Small Shifts in Support Make Big Difference at Westminster

Pippa Norris

The Financial Times
The leadership helicopters have flown for the last time. The politicians have stopped kissing babies. The party rallies and morning press conferences and broadcasts and TV interviews are done. The heated arguments about immigration, Iraq and health are over. It's the lull before the storm. So has the effort been worthwhile? Has the election campaign made a difference?
Trends in party fortunes recorded in all the published national opinion polls suggest there was some net impact on voting support but the campaign was far from decisive. The Conservative vote appears to have slid a few points during April, from about 35 to 32 per cent, with some fluctuations in different polls. Despite many predictions of a strong late surge in Liberal Democrat support, so far they appear to have made only small gains, from 20 to 22 per cent. Labour started at about 36 per cent, went up during the first stage, then fell back again to about 37 per cent.
This net shift in support may appear modest but it does make a significant difference at Westminster. Projections based on these polls using a uniform national swing suggest that an election held at the start of April would have produced a Labour majority of 90. By the end of the month despite all the hoo-ha about Iraq, the accusations that Tony Blair lied and that Labour failed to deliver on its promises if the polls are correct, the equivalent majority would be 130.
In both instances a Labour government would be returned comfortably for a historic third administration. The campaign polls also indicate that the Conservatives remain stranded in the electoral Siberia of semi-permanent opposition, making minimal gains from the disastrous results experienced in 1997 and 2001.
In a closer race, such as in 1992, even a few seats changing hands may determine who enters Number 10. But Labour started the race this spring with such a towering majority, produced by their 1997 landslide, and the main parties present such a familiar image, that no month-long campaign could be expected to bring the Conservatives victory. In this regard, few British elections are won during the official campaign.
But this does not mean that all the posters and rallies and interviews were insignificant. In particular, campaigns in a democracy help to shape how voters learn about party politics and, even more importantly, how parties learn about voters. Effective campaigns involve intense activity that attempts to connect the vast gap between citizens and their representatives.
Now this interpretation is often greeted with cynicism in the era of spin. After all, it is said, with their carefully stage-managed photo opportunities, political leaders do not really get many chances to meet “real” voters. How can they be expected to listen to public concerns, still less to learn from them? And as for the public, given that campaign news and party broadcasts were turned off by thousands of households, what information do most people acquire?
But the campaign is the main opportunity in a democracy for the public to learn about what the parties have to offer, what the leaders stand for, and to distinguish some of the core contrasts among Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
This does not mean that voters have to slog through the dry details of the party manifestos, or even watch the party political broadcasts and campaign news. But given the intensity of the month-long campaign, it is difficult for most people to be unaware of some of the basic arguments between the government and the opposition, whether about Iraq, immigration or the economy.
The focus on the party leaders in a protective bubble overlooks all the intense effort in each constituency as candidates and volunteer activists try to mobilise their supporters, fighting the door-to-door war, especially in marginal seats. It gets the MPs and ministers out of the cosy club of Westminster to visit the Cheadles, South Dorsets and Batterseas. Even more significantly, all the paraphernalia of the professional campaign, the focus groups and opinion polls, is a sophisticated attempt to monitor the public pulse with ever greater precision. What parties learn from these efforts shapes not just their presentation but also their policy priorities and awareness of public concerns.
What parties learn from the outcome, particularly the lessons from electoral failure, is critical in how they adapt and reinvent themselves in the long years between campaigns. The Conservatives do not appear to have learnt the lessons of 1997 or 2001. It remains to be seen whether and how all the parties learn from the result on May 5.

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