All's fair in love, war and general elections - everyone knows that. Even Barack Obama accepted long before he was elected president that “politics is a contact sport”. If you want to go into politics, you should be ready for a rough ride from your opponents because not everyone thinks you're as great as you do.
Yet this week Labour suggested they didn't think that at all. The party's election strategist Lucy Powell accused the Tories of “running a campaign of fears and smears” and warned that David Cameron's party was going to “up personal attacks on Ed Miliband”. She was particularly unimpressed with posters the Conservatives had published photoshopping Ed Miliband into a cosy embrace with Gerry Adams and Alex Salmond.
It's generous of Powell to warn us of the dirty tricks we might come across in a general election, given that Labour isn't exactly abstemious when it comes to campaigns of fears and smears, either. For the big parties, dirty tricks politics is as much part of the arsenal as the war chests of money for campaigning, billboard posters and broadcasts.
Both Labour and the Tories have well-run attack units. The Labour political research unit has four people in it, run by Joe Carberry, and Torsten Henricson-Bell's policy and research taskforce hunts for dodgy policies, silly quotes and other moments of weakness in Labour's opponents.
The Conservative research department is led by Alex Dawson, and finds ways to attack and rebut Labour. Former Cameron speechwriter Nick Hargrave runs a political team who monitor the remarks of Labourites, looking for policies where they've U-turned, awkward quotes from party candidates... When these attack units find something of note, the press teams approach newspapers to offer their discoveries as a story.
Experts' predictions for the general election
Experts' predictions for the general election
1/10 Andrew Hawkins (ComRes)
Just as the polls in 2010 pointed to no overall majority for any party, the overwhelming evidence points to Labour either being the largest party or getting a small majority, probably below 20. The Lib Dems and SNP should each win between 25 and 35 seats, with single-figure wins for both Ukip and the Greens.
2/10 Joe Twyman (YouGov)
I predict it will be close. I predict a few tremors, though earthquakes are unlikely. I predict the eventual winner may not be the direct result of public opinion, but instead the outcome of political negotiations. It’s too early to predict numbers given all the uncertainties surrounding (among other things) Ukip, the SNP and the Lib Dems. It is possible that it will be close between Conservative and Labour in terms of both votes and seats. The Lib Dems might retain 20-30 seats and the balance of power, despite small gains for the SNP, and at most half a dozen Ukip seats. Gun to my head? Labour minority government.
3/10 Ben Page (Ipsos MORI)
A mug’s game for this election months away, but my predictions in order of likelihood: most likely a hung parliament or coalition of some kind, closely followed by either a small Labour majority or an equally small Conservative majority. Given how close the parties are, the unknown performance of Ukip in key marginals, the effect of incumbency on Lib Dem losses, the final size of SNP surge and so on, to be more precise is simply foolish! Professor Tetlock, who found that forecasts by experts were only slightly better than throwing dice, weighs heavily upon me!
4/10 Rick Nye (Populus)
I can see a hung parliament, where Labour is the largest party in terms of seats – though not necessarily in terms of votes, with the Lib Dems having 30 seats or fewer, the SNP having up to 20 seats and Ukip having no more than five seats. In short, it’s going to get messy and stay messy for some time to come.
5/10 Nick Moon (GfK)
I can’t recall there ever being an election more difficult to predict than this one. I’m confident no party will have an overall majority, with the Tories probably the largest party but no single partner for a viable coalition, with the Lib Dems on 25 seats, the SNP 20, Ukip three, and the Greens one.
6/10 Damian Lyons Lowe (Survation)
We might have expected a workable Labour majority, were it not for the wild-card rise of the SNP in Scotland. Survation’s December Scottish polls suggest an almost complete wipeout by the SNP in Scotland and result in 40+ seat gains – mostly at Labour’s expense. My current predictions are: Labour the largest party by 40-50 seats over the Tories, no overall majority; Tories 235-255 seats; Lib Dems 20-30 seats; SNP 30-40 seats – maybe held back from potential support level by opposition incumbency and tactical voting by pro-unionist voters. Finally, Ukip, 5-10 wins from Conservatives, including Rochester and Clacton, and potentially a single Labour-seat surprise.
7/10 Michelle Harrison (TNS)
The battleground over the next three months is at the kitchen table – the difference between what the statistics tell us about the economy, the experience that Britons are having of managing their household budgets, and where – and if – they believe politics can make a difference. In this regard, the disconnect with the major political parties is more interesting than the horse race.
8/10 James Endersby (Opinium Research)
Our first poll for 2015 shows Labour one point ahead [see above], but polls four months out from an election are snapshots, not predictions. It would be extremely unwise for a pollster to make a firm prediction now. At the moment, Opinium’s estimate on polling day would be the Tories slightly ahead on vote share, but Labour slightly ahead on seats. These numbers are based on a uniform swing, with tweaks to Green and Ukip numbers based on local information: Labour 320 seats, Conservatives 271, Lib Dems 20, SNP 16, Plaid Cymru three, Greens two, Ukip four. A hung parliament with Labour potentially closer to a majority coalition than the Conservatives.
9/10 Martin Boon (ICM)
I’ve not recovered from the Scottish referendum campaign yet, and here we go with another wildcard strewn nail-biter. For me, Labour on 30 per cent will only fractionally nudge past their woeful 2010 showing – behind the Tories on 33 per cent – but enough to secure more seats (290 for Labour, 280 for the Tories) on boundary wackiness. The Lib Dems will secure 14 per cent of the vote and 35 seats; Ukip will also get 14 per cent, but that only gets them a couple of seats. As for Scotland, I’m bewildered, but as you asked I’ll say 30 seats for the SNP, which wipes out a breathing-space victory in seats for Labour.
10/10 Lord Ashcroft (Lord Ashcroft Polls)
Declined to take part. His spokeswoman said: “As he has said many times, his polls are snapshots not predictions.” Health warning: when The Independent on Sunday carried out a similar exercise in April 2010, at the start of that year’s election campaign, eight out of eight pollsters predicted a Conservative overall majority.
This aspect of campaigning is so well-practised that the parties even allow the opposition's spinners behind enemy lines at their autumn conferences. At the last Tory conference, one Labour tracker struck gold. Sitting in a fringe meeting where Lord Freud was speaking, the researcher recorded the Welfare Minister saying that some disabled people are “not worth” the minimum wage. The party unleashed the clip on David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions.
The Tories weren't quite so lucky this year. One of their “agents”, Rich Holden, was exposed in a fringe meeting. It was late in the day and the red wine was flowing. After a particularly awkward question, one speaker - Lord Wood, Ed Miliband's close adviser - called for a refill. Holden, who had been lurking anonymously at the back, politely came forward with a bottle, forgetting in his readiness to help that he was supposed to be secretly snooping on Labourites, not serving as a butler.
But is hunting your opponents like this really good for politics? John Woodcock is a Labour MP these days, but he used to be a tracker. In his day, the job was mysteriously called “magic bean”, and Woodcock got lucky in 2005 when he recorded Conservative deputy chairman Howard Flight telling what he thought was a meeting of allies that Tory spending cuts would go much deeper than the party would publicly admit. Flight lost his job in the ensuing row.
When I asked Woodcock about this scalp, he argued that it's important for the public to know what a party seeking to govern actually thinks. Spin crafts every public utterance, so it's down to the tracker to glean the truth.
Woodcock is right about exposing the enemy for who they are. But that still depends on the information being used in a fair way, rather than twisted to create a bigger row. And even when they don't have covert recordings, all politicians are adept at caricaturing one another beyond recognition. Labour claims the Tories are “privatising our NHS” - but itself handed over contracts to the private sector when in government. The Tories, meanwhile, recently published a “dossier” of unfunded Labour spending commitments stuffed with inaccuracies, just to provoke the opposition into saying what it would or wouldn't cut. It's difficult for any party to argue it is acting as a guardian of the truth while pumping out this kind of misinformation.
This election is so close that the parties will indeed throw anything at their opponents to try to inch over the line and end up in government. But the trackers and magic beans should beware: even if it gets them into government this time around, truly dirty politics will only serve to make voters ever more cynical about mainstream parties.Reuse content