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Andrew Lilico: "Mid-term blues"

It is common in the press and the political classes to characterize the poor opinion poll ratings for the Conservative (and Lib Dem) Party as "mid-term blues".  The idea is that voters very often turn against governments in mid-term, but then return to the fold in the subsequent General Election.

Now that was, as we all know, true in the 1979-83, 1983-87 and 1987-92 Parliaments.  However, there are some important features to note, here.  First, Mrs Thatcher deliberately sought to do highly unpopular things early in her Parliaments, timing her policy initiatives so that their "vindication" would come ahead of the next Election.  Then, the more vigorously her opponents had attacked her policies at the time, the more discredited they would be when those policies worked.  That's not really relevant in this Parliament, as the Coalition has not sought to get its unpopular policies out of the way and complete early in the Parliament - quite the reverse; it scheduled most of its spending cuts for the second half of this Parliament and the spending cuts programme is not scheduled to be complete by the end - there is still scheduled to be one third of it to go at the end of the Parliament.  Since the Coalition has not attempted an act-and-be-vindicated approach, there is little reason to expect a Thatcher-style mid-term unpopularity to convert into late-term popularity.

The 1987-92 Parliament was different.  What happened then was that the mid-term unpopularity led to the leader being changed (to Major), whereupon there was a u-turn across a wide spectrum of policy: the poll tax was abandoned; a more "constructive" approach was adopted to the EU including a commitment to the ERM and signature of the Maastricht Treaty; public spending was increased very significantly.  This change of personnel and policy did lead on to a victory in 1992.  Whether it was the cause of that victory is of course disputed.  But the fact remains that, unless the Conservative Party is planning to change its leader and change its stance on a wide range of policies, the 1987-1992 model of mid-term unpopularity leading to General Election victory seems inapplicable.

But what about other Parliaments?  Well, mid-term unpopularity in 2005-2010 led to electoral defeat.  What about 2001-2005?  On ICM data, in the 2001-2005 Parliament the only time Blair was not clearly ahead in the polls was in September 2003, when in one rogue poll Labour, the Conservative and the Lib Dems were all level on 31%.  On Ipsos-Mori data, in September 2003 Labour had a 9% lead.  So in 2001-05, despite Iraq war protests and the like, there were no "mid-term blues" on opinion polls.  What about 1997-2001?  Again, on Labour was never behind in the polls from 1997-2001, except very briefly in September 2000 during the fuel protests.  There were no "mid-term blues" for Blair.

OK, so what about earlier?  Well, Labour lost in 1979, so poor mid-term poll ratings converted into defeat that Parliament.  Heath lost in 1974, so again there was no recovery at the Election.  Wilson lost in 1970.  In 1966, two years into the 1964 Parliament, Wilson won a General Election - so no mid-tem blues there.  The Conservatives lost in 1964, so no recovery from mid-term problems there, despite the change of leader to Douglas-Home.

Fifty years is probably enough to make my point.  The notion of mid-term blues "usually" being reversed at General Elections just hasn't been born out for the past fifty years in British politics, aside from one case where changing leader and policy stance led to victory (Major in 1992) and two cases where the Party deliberately sought to pursue unpopular policies early on, seeking vindication later. If there is to be a recovery for the Conservative vote in 2015, based on a "reversal of mid-term blues" model, history suggests we'd better be either expecting our (incomplete) policies to be vindicated by then or to be changing policy stance and leader.


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