by David Talbot
Such optimism greeted the unveiling of Labour’s grand general election strategy some two years ago. The party would target 106 key seats using techniques borrowed from Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaigns in a “realistic” strategy to install the Labour leader in Downing Street with a majority of 60, the then election supremo Tom Watson announced. Somewhat naturally, given Westminster’s seemingly never-ending penchant for expensive Americans, a thousand community organisers were to be funded simultaneously in the key seats trained by the now adrift Arnie Graf.
The general election had duly begun, we were told, and Labour was set to be a one-term opposition; a feat achieved just once in forty years. According to Watson’s detailed analysis, Labour needed a national swing of just under two per cent to be the largest party at the next election. An average swing of over five per cent would deliver Labour a Commons majority of 20 seats and over six per cent a 60-seat majority. Such was the bullishness of the assessment that all the seats announced were offensive, and such was the hyperbole attached that talk of an 80-seat majority was passed in the same breath. Labour will win, and “win well” Watson confidently asserted.
Such a shame. Three months out from the general election few in the Labour fold would publically repeat such wild talk. But at the time it was easy enough to see where the confidence had come from; the “ominshambles” Budget had handed Labour a large and sustained lead – with the party regularly breaching and holding the magical forty per cent barrier.
Since those days of double-digit Labour leads the traditional binary nature of British politics has, of course, become fragmented. The other truism is that the Labour lead has steadily declined from the low forties of the ominshamble-era to the low thirties today. The reasons are myriad but have been consistent across this Parliament. Cameron continues to be an electoral asset to the Conservative party; on the ‘forced choice’ question of a Cameron-led or Miliband-led government, the Conservative leader pulls ahead by five per cent points – well ahead of his party’s traditional polling. And as John Rentoul, from his eagle-eyed perch, summarised at the weekend, forty per cent of voters think likely Cameron will return as Prime Minister, forty three per cent believe him to be better at managing the economy, thirty six per cent prefer him to handle immigration and forty two per cent believe he has “the qualities needed in a leader”. Only on the NHS, Labour’s preferred electoral ground, does Cameron cede to Miliband. And even on tax avoidance and evasion, the fulcrum of the Labour party’s attack last week, the two party leaders are in effect tied.
In Scotland, the Labour party is set to be routed by the SNP. The scale of the loss is the only detail pending. No matter the gains in England and Wales, if Labour loses in its own backyard it will put Cameron in the driving seat post the 7th May. The basic truth is clear; Miliband cannot become Prime Minister unless Labour, and by extension his arch-foe, Jim Murphy, claws back hundreds of thousands of votes from the SNP. This analysis tallies with private Conservative confidence, as recently detailed by Isabel Hardman – and even a striking degree of arrogance that the next election is all but won.
Whilst penning this article the monthly Guardian poll landed; ‘Tories up six points in latest ICM poll’ screamed the headline. That it neatly correlated with what was written thus far, one could be excused for being rather pleased with my new-found soothsaying ability. But it drew little comfort, for Cameron, in particular, on which so much of the current Conservative popularity is built, has been a dismal Prime Minister. He represents no great intellectual thought, no great movement, no breaking of the political mould. He has failed on his key domestic pledge of this Parliament and isolated Britain abroad.
The public ought to be on the verge of offering a bitter repudiation of the Prime Minister and his party. But, seemingly, they are not. The Conservatives and Cameron are within touching distant of at least winning the most seats. The final machinations of the election’s outcome are beyond even the wisest, but one this is clear; Labour must now hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. Two years ago many within the Labour party would now not believe it, but Miliband’s prospects of becoming Prime Minister are fading – and fast.
David Talbot is a political consultant