Firing the starter’s gun for the general election

by Stephen Tall on January 23, 2005

Forget the starter’s orders, the gun’s been fired. Yes, it’s official, the 2005 general election race is under way. The conventional wisdom goes like this: Labour’s cruising to a third landslide victory, the Tories haven’t got a hope, the Liberal Democrats will do alright. Fair summary? Let’s look at these bite-size chunks of established opinion.

Is Labour really cruising? Well, it depends if you believe the opinion pollsters, really. Mike Smithson of Politicalbetting.com, in a trenchant critique of opinion pollsters’ accuracy, compiled the annual averages of Labour’s ratings as measured by ICM. In 1996, a few months before Mr Blair’s first triumph, his party was riding high at 47%; in 2000, before his second, the figure was 49% (if you exclude the petrol crisis blip); in 2004, prior to the anticipated 05/05/05 election, it was down to 36.9%.

In both the general elections of 1997 and 2001 Labour considerably under-performed its stellar poll ratings. In neither case did it make much difference because Mr Blair’s majorities were so large. However, if they fail to match their current standing, the Prime Minister’s grip on power will weaken much sooner than the end of the next Parliament, his self-imposed retirement deadline.

Opinion polls are once again acquiring the talismanic reputation they had gained prior to the 1992 debacle, when John Major’s victory so shocked the experts. Yet, with a margin of error of +/-3%, and the health warning that they provide ‘snapshots’, we should use them only to discern trends, not to predict certainties. Labour are trending downwards, dipping seriously since 2001: that is the big story of the current crop of opinion polls.

Which brings us to the Tories. Do they really not have a hope? Their leader,Michael Howard, appears to think not. As Neil Kinnock acerbically noted in an interview in this week-end’s Financial Times: “The extraordinary thing is that only the other week Michael Howard was quoted saying, ‘If we lose, I’ll still be here’. Wait a minute! That is not what you say! Even if you know it in your gut! You can’t afford to say it!” (Which perhaps says more about why politicians are regarded so sceptically by the public than the soon-to-be Lord Kinnock intended.)

I have previously looked at the possibility of ‘tactical unwind’, the theory which suggests that Labour voters who switch to the Liberal Democrats in protest at Mr Blair’s lurch to the right, will let the Conservatives back in through the middle. But there is another threat to Labour’s assumed continuing dominance: a man called Lynton Crosby. He is the political svengali summoned by Mr Howard last year to do for the Tories what he successfully engineered for a near-namesake, Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard.

Mr Crosby’s most famous trick was played-out in 2001, and is described by The Independent columnist, Johann Hari (polemically but accurately):

“In the 2001 election, John Howard was lagging in the polls and facing defeat at the hands of the Labour Party – so his government chose a crowd-pleasing policy of abusing refugees. … Three days after the launch of Howard’s flailing election campaign, 438 refugees – many fleeing the Taliban – were found on a sinking ship off the coast of Australia, trying to get to a safe country. A Norwegian tanker called the Tampa picked them up and tried to bring them to shore – and at that moment, Howard and Crosby spotted an election opportunity. In a theatrical gesture, Howard refused them entry. His poll ratings began to rise.”

Will it work in Britain? Messrs Howard and Crosby think so, which is why on page eight of today’s Sunday Telegraph is a full-page advert, signed by Michael Howard, under the heading, ‘Why I believe we must limit immigration’. This is a clear grab for the cabbies’ vote, and it will find a receptive audience, as was so clearly proven by Rodney Hylton-Potts, the winner of ITV1’s ‘Vote For Me’, whose pungent right-wing idiocy charmed a nation.

As well as seizing a xenophobic agenda, Mr Crosby will mastermind the Tories’ use of subtle marketing techniques via his ‘Voter Vault’ database. This computer system claims to identify people likely to vote Conservative from, among other information, their spending habits. The party hopes to use it to target about 400,000 swing voters in key marginals through direct mail and personal telephone calls. Will this enable the Tories to operate ‘below the radar’ in the same way President Bush’s campaign energised millions of ‘moral values voters’ last November, undetected by national polls?

Certainly the Conservatives aim to learn from Mr Bush’s campaign, and are hoping Mr Crosby can emulate the success of Karl Rove, President Bush’s chief political strategist. It was he who (allegedly) pioneered the use of ‘push polling’ on behalf of his political master in the South Carolina Republican Presidential primary in 2000.

Arizona’s Senator John McCain had upset the applecart by beating Dubya in the New Hampshire primary, and was beginning to surge ahead. Then came a whispering campaign – mounted via leaflet hand-outs and loaded questions from supposedly independent opinion pollsters – that Senator McCain had fathered a black baby by a prostitute, his wife was a drug addict, and that he had become unstable due to his years in a Vietnamese prison camp. In fact, the McCains had adopted a baby from a Mother Teresa orphanage in Bangladesh. But when the then 11 year-old waved alongside the McCain family from campaign stages across the state she added fuel to the fire of an unforgivable slander. Senator McCain lost, and the rest is tragedy.

But Michael Howard faces more of an uphill struggle than either of his two right-wing counterparts in the US and Australia. George W. Bush and John Howard are war leaders of nations which have experienced formative terrorist tragedies (9/11 and the Bali bombing). To a large extent we Brits have been inured to Al-Quaeda’s campaign, partly because outrages have occurred in far-away countries, partly because of the long-standing IRA assault on the mainland.

As Mr Howard has already found, it will be almost impossible to out-flank Mr Blair by portraying him as ‘soft on terrorism, soft on the causes of terrorism’. He may already be rueing his decision to align the Tories with Labour over ID cards: it’s a policy U-turn, along with his party’s opposition to tuition fees, just waiting to happen.

All of which leaves us with the Liberal Democrats. Here I think conventional wisdom is correct: we’ll do alright. If you want a personal prediction, I think the party will score about 24% of the popular vote with around 70 MPs. But I believe the really interesting election will be in four years’ time.

Assuming Mr Blair is re-elected with a much-reduced majority – I have a hunch it will be under 50 – it won’t be too long before a Brown Premiership is ushered in. Now Mr Brown poses a threat to the Liberal Democrats, as the party is successfully hoovering up New Labour refusniks in urban heartlands.

But whether he can sustain the gloss of novelty for long I doubt: Mr Brown’s reputation will become tarnished by the time of the 2009 election, which it is his destiny to lose. And which party will be firmly established in second place to Labour in seats up and down the country? Not the Conservatives, but the Liberal Democrats. A hung Parliament, proportional representation and party political plurality may be only four years away!