THE BLOG

Polling Figures Paint Uplifting Picture for Conservatives

16/12/2013 11:25 GMT | Updated 13/02/2014 10:59 GMT

At the beginning of this year, with the UK economy stuck in stagnation and seemingly no end in sight to the Coalition government's controversial austerity programme, the chances of a Conservative majority after the 2015 general election looked slim. Fast forward, and a fundamentally altered story emerges. Economic indicators from business activity to consumption have undertaken a drastic improvement over recent months - out of nowhere promising GDP growth has transformed the UK from a serious laggard into one of the best performing advanced nations post-crisis.

The political significance of these factors cannot be overstated. All the main parties in the UK are well aware that the spectacular global crash of 2008 catapulted economic policy to the very top of the public agenda - consequently there has been a mad, and often unedifying, scramble to win the economic debate. A key, largely successful, tactic used by the Conservative Party to win over voters has been the argument that Labour are the architects of the mess, and thus cannot be trusted again. This heavily distorts the reality that the financial crisis originated in the US housing market - factors outside the control of New Labour, as opposed to domestic mismanagement, were predominantly responsible for the ballooning UK deficit. Ed Miliband's Labour, meanwhile, have often attacked the government for cutting 'too far and too fast'; in other words lengthening the recovery period through excessive austerity. This almost certainly underplays the likelihood that, whatever fiscal programme was pursued, it was always going to take a while for confidence to return to the UK economy after such a monumental shock.

With growth figures flatlining for an extended period of time these arguments were relived to a mindless degree. Then something happened that surprised most commentators and changed the entire dynamic of the political landscape: earlier this year the economy started improving. Recession and zigzagging statistics were followed by three quarters of steady expansion, hitting the dizzying heights of 0.8%. Modest signs that wide-ranging cuts have not been as disastrous as had been feared forced Labour to abruptly change tack: while acknowledging signs of nascent growth, Miliband stressed that this was a recovery for the privileged few, not the deserving many. He waged war on the 'cost of living crisis' - official figures showing that average wages have decreased in real terms for five years running suggested he might have had a point.

Unfortunately for Miliband and the increasingly comical shadow chancellor Ed Balls, the tide appears to be turning against them. Whereas at the beginning of the year a YouGov poll forecasting voter intention gave Labour a twelve-point lead, the latest poll puts the distance between the Conservatives and their main opposition at a mere four points. More significantly still, Labour also appear to be losing ammunition in the cost of living argument. Newly released figures suggest that wages this year have grown at their fastest pace since the financial crisis, and that the UK could see a return to real income growth next year. There is no obvious place for Labour to go if their Plan B argument is rendered as impotent as Plan A. Furthermore, two additional factors round off a bleak Christmas picture for Miliband: voters continue to view David Cameron as being more statesmanlike than the Labour leader; and the Conservatives are still more trusted on economic policy. These considerations could well mean that there will be a further swing in favour of the Tories as soon as voters start thinking seriously about the general election.

Notwithstanding these challenges, Labour have no need to start panicking just yet. They have a broader support base than the Tories; a large part of the country is critical of the Conservatives for what are perceived as cynically divisive, ideologically-driven policies. As the last few months have shown, a lot can change in politics in a short period of time. Concerns have been voiced that the current recovery is being driven by debt-fuelled consumption, of the kind that led to the disastrous housing bubble of 2008. Perhaps most relevantly of all, the Lib Dems' blocking of planned constituency changes means the current delineation of boundaries heavily favours Labour. The effect of this is that the Conservatives will require comfortably more votes than would Labour to secure a majority.

The general consensus, though, is that given contextual circumstances Labour should have far more of a lead at this point of the electoral cycle. Many figures in the party privately despair that the Conservatives' dirtying of government spending has largely neutered the potential effect of any anti-austerity rhetoric. Straightjacketed into failing to formulate a convincing economic alternative, the Labour leadership has appeared increasingly hapless and uninspired. The personal approval ratings of Miliband and Balls are dire: the former is viewed as too awkward and nerdy to be prime ministerial material, whereas the latter's brazen, belligerent public image was not helped by a disastrous House of Commons performance in response to the autumn budget statement.

The upshot is that this year is likely to end with a greater than ever chance of a Conservative majority in 2015. Expect Labour to really start to show signs of pressure if it is confirmed that the recent GDP rebound is indeed filtering down to wages and living standards. David Cameron still has a long way to go, and it is unclear whether a sustained recovery would be attributable to fiscal policy or merely external cyclical factors, but the Tories are unquestionably showing signs of consolidation. Given years of stagnation and austerity, a Conservative victory at the next general election would constitute a remarkable triumph for Cameron and an unforgivable failure for Ed Miliband.