THE CORBY BY-ELECTION AND PREDICTING POLITICAL TRENDS

Kevin Craig

Labour will win very big in Corby today. With counting underway the word from the Labour Campaign is that this result is going to be incredible.

I predict a Labour majority of 11,500 votes – that is despite the awful turnout yesterday and in a seat that peaked with a 12,000 Labour majority in the heady days of 1997. So as one Conservative said in today’s Daily Mail – a bloodbath and a hammering will ensue today beyond what had been predicted.

But what does Corby mean and what significance does it hold for the General Election of 2015?  In itself Corby means nothing.  It confirms that this Government and the Conservative Party is struggling to find a narrative that resonates with the country and particularly in marginal bell weather constituencies in England.  It confirms that this Government risks being perceived as unlucky or incompetent or both – traits that proved decisive in 1997 and 2010.  Most powerfully outside the Westminster bubble there is the recent resignation of Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell that risks colouring perceptions of the Conservative Party in a way the Prime Minister (PM) will find regressive.  There are also a whole load of other bits and pieces that contribute to the broader perception of this Government, defeats in the Commons, Osborne’s first-class train ride on a standard fare (a nonsense of a story to be fair) multiple Budget U-turns, restless Back Benches, Horsegate and the Rebecca Brooks texts – none of this helps. Lord Tebbitt recently compared the coalition to a dog “unable to manage its affairs competently” in the Observer. His words, not mine.

At the recent Conservative Party Conference, the newly appointed Party Chairman and former Minister Grant Shapps unveiled an election countdown clock and told the party faithful that they need to stop being “shy Tories”. There was no talk from him or his campaigners of the Coalition with Shapps admitting that the previous six months had not been easy. Many commentators on the right of the party, have never liked the PM’s inner circle, criticising them for being posh, out-of-touch and generally non-Tory.  I cannot believe the lack of detailed thought and systemised planning that sometimes seems to go into how the PM/ Chancellor manage their personal relationships with their own MPs.  It was fine for Blair to avoid the Tea Rooms when he was a PM with a whopping majority but given the instability of the Coalition surely more time should be spent building camaraderie within the Conservative Parliamentary Party. It seems obvious.

In the Labour camp, Ed Miliband exceeded all expectations at the Labour Party Conference and currently enjoys credibility and a burgeoning sense of cautious momentum.  His speech was very well received by the media, barring the Sun. For those who may criticise Milband’s lack of detailed policy plans – this is not unusual for the party in Opposition- I would say that all Prime Ministerial candidates leave the specifics of their party platform until as late in the game as possible, and with a fixed term Parliament there is no reason to divert from this strategy. The earlier Miliband gives details of his agenda the sooner the attack from the right will begin.  He has declared when he will flesh out the bones and it won’t be for for another year at least.  And why not. His capacity for not making mistakes is reinforcing support in his Shadow Cabinet.  In parallel General Secretary Iain McNichol is moving forward the Party especially on campaigning and fundraising and has come through some difficult internal reorganising.

So as we approach December’s Autumn Statement, it is vital for the Government that it is executed competently.  They need to resume their conversation with the British Public. From a Conservative perspective they need to reach out to Conservative MPs.  Lib Dem MPs are already campaigning locally as if the General Election was next month and their ability to cling on via local conversations with the electorate should never be underestimated.

Elections can be called with alarming accuracy in advance. But not too far in advance. Last night PLMR was with some of our international clients including ExCel London at a very successful Washington Post event where Ezra Klein gave an insightful and challenging account of the 2012 Presidential election. He confirmed what I have always thought – polling numbers six months out are very difficult to turnaround. An incumbent presiding over a growing economy almost never loses. And so it came to pass..  Political scientists at George Washington, Yale and UCLA believe most elections can be predicted with just a few pieces of information. They created a formula that uses economic growth, presidential approval ratings in June and incumbency to forecast President Obama’s share of the two-party vote in the Nov. 6 election

Should, as expected, Labour record a resounding win in Corby combined with the overnight retention of Manchester Central and Cardiff South and Penarth will be a huge boost for Labour but Ed Miliband and those closest to him know there is a huge way to go.  Corby means nothing long term. It is a portent and a powerful one at that and tomorrow’s papers will be full of speculation extrapolating Corby into a General Election verdict. They shouldn’t bother. Labour can still get thumped at the next election. The Conservatives can turn this around.

If current polling numbers have not moved six months before the next General Election then Labour will be favourites despite not being incumbents.  But read today’s overwhelming win for Labour in Corby as anything more decisive at your peril.  It is simply far too early for any conclusions.

Kevin Craig is Managing Director of PLMR, a former Parliamentary Candidate in the 2005 General Election and for nine years a Councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth

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