Thursday, 9 April 2015

Labour: on the verge of a historic victory, or partying like it’s 1992?

Carter USM's 1992 album - at least one
good thing that happened that year.
The short campaign has finally kicked off. Not that that usually makes much difference, and particularly not when we have all known the date of the election for the last four years. Perhaps fittingly, no party’s campaign has so far exactly knocked Britain off its feet.

In polling, Tories and Labour have been showing as neck and neck for some time, with each main party in turn delighted when a poll says it is a couple of points ahead. But within any measure of what statisticians call “standard error”, these polls tell us little.

In other words, any difference of this size – a few per cent – could just as easily be explained by the inaccuracy of polling as a predictor per se, as by a meaningful trend. In this strange, Alice-in-Wonderland world where the tossed coin seems to land on its side, we have to make our judgements using less obvious, but no less compelling, means.

Turn, for example, to that more traditional signal of electoral success, the bookies, and the story is a little different. It’s true that they are – by a rather small margin – predicting a Labour minority government as the most likely outcome from a number of difficult-to-predict outcomes, but now look at the party with most seats. It’s the Tories, odds on, by a mile. The next PM? Cameron, odds on, by a mile.

Now, on the back of the TV debates, Labour has had a welcome uptick in Miliband’s personal approval rating, it’s true. But this really needs to be seen in context: it is rather the difference between the cataclysmic (-46% a month ago) and the merely bad (-29%, against Cameron’s -2%).

And there has also been a positive story for Labour in the English marginals, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polling. But the story in Scotland is the opposite: even if it might not end up quite as badly as the Daily Mail might gleefully be predicting, it will certainly be bad.

Furthermore, there is a certain caution over polling which is hammered into us Labourites of a certain generation, the over-40s. Those of us who remember the start of an election campaign which had polls showing a single-digit lead for Labour up until the last minute; two exit polls, usually the most accurate of polls, wrongly predicting a hung parliament (watch it here); and finally the creeping chill of realising during the course of the night that it was all a cruel joke; that the country’s voters really, definitively, did not see Neil Kinnock as their prime minister and never would.

1992 was the year which confounded expectations for Labour. We are now roughly in the same polling position, perhaps very slightly worse.

Now, things are genuinely still too close to call. A one-term opposition is very much against the odds but, by the same token, so is an incumbent increasing or even holding its vote. So a Miliband victory would be historic; as would one for Cameron.

Both are fallacious as arguments for winning or losing, since whatever happens will probably be an unusual scenario. Just like there was never a black president until Obama. So what? In other words, the probability is, paradoxically, that something relatively improbable will happen (ask a mathematician how that is possible). No help there, then.

We have not as yet, thank heavens, had the 2015 equivalent of 1992’s Sheffield rally, now painfully remembered as much as the defeat itself for its rashly hubristic tone (though one wonders about the hostage to fortune that Miliband’s “hell, yes” might have left behind). And it is certainly important for activists to believe that they can win; a bit of positive spin is only right. That extra push from the work of motivated members in the last few days could be what gets us over the edge.

All that said, there is a colder reality here as well: neither does Labour seem to be making the strides necessary to overturn both incumbency and Tory leads on both leadership and the economy, the two areas Uncut – among others – has consistently pointed out as the party’s biggest weaknesses.

Conclusion: on balance, we probably need either a political game-changer ourselves, or a great stroke of luck, such as a serious Tory miscalculation, to alter the current trajectory.

Otherwise, as we enter the home strait, we are riding perilously close to a re-run of that narrow loss to the Tories, almost a quarter-century on.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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