There’s normally an easy way to tell which party is losing a general election campaign. Whenever one side starts telling you to ignore the national polls and look at what is happening in certain key seats, it is a sure sign that they are in deep trouble. In this election, however, all the parties are arguing that what’s going on in their target seats matters more than the national polls.
No one is keener to dispute the relevance of the national polls than the Liberal Democrats. To demonstrate that they’ll still matter after the next election — particularly if there is another hung parliament — they’ve taken to sharing details of their own internal polling. The polls they’re sharing suggest that their vote is holding up far better in their own constituencies than it is nationally, where it is down to a single-figure percentage. If correct, the party’s research also indicates that the local popularity of their MPs should help them to hang on to more seats than expected — perhaps 30 or so.
But the Liberal Democrats are not alone in their efforts to focus attentions beyond the national polls. Members of the Labour shadow cabinet are quick to say that things are looking better in the English marginals than they dared hope, and that performance in these seats might compensate for their troubles in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Tories are keen to make sure we’re all keeping an eye on ‘the invisible campaign’, a strategy under which David Cameron made 26 regional visits last week. These stops might not have made the national news but they received plenty of local attention. The Tories hope that will help sway voters in their chosen locations. Indeed, the Conservatives have cunningly used the launch of their — or rather the government’s — long-term economic plan for each region to get acres of positive local coverage.
Why do all of the Westminster parties want people to look past national polls? Well, the first reason is that no one is going to win this election in the traditional sense of the word: it is highly unlikely that any party will have a working majority come 8 May. So the story that the polls tell doesn’t really suit anyone.
The second is that both main parties are aiming to grind out a result, winning seat by seat rather than with a decisive national swing. The Tories have put all their ministers on a campaign points system: one point for phone canvassing and bonuses for visits to marginal seats and going on ‘action days’ with volunteers. That ministers are being deployed in this rather demeaning manner tells you how crucial the Tories think their seat-by-seat campaign will be.
The third, but most important, reason for a regionalised approach is that this electionreally does look as if it will be more regionally divided than past ones. The campaign west of Bristol, which will be dominated by the two coalition parties, will be very different to the Labour-Tory fight in the West Midlands or the contest between the Ukip, the Tories and Labour around the Thames Estuary. And the Scottish campaign will be dominated by a party that isn’t even standing in the rest of the United Kingdom.
This is a product of Britain’s new political geography, where the main parties are simply not competitive in huge swaths of the country. Before entering government, the Liberal Democrats were trying to fill the gaps: becoming the opposition to Labour in the urban north and the Tories in the suburban south. But coalition has forced them to stop trying to ride two horses. Ukip has taken up this challenge of trying to become the national opposition party. But it is becoming an increasingly hard trick to pull off — in the digital age, it’s much easier for voters in one part of the country to spot that you’re telling a different story in another.
The consequence is that the national polls really are less useful than they once were. Of course, the campaign could become nationalised as it goes on. Some huge event — Greece leaving the euro, say, and the economic shocks that would follow — could come to dominate the debates. But at the moment there is no defining theme; the story most noticed by the voters so far is the HSBC tax evasion scandal, not any of the policies put forward by the parties.
The campaign has had such a bitty feel in part because the two main parties are deliberately talking past each other. The Tories want the debate to be about their long-term economic plan and leadership, while Labour wants voters to focus on the NHS and fairness. In both parties, senior figures have reservations about these approaches. They feel that if they don’t address voters’ concerns rather than just sticking to their favourite topics, they can’t win. But these voices have been drowned out by those who argue that the way to victory is to talk relentlessly about your own strengths and your opponents’ weaknesses. No party is going for the kind of full-spectrum dominance that New Labour achieved in 2001.
Televised debates could have made the parties engage with each other’s arguments. But they’re now very unlikely to happen. The Tories were never keen on having them. They thought that, given Cameron’s advantage over Miliband on leadership, they could only benefit from a television encounter if the Labour leader tripped over his shoelaces on stage. But the broadcasters have also mishandled the whole process by coming up with a seven party format for two of the debates that made next to no sense.
These different election campaigns in different parts of the United Kingdom will compound the fracturing of our politics. But they also highlight the fact we have no national party in our politics any more, no party that can be confident of competing the length and breadth of Britain. That is why no one is likely to win a majority.
The era of stable government is over
Join us on 23 March for a Spectator discussion on whether the era of stable government is over with Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Jeremy Browne MP, Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew Goodwin. The event will be chaired by Andrew Neil. In association with Seven Investment Management. For tickets and further information click here.