People might be in two minds about the parties, but Cameron is still edging it for their vote

by Peter Watt

Nearly half way through the Parliament and inevitably we are all reading the runes and making predictions.  Who will win in 2015?  Who will lead {insert name of party} into the next election?  Will the coalition survive?  For those of us who like this sort of thing there is a raft of political and psephological soul searching with theory and counter theory argued out on political forums across the media.  It is all good stuff and the narrative for the time since the last election can be summarised as:

  • The government had a good first eighteen months or so and have been a shambles ever since
  • The budget this year was a particularly big and nasty disaster for the government and as a result Labour have had a poll lead ever since
  • The economy is stubbornly refusing to recover
  • People generally like Ed Miliband but David Cameron remains people’s preferred choice as prime minister

What you think might happen next basically boils down to four things:

  • To what degree you think that Labour’s poll lead is soft
  • To what extent you think that Ed Miliband/David Cameron are assets for their respective parties
  • How much the economy recovers over the next couple of years
  • Whether the public trust Labour on the economy and can see Ed Miliband as prime minister.

But almost everyone thinks that the Liberals look down and out.  And increasingly most people seem to think that a Tory majority is unlikely and are now contemplating a possible Labour victory of some kind.  Certainly lots of Labour people seem increasingly confident that this will be a one term Government.  And equally lots of Tories and Lib Dems are a little nervous about their prospects with their respective current leaders.

But I think that all of this analysis may be more than a little flawed.

It is predicated on a cosy assumption that people are still broadly wedded to the party system.  That on the whole some people are broadly “leftish”, some people broadly “rightish” whilst a few electorally influential voters are a bit more promiscuous.  Appeal to enough of the promiscuous and you win.

There is however a different way of looking at what is going on.  And that is that there are in fact increasing numbers of promiscuous voters.  These are people who don’t see themselves as being particularly aligned to any of the parties, all of whom they think are pretty self-interested.  They are a bit “leftish” on some things and a bit “rightish” on others.  And they tend to make their mind up about who to vote for or whether to vote at all on some pretty basic judgements about the parties and in particular their leaders.  So if pushed, right now a sizeable chunk will say that they don’t really like the Tories and do like Labour.  But it’s not a policy thing it’s a feelings’ thing.  The Tories feel a bit out of touch and mean-spirited; Labour feels a bit fluffier and nicer.  But push a bit harder and they feel safer with David Cameron as prime minister even if they don’t like his party much.

The problem is that neither party has anything particularly inspirational to say that energises people or helps them make sense of a complex world.

From the Tories they are offered nothing coherent at all other than a strong sense that they think that getting the economy right is very important.  And from Labour they get a series of think tank lectures that pass most of us by.  What neither offer is optimism, hope or any sense of confidence that they know what they are doing.  Of course people understand that money is tight and they certainly don’t believe that getting out of the economic hole we are in will be pain free.  But they do want to know that there is a plan that goes beyond cuts.

What they get instead is rows over Europe, House of Lords reform and “predistribution” whatever the hell that is!

And the result is that surprisingly there isn’t a whole lot of voter loyalty out there whatever the headline polls say.  But back on planet politics we are still thinking in terms of great political tribes with our strategies predicated on plans to mobilise them.  And critically we interpret the polls through the prism of this false confidence that the tribes still exist in a meaningful way.  So we assume that the Tories are unpopular and Labour are popular when in reality most people couldn’t care all that much for either.  The headline differences in parties polling numbers in fact representing very small differences in attitude.

If that is the case then the headline polling numbers, whatever they say, are hiding a vastly complex swirl of values, beliefs and feelings.  And in the absence of inspiration the next election is still likely to come down to which party leader people feel safest with as prime minister.

Faced with this challenge, there is a clear lesson for Labour: the leader needs to do more than just appeal to the great and good of policy wonkland. Ed Miliband needs to speak to voters in a meaningful and empathetic way. Less talk of moral regulation, predistribution and commodified relationships and more about how Labour will help families make their mortgage payments.

If the leader’s team are in any doubt about the likely outcome without a change in course, they need only look back a few years, north of the border, at the fate of a similarly decent and worthy leader who struggled to engage voters.

Iain Gray’s phone number is still in the party directory.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party

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5 Responses to “People might be in two minds about the parties, but Cameron is still edging it for their vote”

  1. Andy S says:

    I agree on some points. Labour needs to formulate policies that speak to the electorate about improving their lives. But there is plenty of time for that, wedding ourselves to a concrete policy narrative too early could be a disaster.

    On the leader, I don’t think we should get too hung up on comparisons with Scotland. David Cameron is no Alex Salmond, and going into the next election no one is going to be imbued with a sense (genuine or otherwise) that this government has generally been competent.

    What Labour needs, more than anything, is to end the sniping and back the leadership. Ken Livingstone’s experience in London shows that even a strong personality with solid policies rooted in the real world (his fares pledge) will lose if a good part of his party is constantly briefing against him.

  2. Robert says:

    It’s direction Miliband is missing, where are labour going, Ken who I have met a few times in the early years, should not have bothered this time, even though he might have won if the New labour tribe had not shot him down.

    But now Miliband has to show people where he’s going his direction he was very proud to tell us New labour was dead, but he has not put into place anything to take it’s place.

    New labour is dead, so what are you then Labour Newer Labour or just waiting to see.

  3. swatantra says:

    Lets face it Peter, 2015 will be another Coalition Govt; it might be Labour led, or it might not. Anyone who thinks otherwiseis deluding themselves.

  4. Amber Star says:

    The Tories will spend millions in advertising; they’ll attack Ed Miliband in every way they can think of; Ed supporters will have to put up with no end of nay-saying from less loyal elements in our Party about having our Ed as leader; & then the people will do exactly what they’ve been telling the polling firms they’ll do: Vote Labour but feel sorry about David Cameron having to pack his bags & leave Downing Street.

  5. Dean Rogers says:

    What this article hits on is that most of what people do and think is rooted in emotion rather than logic and reason which scares political people. This isn’t new but the less tribal people are becoming for a whole host of reasons the more visible and less marginal the “mood” becomes. What troubles me is that politicians will think the way out of this is to minimise their message and patronise the electorate, igniooring what has also been happening alongside the break down in tribalism – higher education standards, wider access to more media and potentially a more informed opinion. Miliband is growing on people because they distrust the tories, see the threat of the cuts to them and feel the pain. Its reactive. Miliband is also growing on them because he is being Miliband. This is vital if he is to look confident, competent and like someone who will help. Labour does need ideas, policies and to show what they stand for and how this will help (without miracle cures that no-one would believe) and needs to talk more about real people’s situations but Miliband must be Miliband as Cameron is increasingly revealed as the person he is – not the Bootleg Blair he tried to run as in 2010.

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