Who’s winning the expectations battle?

by Stephen Tall on June 3, 2009

If there’s one thing which worries most party bosses before an election, it is how they manage media expectations of the results. For it is how the media reports this Thursday’s election results which will by and large determine whether the voting public believes the parties have achieved or failed.

Yesterday, PoliticsHome published its Phi100 Panel results of what a select group of politicians, journalists, think-tanks and bloggers think will happen on 4th June. You can see their findings here. I highlight it because it set some alarm bells ringing in my mind that the Lib Dems are being set up for a fall.

Labour: such has been the bad press in the lead-up to these elections, it’s hard to imagine how Labour could end up lower than current expectations. In today’s political climate, not finishing fourth in the Euros and being only narrowly beaten by the Lib Dems in the locals will seem a triumph. The Phi100 survey suggests Labour retaining control of even one council in England will be viewed as a success. And of course there is an upside for Labour – a truly calamitous result could precipitate Gordon Brown’s defenestration.

Conservatives: here’s where the Phi100 panel seriously calls it wrong. When these council seats were last contested in 2005 – when the Tories, let’s remember, were led by Michael Howard – the Tories polled 40% in the English local council elections. Last year, in local elections which included Scotland and Wales, the Tories polled a projected figure of 44%. Yet the Phi100 reckons the party will poll within the range 38% to 42% – anything higher will be better than expected. In other words, if David Cameron out-polls his predecessor by just 2%, the Tory results will be hailed a triumph by the media. Hmmm, not exactly setting the bar high.

Lib Dems: though last Sunday’s ICM poll putting the party at 25% was a big morale booster, it’s arguably not helpful to the party. The Phi100 now expects the party to beat Labour into second place by up to 5% – the Lib Dems would need to exceed that 5% figure for the media to judge it a good set of results, even though it’s something the party has never achieved in its entire history. They are also expecting the Lib Dems to make net council seat gains of +25 to +55. Perhaps we should be flattered, but as most analyses reckon the party will have a fairly neutral night – with gains and losses roughly balancing each other out – it’s easy to see the ‘disappointing night for the Lib Dems’ headlines already. The BBC was over-eager to wheel them out last year to suit its pre-arranged agenda, even as the Lib Dem results were proving better-than-expected.

I’m not, by the way, suggesting this is at all a ‘media conspiracy’ – but the expectations of this Thursday’s results scarcely matter to Labour, are ridiculously low for the Tories, and flatteringly high for the Lib Dems. It would be a real shame if the results this Thursday – the culmination of years of hard work by MEPs, councillors, activists and members – were in any painted as failure simply because they don’t meet the high expectations of journalists.