood.
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. The bad news is that his party’s support seems more closely pegged to fluctuations in Tory discipline than to any campaign strategy that he has devised. A sustained Conservative civil war before polling day in 2015 is possible but not guaranteed. Before then, Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right.