The Conservatives lead by two points in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. The Tory lead is down by four since last week, with Labour unchanged on 30%. The Liberal Democrats are up two points at 11%, UKIP up one at 12%, the Greens unchanged at 7% and the SNP up one at 5%.
I found Conservative supporters the most certain of their decision, with 79% saying they will definitely vote that way. As always, Lib Dems were the least committed, with 42% saying they may yet change their minds. More than three quarters (77%) of men said they would definitely vote for the party they named, compared with two thirds (67%) of women.Just over half (51%) of all voters agreed “the policies of the last few years have failed and it is time for a change” – a figure unchanged since I last asked the question in February. The proportion agreeing that “although the last few years have been difficult, the country is heading in the right direction and we need to stay on the same path” was down four points to 41%. Women and swing voters were more likely than average to think it was time for a change. As in 2010, the number thinking it is time for change looks considerably larger than the number prepared to vote for the principal opposition to get it.
This week’s focus groups took place in Pudsey, Rossendale & Darwen and Hazel Grove, two very close Conservative-Labour marginals and a seat where the Liberal Democrats are seeking to fend off the Tories. The doorstep campaigning was intense, if sometimes confusing. “I got a letter from someone in the Lib Dems urging me to vote Labour. Lord somebody.” Oakeshott? “That’s the one”. Interesting.
Some found all the direct mail disquieting. “I get a lot of stuff that looks as though it’s from GCHQ but says it’s from David Cameron.” Do you mean CCHQ? “No, GCHQ. How did they get my name and address?” Several reported their recycling bins to be full of election leaflets, but not all: “I’ve got them in a big pile. I haven’t thrown them away yet.” Why is that – are you going to read through them this week and decide? “Oh no, I’m saving them for when I get a real fireplace.”
For most in our groups this campaign had never really taken off – the TV debates were no longer a novelty, nobody had been punched and the PM had not been recorded abusing an innocent pensioner. The most interesting thing about the election was the uncertainty of its outcome, which in many cases mirrored their own uncertainty as to how to vote.
This was particularly the case for Labour supporters who had, for one reason or another, voted Lib Dem in 2010, inadvertently helping to install the Tory-led coalition. “I voted Lib Dem last time as a protest against Labour. I couldn’t go Conservative, but we needed a change. That bit me in the arse, didn’t it?” The problem was acute for some in Hazel Grove: “I’m torn between going with my heart and a tactical vote. If Labour are a poor third, and I vote tactically for the Lib Dems, that might keep the Conservatives in anyway. But if I go Labour, that might throw it straight to the Tories.”
How, then, will they decide? Some resorted to the polite fiction that they would read all the manifestos – a claim that was often swiftly modified to “look at some of the leaflets” or “concentrate a bit more on the news”. Several found it exasperating to have to choose between politicians: “If you asked them what colour underpants they were wearing, they’d say, ‘Well, what colour would you like me to be wearing?’” Some said they would probably decide at the very last minute – since there were a few more days to go, why would they pay any more attention to the tedious business than they had to?
Few claimed to have made it all the way through the debates. “I started but then there was something more important to do, like tomorrow’s sandwiches.” “I went up to the bedroom but my boyfriend was watching the debate in bed so I went downstairs again. It’s alright, I’ve got my rabbit.” “Was that from the Ann Summers catalogue?” “I meant my bunny rabbit!”
Er, moving on… for those who were paying attention, who had done well? “The woman was brilliant. The one with the red suit on.” But several participants also said Ed Miliband had been a revelation, not just in the debates but throughout the campaign. “They’ve managed expectations about him and suddenly he looks like a Prime Minister. They never stopped going on about the bacon sandwich incident until it kicked off, and now he’s like a different person.” Even his encounter with Russell Brand had been “brave”. Many still had their doubts, however: “Some of the things he says are quite good but I don’t think they’re going to happen”; “He’s quite emotive and sensitive and speaks from the heart, but whether being emotive and sensitive is right for a PM or not, I don’t know”; “He can’t really represent Labour, let alone the UK. They will walk all over him.”
But few of those already leaning towards Labour said they saw Miliband as a major barrier: “He gets a hard time and he’s an easy target. But if he got to be Prime Minister I could live with it.”
One of the things that made it hard to decide was that not only did the main parties seem the same, so did the leaders, at least in terms of where they had come from. Maddeningly for Labour, people often said that the trouble with Ed is that he is “too public school” – and while that may be factually wrong, it felt true to people because it seemed that “they’re all from the same background. Posh schoolboys, Oxford, not in touch with the real world”; “When you see them on TV, you think, ‘you’re not real. I don’t see you in Asda’.” Does the same apply to Nigel Farage? Much as he “breaks the monotony” by articulating “what a lot of people are thinking but no-one in power is saying”, in terms of his background he is “as much part of the establishment as the Tories.”
But do people really hold the fact he went to Eton against David Cameron? “Yes! I went to Pangbourne and we played rugby against them and they cheat.”
Impressed as they were by the woman in the red suit, the groups did not welcome the prospect of the SNP having a big say in Westminster. To begin with, they set little store by Miliband’s protestations on the subject: “Labour say they won’t do a deal with the SNP, but they will won’t they? If he needs to do it to get to Number Ten, a hundred per cent, without a shadow of a doubt, he will do it.”
As for the SNP itself, “they want to leave anyway, so they can jog on. What’s it got to do with them?” The party seemed to these English voters to be greedy (“they already get so much money and free prescriptions and other things we don’t get, like university tuition”), hostile (“I’ve got the feeling we are going to be held to ransom. That’s the atmosphere that’s been created”) and unreasonable (“We don’t interfere in Scotland, do we? They want the best of both – they want our money but they don’t want our rules”).
Moreover, if he were reliant on SNP votes, Miliband would be in no position to resist their demands, putting Nicola Sturgeon in a hugely powerful position despite not being in parliament at Westminster herself. “Who would govern the country? I think she’s stronger than he is.”
Despite this, the prospect of a Miliband-led government dependent on the SNP was not usually enough to deter those leaning towards Labour from voting for the party. Rather, they had to choose the party that best represented their interests; after the election all sorts of combinations were possible and
whatever happened after Thursday was in any case out of their hands. After all, as someone observed, “the last Lib Dem broadcast amounted to ‘come and sit on the fence with us and we’ll see who wins and go with them’.”
All of this gave rise to an interesting constitutional question: “What happens if no-one can form a coalition? Does it go to penalties?”
One possible outcome is that Labour could form a government with the help of other parties, even if it comes second to the Conservatives in terms of both votes and seats. Most did not realise such an outcome was even possible, and many – including many who planned to vote Labour – were indignant at the idea: “They would have cheated their way in”; “It would be underhand. Not what the public wanted, not what the public said”; “It’s dealmongering, moving away from democracy”; “If that happened, at the next election, I’d think, what’s the point of voting?” Not everyone was exercised about it – but so many felt so strongly that it suggested such a government would have a job persuading the public of its political legitimacy, however constitutionally permissible it might be.
One way or another, in a few days Britain could have a new Prime Minister. Do we know enough about him? “We don’t really know anything about any of them”. Even after all this time? Come on, let’s have three facts about Ed Miliband. “He’s got two kitchens and a nanny”. “His dad was a Marxist”. “He went to the same primary school as Boris Johnson”. “He’s Jewish, somewhere along the way”. “He knifed his brother”. There, you know more than you think.
What about Nick Clegg? “Sheffield Hallam”. “Tuition fees”. “Well educated. Didn’t he go to Eton, or Harrow? Or was it Marlborough?” “Very good looking”. “Pro-EU”. “Likes Classic FM”.
Nigel Farage? “The shouty chap.” “Likes a pint”. “He’s like a Spitting Image puppet of himself”. “He smokes.” “Not PC”. “German wife”. “Plane crash”. “Was a City banker”. “Doesn’t like women breastfeeding in public”. “He’s got a bad back on him, according to Smooth Radio”. “Looks like he goes to the Sunbed Shop”.
And David Cameron? “Is his wife Spanish?” No, that’s Nick Clegg. “Oh well, I bet they all get together. Car keys in the bowl…” Steady on. What else? “Family man.” “Always on holiday”. “Eton, Bullingdon.” “Doesn’t know which football team he supports”. “He’s Kim Kardashian’s third cousin.” “He left one of his children in the pub. But that’s OK, I’ve left mine outside the Post Office.”