No one wants to fight a national campaign. This will be the least general election in years

With each party uncompetitive in large parts of the country, expect a regionalised campaign in which leaders talk past one another

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

There’s normally an easy way to tell which party is losing a general election campaign. Whenever one side starts telling you to ignore the national polls and look at what is happening in certain key seats, it is a sure sign that they are in deep trouble. In this election, however, all the parties are arguing that what’s going on in their target seats matters more than the national polls.

No one is keener to dispute the relevance of the national polls than the Liberal Democrats. To demonstrate that they’ll still matter after the next election — particularly if there is another hung parliament — they’ve taken to sharing details of their own internal polling. The polls they’re sharing suggest that their vote is holding up far better in their own constituencies than it is nationally, where it is down to a single-figure percentage. If correct, the party’s research also indicates that the local popularity of their MPs should help them to hang on to more seats than expected — perhaps 30 or so.

But the Liberal Democrats are not alone in their efforts to focus attentions beyond the national polls. Members of the Labour shadow cabinet are quick to say that things are looking better in the English marginals than they dared hope, and that performance in these seats might compensate for their troubles in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Tories are keen to make sure we’re all keeping an eye on ‘the invisible campaign’, a strategy under which David Cameron made 26 regional visits last week. These stops might not have made the national news but they received plenty of local attention. The Tories hope that will help sway voters in their chosen locations. Indeed, the Conservatives have cunningly used the launch of their — or rather the government’s — long-term economic plan for each region to get acres of positive local coverage.

Why do all of the Westminster parties want people to look past national polls? Well, the first reason is that no one is going to win this election in the traditional sense of the word: it is highly unlikely that any party will have a working majority come 8 May. So the story that the polls tell doesn’t really suit anyone.

The second is that both main parties are aiming to grind out a result, winning seat by seat rather than with a decisive national swing. The Tories have put all their ministers on a campaign points system: one point for phone canvassing and bonuses for visits to marginal seats and going on ‘action days’ with volunteers. That ministers are being deployed in this rather demeaning manner tells you how crucial the Tories think their seat-by-seat campaign will be.

The third, but most important, reason for a regionalised approach is that this electionreally does look as if it will be more regionally divided than past ones. The campaign west of Bristol, which will be dominated by the two coalition parties, will be very different to the Labour-Tory fight in the West Midlands or the contest between the Ukip, the Tories and Labour around the Thames Estuary. And the Scottish campaign will be dominated by a party that isn’t even standing in the rest of the United Kingdom.

This is a product of Britain’s new political geography, where the main parties are simply not competitive in huge swaths of the country. Before entering government, the Liberal Democrats were trying to fill the gaps: becoming the opposition to Labour in the urban north and the Tories in the suburban south. But coalition has forced them to stop trying to ride two horses. Ukip has taken up this challenge of trying to become the national opposition party. But it is becoming an increasingly hard trick to pull off — in the digital age, it’s much easier for voters in one part of the country to spot that you’re telling a different story in another.

The consequence is that the national polls really are less useful than they once were. Of course, the campaign could become nationalised as it goes on. Some huge event — Greece leaving the euro, say, and the economic shocks that would follow — could come to dominate the debates. But at the moment there is no defining theme; the story most noticed by the voters so far is the HSBC tax evasion scandal, not any of the policies put forward by the parties.

The campaign has had such a bitty feel in part because the two main parties are deliberately talking past each other. The Tories want the debate to be about their long-term economic plan and leadership, while Labour wants voters to focus on the NHS and fairness. In both parties, senior figures have reservations about these approaches. They feel that if they don’t address voters’ concerns rather than just sticking to their favourite topics, they can’t win. But these voices have been drowned out by those who argue that the way to victory is to talk relentlessly about your own strengths and your opponents’ weaknesses. No party is going for the kind of full-spectrum dominance that New Labour achieved in 2001.

Televised debates could have made the parties engage with each other’s arguments. But they’re now very unlikely to happen. The Tories were never keen on having them. They thought that, given Cameron’s advantage over Miliband on leadership, they could only benefit from a television encounter if the Labour leader tripped over his shoelaces on stage. But the broadcasters have also mishandled the whole process by coming up with a seven party format for two of the debates that made next to no sense.

These different election campaigns in different parts of the United Kingdom will compound the fracturing of our politics. But they also highlight the fact we have no national party in our politics any more, no party that can be confident of competing the length and breadth of Britain. That is why no one is likely to win a majority.

The era of stable government is over

lpJoin us on 23 March for a Spectator discussion on whether the era of stable government is over with Matthew Parris, James Forsyth, Jeremy Browne MP, Vernon Bogdanor and Matthew Goodwin. The event will be chaired by Andrew Neil. In association with Seven Investment Management. For tickets and further information click here.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • WFB56

    Both Cameron and Milliband have imported Obama helpers – neither noticing that the US has serious ‘buyers remorse’ over the selection of Obama – so no one should be surprised that the strategy is focused on endless repetition of dogma. When will they roll out the Obama inanities and lies “We are the change we have been waiting for”, “If you like your Doctor you can keep your Doctor”, or the all-time classic on his election, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans begaan to slow and our planet began to heal”.

    These political consultants are wrong and their polls are wrong but as neither Ed nor Dave have any sense of purpose, policy or the people they can’t see beyond the skewed stats that they are being fed. The winning stragegy is one where you treat the voters as intelligent people – you only need this to be true for 40% to win – bypass the media and commentators and take your message to the people with the delivery systems you have – no, not Twitter and other vacuous social media methods – through the constructive use of your 650 candidates and the much maligned local associations.

    This is not a Presidential election and neither Dave nor Ed can “win it” running as though they want to be King. Either of their parties can win it based on a well considered platform with a disciplined team approach. This is not new, it has succeeded in hundreds of other parliamentary elections throughout the Commonwealth. Perhaps the UK needs to look beyond the US to relearn how to win a Parliamentary election.

    • rtj1211

      You just have to look to Scotland’s referendum to see that: 80%+ turnout after 18 months of engagement, including all those maligned town hall meetings, pamphleting, local campaigning and TV discussions. Whether you agreed with the decision or not, that was democracy in action……..

      Social media is where you make your own comments.

      If you actually want to engage with a politician, you need to get them to actually answer a question: that’s best done with them confined in the same space as you and unable to squirm out of answering it……..

  • Chris Hobson

    ukip are

  • AnotherDave

    The LDs claim Survation conducted their private polls. Survation have disowned them, and Lord Ashcroft has dismissed the LDs talk as ‘comfort polling’ to be ignored.

    The British Election Study say “the Liberal Democrats are clearly losing most in the seats where they started strongest and losing least where they started weakest.

    The implications for Liberal Democrat seats are straightforward. If they are indeed losing most heavily in the seats they are defending they are set to lose several more seats than national polls with uniform swing would predict.”


  • global city

    UKIP will be fighting a national cmpaign

  • Ukip is yesterdays news. They had their shot and they blew it. They sacrificed sustainable growth for short term media exposure without getting their act together to prepare for the media onslaught. Instead of being able to capitalise on the exposure and present themselves as a serious contender, the spotlight has a revealed a narcissistic sociopath surrounded by sycophants with no intellectual capital, no strategy and no policy to speak of, with no local campaigns and no issue focussed campaign wins to take to the bank. It’s a house built on sand.

    It cashed in all its chips to win the Northern BNP vote but it hasn’t managed to grow beyond it, nor can it because it has now gone up a cul-de-sac. The more it appeals to them, the less it appeals to everyone else. The glass ceiling. It is not a movement, more a loose coalition of misanthropes and losers, and beyond Farage is has no future because it has nothing to unite around and no leadership. It can stagnate and quietly die, but it can’t grow.

    All of this bilge here above is the Goodwin derived narrative, but the man only reads the numbers. He has no real political instincts, and he, like everyone else in the Tory bubble keeps mistaking Ukip for an actual party that will behave like one. But it makes a lot more sense if you view it as a playground gang with Farage as head bully. Viewed that way its easy to see why Ukip has nowhere to go. It’s losing every argument, and spends more time defending its reputation than it does advancing ideas and policies. I wouldn’t know how to build an effective movement because it has no talent in that regard.

    A movement will eventually pop up to challenge the establishment, but it won’t be Ukip. Ukip is a silly little cult that has squandered any chance it had. Meanwhile, the Greens discredited themselves even faster than Ukip, the Green surge is an illusion and we’re seeing a gradual reversion to a two horse race. Particularly since for the first time in a long while there are clear and obvious differences between Labour and the Tories. Northerners can’t stand Tories and if there is a danger of a Tory win, which there is, they will vote Labour same as always. The Referendum Party tanked just before the 97 election and the same will happen this time – and Ukip will go the way of the BNP.

    Ukip might just rearrange the order of losers, but in FPTP there are no prizes for second place. What’s really going to upset the applecart is the SNP. We might be drifting into the era of four party politics, but Ukip won’t be among them, and what happens between now and the 2020 election is really anybody’s guess.

    • MickC

      An interesting viewpoint.
      However I think the real point is that UKIP are going to take a lot of votes from both the Tories and Labour, but will damage the Tories gravely.
      The Tories simply cannot win in any conceivable scenario. They will then change or die.
      If the former they become UKIP, if the latter UKIP will replace them.

      • Just not going to happen. The media is caught up in its own claustrophobic narrative, but Ukip is spent.

        • Fraziel

          And yet they are likely to get around 5 million votes. I am curious as to how thats spent by anyones definition. They wont win many seats in the farcically undemocratic FPTP though, thats true.

    • Oddsbods

      Tell us again after the May election.

  • UnionJihack

    When there are no clear majorities then the solution is rather obvious. The two large parties must unite to survive. Not only must they unite to survive, they will need to unite to deliver their very same policy on the things that matter.

    1- energy policy, there is no real difference in outlook

    2- monetary policy, there is no real difference in outlook

    3- foreign policy, there never was any significant difference in outlook

    4- hang on to the FPTP system which legitimises their reign

    (give Zac a knighthood for babbling on about irrelevant recall)

  • evad666

    We need to make abuse by Muslim CSE gangs the one and only election issue.
    The range and scale of this is 3987 victims across 32 English towns and Cities at the latest count.
    This was ignored in 2005 and 2010 we need to get the law changed so those convicted no longer have the capability ever again then we need to deport them.
    The extended families should also be deported.
    This issue reached Parliament and was ignored to protect the political block votes.
    We should use the old Public Information title STRANGER DANGER and update it to:-
    Its Thanks to Labour
    Vote Lib,Lab,Con
    so it can carry on.