The polls aren’t moving. We’re over three weeks into the election campaign now. We’ve had manifestos, television debates, surprise policy announcements and the usual political rows. But none of it is actually making a real difference.
The UK polling average at the start of April gave Labour 33% and the Conservatives 34%. The current polling average gives the Conservatives 33% and Labour 34%. Yes, the SNP are surging and the situation around different parts of the country is fluctuating, but the overall result is still the same, deadlock.
On the face of it, the party that should be most upset about this is the Conservatives. Lynton Crosby’s ‘crossover point’, where the Tories would start to leave Labour behind, is looking increasingly unlikely with every passing day and the Conservative troops are clearly nervous.
But the overall picture is not much better for Labour. The Conservative campaign so far may have been deeply uninspiring, but Labour has completely failed to capitalise on the opportunity. Seat projections still have Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck. In an electoral system so heavily weighted towards Labour, this is a poor result against such an unpopular and underperforming Conservative party.
There are three underlying factors in this inability to capitalise on the Conservative party’s mistakes:
Firstly, an unclear narrative. This is something that the Conservatives have been heavily criticised for, but it is equally true of Labour. Six months ago Labour were building an effective narrative around the cost of living and the NHS. But their messaging has become confused over the campaign.
Labour opened the campaign wooing business, moved onto zero hours and attacking big business, sidestepped onto non-doms and tax fairness, shifted again onto fiscal responsibility, and have now moved onto the NHS. In parallel to this they have been launching a series of ‘mini-manifestos’ around separate themes such as business, older people and women. The result of all of this? A very confused narrative which is not cutting through to voters.
Secondly, Ed Miliband’s appeal to the electorate. One of the biggest stories of this campaign has been Miliband performing stronger than expected. Polls have indeed shown Miliband’s approval ratings steadily improving. But that was from a base of about 16%. In the latest YouGov poll on who would be the best Prime Minister he had improved again, but was still at a low figure of 26%, compared to 40% for David Cameron.
In such a tight race, with a fractious Parliament and another coalition government likely, the authority and appeal of the party leader could prove crucial to capturing undecided votes. While Miliband is improving, he is still not appealing widely across the electorate. This has enabled the Conservatives to effectively raise the spectre of him being dominated by Salmond and Sturgeon in any Labour-SNP alliance.
This brings us onto the third and most important factor, Scotland. The SNP surge has been the story of this election and has withstood everything that Ed Miliband and Jim Murphy have thrown at it. The SNP remain on course to take around 50 seats in Scotland, which would see Labour lose at least 35 seats. In a stroke, this cancels out Labour’s natural electoral advantage over the Conservatives and nullifies most of the gains that Labour is currently making in marginal seats across England.
In a typical election campaign, where the majority of their Scottish seats are safe, Labour would be able to concentrate most of their messaging and money on marginal seats in England. But the need to shore up their core vote in Scotland has diverted crucial money and ground troops to Scottish seats. It has also resulted in confused messaging as they try to appeal to voters on both sides of the border.
Finally, the SNP surge and questions over a Labour-SNP coalition has dominated much of the recent campaign media coverage. This has obscured Labour’s messaging around key issues such as the NHS and the cost of living.
On balance, Labour may well be the happier of the two main parties at the moment. They can argue that the Conservative crossover has not happened and that most election predictor models are forecasting that Ed Miliband will have the best chance of leading the next government. If that does happen then it will be an impressive feat by Miliband, given the attacks he has faced and the rise of the SNP.
But that cannot obscure the fact that Labour could, and probably should, be performing better at this stage in the campaign.