Back in the race

Could Labour seize a surprise election victory? Cabinet ministers and pollsters reveal how the party

On Christmas Eve 2009, Labour's election co-ordinator, Douglas Alexander, hurried down to Oxford Street to buy presents for his children. The previous night, he had handed over the party's secret campaign plan to Gordon Brown. The 20-page document had been worked on by Alexander and the pollster Philip Gould since the start of December.

Each night after work, Alexander the "Brownite" and Gould the "Blairite" would meet to review the past three elections, analyse the polls and comb through Labour's internal focus-group research. Often their conversations would continue over the phone into the early hours of the morning.

The plan had been signed off by Peter Mandelson, the Deputy Prime Minister in all but name. The aim was to start 2010 with a strong attack on the Tories' economic credibility, hence Alistair Darling's 4 January offensive exposing the Tories' £34bn spending gap. It was to be the start of a concerted fightback that would revive Labour's chances in an electoral race from which it had been written off.

What was not expected was that the Conservatives would start to make so many mistakes, from the much-mocked airbrushed posters of David Cameron to gaffes on crime figures and teenage pregnancy statistics. "What we have seen since the start of the year is the Tories' glass jaw on policy, which surprised even us," says Alexander. "Eight weeks on, and there are still questions they can't answer. The Tories are still impaled on a contradiction between their branding and their beliefs. The public are now seeing that they have changed their branding but not their beliefs."

Commentators, on both the left and the right, have long assumed that the Tories under David Cameron were on course for an easy victory and a sizeable majority. Labour would get "well and truly thumped" in the general election, Matthew d'Ancona declared in the Telegraph in July 2009. "Brown is leading Labour to a landslide defeat that will take ten, maybe 15 years to recover from," wrote Nick Cohen for Standpoint magazine in January. Brown, as Jackie Ashley conceded in the Guardian on 28 February, had been "written off by Westminster and almost all columnists, including this one, as a dead man walking".

Almost all, indeed. One or two of us have long argued that a Tory victory is not inevitable, that the party is not as "progressive" or liberal as Cameron would wish us to believe. In a New Statesman article of 22 June 2009 entitled "Cameron's wobble", we referred to the Tories' "precarious electoral position" and pointed out: "If . . . the Brown government can concentrate the country's attention on public services and public spending, Labour may well still stand a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election." Labour, we concluded, was "down but not out. And it should be repeated: the Tories have yet to seal the deal with the British electorate."

Our judgements were based not only on an instinct that Cameron had not done enough to "modernise" his party, but on a hard-headed analysis of the facts. Ten months on, these facts have not changed. To secure a single-seat majority in the Commons, the Tories need to gain 117 seats on a 7.5 per swing. The former has not been done since 1931; the latter, as Michael Heseltine has acknowledged, has been bettered only once since the Second World War - in the New Labour landslide of 1997. Crucially, as the founder of MORI, Bob Worcester, has pointed out, to secure a basic majority the Tories need to capture a 40 per cent share of the vote.

Meanwhile, recent research carried out by the YouGov president, Peter Kellner, suggests that Cameron's Conservatives must win 80 seats more than Labour in order to win the next election - more than Margaret Thatcher's 70-seat lead over Labour in 1979. Since the end of the 19th century, the Conservatives have only once defeated an incumbent government that had a working majority in parliament - 40 years ago, in 1970, in a surprise victory under Ted Heath.

Yet it was only in November 2009 that sudden speculation about a hung parliament swept through the Westminster village, following an Ipsos MORI poll that gave the Tories a 6-point lead and a projected vote share of just 37 per cent. Having had his survey subjected to ridicule since then by much of the commentariat, Worcester says he feels "vindicated . . . not just by the polls now, but by the fact that my poll in October was the first of nine that then put the Tories on under 40 per cent." So, why did so many commentators dismiss it as a "rogue" result? Worcester mentions an "orchestrated" campaign by "Cameronistas" in the press and in the blogosphere.

But a clear trend has emerged. The Tories have gone from having double-digit leads over Labour - 26 points, according to a YouGov survey in May 2008 - to single-digit leads. The YouGov poll in the Sunday Times of 28 February showing a 2 per cent Tory lead was perhaps a one-off; according to Labour insiders, it's "as good as it's going to get", at least until the election is called. Once that happens, the choice becomes starker. In the words of one cabinet minister, "the question of what the other lot might actually be like becomes really relevant".

Downing Street insiders put the gap between the parties at 5-6 per cent - illustrated by the most recent ComRes poll on 2 March, which gave the Conservatives a 5-point lead and would leave Labour as the largest single party in a hung parliament.

And yet, despite the narrowing of the polls since November, many pundits mention how strong the Conservatives remain in marginal seats, where the wealth of Michael Ashcroft, the Tory deputy chairman and self-confessed "non-dom" billionaire, has had a huge effect, especially through his polling. It is often argued that the lead that the Tories enjoy in the marginals will compensate for a lack of uniform national swing (the scale of voters switching sides to support the other of the two main parties).

So is uniform national swing (UNS) irrelevant in this election? Not at all, says the pollster Andrew Hawkins, executive chairman of ComRes. "The marginals are not going to make a 5- or 6-point difference and blow UNS out of the water . . . the difference won't be more than 2 or 3 per cent, at best."

The most recent ComRes poll shows the Tories trailing Labour in the north of England, where they need to win crucial marginal seats. It is only a matter of time, argues one bullish minister, before polls in the marginals narrow as well. So what difference is the Ashcroft funding making on the ground? One senior Labour strategist says he is astonished to see how little money the Tories seem to be spending in the marginals. "Perhaps Ashcroft is planning to spend a huge amount in the weeks ahead, but I have seen less evidence of his money than I was expecting," he says.

Nor is there evidence that Tory spending in the marginals is helping the party out-campaign Labour. In an ICM poll in January, 28 per cent of respondents in marginal seats said they had received party literature or been canvassed by the Conservatives, compared to 24 per cent who recalled having been canvassed by the local Labour Party. Labour, according to Alexander, has made 400,000 voter contacts in marginal seats across the UK since the start of 2010. That figure is double the number of such contacts in the run-up to the 2005 election, and involves the use of software that allows local activists to set up phone banks in their homes. One cannot overestimate the importance of such efforts - research for the Electoral Commission shows that "being contacted personally by a political party during the campaign increases the probability that an individual will vote". So it is perhaps not surprising, as the senior strategist confirms, that "morale is significantly higher among our marginal MPs than it was even a month ago".

Until recently, morale in the cabinet was low. One minister was heard to remark: "We're fucked under Gordon." But now, says another, "They all get it. It's all still to play for."

Several pitfalls lie ahead for Labour. First, there is Brown's appearance at the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. He will doubtless be pressed on the alleged lack of equipment and funding for British troops in Iraq. Yet at the time of going to press, some of Brown's friends were confident that he could express a measure of contrition and emerge relatively unscathed. "It could be a cathartic moment," said one.

Next, the economic recovery is fragile. Leading economists, including our own David Blanchflower, predict growth will be either flat or negative when the next set of output figures is published in late April. Inevitably, this has led to fresh speculation that Brown will seek an "early" election, before the assumed date of 6 May. However, a cabinet minister says: "The public don't want a sudden election . . . The impression of cutting and running could be quite damaging."

We understand that Brown wants a "short campaign" - four weeks at most - and one in which the televised debates are central. They are, in the words of Bob Worcester, "the wildcard": a new and unpredictable element to the campaign. In stark contrast to Cameron - whom the public and pundits alike expect to "win" the debates - Brown has nothing to lose and everything to gain. One cabinet minister claims that "most people have made up their minds about Gordon already. But Cameron's carefully crafted image could crumble."

The Conservatives cannot afford to be complacent - but nor should Labour get carried away. "There's no question this remains a very tough fight," says Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland Secretary and one of Brown's closest cabinet allies. "But there's no question either that Gordon Brown's leadership qualities are very distinct, and the public increasingly appreciate him as a leader who is tough, enduring and a man who is on their side."

Woodward, who ran the Conservatives' surprisingly successful general election campaign in 1992 but crossed the carpet in 1997, says: "This election is now the choice it should be. A year ago it was seen only as a referendum on the government, but it's not any more. It's a choice." Brown first made the same point to us in a pre-Labour party conference interview in September, but it is only now, seven months on, that it is starting to resonate.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Game on