By Tim Montgomerie
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When the Westminster Village gets an idea into its head its herd-like behaviour is a wonder to behold. Remember before the Olympics when newspaper frontpage after newspaper frontpage was constant doom'n'gloom? Or the shared 'wisdom' that Boris wasn't popular outside the South? One of the Village's other recent conclusions is that Ed Miliband is on the up and up. While, in January, they were burying him (something I suggested, at the time, was overdone) they are now ignoring the fact that, outside of SW1, the public don't really see Miliband Jnr as any more prime ministerial than when he first pipped his brother to the leadership post. On best prime minister ratings he's still stuck below the kind of ratings 'enjoyed' by Gordon Brown. Yes, Gordon Brown. Only 5% see Ed Miliband as a natural leader according to today's Sun/YouGov survey.
On Sunday Paul noted that, under Mr Miliband, Labour's share of the vote is actually quite modest compared to previous Labour leaders. In recent weeks, for example, Labour has been getting up towards 44% in the YouGov daily tracker. that's a long way short of the percentages that Kinnock (56%) or Blair (53%) received in opposition. Labour may have won lots of switchers from the Liberal Democrats but very few from the Tories. Lord Ashcroft's Corby poll appeared to confirm the relative solidity of the Conservative vote for this stage of the electoral cycle. It's the collapse of the LibDem vote that is the problem for Conservative MPs with strongly-second-placed Labour candidates.
The weakness of Ed Miliband is the subject of Janan Ganesh's third Tuesday column for the Financial Times (£). "Miliband ought to be having sleepless nights", he writes, because he has dismal ratings and the guns of the Tory Party and of the right-wing press haven't begun to be turned on him, as they will in the final stages of the parliament:
"Mr Cameron lost about half of his poll lead in his last 18 months as leader of the opposition, as did Mr Blair. A similar squeeze will happen to Labour, starting in 2014. They evince little sign of preparedness."
Janan gives an example of the barrage that is coming: "Right now," he writes, "Mr Miliband’s opposition to the government’s hugely popular benefits cap is lost in the noise of coalition woe. In 2015, it will be on every Tory poster and leaflet." My guess is it won't just be Labour's attitude to the welfare cap. Labour will also be pounded for its positions on social housing, control of immigration and, I hope, subsidy of Scotland relative to Wales. The Tories will drive a wedge between the Labour Party and the values of the blue collar strivers that Cameron failed to reach in adequate numbers in 2010.
Given this year's 'omnishambles' Numbers 10 and 11 will be relieved to be as competitive in the polls as they are. Compared to this stage in the 1979 to 1983 electoral cycle Margaret Thatcher was in a much worse position and Michael Foot was Labour leader. But, while Ed Miliband is weak and hasn't used this period to reform his party, he still has five big hopes to hold on to:
- This may not be an ordinary parliamentary cycle. Most of the cuts haven't been made. Worse, the hardest cuts are yet to come now that the lower hanging fruit has been plucked. The rail fares controversy is only the latest sign of the difficult budgetary decisions that will dominate the next three years.
- The economy may get worse before it gets better. The Coalition is a hostage to developments in the Eurozone and hasn't really begun to take the necessarily difficult decisions on the supply side.
- Unlike in the Thatcher period it's not the Left that is divided and the Right united. It's the other way round.
- In the event of another hung parliament most LibDems will want a partnership with Labour.
- George Osborne's strategic aim of correcting one of the anti-Tory unfairnesses in the electoral system – unequally-sized constituencies – has been scuppered by Nick Clegg. This is just one of the ways in which the Conservatives have failed to tackle the institutional advantages that Labour possesses. Taxpayer funding of the union movement, for example – so vital to mobilisation of the Labour vote hasn't yet been cut back.
Despite these reservations Conservatives should take heart from Labour's relatively modest opinion poll lead and, in particular, Ed Miliband's failure to use this period to align his party with British majority views on fiscal responsibility, crime and welfare. Buried within last week's poll of Corby voters* was this finding (click to enlarge):
For the moment the voters of Corby, like the voters surveyed by YouGov etc, are using mid-term opportunities to kick the government. They always do. If, however, by the time of the next election, there are signs that the economy is growing – and that Labour opposed every tough budgetary decision taken by the Coalition – then the above finding suggests the Tories have some real hope of surviving in power.
* More on Lord Ashcroft's polling website.