Memo to the Prime Minister
I doubt that you have ever stopped thinking about next year’s general election: shrewd politicians know that the moment one campaign is over, the next begins. But with just over a year to go, a degree of urgency now informs your decisions. What you say and do in the next few months will matter more than the way you campaign in the weeks before polling day.
What, then, must you do?
Where things stand
Let’s start with the size of your task. At the last general election the Conservatives won 307 seats. Since then you have lost Corby to Labour. To win an overall majority you need to 326, which means gaining 20. To govern comfortably - that is, to protect you against rebellions and by-election losses – I reckon you need a majority of at least 30. This means winning 340 seats – or gaining 34.
Can you do it? Recent YouGov surveys have, on average, put Labour on 39%, the Tories on 33%, UKIP on 12% and the Liberal Democrats on 9%. Compared with 2010, Labour is up 9 points, the Tories down 4, UKIP up 9 and the Lib Dems down 15. If votes in every seat shift in line with those figures, Labour would have 364 MPs, the Conservatives 240 and the Lib Dems 21. UKIP would have no MPs, despite winning more votes than the Lib Dems.
However, opposition leads usually decline in the run-up to elections as people shift from protest mode to decision mode. History suggests that Labour’s current six-point deficit is one that you should be able to overturn.
If you do stage a nationwide recovery, your richest pickings appear to be in Lib Dem territory. Most of their 57 seats were Tory-held not so long ago. Win most of them back (as current national polls suggest you would) and the job is done. However, that won’t be easy. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Lib Dem support has fallen by more than half since 2010. I would expect them, like you, to recover some of their lost voters. Their recovery is likely to be strongest in seats they are defending: local Lib Dem MPs are often well dug in, and most should survive however badly their party performs nationally.
Overall, you should pick up three Lib Dem marginals where the local MP is standing down plus six others where you start no more than 6% behind. After that, your task becomes progressively harder. Currently, I would expect you to gain around 12 Lib Dem seats – not enough for a bare overall majority, let alone a working majority. You will need to take at least some seats off Labour.
To secure an overall majority, you need to extend your lead over Labour to 8-9 points, and for a working majority to at least ten. That would be an astonishing achievement. I would advise you to fight hard for that – but prepared to settle for a lesser ambition.
Let’s suppose that you win 12 seats from the Lib Dems, but none from Labour. You would then have 318 seats, against 304 for Labour plus the Liberal Democrats combined. You would probably be able to lead a minority government, at least for a while, without needing to enter into another formal coalition. And every seat you win above 318 increases your ability to govern alone.
Much, then, depends on your ability to hold onto the seats you gained from Labour in 2010. Having downplayed your chances of taking many seats from the Lib Dems, let me cheer you up with one crucial piece of evidence about your prospects in Con-Lab marginals.
The 'sophomore surge'
It is that there is an established pattern for new MPs to outperform their party average when they first seek re-election. According to John Curtice’s analyses, published in successive editions of the ‘British General Election of...’ series, this has happened at each election for the past 30 years. To borrow a term from the United States, where the same pattern occurs in congressional elections, new incumbents fighting their second election are aided by a ‘sophomore surge’.
First-time MPs will be defending virtually every seat where you are vulnerable to Labour. Apart from Corby, which you have already lost, and Cardiff North, Erewash and South Ribble, where the local MPs are standing down, you should be able to count on an average ‘sophomore surge’ of around 1,000 votes in the seats that your party gained in 2010. Any adverse national swing is likely to be around 2% lower in the marginals you are defending. This would allow you to retain up to 30 seats you would otherwise lose.
The potential, then, is clear: assuming some national recovery, and a modest ‘sophomore surge’ in Tory marginals, you have a good chance of leading the largest party when all the votes are counted, and a real prospect of being able to govern alone – even if the prospects of a working overall majority currently look slim. The question is, how do you convert potential into reality? Plainly, one huge task is to make sure that all the voters you have lost in the key marginals that they understand the need not to ‘let Labour in’ locally by defecting to UKIP or simply staying at home.
However, stressing the tactical position is unlikely to be enough. There are reasons why these voters have deserted you. You need to address them. What are they? YouGov has investigated the problems you face and the opportunities you can now seize. We asked people to say which positive and which negative features of your party’s record in office matter most to them. The table below shows what we found. It compares the views of the public as a whole with current Tory supporters and “Con defectors” – the one in three people who voted Tory in 2010 but have since switched to another party (mainly UKIP) or become ‘don’t knows’. Three big lessons emerge. They concern the dogs that don’t bark, your problem with UKIP, and the biggest challenge of all – winning the argument on the economy.
The two non-barking dogs are ideology and gay marriage. Few people have deserted your party because you have either shifted too far to the right, or not shifted enough. Rather more are upset by your backing for gay marriage, but not enough to cancel out the backing of younger voters for this measure. However much your older local activists grumble about this, gay marriage is on balance a vote-winner rather than a vote-loser.
Europe and immigration are another matter. These have helped UKIP win over a lot of your traditional supporters. By a mile, Conservative defectors say your two biggest failures have been not to cut immigration enough (cited by 62% as one of the negatives on which defectors feel most strongly) and not standing up enough to Europe (50%). Actually, many of your loyalists share these concerns, but not enough to desert the party. Your say repeatedly that you have in fact cut immigration and defended Britain’s interests in Europe. I’m afraid this cuts little ice, even among loyal Tory voters. A large part of your task is to persuade far more of your target voters that your policies are in fact working – or at least that any radically different strategy would make things worse, not better.
Now for the big one: the economy. Here’s the good news. Many of the voters you need to win back give you high marks for tackling the deficit and starting to sort out the welfare system. And very few defectors think a Miliband government would do any better.
Your problem, which Miliband has exploited skilfully, is that few people think you have done your best to protect living standards. This is a deep-seated weakness in the Tory ‘brand’ that goes beyond the statistics about falling real wages. Consider attitudes to your policies towards older people. You have enhanced their state pensions and protected their retirement benefits protected. Even so, you are widely thought to have let them down.
The explanation is that YouGov polls have shown repeatedly that you are seen to be out of touch with normal folk, and to care more for richer people than the wider public. Your mantra is that ‘we are all in this together’. Few people think that this is either what you really believe or have in practice delivered through the years of austerity.
Plainly you hope that this year, continued economic recovery will feed through into rising take-home pay for the many and not just the few. This will help – especially if you can persuade voters that a Labour government would put it all at risk. But to be sure of leading the largest party in the next parliament you need to dispel your image as a toff who leads a party that defends privilege. As the economy recovers, this means winning the argument that we really were all in it together when you ladled out the economic medicine – and will also all be in it together when the fruits of recovery are handed out.
You like to present yourself as a man of the people. Don’t just say it. Prove it.
This commentary appears in the February edition of Prospect