Monday, June 13, 2005

It would be good to be a Tory now - perhaps


I'm working my way very slowly towards an approximate prediction of the result of the next General Election.

Bit early, you might think. Well, yes, but there are certain factors which have generally held true throughout the history of post-war elections, predominant among which is the pendulum. In a two-party political system, the pendulum has tended to swing either more or less rapidly from Tory to Labour and back again. I see no reason why this should not continue (not even the rise of the LibDems, on which more in a moment). We can reasonably expect the pendulum to swing back in the Tories' favour next time.

Another factor which generally holds true is that governments get more unpopular the longer they are in office. It's easy to see why this is the case. No government can solve all the problems it claims to want to solve (and those claims are getting more and more ambitious as parties try and make a stronger case for themselves to an increasingly cynical electorate). As a consequence, there is always likely to be net dissatisfaction among the electorate over the long term. And so people look for a change - and they have always looked to the other party (ie the Opposition) to provide it. Even if a government is initially popular (like Blair's, and Thatcher's before it), disappointment inevitably sets in. More good news for the Tories, there.

Third, Labour has partly been kept in power over the last eight years by an extraordinary lack of substance on the part of the Tories. There are signs that this is beginning to resolve itself. No one really believes that David Davis is not going to win the leadership election, even if a reasonable number of people are going to try to stop him*. Davis is even more popular in the country than he is in his party. If he's still up against Blair, he will look fresh, inspired and tempting to the voters.

It might be different if he's up against Brown, but a lot depends on when Brown takes over. At the moment, Brown's stock is rising rapidly. He was a major contributor to saving Blair's bacon in the last Election (look how quickly the Tories pulled their "vote Blair, get Brown" message when they realised it was playing into Labour's hands), and his conjuring trick over Africa (which isn't as good as it sounds) has made him look, in one stroke, compassionate and statesmanlike. He has a large measure of support in the parliamentary party (many of them passed over by Blair and thirsting for revenge). His track record as Chancellor is perceived as excellent, and he can elicit voter sympathy through both the recent birth of his son and the earlier death of his daughter. This would be a good time for him to take up the reins of power inside Number Ten. But Blair shows no sign of giving up, and has stated his determination to serve a full third term (I suspect he secretly wishes to outlast Thatcher's record**). If the timing of the handover is wrong, Brown will either have lost a lot of his credit or will be insufficiently prepared for the next Election - or both. And it's hard to see who, other than Brown, would make a suitable successor to Blair - unless a real surprise is awaiting us (Miliband, anyone?).

Another factor working in the Tories' favour is the precarious position in Labour marginals. The swing to the Tories in the last Election was something in the order of 3.5% (on average, with considerable variation in certain regions). At the moment, there are 72 seats in the Commons which are held by a margin of under 4% - in other words, a swing of 2% would be enough to unseat the holder. 30 of them are held by Labour with the Tories as the challenger (or as three-way marginals). Five more have the LibDems or a Nationalist party as the challenger. If all those seats changed hands on this small swing, Labour's majority would disappear.

Boost the swing to 3% (still less than this last Election) and a further 16 Labour seats fall to the Tories (and another one to the LibDems).

But won't the LibDems break the mould of British politics, as they have always been promising to do? After all, they had their best election since whenever, didn't they? Yes, but they had a lot of impact from protest voting. Everyone knew Labour was going to win (despite their idiotic braying that they were in serious trouble, and that the Tories could sneak a victory - it's a bad tactic to cry wolf, guys, it won't work next time which is when you'll really need it), so people felt safe in voting for another party. The LibDems were the recipient of many of these votes, partly because of their stand on the war, but also because they're not the Tories. There are still a lot of people around who can remember the Thatcher-Major years with horror, and can't bring themselves to vote Tory. Disgusted by Blair, the LibDems were their natural home. But these people's vivid memories of Howard as Home Secretary won't be so vivid next time round, and voting Tory might be something they can bring themselves to do once again.

Electorally, too, the LibDems are highly vulnerable. Eight of their seats are vulnerable to a swing back to the Tories of 2%, plus three more if it's 3%. Bang goes one-sixth of their representation. They don't seriously challenge Labour in enough seats to make up this shortfall. Nor is there any evidence that they will challenge the Tories in their vulnerable seats.

Of course, marginals don't always fall (the retention of Dorset South must be of particular pride to Labour and the MP there, Jim Knight). But safe seats aren't always safe, either (Solihull, Withington, Hornsey?). The effort required to hold onto their marginals and super-marginals will stretch Labour to the limit next time round. Who knows how many activists will have the stomach for the fight, especially when it's so much easier to attack than to defend?

And I haven't even mentioned the England and Wales boundary changes, which give the Tories a kick-start of about 12 seats they would have won, had this last Election been fought under the new boundaries.

So we're left with a situation where history is against Labour and a small swing to the Tories will put them out of business. But I'm not predicting a Tory victory, yet. They still have a long way to go in terms of making up the gap in the number of seats. A Labour defeat does not equal a Tory victory. And if people are fed up with Blair, replacing him with Brown could - assuming the timing is right - solve half of Labour's problems at a stroke (look how the Tories suddenly began to prosper as soon as Thatcher was replaced by Major). The Tories have to bear in mind that they had a great opportunity for a resurgence in their support, in response to an unpopular government, and they fluffed it.

A hung parliament is genuinely on the cards, this time. 2009 will be very, very exciting. Not if you're Laura Moffatt or Paul Clark or Celia Barlow, just three of the Labour MPs currently clinging onto 'super-marginals'. But for the rest of us.

I'm pleased to see, by the way, that John Curtice agrees with my prediction.

* Recess Monkey says that there are rumours of a 'killer story' waiting in the wings which will scupper Davis, but I don't have any more information - yet.
** Technically not a record, since she was not Prime Minister as long as Lord Liverpool, who managed 15 years. Even Blair isn't going after that one.

UPDATE: Peter Preston on why Davis is too old for the job, and why it would be good for David Cameron to get it. Well, it's going to be one David or another, isn't it? I'll comment more on Preston's article another time.

MORE: Baron M writes on another of Gordon Brown's conjuring tricks.

EVEN MORE: George Monbiot on the moral corruption at the heart of the G8's agreement on debt relief.


Anonymous Neil Harding said...

Though I agree with you about a hung parliament I don't think Labour did cry wolf over the Tories winning by people switching from Labour to Lib Dem.

The Tory vote barely moved and in some Tory won constituencies actually fell. Because enough ex-Labour voters moved to Lib Dem they were rewarded with smug Tories like Justine Greening!

It seems perfectly reasonable to point this out. Nearly all the 33 Tory gains from Labour came because of Labour to Lib Dem switches.

A hung parliament is much more likely now we have a 'buffer' of 90 non Labour or Tory MPs. In the past we only had around 30 buffer MPs, so the odds have tripled.

The shine off Labour's economic record will go with the coming recession but to counter that the Tories are suffering demographic death. They are the third party in the 18-35 age group. 600,000 people die every year. Most of these are in the 55+ age group where the Tories have 42% to Labour's 35%. This is more significant because turnout is around 70% in this age group compared to 38% in the 18-35 age group. Over 252,000 Tory voters are dying every year compared to 210,000 Labour. On top of this are the young new voters coming on stream where Labour and the Lib Dems have leads over the Tories.

Labour will lose a lot of mortgage owners 35-55 if we do have a recession but the Tories need to win 128 seats to have a majority. A hung parliament seems a good bet!

2:13 am  

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