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The Wisdom of the Psephologists

Matthew Caygill




The basic situation for mainstream party politics in the campaign for the General election in May 2005 is that it is going to be very hard for Labour to lose. They might, we might face a hung parliament with all sorts of interesting complications, or even a Tory victory, but both of these are longshots. The reason for this is in the terrain of electoral politics.

There is now a built-in bias towards Labour in the electoral system which has been apparent and growing in all elections since 1992. This isn't the result of deliberate gerrymandering or anything like that, it's the result of the basic geography of the vote; but assuming a uniform swing (always a bad assumption, but a necessary starting point) Labour would come out with a majority of over a hundred if they and the Tories got an equal share of the vote (some people even say 130!).  A uniform swing of 4.65% to the Tories would see them get that equal share of the vote, but they would need a swing of over 10% before they could form a majority government. That's a swing on the scale of 1945 or 1997 and is really beyond the wildest dreams of the Tories at the moment.

The key factor for Labour is turnout. The last general election saw a major victory for the non-voters and there have been predictions that abstention could be on an even higher level this time round.  However, there are a number of problems and paradoxes about this. Firstly, we must be clear that the reason for a low turnout isn't to do with the electorate - the percentages of those committed to voting and those who are less likely to vote has hardly changed over the last dozen general elections. Low turnouts are to do with estrangement from mainstream politics and the nature of electoral competition.

Secondly, the bad news for Labour, is that if you look closely at polling figures it's clear that there opinion poll majorities includes a lot of people who aren't that certain they are going to vote. For a while before the campaign started polls indicated something  like Labour around 38%, Conservatives 33-34%, Liberal Democrats 22-23%; but if you looked at the slightly over 50% who would say they were 100% likely to vote the figures would come out at Conservative 39%, Labour 36% and Lib Dems on 17%. We also
have to bear in mind that all polls contain elements of statistical error and might over-estimate Labour support and no-one should get carried away by a single poll result. But remember - the electoral system is at the moment biased towards returning a Labour government.

And the key factor in a low turnout is a feeling that voting doesn't matter because the parties aren't that different. In 2001 there was an unprecedentedly low degree of any perception of  difference between the major parties (the 1983 and 1987 elections exhibited the highest degree of differentiation, to Labour's great disadvantage!) - it's not quite as bad (according to the NOP) in 2005, but still not good for Labour. Added to that is the Iraq factor - popular disillusionment with the government over a
'successful' war (whatever we think about the occupation) is again unprecedentedly high. Labour might have lost out over issues of economic confidence, especially in the wake of the growing pensions crisis and the Rover debacle, but luckily for them the Tories are generally seen as far less worthy of economic confidence. And backing off from conflict with the unions over pensions this side of the election means that pensions seems to have disappeared as an issue.

But there is a paradox, which is that the closer the electoral race looks the more likely it is that turnout will go up, because then it looks like voting will make a difference. The worst situation for Labour to mobilise its supporters is what looks like a boringly unassailable lead in the polls, the closer it gets, the easier it becomes for them to appeal to their supporters to get out and keep the Tories out. Good polls for the Tories already produce better polls for Labour shortly afterwards! All of which
means that the turnout might well be higher than many of the predictions have indicated, thus helping Labour.

With this as the background situation  what does it mean for the approaches of  the mainstream parties. Firstly Labour.

Labour has to convince its long-term base supporters that there is a Tory threat and that it is still worth voting Labour despite everything that has happened, including the lies and unpopularity of the Iraq War and the background stance of New Labour, which has been that its working class supporters have no-where else to go, so they can get on with the 'project', triangulating and stealing Tory policies and holding on to power. Objections about Iraq are already being met with replies about the other good
international policies that can be expected from Labour, and with the suggestion that it's only the middle classes who really object to what they've done in Iraq.

The Conservatives aren't really looking to win this time round, but they desperately need to make some electoral gains to be in with a chance next time. All the talk about Lynton Crosby and 'dog-whistle' politics is true and the likelihood of an increasingly strident, unpleasant and racist focus on immigrants, asylum seekers, gypsies, criminals, etc. while the Tories focus on tax cuts and cutting out wasteful bureaucracy falls on deaf ears, can be expected. And here it is: "It's not racist to impose limits on
immigration."

There has been some poll evidence that strident racism has helped Labour, okay the effect is going to go both ways. Crucial however is that the Tories are facing less of a far right challenge for the 'UKIP-Tony Martin' vote. UKIP has shown all the electoral volatility of a right-wing populist formation depending on flaky celebrities and look like doing badly (1-2%) in comparison to their rather good Euro showing. Veritas just makes UKIP look good! And the BNP seem to have lost momentum following their performance in the Euros (objectively and superficially good, but subjectively bad) and with Griffin facing a court appearance (May 19th) they are very unlikely to
make any breakthroughs. Good news, but before complacency sets in, remember that immigration and asylum seekers, i.e. basic racism, are live issues, continually stoked up by politicians and the media and the BNP could well be working on a longer-term strategy that is already looking to a better set of council results in 2006. For the Tories however the likeliest outcome is little progress in this election followed by another internal crisis.

The Liberal Democrats still look being the main beneficiaries of anti-war feeling, no matter how unjustified that is. They also seem to have got a lot of student support - but students aren't good reliable voters. There's a bit of evidence of support for the Lib Dems proposal to raise the top rate of taxation (for those earning over 100,000 a year) and remember - no matter how much you hate the Lib Dems they are looking relatively progressive to a good number of people. But the real problem for the Lib Dems is that to make much more electoral progress they really have to take on the Tories - that's where they are mostly lying second. And that means they have to appeal to
the right on a sufficiently wide set of fronts. So, expect the Lib Dems to face all directions in this election.

And for Labour? Well they have to keep reminding their voters that the  Tories are a real threat, even when they are not. They have to keep showing there are real and big differences between them and the Tories. They have to show that Tony Blair isn't the only face or future for Labour - thus the prominence given to Gordon Brown. They have to try and escape from any reminders of the Iraq War and hope nothing happens there to bring it back to the centre of the news. And it looks like they are getting away with it.

 

April 2005

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