Since Gordon Brown made the apparently disastrous decision not to call a General Election in the Autumn of 2007, the opinion polls all seem to have been pointing in only one direction – a Labour defeat. Month after month YouGov, ICM, Ipsos MORI and the rest all deliver the same tale of woe for the government, and the easy assumption from this is that the Tories are a shoo-in to triumph in the spring. But the polls and electoral history may well tell an altogether different tale.
Conservative support in the opinion polls seems to be fairly steady around 40% and the pollsters have tended to be reasonably accurate when gauging the Tory vote in recent years (1992 being the stunning exception). Perhaps those people who are going to vote for David Cameron have already made their minds up and are unlikely to be persuaded otherwise. This would explain the consistent ratings.
Consensus on the level of Labour support is much more difficult to find. Since the aborted 2007 election-that-never-was the Government’s ratings have been anywhere between 22% and 29% – dismal by anyone’s reckoning, but certainly not a clear picture. This could well be because it’s very easy to desert a party when interviewed by an opinion pollster. The question for Labour is whether they can make enough inroads into Britain’s consistent non-Tory majority when the real vote takes place and the choice is a stark reality as opposed to a theoretical possibility. It’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that, as the General Election draws near and wavering Labour voters are confronted with the possibility of a Conservative government, Labour’s ratings will start to creep above the 30% mark.
The Liberal Democrats are the unknown quantity. They have been polling anywhere between 15% and 23% over the last couple of years, and recent electoral history clearly demonstrates that they are more likely to feel the benefits of equal broadcast media exposure during an election campaign. Add to this the Lib Dem strength as a local campaigning force and they could yet take seats from both Labour and the Tories and confound predictions of significant losses to their number at Westminster.
Another aspect to the challenge to Labour comes in the shape of the BNP, although this may well be overplayed. Griffin’s party will probably cause the odd localised scare on election night but there’s no evidence to suggest that their showing in the 2009 European elections was anything more than a protest vote. Nevertheless, Labour will ignore their challenge at their peril – the white working class, who make up the vast bulk of the BNP’s support, can do significant damage to Labour candidates unless the government stop taking them for granted.
Amid all this speculation it’s worth remembering that the Tories need a lead of at least 10% (and more probably 12%) to form a majority government, which would represent a swing to the Conservatives which is unprecedented in modern times. Assuming Labour can make even a modest recovery and start to register around 32% in the polls, the 2010 Election starts to look more difficult to call with any certainty. Factor in last week’s impressive Labour by-election performance in Glasgow and it would seem that there may well be hope for Gordon Brown yet, even if it’s only of the damage limitation variety. Hung parliament anyone?