Last week saw the Conservatives hold their annual conference. Like the Labour and UKIP conferences before them, there was a marked move towards their core supporter base, a move I for one applaud in all three cases (and I hope the Lib Dems follow the trend).
Having first become politically aware in the 1980’s, I look forward to an election like those of my youth, where the choices were clear and the policies made on the basis of conviction not focus groups. The past two year has seen the passing of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn, two of the giants of politics during the past half century. Love them or hate them, neither Benn nor Thatcher could ever be accused of being wishy-washy in their politics.
In these terms, David Cameron scores higher than either Ed Miliband or Nigel Farage. While the latter two made speeches that they were clearly aimed at the faithful, both were rather long on rhetoric and rather short policies, especially those policies that might appeal more to the core than to the middle ground. In comparison, the Tories policies such as increasing the threshold for the 40% tax band and focusing the burden of deficit reduction on working age benefits are certainly lines in the sand.
Now while I don’t doubt for one minute that this approach by Messrs Cameron, Osborne et al was driven by a desire to win back voters who are flirting with UKIP, this is likely to have a number of consequences on election day. UKIP’s past record on producing coherent policies is up there with Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights. UKIP, like the Scottish Nationalists in the recent referendum vote, appeal to voters’ emotions, some pretty base emotions, and while these get the blood pumping on the campaign trail, quite frequently cooler heads prevail at the ballot box, something that the Tories are likely to benefit from.
The big question for senior Tories however, is whether the gains on this front will outweigh any negative impact such an approach has on floating voters and those who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010. Like Labour, the Tories conference speeches suggest that they will have their core vote well motivated, including in the case of the Tories, many who might have voted UKIP at this year’s European Parliamentary election. But in 2010, the Lib Dems received 23% of the votes cast, a figure that increases to almost 30% if the non-nationalist minor parties are included. How many of these votes that find their way (or not) to the two major parties will determine who wins, who loses and whether another coalition will be on the agenda.
It is clear that many voters with centre-left inclinations who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 have long since moved their support to Labour, as evidenced by the polling figures over the last couple of years. What is less clear is how those votes are spread with reference to our first past the post voting system. Labour gaining former Lib Dem votes in its northern urban heartland means very little in electoral term, just as the Conservatives winning back UKIP waverers in the Home Countries has minimal effect.
With the UK now showing a strong economic rebound, the Conservatives should reap electoral benefits, but the rather uneven distribution of the fruits of recovery may limit this, especially as the beneficiaries are quite likely to already be Tory voters.
So what does all this mean? I think the only thing that is certain is that it is going to be close, and quite possibly the closest since the titanic struggle between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath in February 1974.