The traditional politician’s line about opinion polls is that the only poll that matters is the one held on election day. However, a recent seismic shift in recent polling data has set alarm bells ringing in Tory HQ and is putting an unexpected spring in Gordon Brown’s step. Apart from the occasional blip, the polls have, until recently, told much the same story: The Conservatives would will win a forthcoming general election by a landslide, with as much as a fifteen per cent or more gap between them and Labour. The gap shrunk in the new year to around 10% (the minimum the Opposition need to win an outright majority) and has recently narrowed to 6%-8%, deep into hung parliament territory.A poll released on Sunday by YouGov shows an even greater tightening;. with the Conservatives leading 37:35, with the Liberal Democrats on 17. It is too early yet to know if this represents a new trend, or is just a deviation from the well-established 6%-8% gap, but if that result was repeated on May 6th (the most likely date for an election), Labour would be the largest party (albeit without a majority) and Brown would stay as Prime Minister, a result deemed unthinkable just a few months ago.
In addition to asking about voting intention, polling organizations also ask a number of questions about the respondent’s opinions on policy matters and on what they think about the parties and their leaders. The answers to these give us a clue as to what might be behind such a noticeable and sustained change in the polls. Economic confidence has risen: The voters now know that the economy is out of recession, a recognition that will be boosted by the uprating of the quarterly growth rate from a nominal 0.1% to a more solid 0.3%. More importantly, given that economic confidence is a very unstable figure, is the inexorable recovery of Labour as the party most trusted party on the economy. This went into freefall in 2008, but now Brown-Darling have recovered and now lead Cameron-Osborne. There is a recognition that, whoever was to blame for the recession, the government probably did do the right thing.
On the opposite page, Josh Jones takes quite a dim view of the ability of voters to understand the issues of the deficit, national debt and economic growth, but on the contrary, the polls would suggest that the voters understand all this rather better than the media give them credit for: Voters have not so much been scared off by the admirably brave Tory pledge to cut the budget ‘savagely’, but have made a shrewd calculation that this could stall the recovery that the country has spent so much money trying to attain. The Tories know this and are backpedalling spectacularly. There is also a long-noticed tendency for the governing party to rise in the opinion of the voters in the last months before an election (although not usually as much as this) because they are to a much greater extent thinking about how they will actually vote, not simply giving a gut reaction to how they feel about their lives.
A changed political context is part of the story as well: In 1997, the Conservatives were hated and Labour-though not not loved-welcomed by a significant chunk of the electorate. However, the next general election comes in a very different political age; politics and political parties are much more disliked and mistrusted, which makes it impossible for Cameron to generate a wave of genuine enthusiasm that would push him into government in the same way that Blair was able to.
Caution, though, is due. These polls cover all 646 constituencies, but general elections are not won in Glasgow East or Surrey South West but the hundred-or-so marginal seats where only a few thousands votes separated the parties last time. Crucially, Cameron has managed to hang onto a lead (around 10%) in these constituencies, despite losing it nationally.
The Tory campaign is exceptionally well organized in these areas, and the party is pouring every last penny of its £18m war-chest, outspending Labour by millions.All this means that the general election campaign will be crucial. The last three elections have been forgone conclusions-the last time an election was won and lost during the course of the election campaign was when most of us were still in nappies, in 1992. All the more so given that there will be a new feature-televised debates between the party leader, which have proved to be game-changers in US Presidential elections.
A recent survey showed that a large proportion of students are not planning to vote, but they are wasting an opportunity they might not get for another two decades. For the first time in years there is not only a genuine fight between the two parties, but a decent ideological gulf between them. Go register now at http://www.aboutmyvote.co.uk/