Voter volatility, party fortunes and the uncertainties of 2009


Like millions of others (some though choice, some through necessity) I am on holiday for two weeks. But I will keep posting. This week a theme will be the current party political scene. Next week I hope to ask what might be the key planks of a new progressive platform, built from the ruins of free market neo-liberal hegemony.

Surprisingly perhaps, the time when a social change is actually occurring may also be when it is least discussed. There is no shortage of speculation about future trends, and soon after something significant happens we start reading its history. But during change itself we can’t see the wood for the trees.

Thus it is with voter volatility. In the seventies and eighties the gradual abandonment by voters of family and class based loyalties was a much discussed topic. Labour’s advances into the newly emerging white collar class in the sixties and the Thatcher’s capturing of the southern working class were examples of a more complex and changeable electoral map.

Finding long term trends is made more difficult by the confounding variable of short term party fortunes. Memories can be short. When I first started paying attention to politics, in the late sixties and seventies, the assumption was that Labour and Conservative took it in turns to try (and fail) to arrest Britain’s economic decline. If the current crisis turns out to be the beginning of a longer term weakening of the UK’s performance perhaps we will go back to parties taking in turns to win elections.

After 18 years of Conservative Government and, at least, twelve years of Labour rule we have fallen into the habit of assuming that party fortunes ebb and flow in long tides. So when Gordon Brown was twenty five points behind last summer there was much talk of Labour being out of power for a generation.

But there can surely be no doubting the biggest political trend of the last eighteen months; voter volatility. Very few people predicted that Gordon Brown would get the bounce that took him to the verge of an early election in September ’07, virtually no one predicted that this would be followed just a few months later by Labour plumbing unprecedented depths in opinion polls and by-elections, and absolutely no one guessed that the one thing Brown needed to get him back into electoral contention was an economic recession. At present, not only do party standings vary hugely from poll to poll but there isn’t even agreement about the direction of change. Yesterday’s Observer put much emphasis on the Brown recovery, even though the day earlier a Telegraph-commissioned poll had the Conservative lead back up to a healthy eight points.

There could be several overlapping explanations for these wild swings. It might simply be that the Parties are well matched. Voters find it hard to like Brown but want his experience and perceived solidity in a crisis; Cameron is easier to get on with but isn’t convincing when events, not his spin doctors, are setting the agenda. Could it also be that both leaders are less appealing when they are on top and more impressive when they are in fight back mode?

But these factors only matter because so many voters are so willing so often to change their preferences. In the teeth of the most severe economic downturn for eighty years, despite the persistence of social need, with a world facing monumentous choices it seems we decide our party affiliations at a similar intellectual depth – but much less pleasure – than we opted for Tom Chambers over Rachel Stevens (given that Stevens had been the long term favourite, how long before a Number Ten spin doctors dubs Gordon Brown the Tom Chambers of party politics?)

Party strategists – always required to be upbeat in their public assessments – will tell you there is something more profound taking place below the surface. Conservatives believe that the desire for change and the antipathy to Gordon Brown are the fundamentals. Labour in contrast claims Brown has been rehabilitated while Cameron is only a couple of unconvincing performances short of becoming the Conservative Neil Kinnock; ‘just not up to the job, old boy’ as a Tory relative told me correctly predicting Labour’s 1992 debacle.

Having, arguably, had only two big pendulum swing between 1979 and 2006 (in 1982/3 and 1993/4) we have had three in the last eighteen months. Who is to say there won’t be more in the next eighteen months? No one can be sure who will win the next election, and all things considered, this is pretty good news for Labour.

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