John Rentoul: Policies smash personalities

The bullying charge has not settled the election, as Labour rallies and the Tories change tack
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The Independent Online

The phrase on everyone's lips at Westminster last week was: "What is going on?" Especially among Labour MPs. I even heard a Cabinet minister privately express surprise that so many people tell pollsters they will vote for five more years of Gordon Brown.

Part of the puzzlement arises because people tend to pay more attention to opinion polls that are out of line. Ten polls were published last week, which must be a record outside an election campaign. Five of them were from YouGov, and so a lot was made of the six-point Conservative lead that was reported by all five. The other eye-catching poll was Ipsos-MORI, published on Friday, which showed a Tory lead of only five percentage points.

The significance of a five-point lead is that it is the point at which, on a conventional projection, Labour would win more seats in a hung parliament than the Tories. And that is not the sort of possibility that the political classes expected to be discussing at this stage of the long election campaign.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. YouGov is just one company, and Ipsos-MORI is just one poll. If we take our "Poll of Polls", the average of the most recent survey from each of the accredited companies last week, the Tory lead is eight points. That is less than the comparable 11-point average at the end of November, even if it is not as big a shift as some of the commentary has suggested.

So something is certainly happening. But what is causing it? One thing that makes it difficult to know is the gap between the media class and most voters. Last week was a case study in how journalists mistake the excitements of their sideshow for the main event. We are just not very good at remembering that journalists are the second most despised occupational group after MPs.

The build-up to Andrew Rawnsley's revelation last weekend that the Prime Minister sometimes loses his temper was followed by an overreaction. When we realised that Rawnsley had not claimed that Gordon Brown had hit anyone (a charge the Prime Minister called "a lie" in our interview last Sunday), the caravan of sanctimony moved on. The charge which was made in the book was that he had occasionally behaved badly towards junior members of staff.

This was patently true, and yet the reaction of the voters was emphatic and unexpected. A YouGov poll on Tuesday found that 43 per cent thought that the reports that Brown bullied his own staff were "exaggerated".

Some of us journalists like to think that our consumers draw a distinction between quality journalism and the rest. Sure they do, but that does not mean that they think Rawnsley and the BBC, which gave the bullying story undue prominence, are sainted truth tellers. Even those that thought these accounts were fair and balanced were divided: 22 per cent said they were "true – but I'd rather have a Prime Minister who is passionate and sometimes goes over the top than someone who lacks passion". Only 21 per cent said that they were "true – Mr Brown's behaviour is outrageous, and he is not fit to be Prime Minister".

Altogether then, barely one voter in five was inclined to be censorious, which, when you consider the proportion that start off with a low opinion of Brown, has to be counted as a Labour win.

Far from the Rawnsley revelations sinking Brown, then, the opinion polls continued to tighten last week.

So why are the polls narrowing? The big-picture reason is probably that people are more worried about jobs, schools and the NHS than they are about the deficit. It comes as something of a shock in Westminster, especially perhaps to demoralised Labour MPs, but the "Labour" brand still has some power. Despite the toll of 13 years on its reputation, and despite negative views of Brown (which are nothing to do with bullying), people still tend to think their jobs will be safer under a Labour government.

And I think the NHS and schools are another example of the disconnect between media and mass opinion. Despite being told by the media that hospitals kill people and schools make them pregnant, most people know that their NHS and their schools are better than they were a decade ago, when public spending started to rise. They still associate the Tories, despite four years of detoxification, with underfunded public services.

It was rather too obvious the other day when David Cameron toned down George Osborne's "cuts" language that it wasn't playing well in the focus groups. Anyone who has seen a focus group can imagine how it would go. "Yes, I'm very worried about the deficit." What do you mean by the deficit? "It's really expensive for us to go to the Continent now." Even if they understand that the Government is borrowing too much money, the numbers are unreal, and jobs, schools and hospitals are more real.

Hence last week's change of tack. Cameron pointed out that GDP per head had gone down since Brown became Prime Minister. But GDP per head is another abstraction. The Tories can ask their focus groups: Are you worse off than five years ago? Most of them would nod along. But they don't feel it deeply. If they are in work with a mortgage, they are better off than they have ever been. That combination of high disposable income and job insecurity is driving up Labour's vote share.

But why now? This is the real surprise. I think the shocking truth is that Gordon Brown is right. Labour is creeping up in the polls, from an average of 27.5 per cent in November to 30 per cent now, because voters are beginning to focus on the choice at the election rather than seeing it as a referendum on the Government. And because the Conservatives, realising that they have got themselves on the wrong side of a set of issues that is winning Labour votes, are making mistakes.

John Rentoul blogs at: