The 1992 scenario, which many of you will already have heard of, goes like this: Labour are ahead in the polls, slightly. The right-wing press have thrown everything at them, but still the Tories cannot get a lead. A Labour government looms. Until polling day comes and, low and behold, the Tories have somehow ended up with a narrow majority. A bunch of “silent Tories” backed them at the last minute.
Several things to say about this: part of the reason that the polls in 1992 had Labour ahead up until the very day was because of a methodological flaw that has since been put right. But the Conservative Party also had something genuinely on their side back then, that being a lasting fear in many swing voters’ minds about what a Labour government might mean for them.
But that was then and this is now. Looking at the political terrain today, I’d do a counterintuitive, almost perverse thing were I the Labour Party: I’d invert the 1992 strategy and turn it on the Tories themselves.
The Tories can be painted as a threat to stability given this time round they don’t actually represent the continuation of the status quo. Stay with me here. This is because the Conservatives want to do two things which Labour do not, both of which represent possible massive, irreversible changes. One is the holding of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. A Brexit is a big unknown, waiting out there; a move that could have all sorts of hidden problems attached to it. Also, just having the referendum eats up two years of political capital in every direction. The economy is still in crisis; we need a government that will focus on the job at hand and not be distracted by needless referenda (I would say if I worked in the Labour press office).
The second way in which the Tories represent instability is via what could be talked up by Labour politicians as a dismantling of the post-World War II settlement in full – the welfare state essentially gone as we know it, public services slashed to the bone. This one is harder for Labour to pull off given how much they’ve cried wolf in this area over the last five years – every closure of a needless quango has been equated with throwing disabled people under buses – but the way the Tories have played it in the campaign has left an opening for Labour. And there is genuine uncertainty about what the scale of cuts would be under a Tory majority, reason being the Tories themselves aren’t all that keen to talk about them at the moment.
Labour are going down a blind alley if they chase the “failing economy” line in wake of the new GDP figures. Not enough people will believe it and Labour doesn’t have time to turn around what are, for now, inbuilt perceptions about the finances of the nation and who is better at what. It’s a trap the Tories are hoping they fall into, and early signs are that Cameron and co are getting their wish.
I think Labour will be the biggest party in a hung parliament, in terms of both votes and seats, anyhow. But if they want to be sure and avoid 1992 all over again, they’d better try and seal the deal before next week comes and goes. Never bet against the silent Tories coming to spoil the party again.