What are the odds of the Conservative Party winning the next election? Not good, according to the bookies. Over at PoliticalBetting, Mike Smithson reports that one has to go down to number 89 on the list of Labour targets before finding a seat where the Tory incumbent is tipped to win. Oh dear.
Andrew Cooper, founder of Populus (and former Downing Street advisor), encourages us not to despair – citing the following facts:
“In modern times no party has ever gone on to form a government without at least once being over 50% in the polls. Labour not even close.
“For at least the last 15 elections, the main Opposition Party has got a lower vote share than its poll rating 15 months out.
“No leader of the opposition has ever gone on to become Prime Minister with ratings anywhere near as bad as Ed Miliband’s.”
In his column for the Financial Times, Janan Ganesh also draws upon precedent to play down Labour’s chances, declaring that “an unlikely electoral upheaval is Miliband’s best hope.”
But here’s the thing: the upheaval has already happened – the old rules of the electoral battleground no longer apply.
Someone who understands this is George Eaton at the New Statesman. In an article that should be pinned to every door in Downing Street, he shows us why the precedents are no longer relevant – for instance, in respect to Labour’s less than commanding position in the opinion polls:
“…in what looks increasingly like a four-party system, with UKIP consistently polling around 12%, this matters less than Cooper suggests. In a divided system, dramatically changed from the days when the Tories and Labour won 97% of the vote between them (as in 1951), parties no longer need a high share of the vote to win.”
This is especially true for Labour, given the various biases of the electoral system.
But what about the tendency for Opposition parties to lose support the closer we get to election day? Won’t this take Labour below the percentage they require for victory, modest though it may be?
“…while Labour’s vote share is likely to decline before May 2015 (it currently averages 38%), this does not represent a barrier to victory. One key point in the party’s favour is the unusually low level of switching between the two main parties (just 5% of 2010 Conservative voters currently back Labour), with most of the increase in its support due to Lib Dem defectors. This means that falling support for Labour doesn’t automatically translate into rising support for the Tories.”
This is absolutely crucial – and it underlines just how radically things have changed. The decline of the two-party vote is nothing new, but, until recently, the growing strength of the smaller parties only served to elaborate rather than overturn the old ‘swingometer’ model of British politics.
Now, we need two swingometers: one that swings between red and yellow (Lab and Lib); and one between blue and purple (Con and ’kipper). Admittedly, this simplifies a more complicated picture, but it still identifies the main drivers of our new electoral politics.
The exquisite position in which the Conservative Party finds itself is that it must shift the second swingometer from purple to blue without doing anything to stop the first swingometer from shifting back from red to yellow. In other words, it must reach out to current UKIP supporters without causing undue distress to Labour-leaning Liberal Democrats.
This might seem an impossible task, but what it actually does is set the parameters for an authentic conservatism that is populist without being reactionary – the only platform on which the Conservative Party can win the next or any future election.