Sunday, 11 October 2009

'Teflon Tories', or is Cameron the Conservatives' Kinnock?

The road to a Tory government appears not to have any turnoffs, or so says no less a blogger than Will Patterson, in concluding a typically compelling and thorough piece entitled 'The Rise of the Teflon Tories'.

But on a recent edition of the STV's Politics Now programme Bill Miller, professor of politics at the University of Glasgow, suggested that David Cameron could be the Tory Party's Neil Kinnock. The then Labour leader - not to mention most of the country - thought he had the 1992 general election in the bag, only for the Conservatives to secure a decisive victory on the day. For a considerable period before the election Labour had held a substantial lead in the opinion polls, and victory looked almost certain. But the Sun's infamous 'If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights' headline - recently back in the news due to the newspaper's decision to withdraw its support from Labour - set the scene for a disastrous vote for Labour and the return of a Tory Government.

Although the tabloid credited itself with engineering a last minute swing away from Labour - 'It's the Sun wot won it' - a more plausible explanation is perhaps that voters didn't really trust the left wing, firebrand Kinnock, and considered John Major's government a safe pair of hands, despite its declining popularity. And the consistently favourable opinion poll results for Labour were rationalised on the basis that many people had become embarrassed to even declare they would support the Conservatives in an election.

Thus could David Cameron ultimately be the Tories' Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown Labour's John Major? When push comes to shove, voters could well prefer the Labour leader's (relatively) safe pair of hands to the untried marketing man currently leading the Conservatives. And the opinion polls could be overstating support for Cameron's Tories because the public do not want to openly declare their support for Brown's Labour, even if only to pollsters.

Far fetched, perhaps, but in any case six months or so is a long time in politics. Perhaps Brown is indeed a busted flush, but maybe the road to a Tory government does in fact have a turnoff in the form of hung parliament, as Iain Macwhirter argues in today's Sunday Herald.

And that's probably the result Alex Salmond would find most palatable as well, because today's news that the SNP would assist the Tories in a hung parliament in return for concessions seems otherwise unlikely to offer anything but grief for the Nationalists.


Will said...

Hi Stuart,

Thanks for the reference, and all very good points made. Having said that, I still see a number of points which mitigate against Cameron being a 'Kinnock'-style figure:

1. The polls. In October 1991, polls projected a close race, with Gallup putting the Tories one point ahead, and ICM putting Labour two points ahead. MORI had Labour six points ahead. The polls today project a Tory lead of between nine and nineteen points. Even if the polls are as wildly out now as then, that still puts us at a Tory lead of around 6%, which might - just - be enough to win them the election.

2. The leaders. John Major was getting something of a fair wind behind him, having announced the end of the Poll Tax, and of course, having been through the Gulf War. A September 1991 opinion poll saw respondents agree that Neil Kinnock was a liability. Gordon Brown's personal standing, by contrast, is more akin - and perhaps worse - than Kinnock's.

3. The press. If you take the Murdoch 'Sun wot won it' line, then the unfavourable coverage meted out to Labour counted against them. The 2009 Tories are getting more favourable coverage than 1991 Labour. If you take the more widely-held 'press as an echo chamber' approach, then the fact that most papers stuck with the Tories showed that there was far more underlying Tory support than the polls suggested and, as you say, Labour still hadn't done enough to convince either the people or the papers that they were a horse worth backing. By contrast, Labour is losing media support and the Tories are picking it up.

There is, as yet, time to be made to look like a complete prat on this, but I still foresee a Tory majority. Even if it's smaller than we might yet believe.

Wardog said...

Seems Salmond can't win, he's either picking fights or assisting the nasty Tories.

Isn't it time that we got a proper media in Scotland to report the facts rather than Labour Party smear campaigns.

What Salmond actually said was that he would use SNP MP's to win concessions for nationalist policies from any future hung parliament.

“There’s a vast, overwhelming majority of people in Scotland, regardless of political preference, who rather like the idea of the Westminster parliament being hung by a Scottish rope,”

I'm not sure many will understand the Time's spin on that kind of statement as 'assisting the Tories"

Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy leader of the SNP, said: “In these circumstances, regardless of who becomes prime minister, where Westminster currently says no to Scotland, the answer will quickly change to yes.”

"assisting" the Tories?

I fear the rather biased Times Scottish Section Journalists doth protest too much

Stuart Winton said...

Will, thanks for your detailed response. Indeed, I think the smart money has to be on a decisive Cameron victory, but the alternative perspective is interesting and Prof Miller mentioned it twice at separate times during the programme, so clearly at least he thinks it worth examining, if only because of course many certainly suspect that the gap between the parties will be a lot closer than the polls suggest, a la Iain Macwhirter.

And I'm not sure if perhaps the polls you mention in October 1991 were outliers maybe reflecting some big political event or other which I can't be bothered looking up, although I think the previous gap had narrowed consistently by polling day itslf.

But I bow to your superior knowledge of the minutiae on these issues!

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks, Wardog, so no possible downside for the SNP on that one then? ;0)

Stuart Winton said...

But, Wardog, I suppose Cameron and the Tories are the most likely to be the ones in need of some SNP assistance, on present forecasts at least.

Will said...

Stuart, it's certainly worth examining and you're right to flag up the idea that the gap will close, but a quick look through the archives suggests that the polls in 1991 were incredibly volatile: the Tories had a five point lead during the Gulf War, but just four months later, that had turned into a ten-point Labour lead, and the post-Conference polls had the two roughly neck-and-neck.

One thing in favour, though: a quick look through those same archives shows a Labour lead of ~25% in the Autumn 1996 polls and the actual margin of victory in May 1997 was half that, so while I'm fairly confident of a Tory victory, I doubt it's going to be a landslide...

Stuart Winton said...

Thanks, Will; certainly an interesting couple of years to come!

Allan said...

While i don't think that Cameron will be the Tories "Kinnock", i do think that the size of the task is still too great for the Conservitives to have a decisive victory.

At the last Election. the Conservitives garnered 198. Their starting position at this Westminster Election is that they need to win 118 more seats to win power back. The Conservitives would also need a swing of 6.9% at this election (Thatcher achieved a swing of 5% to win in 1979) which has never been achieved in a Westminster Election. I think the Lib Dem bloc, and the lack of inroads into the Scottish electorate will make it even more difficult for Cameron to attain the current prediction of a 90 seat majority.

My long term prediction has been a Cameron victory but with a majority in single figures. With both of the main parties playing my cut's bigger than your cut, whoes to say the main parties won't hemorage more votes, making a Cameron victory less likeley.