As the phony election campaign drags on -and on- a huge number of new pollsters from around the world are descending like flies onto the carcass of the 54th Parliament of the United Kingdom. Polls are being published on a daily interval. Like many things these days it seems to be a case of a lot of data but very little information. We still don't feel that we have a very strong sense of what the result of the vote is going to be. Mostly, this is a function of the way the current electoral system warps the result, so that topping the popular vote does not necessarily mean having the largest number of MPs.
Nevertheless the polls are becoming consistent in a few features: Labour is behind- sometimes, it appears, substantially behind- the Conservatives. The Tories are consistently polling at above a third of the electorate, while the Labour Party consistently polls below this, and sometimes not much more than a quarter of the vote. Indeed the pattern is so consistent for so long, it is hard to read the runes in any other way than to forecast that Labour are headed for a thumping the like of which they have not seen since the 1980s.
However, there is another factor to consider, and this is what is making the overall outcome apparently unpredictable. The 1950s saw the two party system reach its zenith, with high turn outs and over 90% voting either Conservative or Labour. It was at this time that we could talk of governments gaining a majority- i.e. more than 50% of the vote- rather than, as now, a plurality- i.e. merely being the largest party. Indeed the fall in support for either Conservative or Labour is one of the most consistent changes over the course of the last ten elections. This is where the distortions of the electoral system become most obvious. Margaret Thatcher could gain a Parliamentary majority of 43 on a vote of 43.9% in 1979. In 1997, however, Tony Blair could get a Parliamentary majority of 179 on just a slightly smaller share of the vote, 43.2%. Indeed in 2005, Mr. Blair could still hold a larger Parliamentary majority- of 67- than Margaret Thatcher gained in 1979, on only 35.3% of the vote.
All of which is to say that the proportion of the vote matters less than the distribution. In Scotland, the Liberal Democrats do proportionately much better than the Conservatives, because the Liberal Democrat vote has historically been concentrated into certain regions, while that of the Conservatives is more evenly disseminated across the country.
So where is this leading?
Well, although many opinion polls should be taken with a whole cart load of salt, it does mean that there comes a critical point where parties can either win or lose a large number of seats on very small changes in the overall vote. There is the possibility that Labour may be in danger of getting into this position now. Although the surprise of the phony campaign has been how resilient Labour has been in the face of the multiple economic heart attacks now afflicting the UK, the story of the campaign itself could be remarkably different.
A reason for this is that one recent, but consistent, trend in the polls is that it looks very much like the Liberal Democrats are going to enter the 2010 campaign at virtually the same level as they finished the 2005 general election: 22.1%. Why is this significant? Firstly, the party nearly always benefits from the greater exposure that fair broadcasting rules allow it once the official campaign gets under way. The fact is that this election we will finally see debates between the party leaders with the Liberal Democrats getting equal billing with Labour and Conservatives. This can only benefit the Liberal Democrats- short of some unlikely utter debacle- simply by showing Nick Clegg to the British electorate in the same light as his party political rivals, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
So, if the Lib Dems enter the campaign roughly where they finished in 2005, then the party can look forward to an increased level of voter support in 2010. This is not what punters have been forecasting ever since Charles Kennedy was forced to step down just over four years ago.
That begins to make the General Election of 2010 very interesting indeed. The party high command has been extremely astute about the way in which the inevitable "hung Parliament" question- who would you support?- has been finessed. The majority of commentators still cling to the 1950s idea that the ideological battle in British politics ultimately comes down to a choice between old left and old right. They assume that the Liberal Democrats are centrist in this battle, but spend most of their time trying to get an answer to the forced choice question: "are you closer to left or right?". They generally do not understand that the answer is "neither": we oppose the very basis of the question, and with it the two party system that it has created. By saying that -in any event- the choice lies with the voters, not the parties, the Liberal Democrats can now move on to actually discussing why their policies are better- which is what the forced choice question has always stopped them from doing before.
Socialism as a political ideology is bankrupt and has been since at least the end of the Cold War. Tony Blair was only able to win power for his party because he transformed it from being a labour movement representing trade unions to being a vaguely progressive coalition of different social movements. The combination of his own failures in office, not least the Iraq war- and the later advent of Gordon Brown, whose sympathies remained more Socialist, has meant the breakdown of the Blair coalition. Those votes are up for grabs. This is why David Cameron has attempted, only partially successfully, to appeal to former members of Blair's progressive coalition. The problem is that the Conservative brand- indeed the Cameron background- remains unpopular with large parts of the former Blair coalition. It is not the issue of being public school educated- everyone knew that Tony Blair went to Fettes. It is the attitudes of afterwards, and the disconnect between the "Bullingdon" issues plus the Cameron PR background which makes many voters doubt the sincerity of Mr. Cameron's "New Man" credentials (which is why the apparent air-brushing in his poster was such a catastrophe).
So, in fact the 2010 election is turning into a real thriller. Socialism is dead, Brown a liability. Yet Cameron is still seen as insincere and the Conservatives no longer have the novelty interest that they had. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats vote share could get to the point where they make major rapid progress against both parties, but particularly against Labour.
On the eve of the campaign itself, after the absurd months of the phony campaign, the party is in good heart and ready for the fight. The feedback we are getting from our most winnable seats across the country is very positive. The organisation is in generally very good shape, and money and support is flowing in to the party at an historically high level.
The result could even be beyond our wildest hopes.