Are the Conservatives recovering ground?

A recent opinion poll places the Tories level with Labour for the first time in over a year, markedly improving the chances of a Conservative majority in 2015.

The conventional wisdom over the last few months has been that Prime Minister David Cameron’s party don’t stand a chance of gaining a parliamentary majority at the next general election. A flatlining economy and lingering suspicions over the Conservatives’ perceived links to the wealthy have manifested themselves in a Labour lead of between five and ten points, depending on which poll you trust. This is despite data consistently indicating that Cameron as a leader is more popular than Ed Miliband, and that the Tories generally are more trusted on the economy.

Of late, however, the tide appears to have been turning, and this has now been backed up by the latest ICM survey for the Guardian newspaper. The poll demonstrates that, based on a sample of 1003 adults, Labour and the Tories are neck-and-neck in terms of voting intentions on 36 percentage points. This constitutes a seven-point month-on-month increase for the Conservatives; support for the Labour opposition, meanwhile, is unchanged. The big losers are UKIP, down five percentage points to 7% – a far cry from the party’s projected support only a couple of months ago. What should we make of all of this?

The first thing to note is that this apparent change in the political landscape is not attributable to a drop in support for Miliband’s party. The fact that Labour voting intentions have not altered in the last month suggests that the electorate does not care about the current trade union scandal, whereby Unite bosses stand accused of rigging Labour parliamentary candidate lists. The explanation does not lie to the left of UK politics.

Rather, it seems more likely that central to the resurgence in Conservative fortunes is the economy. Chancellor George Osborne indicated his willingness in 2010 to live or die by his economic policy – in light of the financial crisis it is the single pivotal issue on which the 2015 election will be fought. For three years, in light of weak confidence and stagnating GDP figures, this boldness seemed misguided. But green shoots are belatedly appearing – recent figures relating to consumer and business confidence, the dominant services sector and manufacturing have all been promising. While the Eurozone lurches from one near-disaster to the next, afflicted by high deficits, record unemployment levels and social unrest, UK growth forecasts have been revised upwards by national agencies and the IMF. The Conservatives have long been confident that an upturn in the UK’s fortunes will swing the opinion polls in their favour. This is with good reason – voters have been slow to forget Labour’s disastrous economic legacy, and have greater trust in the Tories’ ability to look after the nation’s finances.

The second major factor behind the Conservatives’ recovery is their repair of the right-wing vote. A few months ago, with Cameron appearing hesitant on the EU and local elections approaching (traditionally an arena for mass protest votes), UKIP were flying high in the polls, and many Tory figures worried that Nigel Farage would steal some of their politicians, much of their support and split the right. With the Lib Dems dead and buried and the left-wing vote heavily weighted in favour of Labour this could have led to a comfortable Labour majority. The story, however, is now very different. The Conservatives have been tough on welfare, restricting access to non-UK nationals in the recent spending review and rolling out their £26,000 household cap this week. They have also been tough on Europe, sponsoring a private member’s bill seeking to enshrine in law Cameron’s commitment to holding an in/out referendum in 2017. With the local elections now behind us, these factors have caused a dramatic slump in UKIP support. The Tories have regained the right of UK politics.

Although other polls continue to show a Labour lead Miliband has reasons to be worried. The fact that the ICM survey was for the Guardian newspaper – comfortably the most left-leaning UK broadsheet – means that its indication of a Conservative resurgence can be trusted. More importantly, the Tories increasingly appear to be the party most attuned to public opinion. A comfortable majority favours Cameron’s welfare cap, placing Miliband in an awkward position because traditionally his party would have firmly opposed such a concept. While Cameron has now set out his EU policy, pledging to hold a referendum after an attempted renegotiation of power balances, Miliband still appears vague and unclear on the topic. If the nation’s finances continues to improve, bringing into sharper focus the public’s economic distrust of Labour, a Conservative majority will no longer appear quite so far out of the question.

Alex Rickets

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