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Tuesday, December 15, 2009 

The ghost of Labour future.

For a pre-budget report that was pretty much universally disparaged, especially by both the Sun and the Daily Mail, the opinion poll returns have been far better than Labour can have expected. Not that a 9-point lead for the Conservatives is going to result in fevered discussion about a March election, as the media, clutching at straws for news as we wind slowly but inexorably towards Christmas, seems so certain that it both has and will.

One explanation for Labour's improved showing is, as almost always happens when an election is no longer just a distant thought but a fast approaching reality is that those who have previously flirted with changing their vote are returning, tail between their legs, to the one they know best. Having led in what should be the rock solid Labour north back in October, the Conservatives have now fallen back to a far less significant 28% support, compared to Labour's 44. The difficulty for Labour is that the marginals, key as we are so often reminded to who will be taking or retaking up residence in Downing Street next spring/summer, are often fought on battles which have little to nothing to do with the national message which the party is pushing. As Political Betting suggests, in the ones where it's a straight fight between Labour and the Tories, they will in effect be referendums on 4 to 5 more years of Labour rule, not to mention Gordon Brown himself, with specific policies being a secondary concern to general feeling.

Another is that the Conservative performance of late, while hardly catastrophic, has not exactly been setting the world on fire either. While few will probably have noticed Cameron's cock-up at prime minister's questions a few weeks back when he rather bizarrely attacked the prime minister on money being given to a educational charity linked to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, not the most populist of subjects on which to focus and got the details wrong, coupled with the also poor performance of George Osborne in response to the PBR, Zac Goldsmith's tax status, the biting attacks from Labour on Tory tax policy being drawn up on the fields of Eton and the constant character assassination from the Daily Mirror, equivalent to that which Brown has been subject to from the Sun, things have not been going their way. The claims of class war, taken up by certain parts of the press, have not made much of a dent, probably because anyone with the slightest amount of digging can see through them. While Osborne attacked the raising of national insurance for anyone earning over £20,000 a year as Labour abandoning anyone outside their core, the party itself has been assessing whether to raise VAT should they come to power, hitting the poorest directly in their pocket when they spend.

Brown meanwhile, while his personal ratings remain desperately poor, has been having a better time of it. Ever since the Sun personally attacked him over the letter of condolence sent to Jacqui Janes, which won him overwhelming sympathy, things have gradually been improving. Afghanistan, which looked for a time to be potentially becoming as toxic for Brown as Iraq was for Blair, has been somewhat lanced, thanks partly to the Obama "surge" change in strategy and also to the army itself not being in apparent mutiny over government drift, while politicians as a whole must be somewhat relieved that last week's latest expenses revelations seem to have been a damp squib rather than inspiring outright revolt as the slow drip-drip from the Daily Telegraph did earlier in the year. The general piss-poor nature of the Queen's speech, with legislation to neither outrage or nor inspire, has added to the benign nature.

While it must be something of a concern to the Cameroons that their lead is 10 points below New Labour's at Christmas 1996, there was always likely to be a narrowing of the lead. The real problem is that while Labour won 3% more of the vote in 2005 and got a majority of 67, the Tories can win by 9% as in the current poll and still only get a majority of four seats. The money must still be on a comfortable Conservative win, but that continuing spectre of a hung parliament also refuses to stop looming. That still no one is showing any great enthusiasm for a Conservative victory, certainly nothing that even begins to equate with that of the Labour victory in 97, perhaps suggests that maybe it is time for the Liberal Democrats to at least have a sniff of power. Whether they get it or not might well depend on just how much Cameron motivates from now on and how little Brown alienates.

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