The real political battle isn’t Conservative vs Labour or Cameron vs Miliband

Diversion sign - photo courtesy of Michael Casey on Flickr. Some rights reserved, see the political news – or brace yourself and watch some of festival of braying adults that is PMQs – and you could easily think that British politics is primarily a contest between Cameron and Miliband, Conservative and Labour, to be top dog. You could – and you would be wrong. It’s a diversion from where the real action is.

The real political contest is both elsewhere and not one single contest. It is not about Conservative versus Labour, except by incidental outcome.

One clue as to where the real contests lie is in Britain’s political geography, as I pointed out just before the last election:

In fact, despite the national attention on Labour versus Conservative, only a minority of constituencies are Labour versus Conservative battles. Just slightly over half – by just a whisker, but still a majority – of constituencies have one of the other parties in first or second place, or are three way marginals (taking the Thrasher and Rallings list of three-way marginals, which is in fact slightly cautious in its classification).

The precise seat count numbers have changed a little since then, but the overall picture – as the Eastleigh by-election is currently reminding us – is the same. Much of the Parliamentary result is not the result of Labour versus Conservative battles.

Yet even in those seats that are such battles, the real contest is not Labour versus Conservative. Take the situation for Labour. Up in the polls since 2010, yet hardly winning over any Conservative voters. Instead, its ups and downs in the polls are primarily to do with Labour versus apathy, Labour versus unhappiness over its record in government and Labour versus Liberal Democrats:

Research by the New Fabian Society finds just 400,000 voters have moved from Conservatives to Labour since the last election which, if unchanged on polling day, would mean Labour had made only tiny inroads into Tory heartlands…

The research was based on months of detailed analysis of a YouGov poll that charted new ground by looking at the voting intentions of people who did not vote in 2010. It found that an estimated 1.4 million people who did not vote at the last election now say that they intend to vote Labour. This has helped increase Labour’s rating in the polls by around 5% and could represent around another 40 seats.

Many of these 2010 “no-showers”, the study says, are likely to be former Labour voters who became disillusioned with the party in its latter years in office. It also deduces that Labour has won over some 2.3 million voters who chose the Lib Dems in 2010.

The issue for the Conservatives is slightly different, and features the challenge of UKIP rather more and motivating its supporters to vote rather less, but the flip side of that research applies just as much: the Conservative problem is not having lost votes in large numbers to Labour.

(A similar picture is also true for the Liberal Democrats as both my own polling analysis showed earlier in the Parliament and the Lord Ashcroft poll in the Eastleigh by-election also demonstrated. Liberal Democrat 2010 voters have switched, in varying proportion to don’t know, won’t vote and Labour. Winning over the don’t knows and won’t votes is central to the party’s fortunes.)

So for all the talk about politics being Cameron versus Miliband and Conservative versus Labour, remember – that is only the incidental outcome of a myriad of other contests. And all the more so if you are in Scotland or Wales.

It’s those other contests that are the ones that will determine the outcome of the next election, not the Punch and Judy show that is Labour versus Conservative played out in our media.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Paul Pettinger 11th Feb '13 - 1:34pm

    Noises from the leadership intimate that the Party should largely ignore those who used to vote for us, and tack to the centre and win over new centrist voters (via a strange root that confuses greater emphasis on economic Liberalism with centrism). I strongly agree that ‘winning over the don’t knows and won’t votes is central to the party’s fortunes’, but I don’t think it is the activist base who needs convincing.

  • Dave Page – spot on.

  • jenny barnes 11th Feb '13 - 4:32pm

    How’s the secret courts thing going? When it comes to being a liberal party with its own philosophy and policies, I think that’s pretty crucial.

  • Richard Dean 11th Feb '13 - 4:50pm

    Even so, surely he method by which the real battle is won or lost may still be through the stylized, proxy contest between parties? Switchable voters may still make their judgments based on how the candidates fare in that contest.

    We can’t do much about Labour versus Apathy, though we might try addressing apathy versus LibDem. Is Apathy big in Eastleigh?

  • Paul Pettinger 11th Feb '13 - 5:00pm

    The Party’s vote share did not implode during or after coalition with Labour in Scotland, partly as the Party aligned its priorities with those who voted for it. The same is not true of our federal leadership, and I don’t see a change in its appetite to seriously address the concerns of former 2010 supporters, including ‘don’t knows’ and Lab/Lib Dem waverers. I also think these categories of voters are very important for the Party’s fortunes – fair play if you don’t.

  • Peter Watson 11th Feb '13 - 6:17pm

    Of those constituencies that have one of the other parties in first or second place, in how many is that other party being propped up by tactical voting against one of the big two? I would suggest that many seats still reflect a Labour-Conservative battle even when a third party is fighting vicariously on behalf of one of those parties.

  • @Dave: I agree, I think a lot want to hear Clegg’s words as an attack on them because it allows them to make him out to be an evil right wing ogre.

  • Paul Pettinger 12th Feb '13 - 11:06am

    @ Liberal Al – I don’t know if it is fair to describe Nick as an ogre. However, it would be great to have a leader that activist s felt confident enough in to place on their leaflets,

  • Old Codger Chris 12th Feb '13 - 12:37pm

    Paul Pettinger – The good news is that neither Cameron nor Miliband is hugely popular, even within their own parties.

  • Peter Watson 12th Feb '13 - 12:59pm

    @Paul Pettinger “it would be great to have a leader that activist s felt confident enough in to place on their leaflets”
    In the AV Referendum, the No campaign had enough confidence to put Clegg on their leaflets 🙁

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