The Tories draw level with Labour in new poll

The latest YouGov poll shows the two parties tied for the first time since March 2012 but the figures would still leave Labour just three seats short of a majority on a uniform swing.

Just in time to create some more pre-conference jitters for Labour, today's YouGov poll shows the party tied with the Tories for the first time since George Osborne's kamikaze Budget in March 2012. The Conservatives and Labour are on 36%, with UKIP on 12% and the Lib Dems on 10% (no sign of a conference bounce there).

Time will tell whether it's an outlier (YouGov has recently shown a Labour lead of around four points) but a year ago, when they trailed Labour by margins as great as 14 points, few Conservatives would ever have expected that they'd draw level just 12 months later.

On a uniform swing, the poll would still leave Labour just three seats short of a majority. This apparent bias has less to do with the unreformed constituency boundaries than it does with differential turnout (fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies) than it does to unequal constituencies. As a report by the University of Plymouth concluded: "The geography of each party's support base is much more important, so changes in the redistribution procedure are unlikely to have a substantial impact and remove the significant disadvantage currently suffered by the Conservative Party."

It's important to remember that uniform swing calculations are an unreliable guide to election outcomes since they don't take into account factors such as the incumbency bonus and above-average swings in marginal seats. Had there been a uniform swing in 2010, the Conservatives would have won 14 fewer seats, Labour eight more and the Lib Dems five more. But even if, as seems likely, the Tories perform disproportionately well in their existing seats, they will still need a lead of around three points over Labour to remain the largest party.

It does raise the possibility that the Tories could win the most votes with Labour winning the most seats (the reverse of the 1951 election). When I recently asked Lib Dem president Tim Farron how his party would act under this scenario, he said that while "morally" it should ally with the party with the most votes, "the arithmetic" meant it would have to favour the largest in parliament. But this rather ignores the fact that, unlike in 2010, both parties could conceivably win enough seats to form stable majority governments with Lib Dem support. As Andrew Adonis notes in his book 5 Days in May, Willy Brandt’s SPD administration in Germany and the current Swedish government are proof that second placed parties can legitimately assume power. The danger for the Lib Dems is that a dead heat in 2015 will cause a damaging schism between the party's Labour-leaning left and its Tory-leaning right. 

David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through the Members' Lobby to listen to the Queen's Speech at the State Opening of Parliament on May 8, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.