It is said that Ed Miliband lacks gravitas, but from a Conservative point of view the real problem was that he lacked gravity. Despite being the inept leader of a dysfunctional party with a disastrous record in government, there he was on 40 per cent in the polls just two years after the crushing electoral defeat of 2010.
But gravity has caught up. In an essential briefing for the New Statesman, Andrew Harrop sums up the story of the last two years:
“…a lead of 10 points closed to two, or on some days nothing at all. And it’s been a squeeze caused almost entirely by Labour decline not Tory progress. Support for the Tories has hardly budged and the traditional see-saw of British politics seems broken. Labour supporters should be thankful, because if the Tories had gained ground as much as Labour has lost it, then the election would be over already.”
The Conservatives have ‘closed the gap’ with Labour, but only in the sense that the sea closed the gap with Icarus.
Still, one shouldn’t ignore the fact that the biggest change since 2012 isn’t the rise of UKIP, but Labour’s dizzying descent. It’s a point not lost on Mr Harrop:
“…an 8 to 10 point fall in the polls is still very bad news and to respond Labour needs to understand the nature of its decline: to identify who it is that has given up on the party and how they are planning to vote instead.”
According to figures prepared by the Fabian Society (of which Harrop is general secretary), the people who have deserted Labour in last two years come from two main groups. I’ll give you the less surprising of these first:
“…there’s been a 4 point decline in Labour support from people who didn’t vote for any of the major parties last time (ie new voters, 2010 non-voters and supporters of minor parties).”
That’s bad enough, because all parties need new voters because even if their old voters remain loyal they have an inconvenient habit of dying (which doesn’t help with turnout). But here’s the real shocker:
“…a fall in support among Labour’s 2010 voters of 4 percentage points… A drop like this was meant to be impossible. All through the parliament, the Labour hierarchy assumed that anyone who voted Brown in 2010 would surely stick in 2015. Well it turns out, you can’t take anyone for granted.”
If it hadn’t been for the mass defection of ex-Lib Dems after 2010, Labour poll ratings would be in the mid-twenties – i.e. firmly in second place.
As chief of the Fabians, Andrew Harrop can be excused for saying that “the fundamentals are all there for Labour to bounce back.” He’s wrong though. If they’re relying on a flighty bunch like the former Lib Dems, then it would be more accurate to say the fundamentals are there for Labour to fall even further.
Moreover (and as Harrop himself notes) Labour’s lost support has disappeared in all directions (of which UKIP is only one). Imagine what would happen if Labour faced a serious challenge from the populist left – in fact, there’s no need to imagine, just look at Scotland.
And yet, for all that, Ed Miliband is still on course to become Prime Minister. Labour’s on the slide, but the Conservatives are stuck. Labour’s ‘35 per cent strategy’ might be looking surprisingly ambitious these days, but they can still become the biggest party on rather less than that.
Between now and the general election, at least one of two things have to happen if we are to avoid a Labour-led government. Either Labour must continue its slide or the Conservatives must become unstuck (in a good way).
It’s possible that both of these things could happen. Or neither. And time is running out.