YouGov President, Peter Kellner, latest commentary on how the Tories can recover from Eastleigh
Three letters define the Conservatives’ task at the next election: RIP. They stand for reassurance, integrity and prosperity. If David Cameron can persuade voters in forty key seats that he can supply them in sufficient measure, he will be able to kill the hopes of UKIP, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. If he can’t, then those letters on his own political gravestone will carry a more traditional meaning.
Strictly speaking, the Tories need just twenty seats to secure an overall majority. But the party will be fighting on two fronts. They must target both Labour and Liberal Democrat seats. Besides, a bare majority of one is vulnerable to rebellions and by-election losses. A prudent strategy is to target twenty Labour AND twenty Lib Dem marginals, and hope to make strong progress on both fronts.
That does not look easy. Sixteen of the Labour targets are in the North and Midlands. Unemployment is mostly above the national average. In contrast, thirteen of the Lib Dem targets are in southern England, mainly in prosperous areas with low unemployment.
However, it’s a myth to suppose that the political tasks are really that different – just as many Tories agonise too much over whether to shift to the Right, to see off UKIP, or veer left to capture the centre ground. Most floating voters – the people who decide elections – dislike extremism, but otherwise shun ideology. They judge parties and their leaders by their character: are they competent, honest and on my side? Are they up to the job? Will they keep their word? At the peak of their powers, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were deemed to possess the right character, and won big victories.
Which is why RIP holds the key to the next election. Parties must win voters at a time when millions of voters are feeling insecure, politicians are widely seen as venal and the economy is in trouble.
Reassurance is needed to combat insecurity. One reason why immigration has become a big issue is that millions of voters feel that scarce jobs, pricey homes and costly welfare benefits are going to people who shouldn’t have them. Immigration was far less of an issue when times were good. However, voters don’t believe grand promises about reducing numbers. A YouGov/Sunday Times poll before Christmas found that only 15% expected the Tories to keep their pledge to get net immigration down to “tens of thousands” a year. Politicians that make implausible pledges risk ending up like discredited quack doctors. The route to reassurance is often via modest measures that carry genuine conviction.
Which leads to integrity. This has always mattered, but never more than now. Currently just 19% trust senior Tory politicians to tell the truth. Cameron can’t claim the moral stature of Abraham Lincoln or David Attenborough. But he does need to show that his words are straight enough, and his spine stiff enough, for voters to believe he will keep his promises.
Prosperity holds the key to many elections. Today, voters have lower expectations than they used to. They know that steady growth, falling taxes and continuously rising living standards are some years off. But they do want clear evidence that the Government’s strategy is working. This weekend, 63% think the Government is managing the economy badly.
The point about RIP is not just that it addresses the Tories’ biggest current negatives, but that it can be tailored to their battle on both fronts and in every region. For example, unemployment is a big problem in Labour Birmingham Edgbaston, where the Tories must overturn Gisela’s Stuart’s majority of 1,274. There, the claimant count comprises 8.7% of the workforce, compared with just 1.9% in Lib Dem Somerton & Frome, where David Heath, the coalition’s Food Minister, is defending a majority of 1,817. But the swing voters in both seats will be asking similar RIP questions of all the parties.
The same applies to Tory targets as apparently diverse as the south coast’s Eastbourne (Lib Dem majority 3,435) and Yorkshire’s former mining and mill towns that comprise Morley & Outwood. If the Tories there can overturn Labour’s majority of 1,101 they will oust no less a figure than Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow Chancellor.
In all these seats, Cameron needs to frighten swing voters, whether currently flaky Labour, nervous Lib Dem or angry UKIP, with the dangers of letting Ed Miliband into Downing Street. But for that message to strike home with each group, the Prime Minister must burnish his own RIP credentials. The Eastleigh result confirms what YouGov’s polls for the Sunday Times have been showing for months: he has a long way to go.
This commentary first appeared in the Sunday Times