How can we best predict the big campaign issues?
Polls are snapshots, not predictions. Itâ€™s a common and accurate assertion and is one part in the explanation as to why the betting markets donâ€™t match up with current polling. At the moment, the Conservatives are generally around 1/2 to win most seats at the election, while Labour are best priced at 15/8, despite current polling being neck-and-neck, which would translate to a comfortable Labour lead in seats were it to be the actual outcome. So whatâ€™s going to shift them?
Before going there, we first need to note that just because the markets expect the polls to move in the Toriesâ€™ favour, it doesnâ€™t mean they will. As with all prediction, punters can be swayed by wishful thinking.
So how do we identify the issues and will the impact of them during the campaign have the effect the markets currently think?
Some things will happen between now and May 7. Other things may happen but are so significant that theyâ€™ll be a story whether they do or not. The media will talk about the debates and if they happen, so will the public. The economic figures will continue to be released, as will data from other government departments. We have a good idea as to what the parties will campaign on. All of these can and should already be known. So, getting out the crystal ball, hereâ€™s my take on the battlefields for the next seven weeks.
Yes, weâ€™ve heard more than enough of them over the last few months but the argument isnâ€™t going away: they matter if they happen, they matter if they donâ€™t happen, and they matter if they half-happen. However, the three scenarios donâ€™t matter equally. Three debates will overshadow everything else, as last time, which is why Cameron is so keen to avoid them, particularly the one-on-one with Miliband, which has the potential to go wrong given the Miliband is not all that bad a debater and the PM isnâ€™t all that good. One or two seven-ways, on the other hand, are unlikely to shift the polls much in any direction, short of a disaster on someoneâ€™s part.
This is one of the two trump cards for the Blue team and is unquestionably going to form the cornerstone of the Conservativesâ€™ campaign. Inflation is low, employment is high, wages are finally rising (for most), pensioners can get returns on savings again (never mind that itâ€™s from the government itself), interest rates remain low and the deficit is falling. Cameron more-or-less quoted the list in the Commons this week. Itâ€™s not a slam-dunk issue for the Tories but the polling remains strong for them, particularly when contrasted against Labour. The fact that the recovery is not yet secure cuts both ways: the continuing deficit is a missed priority from the government but also means that itâ€™s still a live issue.
By contrast, Labour did look as if they were making good on their intention to weaponise the NHS but have gone strangely quiet on the subject recently, which is far from the first time theyâ€™ve failed to maintain momentum on a campaign issue. Labour should have been cheered by the fact that the NHS has been rising as a matter of public concern while the economyâ€™s been falling in relative terms; with the NHS being a â€˜Labourâ€™ issue, Stafford, Morecambe and Wales in general notwithstanding. The question is whether that will continue to be the case. Apart from Labour having gone quiet (which surely canâ€™t continue?), itâ€™s less likely to fall naturally into media coverage compared with the economy, particularly with the winter period over.
Prior to 2010, Mike noted that the Conservatives consistently went up in the polls when Cameron was in the news. Thatâ€™s a long time ago now and the effect has worn off through familiarity and the challenges of government, though he remains more popular than the party he leads. On the other hand, Milibandâ€™s ratings remain dire, as do Cleggâ€™s. Will prolonged exposure in the media help or hinder their respective parties? In particular, will Miliband â€“ as was alleged of Kinnock in 1992, without much evidence it has to be said â€“ appear so un-prime-ministerial that it swings large numbers of votes? The fact that Milibandâ€™s ratings are poor with current Labour supporters suggests the possibility that many may not vote for him come the day. (Yes, strictly speaking you vote locally but the great majority of votes in the great majority of seats are for party not candidate).
Our electronic media is supposed to be impartial and ostensibly, it is. That, however, is not to say itâ€™s unbiased. For a start, it sets the agenda to no small extent and what it finds interesting will be what the watching and listening public is told to find interesting. Thatâ€™s one reason the debate about the debates matters. Secondly, itâ€™s London-centric. Although for the campaign itself thereâ€™ll be reporters â€˜on the roadâ€™, that wonâ€™t change the mindset which will still be based in Westminster. Newspapers, on the other hand, are far from impartial. Miliband announced his intention to take on News Corp some time ago; a fact that they are unlikely to forget. For them, itâ€™s not personal, merely business.
Immigration and inequality
Iâ€™ve bracketed these two together not because they naturally go together (though in some ways, via globalisation, they do) but because theyâ€™re the pet topics of UKIP and the Greens respectively and as such fire the anti-politics, or anti-establishment, voters. I donâ€™t really expect either issue to gain much traction unless some Black Swan event prompts it, mainly because theyâ€™ll again be fed through the medium of the media (to state the obvious) and the media will filter out topics that donâ€™t fit their narrative. And their narrative will be Con vs Lab unless something so spectacular happens that they canâ€™t ignore it.
My reading would be that most of the issues do tend to favour the Conservatives dynamically: the economy is recovering and should remain prominent in the news, while the NHS could well recede comparably; influential sections of the media do not want Miliband and can be expected to ratchet up the pressure if itâ€™s looking close (which it is); the debates issue is degenerating into a Westminster Village spat which most people arenâ€™t interested in; and the intensity of the coverage may help Cameron while hindering Miliband. But is it enough? The Conservatives donâ€™t just have to be ahead but well ahead to win on seats, and even further ahead to form a government.
p.s. Very little of the above analysis applies to Scotland and none of it does to Northern Ireland.