Why Ed Miliband's poor ratings need not stop him becoming PM
Recent polls make gloomy reading – but one group likes him: 'Red Liberals' who've switched to Labour
Like football fans who yearn for their team to play the beautiful game with flair and skill, political activists hanker after massive opinion poll leads and landslide victories. For Tories, the warm glow comes from the Thatcher landslides of 1983 and 1987. For Labour, the glory day was 2 May 1997 when Tony Blair marched into Downing Street.
For Jeremy Paxman's last Newsnight, the producers thought it would be fun to highlight Labour’s current anxieties about Ed Miliband personal poll ratings by inviting into the studio one of the chief architects of the Blair triumph, Lord [Peter] Mandelson.
Those anxieties had just been underlined by an Ipsos MORI poll for the Evening Standard which found that 49 per cent of voters believed Miliband should be replaced as Labour leader; even among Labour supporters, 43 per cent felt the same way.
The next day, a YouGov poll for Prospect magazine made equally gloomy reading at Labour headquarters: this one found that 60 per cent of voters believed he was "not up to the job" of bring prime minister.
Just as Paxman's heart hasn't really been in it these past few weeks, Mandelson answered dutifully that Miliband was “the leader we have and therefore I support him”.
He told Paxman that Miliband would be coming forward with lots of “quite good” policies and stressed that whereas Tony Blair had consciously sought consensus, Miliband was trying to do what Margaret Thatcher had done to the Tory party three decades ago – demand radical change and insist that his party rally behind him.
Will it work? demanded Paxman. “It may well work. It may well be successful" said Mandy, before adding crucially: “The electoral arithmetic is probably on his side.”
In short, however uninspiring the public may find Miliband, the electoral arithmetic is all on his side, not Cameron's.
The starting point is the 2010 general election when the Tories had a seven-point leader over Labour (37 per cent to 30 per cent) but it was not enough to give them an overall Commons majority. Cameron became PM only with the support of Nick Clegg's Lib Dems.
Cameron has set his heart on an overall majority next time: indeed, during campaigning for the recent local authority elections he promised to quit as prime minister rather than do another coalition deal with the Lib Dems if it meant having to "barter away" his guarantee to the British public of an in-out referendum on Europe in 2017.
But to win an overall majority in May 2015, and avoid a new restrictive pact with the Lib Dems, the Conservatives need to lead Labour by around nine per cent.
There have been nearly 200 opinion polls published during 2014 and in only half a dozen have the Tories tied with Labour or enjoyed a tiny lead.
The average Labour lead is four points - 37 per cent to 33 per cent - precisely the figures produced today in the latest YouGov poll.
So, Cameron is miles away from where he needs to be.
Labour’s position is even stronger in the key marginal seats where a tight election race could be decided. Lord Ashcroft’s mega-poll of 26,000 voters living in 26 marginal constituencies (14 Tory-held, 12 Labour-held) published last month, showed a 6.5 per cent swing from the Conservatives to Labour – enough of a swing, if replicated nationwide, "to topple 83 Tory MPs and give Ed Miliband a comfortable majority”.
The massive size of the Ashcroft sample has allowed number-cruncher Mike Smithson to focus on a key sub group: Lib Dem to Labour "switchers".
These are the Lib Dems who have never forgiven Nick Clegg for reneging on his election promise to oppose an increase in tuition fees and have come to loathe the Lib Dems' decision to share power with the Conservatives.
And here's the big fillip for Team Miliband: among the Lib Dem to Labour "switchers", there is a generally positive view of Ed Miliband - even more positive than among dedicated Labour supporters.
Among Labour voters, 63 per cent were "dissatisfied with David Cameron and wanted Ed Miliband to be PM": among Lib Dem switchers, 73 per cent felt that way. As Smithson writes on his Political Betting site, it means "most Labour strategists won't be too worried about Ed Miliband's poor personal ratings".
The former Nottinghamshire Labour MP Nick Palmer comments on Political Betting: "Red Liberals actually rather like Ed, and traditional Labour voters remain, by and large, traditional Labour voters. The main issue is turnout, but that's an issue for the Tories as well."
Palmer also makes the point that popularity isn't everything. Many political observers thought the Conservatives would win easily in 2010 because Gordon Brown was so unpopular. "The effect was much less than expected," says Palmer, who remembers only occasionally meeting someone who was pro-Labour but not voting for the party because of Brown.
And, Palmer might have added, although Cameron had an easy-going image compared to Brown's, it didn't get him a majority.
Lord Ashcroft is right to warn that his polls are snapshots, not predictions… half of voters say they may change their mind before the election and there is still a year to go.
But Lord Mandelson is right, too. Currently the arithmetic favours Ed Miliband. Tory optimism and Labour gloom are overdone.