For most of the summer Labour’s poll lead has been in single digits. Though enough for victory at a general election, this is hardly a comfortable margin for Ed Miliband at this stage of the parliament – particularly since, as I have found in my previous research, Labour’s support is far from firm.
But as we know, the picture is seldom uniform across the country; the national headline figures can sometimes mask what is happening in marginal seats where elections are won and lost. In the last few weeks I have polled nearly 13,000 voters in the 40 Conservative seats with the smallest majorities: 32 of which the party is defending against Labour, and 8 where the Liberal Democrats came second in 2010.
The encouraging news for the Tories, such as it is, is that Labour have made no further progress in their top targets seats than they had when I conducted a similar exercise in 2011. Voters here are slightly more likely than not to think Britain is heading in the right direction, and the opposition has not fully won their confidence: the Conservatives are more likely to be seen as willing to take tough decisions, and being clear about what they stand for. They still see David Cameron as better leadership material than Ed Miliband: 38% say Cameron would make the best PM, compared to 28% for the Labour leader.
Despite this, Labour’s lead in these seats has grown from 9 to 14 points over the last two years, largely because of the defection of Tory voters to UKIP. Labour’s share is 43%, down a point since 2011, but the Conservatives have fallen to 29% with the Lib Dems on 8% and UKIP on 11% – a rise of 8 points since the last election. This represents an 8.5% swing from the Conservatives to Labour in these seats – enough for Labour to win all 32 of them, plus a further 66 if it were repeated in Conservative-Labour contests elsewhere.
Things look less bleak where Conservatives are defending territory against their coalition partners. While the Tories’ share is down 9 points in these seats since the election (with UKIP again the main beneficiaries) the Lib Dems’ is down 10, as former supporters have moved to Labour. It is always hard to extrapolate too far when talking about the Lib Dems because local factors are so important in seats where they have a big following, and the constituencies themselves vary widely in character. Nevertheless, the Tories can be hopeful of keeping them. Cameron’s 20-point lead as best Prime Minister, the majority saying Britain is heading in the right direction, and the fact that on this battleground the Conservatives are ahead on the economy and jobs as well as the deficit, immigration, welfare, Europe and crime should also provide reassurance.
The fact remains, though, that the tripling of UKIP’s vote share in marginal seats since 2010 threatens to put Ed Miliband in Downing Street in spite of Labour’s lukewarm appeal. The question is what the Conservatives can do about it. As I have long argued, on the basis of plentiful research, the answer has relatively little to do with policy, and constructing a UKIPesque manifesto would be not just ineffective but counterproductive, putting off potential voters who might otherwise be attracted from other parties.
While some will vote for Nigel Farage’s party come what may, others will only do so if they feel they have nothing to lose – that there is so little at stake in 2015 that it hardly matters who wins. Demonstrating the choice at hand will not mean pointing out Labour’s flaws, which are abundantly clear. It means showing the grip, direction, competence and leadership that people expect from Tories in office. We are not, as PJ O’Rourke immortally put it, the party that says government can make you richer, smarter, taller, and get the chickweed out of your lawn. We need to show we have got our priorities right and, above all, to look as though we know what we are doing.
Given all that, I find myself more optimistic – perhaps less pessimistic would be a more accurate way of putting it – than this poll might at first glance give reason to be. During the supposed double-dip recession Labour struggled to establish their economic credentials, and now there is mounting evidence that things are looking up. Miliband shows no sign of closing the leadership ratings gap with the incumbent, a factor that will come to matter more in the months before polling day.
For the Conservatives, the challenge of remaining in government, let alone winning an overall majority, is formidable. But I think the contest will be close and enthralling.