Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov
Quite small movements in the polls could give both sides reason to believe they could form the next government, or spend five years in opposition. Tiny ups and downs in the fortunes of UKIP and the LibDems, who can make a significant difference just by upping their game in a handful of target seats, could determine whether we have a majority government or a coalition. The picture is so mixed because people credit the Conservatives with improving the economy but don’t really trust them to look after their interests; they feel warmer towards Labour, but still blame them for the recession; they were attracted to what seemed the centrist position of the LibDems, but only some of them will drift back; and they love flirting with UKIP, but probably only when the vote doesn’t really matter.
Pollsters are more guarded than ever in predicting what the outcome will be – but my point here is about something else: the effect of the polls. Professional campaigners like to claim polls make no difference – that, whatever the predictions, you should always just fight to win. But what if, entering the last year, you think the chance of winning is very small, but the chance of having the most seats, and therefore leading a coalition, is reasonably good? Can it really be true that you will run exactly the same campaign? That you will behave towards your possible future partners as if you don’t care about them? That you will choose the bolder, riskier messages you need to win outright, rather than the more defensive positions which make a continued hold on Number 10 more likely?
And even if there is no pre-emptive trimming, what of the new pressures from the media? After all, we have never before gone into an election with such a strong expectation of a coalition, and such an understanding of the sacrifices that they demand. I believe there will be a huge disruption to normal campaigning if the polls continue to suggest that the Conservatives can only win with their former coalition partners. Everyone will then know that any radical manifesto pledges are likely to be undeliverable. The LibDems have always experienced this, but never the Conservatives or Labour. They won’t be able just to wave away the hard “what if” questions without seeming disingenuous. There will be negotiations behind-the-scenes (but which everyone will find out about) on what each side regards as the policy “red lines”. The many MPs who hate coalition will not be able to contain themselves, and electors, who disapprove of political squabbling, will be turned off.
I spoke to a senior Cameroonian cabinet minister recently who believed the opposite: that the potentially most disruptive MPs would love the prospect of a small majority which would make their own position so much stronger, and will therefore seek to minimize disputes as the election comes closer. I doubt it. Before then there will be the European elections, and a good showing by UKIP would undoubtedly create mayhem throughout the Tory party. Can we really imagine the backbenchers who have been marginalised by coalition energetically going into battle for a manifesto designed to achieve another coalition? And what about Labour? Not believing they can win is sapping them of their will to pull together. There is huge internal bickering and a deep unwillingness to make the choices that could give them a strong platform. But if they got the feeling they could really win, might that not strengthen their determination and clarify their sense of purpose?
The current state of the polls create uncertainty, and uncertainty undermines a sense of purpose. The lines become all blurred. Calculations of risk and reward, which underlie decision-making, become muddled. So neither side really knows what to do, or even what it really wants.