Why British politics has started to become interesting again

 
Allister Heath

TWO POLLS don’t make a trend. But something seems to be going on in British politics right now, and it’s not good news for the Labour party. For the past two years, opinion polls have consistently put the Tories behind Labour – until yesterday, when not one but two polls gave David Cameron’s party a lead for the first time since 2012.

First came a poll by Lord Ashcroft which put the Tories on 34 per cent, Labour on 32 per cent, Ukip on 15 per cent and the Lib Dems on 9 per cent. Then came an ICM/Guardian poll: it put the Conservatives on 33 per cent, Labour on 31 per cent, Ukip on 15 per cent and the Lib Dems on 13 per cent.

Yet these polls are hardly cause for any premature Tory celebration, even though the party is at last on the right tracks psephologically. For a start, YouGov, my favourite pollsters (the company’s CEO, Stephan Shakespeare, is a columnist for this paper) still puts Labour slightly ahead: its latest poll puts the Tories on 35 per cent, Labour on 36 per cent, Ukip on 14 per cent and the Lib Dems on 9 per cent.

In any case, being at 33-35 per cent remains a pretty poor number; it is still less than the 36.1 per cent the Tory party received at the 2010 election. It is massively lower than the 43.9 per cent share of the vote grabbed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, or the 41.9 per cent polled by John Major in 1992.

If it wishes to win the next election outright, the Tory party will need a much larger lead than it currently has, and significantly more votes than it received in 2010 (Tories get big majorities in big seats; Labour gets small ones in smaller seats, which means that its vote is spread in an electorally far more potent manner). The real battle is in marginal seats, where until now at least the Conservatives have made insufficient progress.

As to Labour, these results are a devastating but not yet fatal blow. Its figures are still up significantly on the 29 per cent it grabbed in 2010. But few in the party will derive any comfort from this, or even from the fact that the current set of results would still deliver Labour the election as a result of our broken electoral system.

That is unlikely to reassure panicking Labour MPs: their strategy is failing miserably, including the recent embrace of class warfare. If the improving economy continues to push voters to the Tories, Labour could be toast and it knows it.

The Lib Dems face a catastrophic collapse from which there appears to be no way back; the party, which got 23 per cent of the vote in 2010, now suffers from a brand as damaged as the Tory one became after the European Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis in September 1992, an event which destroyed the party’s reputation for economic competence, shattered its confidence and sent it into a tailspin of cultural decline. It is now the Lib Dems’ turn to face a similar cataclysmic problem, even though they haven’t noticed yet. Their entry into government with a centre-right party, the breaking of key promises and the destruction of their appeal as the anti-politics party has crippled them.

The only winners from this mess is Ukip: its share of the vote in the national polls is remarkably high. But it too faces huge challenges. Will it manage to win the European elections? YouGov says yes, but ICM disagrees. If it doesn’t, its bubble will burst even though the party is bound to do remarkably well. But it’s either all or nothing for Ukip. The next question is how much of its current vote it will manage to retain for the general election. Nobody knows – but the answer will be hugely important for Labour and Tories alike. Last but not least, Ukip could still easily get zero seats in the House of Commons in 2015, even if it gets more votes than the Lib Dems.

One thing is sure: with the European and local elections only a few days away, British politics has become interesting again.

allister.heath@cityam.com
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath