Despite apparently momentous recent events – riots, scandals, and economic turmoil – the polls seem to be stuck. For most of this year, Labour have hovered a few points above the Conservatives, who seem to float around the 37 per cent vote share they received at the general election. This is not a bad achievement for David Cameron, considering some of the decisions the Government has had to make. But to get an overall majority at the next election, the Tory vote is going to have to do more than just hold firm.
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What do Cameron and his party, meeting for their conference in Manchester this week, need to do to expand what I call the Conservative voting coalition and put themselves in a position where they could win outright, without having to rely on the Liberal Democrats? My latest polling offers some clues.
Among those who voted Conservative at the general election, support is solid. If anything, it is getting firmer. The proportion of 2010 Tory voters staying with the party who give Cameron very high marks for his performance has actually increased over the course of the year, and the Prime Minister remains easily the highest-rated of the three party leaders.
This leadership factor is critically important. Ed Miliband last week tried to dismiss my recent research on leadership, which found many voters find him rather ‘weird’. He said that substance was what mattered, but that’s beside the point — even if he does offer substance (which many doubt), voters will only consider it if they take him seriously enough to listen.
A few of last year’s Conservative voters have switched parties, but they have been replaced by former Labour and Lib Dem supporters. The main thing these new supporters have in common is that they think the Tories have the best approach to the economy – in fact, I found that former Labour voters who think the Conservatives are the best party on the economy were 157 times as likely to have switched as those who do not.
Crucially, for the Tories to win the argument on the economy – the key factor in attracting new voters – they need to do more than convince people they are right about the deficit. Existing Tory voters agree that tackling Britain’s huge debts is a priority, and are more relaxed about cuts (though, inevitably, people tend to think cuts that affect other people are necessary and unavoidable, while those that affect them personally are too deep and too quick).
The voters the Tories need to win over, though, tend to see the deficit as just one of several important things that need to be tackled. Many voters feel that policy decisions in all areas are being driven by an overriding focus on austerity, perhaps to the detriment of the economy in general. People believe the NHS is subject to cuts, despite the Government saying its budget is protected, and they are still unclear as to how the Coalition’s health service reforms are intended to benefit patients.
Though they hoped and expected this Government would be tougher on law and order, they do not understand how it hopes to tackle crime more effectively given the impending cuts to police numbers. They also want to know that the Conservatives are delivering on their pre-election promise to control immigration. Most of all, voters are more concerned about getting the economy growing and creating jobs, and here they think the Conservatives have less to say than they do about the deficit. For those who did not vote Conservative in 2010, this combines with a suspicion that the Tory Party is not really for people like them, which prevents them switching to Cameron.
Voters see a cloud of uncertainty about the prospects for Britain, not just for the next year or two but for decades to come. People’s anxieties about the economy go beyond job security to concerns about pensions and their children’s chances of getting a good job or owning a home. It is not that people are simply pessimistic — they just do not know how things are going to turn out.
The eurozone debt crisis adds to this uncertainty. Most think Britain could never get itself into the same kind of mess as Greece (we could never be so profligate and irresponsible), though the situation prompts some relief that their own Government seems committed to living within its means.
When it comes to policies for running Britain’s economy in a global crisis, the complexity of the problem is such that many voters would admit they barely understand the questions, let alone the answers. People find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to hope the Government knows what it is doing.
For now, this works in the Government’s favour — not least because most undecided voters do not think Labour offers any credible alternative. But many people would feel rather more reassured, and rather more inclined to back the Tories, if they felt that tackling the deficit was part of a bigger plan to boost the economy and improve life in Britain.