Election 2015: Poll fever for the few, indifference for the many

Many voters won't know that there is an election on until 30 March, when David Cameron goes to the Palace and Parliament is dissolved

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The Independent Online

One of the most difficult things for political types to grasp is how little most people care about politics. I have seen focus groups in which normal voters are unsure who Ed Miliband is. If they are a bit more interested in current affairs than average they will know that he is called David, that he went to Eton and that he is leader of the Conservative Party.

If the focus group is briefed a bit more fully, and is reminded that the Government is a coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, and that Ed Miliband is the Leader of the Opposition, they will generally recall, unprompted, only one thing about him: that he did in his brother to get the job.

That may be why half of the voters interviewed by ComRes for The Independent on Sunday last weekend said that they were not bored with news about the general election. Most of them probably haven’t noticed any.

So, when we say that there are only 100 days to go until the election, remember that many voters won’t know that there is an election on at all until 30 March, when David Cameron goes to the Palace and Parliament is dissolved. Even then, they may not actually think about their choice until the postal ballot arrives, or until it is time to go to the polling station – if they bother to go at all.

That means that a lot of parties’ time and energy is wasted on messages that won’t be noticed or, if they are, won’t be understood. Last week, the Conservatives emailed supporters with some slogans that by now will be up on Facebook and Twitter: “Imagine if you didn’t vote. Imagine if that meant – [photo of Ed Miliband] – Ed Miliband became prime minister.” I guess that this is effective. It is a simple message designed to raise awareness and funds, addressed to people who already know who Miliband is and who don’t like his policies.


Contrast it with another message that some Conservative politicians have tried to use: “Vote Ukip, Get Miliband.” I am told by Tories who have been on the doorstep that this message is completely unsuccessful. The idea that, if a voter would prefer Cameron as prime minister to Miliband, a vote for Ukip rather than for the Tories makes it more likely that Miliband would form a government requires a surprising amount of prior knowledge. On the doorstep, the typical Ukip-leaning floating voter replies, “No, I’m voting Ukip to get Ukip.”

An ICM poll, published last week, found that 35 per cent of people who say they will “definitely” vote Ukip expect Nigel Farage to be prime minister after the election; 78 per cent think Ukip is likely to be “part of the government”. Anyone with more information, such as the betting markets’ expectation that Ukip will win five or six seats, would realise that the chances of either event are about the same as those of Farage being reincarnated as a pigeon.

My point is not to bemoan the level of public understanding of politics, although it is worrying how few people know the difference between the debt and the deficit, for example. My point is that many people have not yet really decided how to vote, even if they might give pollsters a reflex answer to the question.

So, although I am obsessively interested in the predictions of how many seats each party is likely to have in the next parliament, and all the weird and wonderful scenarios for a hung parliament, the one thing we can be sure of is that the opinion polls now do not tell us the result on 7 May. Opinion shifted dramatically during the last general election campaign. Thanks partly to Nick Clegg’s performance in the television debates, the Lib Dems gained six percentage points in the last 100 days. The Conservative Party, possibly because it had overdone the austerity message, lost two points, and Labour was unchanged.

How much does opinion usually shift in the final 100 days? Looking back over the last 10 elections, since February 1974, the average change from this point before each election was a one-and-a-half point gain for the Tories and a five-point loss for Labour. Or you can cut the numbers up in a different way and say that the governing party lost an average of one point and the opposition lost an average of two points. (The Lib Dems and their predecessors gained an average of three).

Some of the movements in the final 100 days were large. Not just the six-point Cleggmaniac surge last time, but a five-point Tory gain in 1987 and seven-point drops in Labour support before five different elections: October 1974, 1979, 1992, 1997 and 2001. In each case, these changes were down to politics, politics and politics. Thank goodness, no forecasting algorithm can capture that.

The current bunching of predictions around Labour ending up as – just – the largest party in a hung parliament is almost bound to be wrong. But which way?