Though it has been little-noticed outside the Westminster village, it has been clear for some time that one of the party leaders has a very specific and rather interesting political strategy in play. In this strategy, that leader ensured that his policies and speeches appealed just enough to a very specific set of supporters – some core supporters plus a small number picked up in recent years from another party – that these stay with the party consistently in opinion polls (and, he hopes, through to the General Election) even though they may have doubts about the leader personally.
There are those in the party who criticise his lack of ambition, saying that he needs to try harder to reach out to floating voters or voters from other parties. Others say this narrow focus will make it harder to secure a coalition if the need arises after the election. And many are surprised, indeed some are even disturbed, that it might just be possible for him to win if he secures these and only these supporters. They say he surely cannot really hope that that will be enough, come election day.
And yet, in our multi-polar politics in which the rise of minor parties take votes away from the main parties, it increasingly seems – just – possible that this focus upon holding on to these and only these voters might yet be enough – if not to secure a overall majority at least to secure a sufficient plurality to govern as a minority administration. This focus – unambitious as it is – has been enough for this leader to hold on to these (and only these) voters in virtually every opinion poll for years as others rise and fall with the tides of the moment.
I refer, of course, to David Cameron and his “32 per cent strategy”. Of the 656 YouGov polls, shown by UK Polling Report, conducted since the “omnishambles” budget of 21 March 2012, there have been only 13 – or fewer than two per cent – in which the Conservatives polled more than three per cent above or below 32 per cent. There were only 79 – or around 12 per cent – in which the Conservatives polled more than 34 per cent or less than 30 per cent. And in 418 of those polls, the Conservatives were no more than one per cent away from 32 per cent – a remarkable 64 per cent of the time.
Over that time, you have probably quite often seen headlines saying things like “Conservatives cut Labour’s poll lead” or “Conservatives sneak ahead”. What that has almost always meant (a tiny number of polls aside – though no more than the “margin of error” reported in polls would imply) is that the Conservatives got 32 per cent (again) but Labour’s vote fell, sometimes to below 32 per cent. The Conservatives have got 32 per cent almost every time.
This 32 per cent was of course – presumably not by coincidence – exactly the same as the 32 per cent the Conservatives achieved in virtually every poll in their “flatlining” period from Black Wednesday in 1992 right through to the 2005 General Election. Cameron’s support is at the (what has been up to now) irreducible Conservative core vote of 32 per cent.
And, remarkably, it is far from clear that holding on to that 32 per cent will not prove enough to win, as Labour loses support wholesale to the SNP in Scotland and the minor parties such as UKIP and the Greens split the Lib Dem anti-politics vote and Labour angry opposition vote in England.
It used to be said (by me, apart from anyone else) that the Conservatives could not win with a “core vote” strategy that picked up just 32 per cent or so of support. But that is far from obvious any more. Maybe we can’t win a majority with 32 per cent, but we could be the largest party by some margin if Labour starts to slip further.
Labour’s own attempt at a form of core vote strategy – the notorious “35 per cent strategy” ascribed to Ed Miliband (if words like “strategy” are actually meaningful when attached to his strange tactical meanderings) combining 29 per cent of Labour’s 2010 support with six per cent of Lib Dem defectors – appears much less robust than Cameron’s 32. That is true both in the polls – where Labour’s vote is much more volatile than that of the Conservatives – and in terms of pundit expectation. Labour could conceivably get much more than 35 per cent come election day, with the right pitch and the right leadership and the Conservatives degenerating on the run-in.
But it seems much more plausible that voters willing to overlook Ed Miliband’s scarlet weaknesses when he is merely Leader of the Opposition would become well and truly spooked if they fear he might actually enter Number 10. And all the time – drip, drip, drip – in his notionally safe constituencies, angry people bleed away to the SNP in Scotland and UKIP in the North. Unless Labour can win in Scotland, it can’t form an administration at UK level.
And if it can’t win the UK General Election, will it hold on to those voters that seek inchoate “change” and support Labour instead of the Greens or Ukip or Respect or the SNP only because they have believed up to now that “Only Labour can deliver change”? 35 per cent could quickly become 29 per cent and then 25 per cent, and 32 per cent for Cameron could rapidly seem more than enough for him to form a minority administration. “Tony! Tony! Wherefore art thou, Tony?”