Election '97: The answer's in the small print

Philip Cowley on why the Tories appear to be in an even deeper hole than the headlines suggest
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The Independent Online
In The division lobbies of the House of Commons since 1992, Labour MPs have broken ranks more often than their Conservative counterparts. They have done so in greater numbers, and on a wider range of issues.

Yet, according to the latest Gallup poll, 80 per cent of people see the Conservatives as disunited, while 61 per cent see Labour as united. In 1996 the percentage of people who thought that the Conservatives were united fell into single figures.

The cause of this apparent clash between perception and reality is not difficult to identify. Most Labour rebels have taken a near Trappist vow of silence outside the Commons. Many Conservative MPs, by contrast, display a suicidal desire to broadcast their differences.

The effect, though, is profound: the Conservatives - of whom it was once said that their secret weapon was loyalty - are now perceived as riven. The once fractious Labour party is now seen to be one big love- in.

As Dennis Kavanagh argues in his Election Campaigning, "secondary" information like this from the polls is often of more interest than "intention to vote" figures, yet much of the former gets overlooked in the rush for headlines based on the latter. Unfortunately for the Tories, the secondary data is no better than the primary.

This, as much as their huge deficit in the headline polls, is what marks this election as special for the Conservatives. In 1992 the Conservatives entered the election campaign slightly behind in the headline "primary" polls. Yet, tellingly, they led on a number of important secondary issues.

When asked by Gallup who would make a better Prime Minister, on average in the year before the election around 42 per cent of the public plumped for John Major, compared to around just 26 per cent who chose Neil Kinnock. Mr Major's satisfaction rating as Prime Minister was positive (that is, those who thought he was doing a good job as Prime Minister outnumbered those who thought he was doing a bad job).

Although in 1992 Labour would often lead when people were asked about specific policies, when the pollsters asked "taking everything into account" which party had the best policies, the Conservatives led by nine percentage points. They enjoyed an even bigger lead when the public was asked which party had the best leaders.

And, as pointed out last week, the Conservatives also led on a number of economic criteria, most notably that people saw them as more competent than Labour to run the economy. The Conservatives, then, went into the 1992 campaign slightly down in the headline polls, but with cards up their sleeves.

They have them no more. The reputation for economic competence went in September 1992, when Britain was forced out of the ERM and, as Philip Stephens records in his Politics and the Pound, ministers were forced to watch on Ceefax as over pounds 30bn flowed out of the British reserves. The Conservatives' reputation for unity began to collapse at about the same time and had vanished altogether by the end of the Maastricht debates in mid-1993.

Nor can the Conservatives play Mr Major as their ace any longer. In 1992 he may have trumped Mr Kinnock but Friday's Gallup poll confirmed that Mr Blair now convincingly trumps Mr Major. John Major's personal approval rating is currently 24, the lowest rating of any incumbent premier going into an election. When asked directly who they would prefer as Prime Minister the public choose Mr Blair by 17 percentage points.

The approval rating of the Government as a whole is even worse. Only 26 per cent of people approve of the Government's record, compared to 64 per cent who disapprove, a net score of -38. When asked which party has the best leaders and the best policies, the answer, in both cases, is Labour. And some 63 per cent of people see the Conservatives as "very sleazy and disreputable", compared to just 19 per cent who would so describe the Labour Party.

None of these traits are in themselves sure-fire election winners. As Alec Douglas-Home discovered, a government with a positive approval rating can be turned out of office. Churchill (in 1945), Attlee (in 1951), Wilson (in 1970) and Callaghan all found that being a popular prime minister was no guarantee of re-election. Being considered economically more competent than your opponents does not ensure victory either.

Conversely, parties can win despite trailing in a few areas. Wilson's Labour Party won both the 1974 elections despite being seen as disunited. Heath showed that popularity was not a sine qua non for entering No 10.

But no party rated so badly on almost every aspect of its collective personality as Mr Major's has won. Indeed, the two most recent examples of a party trailing badly on such secondary questions - Labour in 1987 and, especially, 1983 - are ominous for the Conservatives. Both elections yielded majorities for the winning party of more than 100 seats.

The Conservatives, then, appear to be in an even deeper hole than the main opinion poll figures indicate. Until this month there were at least signs that they were beginning to dig themselves out.

Mr Major's approval rating had been steadily climbing. From December to February it rose by 40 percentage points. In December last year he trailed Blair by 18 percentage points on who would make the best Prime Minister, a gap he closed by seven points in three months.

The same was true of the record of his government, which climbed by 15 points from -53 to -38. And the Conservatives had also been regaining their reputation for economic competence, up from -17.5 in December to -8.9 in February. Indeed, ICM's latest poll - asking a slightly different question and using a different polling technique - put the two parties neck and neck on economic competence, with the Tories ahead among middle- class voters.

Such a recovery was not the sort of stuff to start wild parties in Smith Square, but it was at least a hopeful sign, one small silver lining, among the general doom of the polls.

The publication of Friday's Gallup 9000 poll shows that even these green shoots of Conservative recovery have gone. It was not just that the recovery slowed or halted; but that three months of recovery were almost completely reversed. Today's The Independent on Sunday/Sunday Mirror MORI poll makes equally depressing reading.

The only remaining crumb of comfort for the Conservatives is that they are doing better than Labour in 1983. Then Michael Foot was the choice for Prime Minister of just 11 per cent. But to be told that he is twice as popular as Michael Foot is unlikely to make Mr Major jig with joy.

The writer teaches politics at the University of Hull.