What on earth is going on? Gordon Brown is exposed as an office bully who screams at his staff and shoves his most trusted advisors around (including Magdalen politics tutor Stewart Wood), the “forces of Hell” have been unleashed on the Chancellor by Downing Street for telling the truth about the recession, and there are renewed signs that the economy may well dip again before the next quarter. The public response? Labour improves in the polls. More than improves in fact: the current polls are the best for Labour since Gordon Brown came to power, and on a “uniform swing” would produce a parliament where Labour would have the most seats. How has David Cameron managed to throw away an election that was his for the taking? Would the British public really prefer a Bully to a salesman?
I think that there are four issues that need to be untangled if we are to understand what’s happening in the polls, two statistical and two tactical.
First, while the Tory lead is indeed down to two percentage points it’s really not that simple. The poll referred to was conducted by YouGov on Friday and covered about 1000 voters. At first glance for the reported swing to have occurred the sample would’ve needed about 20 more people who said that they would vote Labour then the poll the day before. This is well within the margin of error (the allowance that pollsters make for mistakes). When we look a bit deeper we note that YouGov, like most of the pollsters, weights voters by the party that you voted for in the last election. Something that the political websites have been noting for a while is that it is becoming rather difficult to find enough Labour-leaning voters in each sample, and those who are “labour type voters” have to be heavily weighted. So we’re no longer talking about 20 people, but maybe 10 or 12. This may well be down to sample bias (that YouGov aren’t targeting the right people), but may also be because there is something odd going on with the polling. While the unweighted numbers are somewhat unreliable, the method that YouGov use (ie. Online sampling) means that what we might be seeing in the unweighted sample is a reflection of enthusiasm. Think about it, if you are a labour-type voter and are generally dissatisfied with the Labour party you’re probably not that likely to fill in an online survey. This might well prove to be a somewhat weak proxy for whether you intend to vote. What are the unweighted vote shares? The Conservatives are on around 42% (as they have been since July) and Labour has risen from 27% to 28% over the same time period.
Second, there is no such thing as a uniform swing. British politics is still constituency based, however much the media may focus on the party leaders, and the seats that matter are the marginals. The issues that matter in marginals are different from the rest of the country. For example, as I mentioned in an earlier article, people who live in the British marginals tend to be more likely to be married then the rest of the country so policies that benefit married couples may well be unpopular nationally whilst still helping the Conservatives towards victory. There hasn’t been a reliable set of figures for the marginals since the Angus Reid poll of 24 February, but that poll had the Conservatives on 42% in the marginals and 38 % overall.
So it’s not quite as low as the weekend papers might suggest. But it is still bad for them. Whilst the scale may well be wrong, there has been a slide in Conservative support. I think that there are two strategic issues at work here.
The first is that the Conservatives appear to have well and truly lost the plot. Their message is confused and difficult to relate to. Most people haven’t been particularly badly affected by the technicalities of the recession, have short memories and don’t really know what the deficit is. When David Cameron says that the country can’t just get a new credit card when its current credit card runs out of money they ask a simple question, why not? They care about jobs, schools and the NHS: the very things that the focus on deficit reduction makes them worry will be cut. And they don’t know what the Conservative party want to do about jobs, schools or the NHS. Frankly, I’m not sure that Tory MP’s know what their party want to do about jobs, schools or the NHS.
It gets worse. This weekend the Conservatives laid out the six key issues that they will fight the election under. Yes, you heard right, six. This is madness. The first rule of running an election is that too many messages confuse voters. Three is about as many as most people can remember. Six is insane, especially when no one really knows where you stand on anything. Whilst “ a future fair for all” might sound stupid, it’s easy to understand, and given that everyone knows that Labour are fighting the election on the economy, easily highlights the strengths of the party. “Vote for Change” on the other hand means nothing. David Cameron isn’t Barack Obama. He’s a Tory. Tories don’t like change. Everyone knows that. So change what? To what? Back to Thatcher? To Blair? Who knows.
Which leads me to my final point, Gordon Brown is clawing back what I think is the most important part of any modern campaign: the personal narrative. The interviews and bullying story have, in an odd way, made him seem more human and also stronger. When your choices in a crisis are between a big clunking first and a used car salesman, many of us would choose the former. People voted for George Bush over Kerry in part because he reminded them of themselves. He shared their distrust of the over educated, the elite, the rich kids in school (even though he was one himself). He made them feel like he understood where they were coming from. David Cameron all too often comes across as too slick, too confident, too cocky. He has the smile of someone who knows his place and lets you know that he knows yours too. Salesman Dave not only appears to have nothing to sell, but looks like he may well take you for a ride. Forget the six points if you want to become Prime Minister Mr Cameron: It’s all about crying on television and the televised debates.