Showing my working… How I arrived at my May 2015 general election predictions

by Stephen Tall on January 16, 2015

I offered up my predictions for the next election in my ConservativeHome column this week. I thought I’d explain here how I arrived at my guesswork that this is what we’ll wake up to on 8th May:

Conservatives: 35% (291 MPs)
Labour: 32% (283 MPs)
Lib Dems: 12% (32 MPs)
Ukip: 11% (3 MPs)
Others: 9% (41 MPs, including 22 SNP MPs)

First, I’ll explain the poll-shares…

The Conservatives are currently averaging 33% in the polls (UK Polling Report). It is highly likely that will increase by 7th May. In the last national election, May 2014’s Euros, most of the polls under-stated the Tory vote (and over-stated Ukip’s) and I think we may see something similar this time. However, I find it hard to imagine the Tories exceeding the 36% they achieved in 2010. So 35% it is.

Labour is currently averaging 34% in the polls. However, there is a well-documented tendency for oppositions to lose votes in the year leading up to an election — the average loss of support is 6%. Labour was polling c.37% in spring 2014. Ordinarily, then, I’d be predicting Labour would fall towards 30%, or perhaps even lower, especially as some of the anti-Tory tactical vote drifts back to the Lib Dems in their battleground seats. However, I think Labour will be protected by some unwinding of the Ukip and Green votes back to Labour as decision-day nears. So I’m reckoning it’ll net out at about 32%.

The Lib Dems are currently averaging 8% in the polls — so how do I justify my estimate they’ll climb up to 12%? Here I’m placing my faith in ICM, historically the most reliable pollster around. Its methodology of re-allocating some voters who say they don’t know this time according to who they say they voted for last time means its polls are part-snapshot, part-forecast. They tend to be kindest to the Lib Dems — over the past year, the party has averaged 12% with ICM. What has happened in previous elections is that pollsters begin to converge as polling day draws near. Lib Dem voters who are least likely to say they are certain to vote for the party make up their minds later; and my party is more likely to benefit from tactical votes in key seats. Of course, no-one knows if what’s held true in previous elections will also hold true this May, but I’m guessing it will. So 12% it is.

Ukip is also hard to call. However, as Lib Dems know to our cost, third party surges often fade by the time voters reach the ballot box. Perhaps it’s the electorate’s caution at not wanting to ‘waste’ their vote. Perhaps the voters enjoy the flirtation but recoil from the consummation. Perhaps it’s the failure of the smaller parties’ organisational capacities. Whatever it is, I find it hard to believe Ukip will sustain ratings in the high-teens, and that some Tory (and Labour) defectors will re-rat when it comes to the crunch. So Ukip will have to settle for 11% (getting on for triple their 2010 performance).

Secondly, what does all this mean for bums on seats in the Commons? Well, despite the exactness of my prediction I’m not at all sure. I haven’t attempted a seat-by-seat analysis. But I think the following…

In the Tory/Labour battle:

If the Tories poll 3% ahead of Labour it’s very unlikely they won’t end up as the largest party, even allowing for the anti-Tory tilt in the current electoral boundaries. However, the Ashcroft polling indicates Labour is still doing well in the key marginals, and I think Labour’s ground-game is probably superior. Overall I’m not expecting a great shift in seats from Tory to Labour; after all, I’m predicting only a small national Tory to Labour swing of 2% compared to 2010.

Lib Dems:

For all the talk of Lib Dem incumbency, I’m not actually predicting there will be very much of it: the almost-halving of my party’s national rating since 2010 is likely to see an almost-halving of the party’s number of MPs. Yes, we’ll hold on to many seats we ‘ought’ to lose according to uniform national swing; but I suspect we’re in for a grim night in three categories of seats: Scotland, where Labour is in second place, and where the incumbent MP is retiring.

Ukip:

Ukip will win a lot of second places, but not even a handful of MPs — the party has been unable to curb its polarising toxicity, which will make it hard to break the 30-35% threshold needed to win, especially in a general election where turn-out is higher than at by-elections. It’s possible Nigel’s ‘People’s Army’ will snatch more seats than I think by sneaking through the middle in three-way contests. But I think their best chances will come in those (few) seats where they’re standing a well-known, well-organised and long-standing local campaigner.

SNP:

One place I found very hard even to guess at the results is Scotland. It’s not just that I don’t know it’s electoral politics well; it’s also that the SNP’s performance is genuinely impossible to gauge at this stage. The handful of Westminster voting intentions polls we’ve seen indicate Labour to SNP swings in excess of 20%, enough to produce a nationalist landslide. I don’t think it will be quite that dramatic for the reasons set out on the May2015.com blog here. However, a combination of an insurgent and battle-hungry SNP, voters’ ‘buyers’ remorse’ from the referendum rejection of independence, and the smaller sizes of Scottish constituencies mean that a big upset is possible. I’ve guessed at the SNP securing 22 of the available 59 seats, which would mean they would still trail Labour quite significantly, but, frankly, who knows?

There you have it, then. The thinking behind my predictions. How does it hold up?

My ConHome column: What will happen on 7th May? Here are my predictions…

by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2015

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. Agree/disagree with my predictions? Let me know… My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Domestic politics can seem small. The bloody shock of the Charlie Hebdo murders jolt us into recognising that it isn’t just faraway places of which we know little where fundamental liberties like free speech are under assault. My house is closer to Paris than it is to York; yet there it was, in France’s capital city, that two killers decided 12 people they didn’t know no longer had the right to draw, to offend, to breathe. The instant, apt, overwhelming response was solidarity: je suis Charlie, nous sommes tous Charlie (though, sadly if unsurprisingly, some hand-wringers contrived to find victim-blaming reasons to distance themselves even from this inadequate expression of unity in grief). Meanwhile, in Britain, the debate du jour was whether there will be televised leaders’ debates. Like I said: small. But, of course, politics carries on. Unless it did, what would there be to satirise?

**

Last year, I made some predictions, and they didn’t turn out too badly. The wise thing to do, then, would be to quit while I’m ahead. It would be wiser still to do so noting that this general election is “the most unpredictable in years” (© Every Pundit) and that anyone who actually thinks they can prophesy anything at this stage is, to use psephological terminology, a total mug. But where’s the fun in that? So here goes…

I’ll start with what I know best: the Lib Dems. A year ago, I pessimistically thought we’d still be stuck at 10 per cent in the polls, not realising I was being optimistic. What I had thought was Nick Clegg’s canny, risk-free decision to challenge Nigel Farage to debate Europe mano a mano backfired, reducing my party to just 8 per cent. Feed that dismal rating into an online prediction tool like Electoral Calculus and it’ll tell you the Lib Dems will be scythed down from 57 to just 19 MPs. Ouch.

But I don’t buy it. No, I’ve always thought our popularity would recover (or, to put it more accurately, our unpopularity would recede) closer to the day of reckoning, 7th May, and I still do. For sure, there will be vast swathes of the country where the Lib Dems will crumble, just as we have in so many by-elections this parliament. The solid runners-up and bronze medal positions we amassed in hundreds of seats up and down the country in 2010 will fall away into embarrassing fourth and even fifth places this time. But in the five dozen constituencies where Lib Dems have battened down the hatches we’ll weather the storm. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but it’s backed up by the findings from Lord Ashcroft’s polling which shows where Lib Dem MPs dig in they’re hard to uproot (where the Conservatives are our main opponents, at any rate).

Next to Ukip, for whom the last year has been a tactical triumph and a strategic disaster. Yes, 2014 saw Nigel’s army win its first ever national election and its first two MPs elected. And yes, this May will likely see Ukip surge into winnable second places in a range of downtrodden seats too long neglected by Labour and the Conservatives. It would be foolish not to acknowledge the significance of those events. Yet 2014 has also seen Nigel Farage re-toxifying his party’s brand with casually xenophobic and sexist remarks, instead of broadening Ukip’s national appeal. As a result, Ukip is further away than before from achieving its goal — the UK voting to withdraw from the European Union in any future referendum — because its leader chooses to preach to the 15 per cent of zealots who already believe, rather than reach out to the majority in Middle Britain to try and convert them.

I don’t think Ukip will collapse; but nor do I think they’ll maintain ratings in the high-teens as we approach polling day; and nor do I think the number of votes they win will be reflected by the number of MPs elected. Welcome, Ukippers, to the world of the Lib Dems for the past half-century.

The real wild-card in 2015 is not Ukip — whose parliamentary presence will remain tiny — but the SNP. I have no inside Scottish knowledge, so I’ll rely on my gut wisdom: election results are usually a lot more dull than the speculation which precedes them. While the Scottish polls currently indicate the SNP could sweep almost all before them — and their startling membership surge suggests their ground-game will be hard to beat — I don’t think Scottish Labour will be rubbed out of their heartland just yet. The swing required in one bound is just too great, as the May2015.com website highlights here. The SNP will instead have to settle for replacing the Lib Dems as the second party of Scotland.

(I would have written a paragraph here about the Greens, but Ofcom’s decision not to classify them as a major party saves me the trouble. It looks like they’ll hold on to their single seat, Brighton Pavilion, though.)

As for the Conservatives and Labour — well, as I pointed out in my last column, neither party has really tried to make a pitch to win this election outright, not really. Labour is too easily portrayed as the party of financial incompetence, defenders of the public sector at any cost. The Conservatives are too easily characterised as the party of social injustice, defenders of the haves and have-yachts. Neither has done much this past five years to live down their respective reputations, no matter how unfair each may believe them to be. As a result, there has been precious little movement of voters between the two main parties, and therefore very little likelihood of either doing well enough to win a majority.

So there you have it, my predictions for the coming election… Oh, wait. You want numbers, you say? If you insist:

Conservatives: 35% (291 MPs)
Labour: 32% (283 MPs)
Lib Dems: 12% (32 MPs)
Ukip: 11% (3 MPs)
Others: 9% (41 MPs, including 22 SNP MPs)

If that happens, then David Cameron will remain as Prime Minister. (Somehow.) But the other three party leaders, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage (who won’t win in South Thanet), will all depart.

Reckon I’m spouting rubbish? Then pin your tail on the electoral donkey below, and let’s check back in 114 days’ time.

Don’t blame David Cameron if the televised leaders’ debates don’t happen

by Stephen Tall on January 14, 2015

Let’s take it as read that the leaders of the Conservatives and Labour have to be present for the televised debates — after all, it is one of those two parties which will supply the next Prime Minister and will form (the major part of) the next government.

It follows that the leader of the Lib Dems is included in the televised debates — after all, they have a record in government to defend this time round and it’s not fair for Labour and the Conservatives to be free to attack it in his absence.

It follows then that the leader of Ukip is included in the televised debates — after all, they beat both the Conservatives and Labour in the most recent national election, and have consistently out-polled the Lib Dems for much of the past year.

It follows then that the leader of the Greens is included in the televised debates — after all, they (not Ukip) have won a seat at a general election, and some polls show them ahead of the Lib Dems.

It follows then that the leader of the SNP is included in the televised debates — after all, they have more MPs than Ukip and the Greens combined and could plausibly end up a larger party than the Lib Dems.

It follows then that the leader of the DUP  is included in the televised debates — after all, it is currently the fourth-largest party in the House of Commons.

It follows then that the leader of Plaid Cymru is included in the televised debates — after all, if major parties from Scotland and Northern Ireland are represented, you cannot exclude Wales.

That makes eight leaders who should be included in any televised debate (even if you exclude the leader of Respect because George Galloway).

Inviting Nick Clegg to all three debates in 2010 established a precedent for including a party leader who wouldn’t become Prime Minister. It set up the domino-effect we see above, which makes it logically impossible to draw a line including one party leader and excluding another.

David Cameron doesn’t want the televised debates to happen: the risk of taking part is greater than the likely reward. But for the media to claim he’s the only obstacle is rubbish. Party politics is now more complicated, fragmented. Until the broadcasters come up with a solution that recognises that reality, party leaders looking to dodge a debate have a ready-made excuse.

The new (and unimprovable) Charlie Hebdo front cover. #JeSuisCharlie

by Stephen Tall on January 12, 2015

image

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 20

by Stephen Tall on January 10, 2015

Congratulations to George Murray, who leads the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 20, having amassed 1,178 points. Congratulations, too, to David Stacey and Brendan D’Cruz, who tied for this week’s best performance, each with 82 points. Here’s the full top 10:

ldv fantasy week 21

There are 157 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

 

Liberal Heroes of the Week #83: Charlie Hebdo, #jesuischarlie

by Stephen Tall on January 9, 2015

cf hero charlie hebdo

Charlie Hebdo

French satirical newspaper
Reason: sticking up for the right of people everywhere to provoke, to stir, to offend

Am I Charlie? On one level, almost certainly not. I wouldn’t have drawn the cartoons they drew: mockery of religion and deliberately offending others isn’t my thing.

And if I had received a death threat I’d probably have been more than tempted to shelter indoors, rather than keep on running headlong into the storm.

‘Je suis Charlie’ is not a statement of fact (a rather obvious point to have to make), but a declaration of solidarity with the right of those who’ve chosen a different path to pursue it without fear.

Three articles have stood out for me in all that’s been written this week. First, some brilliantly unequivocal words from The Times’s David Aaronovitch:

This is the deal for living together. The same tolerance that allows Muslims or Methodists freedom to practise and espouse their religion is the same tolerance that allows their religion or any aspect of it to be depicted, criticised or even ridiculed. Take away one part of the deal and the other part falls too. You live here, that’s what you agree to.

Secondly, Nick Clegg has highlighted a point too often forgotten by those who look to the law to defend them from offence:

Some of those who died on Wednesday had drawn cartoons which they knew were offensive to others. But no one ever deserves to be killed just because they have caused offence. This is the bottom line: in a free society people have to be free to offend each other. There is no such thing as a right not to be offended. You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other.

And finally, here’s Kenan Malik angrily tearing into the ‘fake liberals’ who imagine they are protecting minority communities when they seek to censor what they consider to be offensive:

What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Pakistani cartoonist Sabir Nazar, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, exiled to India after death threats, or the Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi, sentenced to death last year for ‘insulting the Prophet’. What happened in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was viscerally shocking; but in the non-Western world, those who stand up for their rights face such threats every day.

In reality – in our crowded, cosy, day-to-day lives, when it’s easier to nod along with the demands of the offended wanting to silence the offensive because we fear being thought insensitive – few of us are Charlie.

This week, we’re all saying #jesuisCharlie. But life moves on. The challenge will come next week, and the week after, when the horror of Paris has receded, and a group-with-a-grievance once again tries to salami slice the principle of free speech (“we’re just asking that people use their freedom responsibly,” they’ll say).

Perhaps the hashtag we need is #jemesouviensCharlie?

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Are the Greens a major party? Ofcom’s answer is a self-fulfilling one

by Stephen Tall on January 8, 2015

leaders debate

I’m unsure whether the leader of the Green party being included in the leaders’ debates in 2015 would help or hinder the Lib Dems. On balance, at least on this occasion, I think it would help.

True, the Lib Dems have leaked supporters to the Greens since 2010. But I think it’s Labour which has the potential to be hit harder by Natalie Bennett’s full-throated anti-austerity battlecry. Indeed, at least some of the decline in Labour’s poll lead over the Tories in the past year is the result of ex-Lib Dems re-defecting from Labour to the Greens. The publicity fillip of the televised debate would most likely assist that process.

Of course it’s possible there might be some kind of ‘Greenmania’ which sees the Lib Dems squeezed again, just as the ‘Nick v Nigel’ debates backfired with Ukip over-taking us. Perhaps the Lib Dems would be relegated into fifth place as a result. Perhaps. But as Lib Dem results will depend first and foremost on the incumbency of individual MPs in battleground seats, the party’s national share of the vote matters less this time around. My hunch is that Labour has more to lose, especially in seats like Cambridge and Hornsey where they’ll be hoping to oust the Lib Dems.

However, none of that is relevant to Ofcom. ‘All’ they have to do is work out whether the Greens count as a major party. They say not, but that Ukip do. Based on their criteria, they’re probably right to reach that conclusion – after all, Ukip has out-polled the Greens by some way in all elections (and polls) for the past decade. The Greens meanwhile can point to having beaten the Lib Dems at last May’s Euros and to occasionally besting the party in a handful of recent opinion polls — indicators which say more about the current unpopularity of my party than they do any particular massive enthusiasm for the Greens.

I’d be surprised if the Greens polled more than 5 per cent in May. However, there is more than a bit of a Catch-22 here. If Natalie Bennett’s included in the leaders’ debates, they might well do so thereby justifying any decision by Ofcom to designate them a major party; if she’s not, they probably won’t do so thereby justifying Ofcom’s current decision not to designate them a major party. Such remains the self-fulfilling power of media exposure.

I can’t be the only one uncomfortable with the idea that an unelected regulator is able to exert such influence on an election’s outcome, but, then again, I’m stuck as to what the alternative is. A televised leaders’ debate with every party leader going? No thanks. A televised leaders’ debate carved up between the Conservative and Labour leaders? No thanks.

I’m increasingly attracted by David Cameron’s preference: letting someone else decide there should be no televised leaders’ debate.

The One Where I Start Off Nice About Nick (then remember his decision to sack Vince)

by Stephen Tall on January 7, 2015

nick cleggIt’s Nick Clegg’s 48th birthday today, so I’m going to start off nicely. I like him, admire him, respect him. To have endured what he’s endured these past five years – a campaign of belittling vilification by the media which bears comparison only to the attacks Neil Kinnock was subjected to – and still to be standing, and sometimes smiling, is deeply impressive.

The easy gag about him – the one plied on panel shows passing themselves off as satire – is that he’s weak, put upon, no more than Cameron’s cushion. Just as Spitting Image got it arse-about-face wrong by portraying David Steel in the pocket of David Owen, so does this cliché. Nick leads a party with 9 per cent of MPs in coalition with a party with 47% of MPs. It is not how little he’s achieved in government which should surprise us, but how much.

Right, that’s the nice bit over with.

Last year, notwithstanding the above, I called on Nick Clegg to quit as Lib Dem leader. My reasons were quite straightforward: his continuing to lead the party is an obstacle to the Lib Dems staying in government beyond May 2015 if we have the chance to do so.

The party won’t vote for a second Lib Dem / Tory coalition with Nick still leading us. And the country won’t buy a Lib Dem / Labour coalition, with Nick undoing chunks of what he oversaw in this Coalition.

Quite a few people disagreed with me, told me we owed Nick a far greater debt of loyalty. Fair enough, though in all the responses not one person faulted the logic of my position.

But there was another reason I lost faith with Nick last year: his unfathomable decision to elbow Vince Cable aside as the Lib Dems’ economics spokesperson in favour of Danny Alexander, confirmed today.

Last July, I suggested 5 things Nick could do to try and repair morale within the party and to try and retrieve the party’s poll ratings after they took yet another battering following the disastrous Euro election results. The first one was very deliberately chosen:

1. Announce Vince Cable will be the party’s shadow chancellor at the next election.

I’m told it’s a done deal that Danny Alexander will get the nod. That would be a mistake. We need a shadow chancellor with clout, utterly secure on the economics, savvy about the politics. As I pointed out a couple of months ago, Vince has done a masterful job of walking “the tightrope of respecting collective cabinet responsibility while signalling quite clearly when and why he disagrees with the Conservatives, most notably on immigration”. Party members also favour – by 63% to 28% – having Vince represent the Lib Dems in the ‘Ask the Chancellor’ debates.

I’ve no axe to grind against Danny Alexander. I’ve met him a couple of times, and, like most politicians, he’s both taller and more charismatic than he appears on the shrunken small screen. I’ve no reason to believe he’ll accidentally set fire to his ‘Ask the Chancellors’ podium. He’ll likely acquit himself and the party quite… adequately.

But he’s not Vince. Surely, if you’re the leader of a party facing the most difficult election in at least half a century, one in which margins matter – where the result could quite plausibly range from a sub-24 catastrophe to an exceeds-expectations 45 seats – you field your best team? I mean your very best. And on the economy that must mean Vince.

There are only two reason I can think of why Nick would choose someone other than Vince to represent the party as its economics spokesperson. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks Danny will do better. More likely, far more likely, he’s taking out 5 years’ pent-up irritation with Vince for not pretending the Coalition’s ‘Plan A’ has actually gone to plan or that it is what a Lib Dem government would have chosen to do.

Neither reason reflects well on Nick’s judgement.

My ConHome column: Labour and the Conservatives know what they need to do to win in May. But they’re still not doing it.

by Stephen Tall on January 5, 2015

con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here last week. In particular, admire how I seamlessly and subliminally insert the Lib Dem slogan ‘stronger economy, fairer society’. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

Does any party want to win a majority any more? It’s a serious question. I don’t mean, ‘Does any party want to have more MPs than all the others put together?’ Obviously, they all want that. The trouble is, though, that Labour and Conservatives (and their activists) seem to want to do it on their own terms, without any compromise. No-one appears prepared to take the risks needed to attract voters from the other side. And that makes winning a majority a much more difficult task.

I remember an interview with Tony Blair in the lead-up to his 1997 election triumph in which he recalled with amused bafflement the complaints from some of his own party that “even Tories are voting for us now”. It’s not a complaint that Ed Miliband will hear too much. What little additional support he has attracted to Labour since 2010 has come almost wholly from my party, the Lib Dems: easy electoral pickings which Labour was confident would see it safely over the finishing line. But now, with its Scottish social democratic vote peeling off to the SNP, its middle-class progressive vote atrophying to the Greens, and its working-class ‘blue Labour’ vote lured by Ukip, it’s all looking a bit dicey. Unofficially, Labour is focusing on the 68 seats which will give it a majority of one. Realistically, its senior figures are beginning to think through how they can survive as a minority government without the perpetual hand-to-mouth turmoil of the Callaghan years.

It’s no more cheerful on the Conservative side. After all, the party won 36 per cent in 2010 and failed to win a majority — so what chance is there of doing better next time when it’s averaging 31 per cent in the polls? It might have been different, of course…

If David Cameron had thrown his weight behind the Alternative Vote, then his party would have much less to fear from Ukip splitting the right-wing vote, and might now (YouGov’s Peter Kellner speculates) be in a winning position.

If Jesse Norman hadn’t kaiboshed the Conservatives’ manifesto promise to reform the House of Lords, the Lib Dems would have had no excuse to pull the plug on the re-drawing of constituency boundaries to correct the current anti-Tory bias in the system.

If George Osborne had resisted the temptation to be too clever by half in his 2012 budget — cutting the top-rate of tax for the wealthiest, introducing a myriad of controversial tax-hikes for everyone else — then the Conservatives might have benefited more from the economic recovery.

However, the biggest ‘what if’ applies equally to both parties. It is this: ‘What if you wanted — really wanted — to win a majority in May 2015, what would you need to do to achieve it?’ For Labour, the answer is obvious: reassure voters it can be trusted to create a stronger economy. For Conservatives, the answer is obvious: reassure voters it can be trusted to create a fairer society. Yet each has deliberately eschewed the obvious answer throughout this parliament.

It was always going to be hard for Ed Miliband to win back the mantle of economic competence. The Great Recession happened on Labour’s watch, and, though it might protest (correctly) that neither Conservatives nor the Lib Dems were calling for public spending cuts or greater banking regulation at the time, it is the Blair/Brown governments which copped most of the blame. However, Mr Miliband seems, oddly, to have believed that ignoring this problem could make it go away (quite literally so when he failed to mention the deficit at all in his autumn conference speech). The voters need little persuading that Labour cares; they do need persuading that a Labour government will be able to afford to care.

It should have been much easier for David Cameron to have claimed the Conservatives could be the party of social justice. The economic pendulum was swinging in his direction: an economic recovery was likely to happen in this parliament. And just as Gordon Brown got the blame for what happened on his watch, so the Conservatives were likely to get the credit for what happened on theirs: that’s why Cameron and Osborne are more trusted with the family finances than Miliband and Balls. All the Conservatives needed to do was demonstrate that we really are “all in this together”, that it is not only the party of the rich. It has failed. Instead, the Cameron/Osborne approach has simply re-inforced the widespread perception that, if you struggle to make ends meet or don’t yet own your own home or look to the state to provide good-quality public services you couldn’t afford to pay for, then the Conservative party isn’t for you. The voters need little persuading that Conservatives understand the value of money; they do need persuading that a Conservative government understands the value of anything else.

To reach out to voters who aren’t part of your base used to be the most natural thing in the world for any party aspiring to win a majority. After all, your base had nowhere else to go. Now there’s no end of choices. Are you a right-winger who thinks the country’s gone to the dogs? Vote Ukip. are you a left-winger who thinks no problem can’t be solved by taxing a few more of the 1%? Vote Lib Dem Green. So I can understand why Cameron and Miliband spend as much time trying to hold on to the voters they have as they do worrying about how to win over any more voters to the cause. But it’s a short-term vote-retention tactic, not a long-term vote-attracting strategy.

To win a majority, parties need broad appeal not narrow sectionalism; to get the balance right between a stronger economy and a fairer society. Both Labour and the Conservatives know what they each need to do. They’ve know it for almost five years, but have rarely acted on it (and have been spooked back to their comfort zone by the adverse reaction of their core vote on the rare occasions they’ve ventured beyond). Which leads me to suspect that — the answer to my original question — both are far more scared of losing the next election than they are hopeful of winning it.

* Predictions update: a year ago in this column, I made five predictions for 2014. Looking back, I don’t think I did too badly (though I was wrong on some details). But I’ll highlight one: “I’ll stick my neck out… The polling averages for the parties (according to UK Polling Report at 31 Dec 2014) will be Labour 36 per cent, Conservatives 33 per cent, Ukip 14 per cent, Lib Dems 10 per cent.” Actual: Labour 34 per cent, Conservatives 31 per cent, Ukip 15 per cent, Lib Dems 8 per cent. So, all within the margin of error, and a 3% lead for Labour over the Conservatives. Not too shabby, eh? You’ll notice I’m not attempting to repeat history — the election in five months’ time is unpredictable enough, so trying to imagine what the polls will say a year from now is utterly uncallable.

Fraser Nelson’s porkies. AKA: Can we have an informed debate about the economy, please?

by Stephen Tall on January 4, 2015

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, is at it again. I’ve noted before his tendency to use raw figures — ignoring, say, the impact of inflation or population growth — to make specious claims.

First, Fraser attacked the Conservatives for their New Year poster, taking exception (along with a chunk of the press) for its claim that the deficit has halved under the Coalition.

The poster is correct; Fraser and his journo colleagues are wrong. To quote the OBR (as Fraser was later forced to do), “relative to GDP, the budget deficit has been halved to date” — though the reasons don’t exactly redound to the credit of the Government, as Jonathan Portes acerbically points out here.

But Fraser is nothing if not even-handed. Today he attacks Labour for its poster-claim that spending is heading back to the levels of the 1930s.

labour poster 2015

Here’s Fraser’s complaint:

… the Treasury doesn’t even have figures that go back to the 1930s. Its data starts in 1955-56 where state spending was, in today’s money, £158 billion. It is now £737 billion, almost five times higher that it was in the mid-50s, let alone the 1930s.

Because, as Fraser and everyone else knows, things cost exactly the same now as they did back then, and the UK’s population is still 40 million. Yes?

I’ll try an analogy, to see if it helps Fraser along…. Say it’s 2005 and you’re paid £50,000 a year and have minimal outgoings beyond the mortgage. But over the next decade, you have three kids. And then your parents start to need help with their round-the-clock care costs. Then let’s say that, after those 10 years, your salary stands at £53,000. According to the Fraser world-view, you have nothing to worry about: you earn £3,000 more now than you did in 2005. That’s it, end of story. You’re better off. The raw figures prove it.

Does it matter that a magazine editor so persistently gets hold of the wrong end of the economic stick and waves it about? Perhaps not so much. But — as I wrote here last July — we’re approaching an election in which all the main parties are avoiding discussing the crunchy spending decisions to come.

The Fraser Nelson school of economic reporting seeks to impress with its use of graphs and figures. But we need journalism that informs, not distracts, from the big decisions which await us.

PS: And yes, that means you, too Channel 4 News. Why the heck would you think it matters for even a mili-second whether the Conservatives’ poster art-work originated in Germany? Leave that quirky, sideways-look stuff to Buzzfeed, please.

 



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