Who's going to win the British Elections?

SINCE JUST BEFORE the recent Labour Party Conference there has been a sudden feeling that the Government of Harold Wilson might, after all, retain power at the next British general election. The feeling was enhanced by a splendidly characteristic knockabout performance from the Prime Minister at the Conference itself, but it was fundamentally euphoric in character. The government has based its economic strategy on achieving a balance of payments surplus for so long that, when a balance appeared, it went rather to the head.

But, on the other hand, there has been more substantial evidence of a Labour revival. First, as the Tory Conference opened in Brighton, O.R.C., one of the three leading opinion poll experts, produced a poll showing Labour only four per cent behind the Tories, a situation opposed to a Tory lead of up to and over 20% in the last year. Then Gallup too showed a tumbling Tory lead. N.O.P. produced a poll showing a similar, if not altogether catastrophic, fall in the Conservative plurality. Finally, Labour themselves leaked a poll of the younger generation, the 18-21 year olds who will vote for the first time at the next general election showing tl1at twothirds of them believed that Labour was more representative of their ideals than the Tories, with tl1e clear implication that, come the election, the younger generation would go with Labour.

Now, of course, a good deal of this is spurious, just as Tory self-confidence in a massive majority for the last two years or more has had a certain element of make-believe about it. Then Mr. Heath put it about that the thing that Feally worried him was the danger of a massive, and potentially right-wing Conservative majority: the implicatien clearly was that he had almost forgotten who Harold Wilson was. Similarly, there is a growing suspicion that there is more froth than fire to the present Labeur mood. After all, when you are at rock-bottom you have no where to go but up, and Labour has been so low for so long that any chink of sun visible through the clouds was bound to send morale soaring.

But, first, how does this happen and, second, who is going to win the election? It happens largely because the whole game of politics in Britain, in spite of the increasingly powerful scientific (or pseudo-scientific) apparatus of political science and public opinion polling, is part of an elaborate ritual of psychological warfare. The object of party managers on both sides is to generate a sense of the inevitability of their own victory: this Labour did most brilliantly in 1964 and it may have been just that extra bit that helped them over the top in a gruelling and tight struggle at the end.
What seems to give support to different theories of inevitability are the apparently unquestionable and invariably accurate public opinion polls: the polls printed on the even of British general elections in recent years have never failed to pick the winner. Naturally, therefore, the polls themselves, and the men associated with their conception and execution, mainly the academic psephologists, have their own authority immensely increased. There is, however, now dawning, the possible belief that polls are accurate only as prophets of the result of a general election, because an election itself is very like an opinion poll on a large scale. In other words, scientific students of politics, like David Butler of Nuffield, Oxford, can claim no authority for their other commentaries on politics from the fact that the poll pure and simple, with which their names are associated, is almost always right.

The isolation of (he opinion poll as the only factor of proven accuracy in the field of political commentary is of great importance, for it reduces the business of picking a winner in a general election which need not be held until March 1971 to a mattcr of instinct, with the apparata of scientific market research in a subordinate place.

In turn, this devalues the authority of the scientific political commentators from the universities and such of the newspaper political correspondents as are their disciples, while it enhances again the instincts of the political correspondent par excellence, the man who sniffs out election results in advance, without giving him the status that people like Butler had begun to enjoy, the status of high priests of politics.

But we ought to look again at some of the elements that have gone to make up this growing Tory fear, this burgeoning Labour hope, that the government may win the next election. There are the balance of payments and the opinion polls. There are also other factors, some of them small. First, it is unlikely that the Tory party will win any of the five by-elections scheduled to take place at the end of this month. Tory party managers have been hedging their bets, but in trUth, since the party needed an average swing of over lO'~{, to win (he seats or any of them, victory was never on the cards except in the halcyon days of 25 % leads on the polls. Still, for Labour to retain all five seats will boost the morale of their workers all over the country and thus by itself contribute to the strength of their election effort.

Then, there was the trailer for a new work on British politics to be published shortly by David Butler and an American collaborator. This book, if the trailer is anything to go by, destroys with great effect some of the most powerful myths of British political commentary, notable among them the thesis that people become more Conservative as they grow older. It predicts, on the basis of an arduous exercise in demographic political analysis, that, in the 19808, Labour will enjoy a substantial adv.antage in electoral terms over the Tories, because the generations that are inclined to Labour, through political inheritance from their parents (which the authors regard as the most significant governing factor in political behaviour) will be 17 k numerically in the ascendant. This work has been much quoted in \Vestminster in recent weeks, greatly to Tory discomfiture and Labour joy.

But, despite his tendency to arrogant certitude about the accuracy of the scientific study of politics, David Butler is, generally, a sound scholar. And readers have tended to miss the important caveat in the Sunday Times article that preceded the book's appearance. This pointed to the fact that an overall, generally reliable, majority support in the country is no sure passage to electoral victory. For, the authors pointed out, general elections are often determined on very shortterm issues; there is no guarantee how an opposition may behave and how its behaviour may damage its standing in the country; the government enjoys enormous advantages in the timing of a general election and may pick the most favourable moment for going to the country. This last advantage, which was brilliantly exploited by Sir Anthony Eden in 1955 and by Harold Wiison in 1966, has too often been overlooked. It is not, of course, a significant feature of the present situation because, after so hard and long a haul, Harold Wilson is unlikely to risk an election on what may simply be a snap favourable poll and the time is now so short that his options must be few.

The nature of the evidence showing a Labour resurgence still seems doubtful if not insubstantial and there are cracks in the brand-new front of Labour confidence. For example, the Labour poll quoted earlier showing that two-thirds of the younger generation shared Labour's ideals would have been much more trumpeted about if it had been possible to say that it showed that a majority of that generation would actually vote Labour. As it was, it contradicted a Marplan survey carried out some time ago for the SUI/day Times, demonstrating that two-thirds of the younger generation actually intended to vote Tory and, perhaps, even more significant, that this was the only section of the electorate in which Edward Heath enjoyed a consistent advantage over Harold Wilson.

The real root of the Labour resurgence has, of course, been lack of Tory confidence. Tory managers have always felt that there was a disturbing volatility about the support they enjoyed in the great days when they had a consistent and preponderant lead in the pools. The sudden crash of that lead almost unnerved them, coinciding as it did both with the summer period in which the government traditionally improve their standing and with the achievement of a balance of payments surplus. It may simply be, of course, that the election is still wide open.

Nonetheless, bearing in mind the deficiencies already listed of the opinion poll technique as a long term guide to electoral fortunes, it seems possible to go some way towards pricking the Labour bubble, while also demonstrating that the election has yet to be won.

In the nine by-elections held between March and July of 1968, the average swing to the Conservatives was 15.8%. In Bassetlaw in November last the swing was 10"7%. That was the last evidence before this summer of a Labour revival. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that swing is an invalid guide when it is applied to byelections as a way of judging the prospective vote in general elections. Over the last four years the turnout in general elections has varied only between 75.8 and 78.7%: in the by elections it has been down by an average of 20%. We can, on past experience, be certain that the extra 20% would turn out to vote in a general election. The question is, would they vote in the same ratio as the byelecrion voters?
The answer is no. In the \Varwick and Leamington by-election last year, both turnout and the Labour vote fell by 14,000: it would seem ridiculous not to assume that the great bulk of the abstainers were Labour voters. It is also ridiculous to assume that, if they could not bring themselves to vote for the enemy at a by-election, any of them would do so at a general election, when the chips were really down. This is not, however, as encouraging for Labour as it looks.
It seems reasonable to assume, if we look only at Labour-held seats, that any drop in by-election turn-out is an abstention on the part of Labour voters. The assumption seems all the more useful as a working proposition because it gives the government the maximum advantage in any calculations made. \Ve need to look, therefore, at the Conservative voting record in by-elections held in Labour seats won at the general election. In order that this figure should be useful as a means of calculating a general election result, we need also to look at Conservative figures as a percentage of the total electorate.

If we compare the Conservative performance in this parliament with Labour's performance in its thirteen years of opposition, some interesting conclusions begin to emerge.

In only one by-election in all of those thirteen years did Labour register any increase in its support over the figures for the general election of 1959. In the by-elections of this parliament the Tories increased their share of the total poll by between 1 and 4%. Since Labour won the 1964 election with 1.5 less of the popular vote than they enjoyed in 1959, and since the Tory turnout is up by an average of 2.7% in by-elections this parliament, the tide still seems set fair for a Tory victory. The vital po;nt is that, contrary to the feeling of the party management, the Tory vote has consolidated to a remarkable degree: it is Labour support which is volatile.
Why then the climate of uncertainty? It seems to be, simply, that the Tories have lacked steady self-confidence, a quality which Mr. Wilson is able to assume at will: it is his most remarkable asset as a party leader. At Brighton, Mr. Heath showed some sign that his confidence too had developed: it was not only that he was clearly, for the first time, in complete control of his party, it was also that he seemed to be in complete control of his policy and its presentation. For, it is important to remember that the tiniest shifts in public opinion can, under the British system, precipitate electoral landslides. There are two issues-taxation and social welfare provision for the really helpless pools of the old and the vulnerable in modern Britain-which are clearly seizing the imagination of the electorate. To these problems, Mr. Heath at Brighton addressed himself directly and in human terms, while Mr. Wilson dealt with them in terms of statistics and gross spending figures on the social services. If Mr. Heath can add to the consolidation of his party's support in by-elections a projection of the way he feels about the issues of the day which Mr. Wilson, after five years of power, finds it difficult to do, then, beyond doubt, he will be the next Prime Minister.