Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Should Ed Miliband start dreaming about Downing Street?

With Britain's Labour Party now polling at levels they haven't dreamed of since the 2001-2005 Parliament, Ed Miliband must have to pinch himself to believe his luck. The Government's been so busy smashing itself in the face with a mallet that it hasn't had time to focus its energies on attacking Labour, which has now surged to a double-digit lead in the opinion polls.

So should Ed Miliband start sizing up the mythical Downing Street curtains? Probably not.

Part of the reason for this is obvious from the Government's present tragi-comic travails. Ed's looking like a winner at the moment - maybe. But when the Conservatives and Lib Dems come to their senses and start questioning his policies and his records? It'll get harder. The Prime Minister is even less popular than Ed at the moment - but the Leader of the Opposition's ratings are dire too. As the pollster Peter Kellner has pointed out, the public still blames Labour (rightly or wrongly) for the present economic crisis. In that situation, and with a bit of growth in 2013-15, the most likely outcome is still a Conservative victory.

Even so, the Conservatives are going to have a tough time winning the next election outright. In that situation, Ed might well end up leader of the biggest party in the Commons - and Prime Minister. The main reason for this is the collapse in the Lib Dem vote. It's becoming increasingly clear that most of those switchers are moving over to Labour, who can rely on a good quarter or more of the 2010 Lib Dems to vote for Red Ed next time. In that situation, they're unlikely to get less than 35-36% of the vote. On my reckoning, and given a smaller Commons of 600 after seat redistribution, that'll give Labour 267 seats to the Conservatives' 293 (assuming a bit of uplift on their last performance, to 39%). Cameron back in No. 10. Again. But with no majority. Again. Coalition. Again. Unhappy marriage. Again. And that's on the new boundaries. With the Lib Dems clearly signalling that they'll be happy to scupper boundary reform if they don't get their way on an elected House of Lords, fighting on the old boundaries will make Labour's task much, much easier. If we give Labour 36% of the vote on the old boundaries, and the Conservatives 40%, that gives Labour 295 seats and the Conservatives (less the Speaker) 305. Who wants to bet on a Labour-Lib Dem coalition then? Yes, me too. 

It'll be 1970 all over again, when unloved and vote-repelling Ted Heath ended up in the top job because voters just didn't believe Harold Wilson any more. Or 2012 in France, another election that has seen a rather geeky technocrat ascend to unlikely heights.

It's happened before. It might not happen again. But it's become possible. And we couldn't have said that until a few weeks ago.