Around this time last year there was plenty for Conservatives to be gloomy about, with the opinion polls showing Labour hovering persistently in the high 30s and the Conservatives struggling to break out of the low 30s. The latest opinion poll by Lord Ashcroft shows the two parties more or less neck-and-neck on 30% and 31% – and most other polls show a similarly small Labour lead, but basically too-close-to-call. It reflects an assertion that I made last winter which is worth repeating now: The Labour lead is ‘soft.’
For the benefit of the vast majority who (very sensibly) don’t usually bother with opinion polls, a ‘soft’ number is an unreliable number that is highly likely to change. The classic example of this is in fact the polling numbers for the main opposition party during the middle period between elections – lots of voters indicate that they want to vote for the opposition because the main thing governments usually do is annoy the electorate – an astonishing example is from September 2008 when an Ipsos-Mori poll had the Conservative opposition on an amazing 52%! When you consider that the Tories ended up with 37% of the vote in May 2010, you can see that the number was not a reliable estimate but rather a reflection of voter dissatisfaction with the Labour government of that time (and, given that most other polls weren’t that high, also likely to be an outlier!)
So one year on the polls have narrowed, and the main news I am taking is this – the Labour lead was soft, and probably still is soft. Lots of voters were angry and disappointed, and probably still are – but they aren’t sure they are ready to trust Ed Miliband and Labour. The impact of this is potentially huge – using electoral calculus I did a base prediction of seats assuming that the Conservatives had 30% of the vote, Labour 31%, the Lib Dems 8% and UKIP 17%. In this model, the Conservatives would have 273 seats and Labour 324 – to all intents and purposes, a Labour government. I personally think that the polls will shift between 2 to 3 points simply because of the soft Labour lead – adjusting for a 2.5% swing from Labour to Conservative (ie. Conservatives on 32.5% and Labour on 28.5%) puts the Tories on 308 and Labour on 292. I took the model one stage further and supposed that a reasonable percentage of the UKIP vote swings back to the Tories – not impossible given that Lord Ashcroft’s findings showed that over half the UKIP vote placed the Tories second. Reducing UKIP to 10% and giving an extra 7% to the Tories put the Conservatives on 352 and Labour on 254 – a clear majority for the Conservatives.
Of course all of this is supposition – in all of this the Lib Dem vote remained stubbornly at 8% – but it may recover. Labour may in fact recover voters from the Green party – and this model did not account for the rise of the SNP in Scotland. But it does show that a soft poll lead can massively hide what is actually happening. It is also my theory that if the Tories begin picking up reluctant UKIP voters, and/or Labour begin picking up reluctant Green voters, that will accelerate a poll trend away from the smaller parties and towards the two largest parties. At the moment the polls are telling voters it is too close to call and no party is likely to win a majority – that incentivises voting for a smaller party to hold the balance of power. If either Labour or the Conservatives begin pulling away into a clear lead and there is the possibility they can form a majority government, then the smaller parties mean begin to lose support in the polls as the voters focus instead on whether they want David Cameron or Ed Miliband in Downing Street – and the lower those numbers go, the greater the likelihood more wavering voters will leave the smaller parties and vote for the big two.
It could go either way and it is still too close and too uncertain to call – but I am absolutely certain that the Labour lead remains soft, and the Conservative vote is certain to increase between now and the election.