By Jane Green and Will Jennings
This blog is based on analysis prepared for the Political Studies Association media briefing held on 24 March 2015. It considers the strengths and weaknesses of the Conservative party entering the general election campaign to reflect upon what may work for the party during the campaign and what may not.
There is one clear asset for the Conservatives, the national economic recovery. This is well-known. What is less well-known is how much other issues could be very damaging for the party, potentially off-setting: (a) the gains the party may make on the national economy alone; and (b) the degree to which the Conservatives can claim to be the party of governing competence. It is rare and notable for a party to enter an election campaign with only one clear beneficial issue – and only one issue around which it is likely to try to centre its campaign.
Figure 1 below shows the % of BES respondents who think each policy issue is ‘getting better’ (or in the cases of immigration, cost of living and crime – getting lower) , drawing upon a new preliminary pre-election BES online sample of around 16,000 respondents (surveyed March 6 – 13 2015). The proportion thinking each issue is getting better combines those saying ‘getting a little better’ and ‘getting a lot better’ for the economy, crime, NHS and education, or ‘getting a little lower’ and ‘getting a lot lower’ (immigration, crime, cost of living). I use household economic evaluations (getting a little better and getting a lot better) to estimate a positive change in personal finances.
 Note I assume, based on the data, that an overwhelming majority of voters see lower immigration as a positive change, and I assume (based on no data) that the overwhelming majority see lower crime and lower costs of living as positive.
Figure 1: % Seeing a positive change across policy areas (BES preliminary sample, March 2015)
The Conservatives have to convince voters that they should be rewarded for economic growth, but note the scale of the problem for them on immigration, the scale of the difference between the national economy and economic experience and the lack of perceived progress across all other issues. The BES doesn’t ask about perceived performance on all policy issues, and so the above is not exhaustive of Conservative assets and liabilities. But on the basis of policy performance on the issues above, the gains the Conservatives can make on the national economy are in no way matched on the other policy performance measures included in the BES. Perhaps particularly striking is the consensus among the electorate that the Conservatives’ immigration policy isn’t working. The combined per cent saying that immigration is getting a little higher or a lot higher is 70%, with 21% saying it is ‘staying about the same’. For those respondents for whom immigration is a concern (which predicts vote intention for UKIP), this consensus is a very damaging one for the Conservatives.
The Conservatives would benefit from convincing voters that the national economic picture is indicative of being a more competent party in government than Labour. But they have not convinced the electorate of a significant competence advantage over Labour so far. Figure 2 reveals a summary measure of party competence across issues, or ‘macro-competence‘. This is calculated (with Will Jennings from the University of Southampton) from all available survey and opinion poll questions on party ratings for handling all issues. We use a statistical technique that calculates the common variation in public opinion about competence.
Figure 2: General competence score, by party
This general competence measure reveals how little the electorate currently differentiates between the overall competence of the two major potential parties of government. Despite a significant perception by the electorate of economic recovery, the Conservatives have not translated this into a strong lead for the Conservatives on competence. This will likely be another contributing factor in the tendency of voters to support challenger parties in 2015, in the absence of a strong competence differential between potential single-party governments.
Figure 2 is also striking given the well-known differential between ‘best prime minister’ questions comparing David Cameron and Ed Miliband. One could be forgiven for assuming that David Cameron is therefore an asset for his party. However, less than 30% of respondents tend to opt for David Cameron in ‘best prime minister’ questions (lower than average Conservative vote intention), and ratings of Cameron on YouGov’s ‘doing well or badly’ leadership question are consistently net negative (and have been since 2010). This is borne out in BES questions on leadership as well. On a BES dislike-like scale, where 0 = strongly dislike and 10 = strongly like, David Cameron’s mean score is 4.0, Ed Miliband’s is 3.7, Nick Clegg’s is 3.3 and Nigel Farage’s is 3.1. We should be cautious before concluding that David Cameron has an unequivocal leadership advantage.
Perhaps, failing a competence advantage, the Conservatives can attract support on the popularity of their policies? The Conservative’s clearest dividing line – to cut the deficit more quickly and deeply assumes that voters will accept further cuts and that they believe the deficit should be reduced. The majority of BES respondents consider it desirable (but not necessary), or important (but not absolutely necessary) to cut the deficit, but only 25% consider it ‘absolutely necessary’. This would seem to advantage Labour’s position. Not only this, but a perceived threat of further public sector cuts would be deeply unpopular. Only 11% of BES respondents think cuts to public spending have not gone far enough whereas 28% think the cuts in general have been about right and 53% think they have gone too far. When asked about cuts to NHS services, the per cent saying the cuts have gone too far is 69%.
The Conservatives have a lot riding on the national economic recovery. Whether they can translate that into an increase in Conservative vote intention between now and May 7th appears to be contingent on their ability to convince voters that their competence on the economy is largely sufficient. Despite the claims of the Conservatives that they offer ‘competence over chaos’, they do not have a clear advantage on competence with the electorate.