Friday, March 25, 2005

I ain’t dead yet

Well it’s been a wild few weeks.

Labour has either a one point polling lead or an eight point lead. So I’ll split the difference. I suspect we’re in a scenario where Labour is between 36-39%, the Tories are between 33-35% and the Lib Dems are between 20-23%. The margins between these numbers are likely what’s in play in the next few weeks ahead of a now almost ordained May 5th election.

I know that sounds vague, but it seems the most reasonable way of interpreting the data I’ve seen to date. Anthony Wells has more, and I urge you to read his site and the comments over at political betting (which doesn’t seem to be so much about political betting as frenzied speculation). You’ll get a lot out of both. Anthony is knowledgeable and the political betting commentators are a good antidote to my own bias in the interpretation of the data.

That said, I do want to declare a slight degree of smugness. My own feelings about the political effectiveness of the Margaret Dixon case have been vindicated. Every poll I’ve seen has had support for Tory NHS policy at lower than Tory party ID. Every poll has also shown great cynicism about Tory tactics on this, and on whether they would make Margaret Dixon’s life better. I notice that we have heard little more on the topic since these polls were revealed. The problem is that Tory policy on the NHS is unpopular and therefore raising NHS issues always ends up being bad for the Tories.

This isn’t the case when it comes to gypsies and immigrants. Loathe as I am to admit it, there is absolutely no doubt that immigration and gypsies are good issues for the Tories. Across the country, Saloon bar Tories are nodding approvingly at each salvo. The reason this works is because the public believe that the Tories would be tougher on the immigrants and the gypsies and want the government.

Yet I can’t shake the feeling that you can’t win an election this way. Sure, it’s nice to play the populist, but that works far better when there’s a genuine sense of crisis for people to respond to. Indeed, even the famed Australian campaigns of John Howard relied as much on interest rates, inflation and economic success as they did on anti-immigration feeling.

As an aside, I was trying to think of the last time leader of a major western power failed to gain re-election. I’m not counting when predecessors retired, but have any Heads of Government of the G7 actually got beaten recently?

The last one I can think of when Berlusconi beat the sitting centre left, but I can’t remember if the left wing PM was running for re-election. In fact I couldn’t even tell you who it was. (Aznar stood down last year, remember) Anyway, Global leadership has been astonishingly stable. You’d almost think there was a economic boom.

My point is you can’t win an election as an opposition if you don’t have a credible tale to tell about the economy. It’s worth spending a few minutes reading the transcripts of past party political broadcasts. Choose the successful ones first. Overwhelmingly, they focus on the economy first. The losing campaigns talk about a lot of things- their leaders. How bad the government are, how dangerous the other lot are. But they tend to avoid the economy, or refer to it in the most tortured terms (My favourite is the Tory 1997 Broadcast that warns how bad a Labour government would be for the economy).

This is why I think the Howard Flight story today is very significant. It basically puts the most credible part of the Tory Economic story – that they don’t want to cut investment in public services in favour of tax cuts – back into play for Labour. It is a theme that will be repeated endlessly on a million labour leaflets. Of course, Labour were going to do it anyway, but the Conservatives had been doing well in blunting the attack by denying they had any plans for cuts. Now that whole strategy is in danger of unravelling.

This is why Michael Howard has acted so strongly. Deselecting a candidate is usually reserved for really serious sins (For example, when Sharon Atkin called Neil Kinnock a racist before the 1987 campaign) I mean, Racist joke teller Ann Winterton will still be a Tory candidate, and Bob Marshall- Andrews is still a Labour candidate.

Howard must have felt the danger from this issue was worth the inevitable fight over his leadership that would follow (can you imagine what the other members of the Conservative Way Forward group feel now!) The risk for Howard is three fold. He’s acted firmly to knock down the original story, but labour will still try to get traction with it to justify ther cuts line. Second, those who support the idea of large tax cuts may not put up with being slapped around so publicly. Finally, Flight himself may well regard his punishment as too severe. After all, he grovelled quite when the story came out, so must wonder why he had to be decapitated.

All in all, a better Good Friday for Tony than we could have expected given the polls yesterday.

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