Back in the Race: Could Labour Seize a Surprise Election Victory? Cabinet Ministers and Pollsters Reveal How the Party's Long-Term Strategy Is Beginning to Work

By Hasan, Mehdi; Macintyre, James | New Statesman (1996), March 8, 2010 | Go to article overview

Back in the Race: Could Labour Seize a Surprise Election Victory? Cabinet Ministers and Pollsters Reveal How the Party's Long-Term Strategy Is Beginning to Work


Hasan, Mehdi, Macintyre, James, New Statesman (1996)


On Christmas Eve 2009, Labour's election coordinator, Douglas Alexander, hurried down to Oxford Street to buy presents for his children. The previous night, he had handed over the party's secret campaign plan to Gordon Brown. The 20-page document had been worked on by Alexander and the pollster Philip Gould since the start of December.

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Each night after work, Alexander the "Brownite" and Gould the "Blairite" would meet to review the past three elections, analyse the polls and comb through Labour's internal focus-group research. Often their conversations would continue over the phone into the early hours of the morning.

The plan had been signed off by Peter Mandelson, the Deputy Prime Minister in all but name. The aim was to start 2010 with a strong attack on the Tories' economic credibility, hence Alistair Darling's 4 January offensive exposing the Tories' [pounds sterling]34bn spending gap. It was to be the start of a concerted fightback that would revive Labour's chances in an electoral race from which it had been written off.

What was not expected was that the Conservatives would start to make so many mistakes, from the much-mocked airbrushed posters of David Cameron to gaffes on crime figures and teenage pregnancy statistics. "What we have seen since the start of the year is the Tories' glass jaw on policy, which surprised even us," says Alexander. "Eight weeks on, and there are still questions they can't answer. The Tories are still impaled on a contradiction between their branding and their beliefs. The public are now seeing that they have changed their branding but not their beliefs."

Commentators, on both the left and the right, have long assumed that the Tories under David Cameron were on course for an easy victory and a sizeable majority. Labour would get "well and truly thumped" in the general election, Matthew d'Ancona declared in the Telegraph in July 2009. "Brown is leading Labour to a landslide defeat that will take ten, maybe 15 years to recover from," wrote Nick Cohen for Standpoint magazine in January. Brown, as Jackie Ashley conceded in the Guardian on 28 February, had been "written off by Westminster and almost all columnists, including this one, as a dead man walking".

Almost all, indeed. One or two of us have long argued that a Tory victory is not inevitable, that the party is not as "progressive" or liberal as Cameron would wish us to believe. In a New Statesman article of 22 June 2009 entitled "Cameron's wobble", we referred to the Tories' "precarious electoral position" and pointed out: "If ... the Brown government can concentrate the country's attention on public services and public spending, Labour may well still stand a fighting chance of a hung parliament at next year's general election." Labour, we concluded, was "down but not out. And it should be repeated: the Tories have yet to seal the deal with the British electorate."

Our judgements were based not only on an instinct that Cameron had not done enough to "modernise" his party, but on a hard-headed analysis of the facts. Ten months on, these facts have not changed. To secure a single-seat majority in the Commons, the Tories need to gain 117 seats on a 7.5 per swing. The former has not been done since 1931; the latter, as Michael Heseltine has acknowledged, has been bettered only once since the Second World War--in the New Labour landslide of 1997. Crucially, as the founder of MORI, Bob Worcester, has pointed out, to secure a basic majority the Tories need to capture a 40 per cent share of the vote.

Meanwhile, recent research carried out by the YouGov president, Peter Kellner, suggests that Cameron's Conservatives must win 80 seats more than Labour in order to win the next election--more than Margaret Thatcher's 70-seat lead over Labour in 1979. Since the end of the 19th century, the Conservatives have only once defeated an incumbent government that had a working majority in parliament-40 years ago, in 1970, in a surprise victory under Ted Heath. …

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