Skim the political news – or brace yourself and watch some of festival of braying adults that is PMQs – and you could easily think that British politics is primarily a contest between Cameron and Miliband, Conservative and Labour, to be top dog.
You could – and you would be wrong. It’s a diversion from where the real action is.
The real political contest is both elsewhere and not one single contest. It is not about Conservative versus Labour, except by incidental outcome.
One clue as to where the real contests lie is in Britain’s political geography, as I pointed out just before the last election:
In fact, despite the national attention on Labour versus Conservative, only a minority of constituencies are Labour versus Conservative battles. Just slightly over half – by just a whisker, but still a majority – of constituencies have one of the other parties in first or second place, or are three way marginals (taking the Thrasher and Rallings list of three-way marginals, which is in fact slightly cautious in its classification).
The precise seat count numbers have changed a little since then, but the overall picture – as the Eastleigh by-election is currently reminding us – is the same. The next general election is not primarily about direct Conservative versus Labour battles, but about other contests which then incidentally give a Cosnervative versus Labour outcome.
Even in those Parliamentary seats which look to be Labour against Tory, the real contest is elsewhere. Take the situation for Labour. Up in the polls since 2010, yet hardly winning over any Conservative voters. Instead, its ups and downs in the polls are primarily to do with Labour versus apathy, Labour versus unhappiness over its record in government and Labour versus Liberal Democrats:
Research by the New Fabian Society finds just 400,000 voters have moved from Conservatives to Labour since the last election which, if unchanged on polling day, would mean Labour had made only tiny inroads into Tory heartlands…
The research was based on months of detailed analysis of a YouGov poll that charted new ground by looking at the voting intentions of people who did not vote in 2010. It found that an estimated 1.4 million people who did not vote at the last election now say that they intend to vote Labour. This has helped increase Labour’s rating in the polls by around 5% and could represent around another 40 seats.
Many of these 2010 “no-showers”, the study says, are likely to be former Labour voters who became disillusioned with the party in its latter years in office. It also deduces that Labour has won over some 2.3 million voters who chose the Lib Dems in 2010.
The issue for the Conservatives is slightly different, and features the challenge of UKIP rather more and motivating its supporters to vote rather less, but the flip side of that research applies just as much: the Conservative problem is not having lost votes in large numbers to Labour.
(A similar picture is also true for the Liberal Democrats as both my own polling analysis showed earlier in the Parliament and the Lord Ashcroft poll in the Eastleigh by-election also demonstrated. Liberal Democrat 2010 voters have switched, in varying proportion to don’t know, won’t vote and Labour. Winning over the don’t knows and won’t votes is central to the party’s fortunes.)
So for all the talk about politics being Cameron versus Miliband and Conservative versus Labour, remember – that is only the incidental outcome of a myriad of other contests. And all the more so if you are in Scotland or Wales.
It’s those other contests that are the ones that will determine the outcome of the next election, not the Punch and Judy show that is Labour versus Conservative played out in our media.