Three opinion polls this week have all suggested that Labour’s opinion-poll lead over the Conservatives is continuing to shrink. ICM put Ed Miliband’s party just three points in front, as do Ipsos MORI, while Populus have a mere 1% between the two parties.
For perspective, the same distance out from the 2010 general election, the Tories were 16 points in front. By seven months away from the vote, in October 2009, their lead was an incredible NINETEEN points, and they still couldn’t win a majority.
Who fancies Labour’s chances?
The UK’s electoral boundaries and the giant iniquity of first-past-the-post combine to give Labour an unfair advantage. Using the BBC’s handy adjustable seat calculator, it’s possible to quite easily demonstrate how the Tories can actually win the popular vote but still see Labour secure a majority:
However, despite several minutes of fiddling with the sliders, that was pretty much the most extreme distortion we could come up with. As soon as you start tweaking the settings beyond that, Labour’s representation begins to crumble quickly.
Polls generally tilt in favour of the incumbent in the run-up to an election – that’s why John Major’s Tories triumphed in defiance of all expectations in 1992, and why David Cameron couldn’t win outright against a massively unpopular Gordon Brown in 2010. By three weeks before the election, that 19-point Tory lead had dropped to just 5%.
(Much of this was in fact down to a Lib Dem surge – one YouGov poll in April 2010 even put Nick Clegg’s party in front – but that evaporated when people got to the ballot boxes. In the end the Tories won by seven points, and fell just short of an overall majority but were the largest party by almost 50 seats.)
Labour are largely counting on UKIP to split the right-wing vote. According to the BBC calculator, if we give “Others” 13% to account for a strong performance by Nigel Farage’s motley crew, and assume that the Lib Dem vote only drops by a third, the Tories need to beat Labour by 5.5 points to be the biggest party.
Those numbers equate pretty closely to the rule of thumb we’ve been using for a while, namely to posit that half of the UKIP vote, when it comes to the crunch, will decide that it’s better to offer the keys of 10 Downing Street to a David Cameron offering an EU referendum rather than an Ed Miliband rejecting one. And the figures above would add up to a continuing (albeit reduced) majority for the Tory-led coalition.
Labour-leaning pundits, perhaps with their minds focused by Miliband’s vanishing lead and dire personal ratings, are currently talking up a Lab-Lib alliance. But anyone who’s studied the detail of opinion polls over the last couple of years can’t have failed to notice a strong rightwards shift in the attitudes of the party’s remaining supporters.
Based on that, we suspect there’ll be a strong bias within the Lib Dems towards maintaining the current coalition if it’s at all possible. All the disgruntled members and voters likely to desert in disgust at their partnership with the Tories probably did so long ago. What’s left is the party’s “Orange Book” wing, very comfortable dealing with Tories and burned by their experiences of negotiating with Labour in May 2010.
But all of that is just speculation and opinion, so before we end let’s get back to the cold hard numbers. We’re now fractionally under 14 months from the election – where were we 14 months ago? Let’s take a look at some figures, all from the same polling company for comparability (YouGov, generally pretty Labour-friendly):
LABOUR LEAD OVER CONSERVATIVES
3 Jan 2013: 12%
15 Jan 2013: 15%
25 Jan 2013: 10%
10 Feb 2013: 9%
3 Mar 2013: 11%
17 Mar 2013: 12%
28 Mar 2013: 10%
14 Apr 2013: 11%
29 Apr 2013: 9%
15 May 2013: 10%
26 May 2013: 10%
9 Jun 2013: 10%
23 Jun 2013: 8%
7 July 2013: 6%
21 July 2013: 7%
13 Aug 2013: 7%
25 Aug 2013: 6%
13 Sep 2013: 4%
25 Sep 2013: 9% (party conference)
8 Oct 2013: 4%
20 Oct 2013: 6%
3 Nov 2013: 9%
19 Nov 2013: 7%
8 Dec 2013: 5%
22 Dec 2013: 6%
15 Jan 2014: 6%
2 Feb 2014: 5%
14 Feb 2014: 6%
2 Mar 2014: 4%
(Methodology: jumping through UK Polling Report a couple of pages at a time, starting on 1st January and aiming for rough fortnightly intervals.)
The trend, it seems fair to say, is clear. Allowing for the normal minor fluctuations due to the ever-present 3% margin of error and occasional blips for one-off events like the party conference in September, the downward slide is unbroken. Labour’s lead has dropped from around 12 points last January to around 4 points now.
If the graph extends over the next 14 months as has in the last 14, the Tories will be 4% ahead by May 2015 even without any UKIP voters coming back to them. (UKIP support is actually significantly up on those Jan 2013 polls – from 9% to 13% – yet the Tories have still gained a lot of ground on Labour.)
Unemployment is falling rapidly and growth is increasing. Even though neither statistic is changing in a way beneficial or noticeable to the great mass of people, those facts will benefit the Tories, who are always seen – whether justifiably or otherwise – as the party of safe economic stewardship. Austerity, they’ll be able to say, has worked, knowing that most people won’t look past the headlines.
Throw in the incumbency effect, the likelihood of some proportion of UKIP supporters voting tactically to ensure they get their referendum, and the solidifying of what’s left of the Lib Dems – their support is also up since January 2013 – and David Cameron and George Osborne will be feeling very confident indeed of a second term in office.
On the other hand, anyone in Scotland who’s counting on a UK Labour government (rather than independence) to provide them with protection from the Tories might be feeling their blood starting to run a little bit cold.