Nick Cohen

Evidence-based politics: the case of the incredible shrinking Tory Party

Evidence-based politics: the case of the incredible shrinking Tory Party
Text settings

Here is something those who rely on political commentators will not have expected to see. The latest poll from TNS BMRB has the Tories down to just a quarter of the vote: CON 25% (-2), LAB 40% (+3), LD 10% (nc), UKIP 14% (-3). The Opinium/Observer online poll had LAB 38, CON 28, UKIP 17, LD 8% at the weekend. YouGov for the Sunday Times on the same day had CON 30, LAB 40, LD 11, UKIP 13. (The Tories were just 1% above their low point with firm.)

How can this be? All these polls were taken during the raging welfare debate. Commentator after commentator wrote articles assuring us that Labour was on the wrong side of public opinion, and the Tories had at last found an issue that would move the voters their way. Unanimity gripped the punditocracy. Attitudes to welfare had hardened, they said; and, indeed, they were right about that. Cameron and Osborne had Labour where they wanted it, they continued; and the panicked reaction of the Labour leadership suggested they had a point there too. As Belloc might have said, when it came to welfare cuts

The stocks were sold; the Press was squared:

The Middle Class was quite prepared.

But, however good they were as essayists, the pundits made pretty poor reporters. The evidence does not show any surge in Tory support, quite the contrary in fact. If readers or conservatively-inclined journalists want to look for comfort they can say that at some point in the future the Tories will profit from the welfare debate – although I suspect that as cases of decent working people losing money and homes multiply the government’s position will weaken. Perhaps they can look at the large share of the vote UKIP is collecting in the polling figures, and speculate that it will go to the Tories at a general election. Maybe they can criticise the polling companies, and say they’ve overstated Labour support in the past, although they did not get it so wrong in 2010.

But all these arguments are predictions, often wishful predictions. I have always said that it’s difficult enough for a journalist to find out what is happening and impossible for him or her to know what will happen. We are reporters not clairvoyants. The evidence shows that while a large section of the public want to cut welfare payments to the undeserving, it does not like it at all when Conservatives propose doing just that. (Or if that is too strong, does not like it enough to tell opinion pollsters that they will vote Conservative as a result.)

The old line about the voters liking Tory policies until they find out that they are the policies of the Tory party still holds. To use language that would give the editor every right to take me outside and shoot me, the Conservatives still have not “decontaminated their brand”. If I were a Tory I would be worried. They have had what was meant to be one of their best weeks in months, and there is no evidence that it has done them any good whatsoever.