Today's ICM poll in the News of the World makes interesting reading. The survey of 192 Labour-held marginals suggests that the party is set to lose 164 of them to the Tories at the general election.
However the mathematics - as Mike Smithson points out over at Political Betting - are a little bit more complex than the poll suggests. Smithson argues that a lead of 20% would be required to produce such enormous gains for the Tories. Saturday's ICM survey for the Guardian gave the Tories a margin of just 12% - suggesting therefore that something different might be happening in marginal seats currently held by Labour.
What we know clearly from the 2005 election is that when the Tories invest heavily in the tactic of targeting voters in marginal seats it normally proves effective.
The Conservatives understand that in the marginals local campaigning can make a decisive electoral difference. Much of the campaigning I refer to is 'drip feed' in style and purpose. The Tories have invested heavily in direct mail leaflets and letters often paying either the post office or private contractors to get out the information on a weekly or fortnightly basis. The Tories understand that money can buy a lot of campaigning, that more cash you plough into local campaigns the more likely it is that you can secure a win - particularly in the marginal constituencies.
For example, back in 2005 in the seat where I live (The Wrekin) in the six months before the election,the Tory candidate received £55,000 from a fund coordinated by Lord Ashcroft, the now Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party. Lord Ashcroft had provided a huge war chest which targeted over £1 million on 93 marginal constituencies. In some, the objective was to protect Conservative MPs with slender majorities; in others it was to soften up relatively safe Labour seats for the next election; but in the key seats such as mine, it was to skew the result in the Tories’ favour. In the weeks running up to polling day the Tory candidate's campaign team was able to afford to place whole page adverts in the local media. The result was that Labour lost The Wrekin seat (and an excellent local MP) and 24 of the Conservatives’ 36 gains in 2005 had been targeted by their localised funding strategy. In these 24 seats the Conservatives had on average more than twice as much to spend as Labour and secured an average swing of 4.5% compared to a national average of 3.1%.
The Tories are busy implementing a similar strategy in readiness for the next general election. Candidates are in place and the 'drip feed' campaign is in full swing. The truth is that the next election will, like so many before it, be won or lost in the marginal seats. Labour grasped this back in 1997 and the Tories are building on the lessons learned from the tactics deployed in 2005. Many of the Labour/Conservative marginals are marginal mainly because of the defection of many Labour voters to the Lib Dems in 2005 - mainly in protest against the war in Iraq. To regain the trust of these on time supporters Labour's best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done or in defending the status quo, but in campaigning against inequalities in health and education and in showing why these warrant further state action.
The campaigns in the marginals will be critical. Labour should seize the moment and put an end to the era of fuzzy politics by showing the nation that what divides Labour from the Tories is far greater than any of the marginal policies on which they are occasionally united. To do this it needs to match the Tory campaign tactics, clarify its message and rediscover its pride and self-confidence. It is not yet too late to secure the foundations for a Labour victory at the next general election but it very soon will be.