Will the Tories, as before, stage an eleventh-hour recovery and snatch victory from Labour's grasp? Ivor Crewe thinks not
Last week's emphatic Labour win in the prosperous, middle England Staffordshire Southeast would seem to confirm that the Government is doomed to defeat at the next election. The result adds to the Conservatives' series of devastating byelection losses on exceptional swings and validates recent national polls which consistently put Labour ahead of the Conservatives by a massive 55 to 29 per cent.
However, Conservative governments always slump in popularity between elections. They always get trounced in byelections and plummet in the polls. But as the general election approaches they always recover. The economy turns up, interest rates fall, credit expands, consumption booms and voters feel better off. The Tory tabloids drum up support and twist the knife into Labour. Primordial party loyalties reassert themselves and with a last-minute spurt the Conservatives get back in (winning back all those by-election losses). The 1983 Thatcher government recovered 19 percentage points in the 12 months before the 1987 election; the 1987 Thatcher/Major government recovered 15 percentage points in the two years before the 1992 election.
Time is running out for the Government but the next election is still as much as a year away. How likely is a repeat of the 1987 and 1992 recoveries? The answer depends on whether this mid-term slump is a mere repeat of previous electoral cycles or reflects an enduring change in the electorate's mood.
A number of significant differences between the electoral slump of this Government and those of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s strongly suggest that any recovery in Conservatives' fortunes will be too modest and sluggish to win the election.
The first difference is, quite simply, the unprecedented depth of this Government's unpopularity. Every measure tells the same story: previous governments, whether Conservative or Labour, did not haemorrhage anything like as much support in their worst periods as this Government has over the past three years. The Conservatives' 28 per cent share of the vote in the 1994 Euro-elections was the poorest performance of any British government in a nationwide election since the 1920s; their (estimated) 25 per cent share in last year's local elections was worse still. Before 1992, the record for the lowest "approval rating" in the Gallup poll was held by Wilson's 1966-70 Labour government - an average of 21 per cent in 1968, the year after devaluation. The average approval ratings for this Government have been 14 per cent in 1993, 12 per cent in 1994, 13 per cent in 1995. This unpopularity extends to John Major. Before 1992 the most disliked prime minister was Margaret Thatcher, whose average "satisfaction rating" fell to 29 per cent in 1990 - the year of the poll tax and her downfall. John Major's ratings, however, pale in comparison: 23 per cent in 1993, 21 per cent in 1994, 23 per cent in 1995. The current mood of the electorate is wholly exceptional. Not since the war, probably not this century, has disaffection with a government run so deep.
This mid-term slump differs from its predecessors in a second way: it has lasted much longer. The typical pattern is for a governmental crisis (Profumo, Westland) or policy fiasco (Suez, devaluation, poll tax) to trigger a sharp three-to-six month drop in government popularity before steady recovery sets in. This Government was holed below decks by Black Wednesday, on September 15 1992, when Britain was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, since when it has remained on the sea bed, only to get more deeply mired after Tony Blair was elected Labour leader in July 1994. Before 1992, no government saw its support fall below 33 per cent for more than nine consecutive months. This Government's voting support has remained consistently and substantially below 33 per cent for the past three and a half years. The slump looks permanent.
These statistics describe rather than explain the exceptional depth and duration of the Government's unpopularity. Given the strength of the economy an explanation is needed. Since the war, an upswing in the economy has meant - sooner rather than later - an upswing for the government. The British economy has steadily recovered over the past two years and is now in good shape. Inflation and interest rates are at their lowest for 30 years; unemployment has steadily fallen for two years to half the European rate; growth exceeds the postwar average. Yet support for the Government remains at rock bottom. Britain is undergoing its first "voteless recovery". Why?
For economic recovery to translate into electoral recovery, two additional conditions are needed: first, voters must experience the recovery and expect it to continue (the feel good factor); second, they must give the government the credit. Neither is happening, because this economic recovery is quite different from the recoveries of the 1970s and 1980s. Peter Spencer and John Curtice have pointed out that past upswings in the economy were accompanied by increases in overtime and bonuses which increased workers' income and signalled job security. This recovery, however, is marked by short-term contracts, productivity increases and longer hours. Workers experience more job stress, less job security, and static or only modestly rising money wages. They are therefore spending less and saving more.
Previous economic upturns were accompanied by consumption and property booms, generated by rising wages, inflation and easier credit. The resulting "wealth illusion" reinforced economic optimism. This upturn has created a "poverty illusion" and reinforced economic pessimism. Over the past year pessimists have outnumbered optimists in the electorate, despite the recovery; in the year preceding the 1992 election, optimists outnumbered pessimists, despite the recession.
Even if last November's tax cuts, building society handouts and maturing Tessas put enough money into voters' pockets to make them feel good, (or, more likely, feel not so bad) it is far from certain that voters will thank the Government. The fourth difference between this and previous mid-term slumps is the collapse of confidence in the Conservatives' reputation for economic competence. Ever since the booming 1950s the Conservatives have benefited from this priceless electoral asset: whatever the state of the economy, however disliked their specific policies, they were trusted more than Labour to manage the economy. That reputation was crippled by the devaluation of Black Wednesday and killed by the fuel tax and tax rises of 1993 and 1994.
Why have this Government's economic and fiscal mishaps been so much more damaging in voters' eyes than the equally dismal record of its predecessors? The Thatcher governments were protected in two ways. First, as a united government, virtually free from scandal, led by a decisive prime minister with a clear if controversial sense of purpose, it gave the impression of governing capably, which partly mollified voters' reaction to the economic record. The current Government appears by contrast to be weakly led, deeply divided, beset by scandal and lacking direction. Second, the governments of the 1980s had credible excuses: the 1980-82 recession could be blamed on the world economy and the previous Labour government; the poll tax could be pinned on profligate Labour councils; John Major even succeeded in convincing voters that the 1989-92 recession was Thatcher's fault, not his. This Government, however, has no alibis. In the three months before the 1992 election voters preferred the Conservatives over Labour as economic managers by a margin of 42 to 31 and only 5 per cent blamed John Major's government for the economic recession; in 1995, notwithstanding the recovery, 67 per cent blamed the Government for the country's economic difficulties and voters preferred Labour as the economic managers by a margin of 48 to 21.
A party's image and reputation largely depend on the media; and the fifth unusual feature of this mid-term slump is the role of the Conservative press. Not since the anti-appeasement campaign of the late 1930s has the right-wing press turned with such venom against a Conservative prime minister, whether out of Euroscepticism or revivalist Thatcherism; only the Express papers loyally supported Major when he stood for re-election as party leader last summer. The biggest anti-Conservative swings since 1992 have occurred among readers of the anti-Major Conservative press, especially the Tory tabloids.
The Conservatives owe their desperate electoral position not only to their record and divisions but to the transformation of the Labour party under Tony Blair. Although Kinnock began and Smith continued to modernise the Labour party, it is Blair's successful acceleration of the process that has enabled Labour to increase and sustain its huge electoral lead.
The lesson of Labour's defeat in 1992 was that despite the party's policy review, professional public relations and marginalisation of the left, it was still widely mistrusted as a party of government. It could change its policies, leaders and slogans; but it could not change its history.
Blair's aim is to persuade the public that Old Labour is dead and buried. He has removed the symbols of Old Labour, notably clause four and the trade unions' privileged constitutional position within the party. He has ostentatiously ditched almost all Old Labour policies: tax-and-spend, universal welfare, renationalisation. He has expunged Old Labour vocabulary: his speech at last year's Labour conference referred to "socialism" once, the "working class" not at all, but "country" 18 times and "new Britain" 14 times. His mission to re-invent the Labour party is helped by his background. Brought up in a (Conservative-voting) professional family, educated at Scotland's premier public school and Oxford, a committed Christian, never involved in left-wing causes, or a trade union member or a local councillor - there is nothing in his personal or political history to remind the voter of the old Labour party.
Blair's success has been mainly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats but has enabled Labour to widen its lead over the Conservatives. Following his election as leader, Labour's poll lead jumped from 22 points (Con 26, Lab 48, Lib Dem 21) to 33 points (Con 23, Lab 56, Lib Dem 16), where it has virtually remained. Byelections in Conservative seats reveal a similar pattern: when Smith was leader the Liberal Democrats mopped up the anti-Conservative vote wherever Labour was the third party; since Blair was leader (or leader presumptive) third-placed Labour candidates have improved their vote by substantially more than the better placed Liberal Democrat in Eastleigh and Littleborough and Saddleworth and the better placed Scottish Nationalist in Perth and Kinross. New Labour has captured a sizeable portion of the centre vote.
Blair's radical transformation of the Labour party has produced a quite separate electoral benefit: in the public's eyes it has turned him into a "strong leader". Blair's edge over Major as a potential prime minister is much larger than Smith's was. When polls ask respondents to compare the two leaders' characteristics, the two emerge as equally likeable, but Blair wins hands down on leadership - as decisive, effective, competent and tough. The pattern is the reverse of the 1980s when Kinnock was liked for his human qualities but Thatcher was respected for her leadership. Blair is Labour's Thatcher.
Current politics contains one further new feature which favours Labour: the electoral system. Thanks to the superior homework, discipline and advocacy of local Labour parties, the boundary changes coming into effect will benefit the Conservatives by a mere five seats and not the 20 expected. Urban depopulation and the statutory overrepresentation of Scotland and Wales means that Labour represents smaller constituencies then the Conservatives; in addition they are helped by the accidental distribution of marginal seats. In combination these factors produce a substantial pro-Labour bias. If the swing is uniform across constituencies (or deviations are self cancelling) and the Liberal Democrat vote stays about the same (18 per cent), a dead heat in the popular vote would return 15 more Labour than Conservative MPs and put Labour into office. Indeed the Conservatives could be 2 per cent ahead in the national vote and yet have fewer MPs than Labour. To obtain an overall majority Labour needs a mere 1 per cent lead in the vote whereas the Conservatives would need a 7 per cent lead.
None of these new factors makes a Labour landslide inevitable, or a Conservative meltdown remotely likely. If a week is a long time in politics, a year is an eternity. The Conservative press will revert to type; some economic optimism will return; Conservative party loyalties will resurface. The Government's fortunes will revive - a bit. Yet it is difficult to envisage how they can revive sufficiently to retain office for a fifth term. Only John Major, it seems, still believes that they can; and he has to.
Ivor Crewe is the vice chancellor and professor of government at the University of Essex.