John Curtice: Don't bank on Labour winning another majority

While the Conservatives may not be profiting from the disillusion with Labour, other parties are
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Tories' launch of their policy on tax and spend was met with a journalistic yawn. Why, Tory spokespersons were asked, should anyone take notice of a party that in seven years has failed to make any electoral progress? Surely Tony Blair is cruising towards a third safe overall majority in May?

The Tories' launch of their policy on tax and spend was met with a journalistic yawn. Why, Tory spokespersons were asked, should anyone take notice of a party that in seven years has failed to make any electoral progress? Surely Tony Blair is cruising towards a third safe overall majority in May?

Such a reaction is unsurprising. The Tories are certainly doing no more than tread water. Three national polls conducted since the new year, including one for this paper, put the party on an average of 32 per cent, one point down both on the party's score in the last general election and on where it stood in the opinion polls at the beginning of 2001.

Meanwhile, a poll of marginal seats published on Sunday even suggested that the party might actually be in decline. But as that poll conducted only 500 interviews in those Labour seats where the Conservatives are the main challengers, it should probably not be given too much weight.

At the same time, there is every reason why the Conservative Party should be doing better than simply holding on to what it already has. The Government is significantly less popular than it was four years ago. In January 2001, the Government's net satisfaction rating was -13 in Mori's polls; now it is an enormous -35. Tony Blair himself had a satisfaction rating of +3 in January 2001; presently it is -28. While the current government may not be as unpopular as the last Conservative government was in 1997, there is certainly a vein of discontent for an effective opposition to mine.

But therein lies the Conservatives' problem; whatever doubts voters may have about the current government, the Conservatives themselves are still not regarded as a credible alternative. One YouGov poll conducted in the autumn found only 19 per cent believe the Conservatives are "ready for power and look like a government-in-waiting". The party still has to restore its reputation for economic competence. Meanwhile another YouGov poll found voters were four times more likely to think the Conservatives are "stuck in the past" than they are to think the same of Labour.

In short, the Conservative Party is regarded as an incompetent, bedraggled army that is behind the times. This is little different from the image it acquired during the 1992-7 parliament, and is an image it badly needs to lose. Yet it seems doubtful that yesterday's announcement contains the recipe for doing so. True, the party has gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate its competence by ensuring that its figures add up. But alas, its effort has been devoted to playing an old tune: tax cuts - that, unlike Elvis Presley, are still out of fashion. No less than 32 per cent say the state of the public services will be one of the important issues that will finally determine for whom they vote, while only 17 per cent say the same about the level of taxation.

The Conservatives have, in fact, spent a lot of time in this parliament developing new ideas for dealing with the public's number one concern: public services. But they took too long to agree what they were. By the time the new policies were finally announced in the summer, the Government itself had already stolen the mantle of public service reform. Rather than looking new or different on this issue, the Tories have been left simply offering another version of "choice".

The Conservatives' electoral problems are, then, real and persistent - if no worse than they have been for the last decade or more. But this is not enough to ensure that Mr Blair is safely on course for a third large majority in a row. For while the Conservatives may not be profiting from the electorate's disillusion with Labour, other parties are. As a result, Labour's poll position is significantly weaker than it was four years ago.

The Liberal Democrats, who also set out their pre-election stall yesterday, currently stand at 21 per cent in the polls. That is not just two points ahead of the party's tally at the last general election, it is no less than eight points higher than where the party stood at the beginning of 2001.

And for all the party's cries about overtaking the Conservatives, it is Labour on whom it appears to have inflicted most damage. This time four years ago, Labour was at 49 per cent in the polls and enjoyed a 16-point lead. Now it has just 38 per cent in the polls, with a far more modest six-point lead.

Of course a six-point lead would be more than enough to meet Mr Blair's aspirations. It could result in a majority of around 130. But four years ago. a 16-point lead in January's polls was worth no more than a nine-point lead in June's ballot boxes. If the same were to happen this time, then Mr Blair's majority would be under threat.

Given the uncertain track record of the opinion polls and the evident popularity of the Liberal Democrats, no one can quite be sure the same will not happen again - even if the Tories remain firmly stuck in the doldrums.

The author is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University

Comments