David Herdson says the next general election could still be wide open

David Herdson says the next general election could still be wide open

What we could have is an anti-unpopularity contest

The YouGov poll last month which showed that a Boris Johnson-led Conservative Party would be neck-and-neck with Labour in vote share was perhaps not too much of a surprise.  After all, Johnson is among the most popular of current politicians and outpolled his party by some 20% in the London elections last year.  Whether such hypotheticals would translate into reality were Johnson PM is a different matter.  He currently holds a role that plays to his strengths and mitigates his weaknesses; leading a political party would be a very different proposition.

Perhaps a much more unexpected result was an ICM poll, released earlier this week, which claimed that were Margaret Thatcher the Conservative leader, the current Labour lead of 6% would be transformed into a Conservative one of 3%.  That’s interesting enough about what is says of the public’s opinion of the recently departed ex-PM but it’s even more interesting because of what is implicitly says about all of today’s leaders.

What both polls demonstrate is the lack of faith that the public has in any of the three leaders of the main parties – something borne out in their personal ratings both in that poll and one release by Ipsos-Mori, also last week.  All remain stuck well into negative territory, as does the government as a whole.

It’s not so much that the electorate would swing to a Johnson- or Thatcher-led Conservative Party; it’s more the kind of vote for ‘none of the above’ that is currently producing such historically sky-high polling shares for Others that UKIP have had to be separated out.

Another feature that the hypotheticals bring out is the softness of Labour’s lead and vote share.  They too are currently a repository for protest votes but their supporters’ opinion of both party and leader as ready for government remains reserved.  34% of Labour supporters are dissatisfied with his performance as leader (better than Nick Clegg’s rating from his own supporters but worse than Cameron’s from his), 37% don’t think he is ready to be PM, while 34% of would-be Labour voters don’t think the party is ready for government.

The overall figures are well behind where Blair and Cameron were at the equivalent points before the 1997 and 2010 elections, though a little better than the current scores for the government and PM.

All of which keeps open an opportunity for the coalition in general and the Conservatives in particular.  Governments can win elections by default if they can paint their opponents as unfit.  1992 remains the classic example – won in no small part by the ‘Labour’s Tax Bombshell’ campaign – and 2015 will be decided in no small part by the effectiveness of the Tory negative campaigning.  While yesterday’s credit downgrade is not ideal news for the government, nor does it particularly help a party whose only apparent response to the problem of the deficit is to insist on borrowing more.

After three years of this parliament, the floating voting sector of the public doesn’t trust any of the parties to solve the country’s ills and as such the next election remains very much open.  The winners – if winners there are to be – will be the first time party which can convince the electorate that it can.  Or which can convince them that its principal opponents can’t.

David Herdson

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