Thursday 16 September 2010

Can Question Time make any difference?

The David Cameron versus David Davis Question Time debate was the key public moment once the last Tory leadership campaign had been narrowed down to two. It had the potential to have a dramatic impact – because it took place on the Thursday night of November 3rd 2005, two days before ballot papers started going out in the post on the Saturday - Though the momentum was very strongly with David Cameron after the game-changing party conference, just before MPs had voted for their shortlist.

There has been no similar showcase test comparable to either the Tory party conference or the BBC debate in the Labour leadership election – nor is there going to be. Tonight’s Labour Question Time special on Thursday night takes place 15 days after the ballots go out. About half of those who are going to vote do so in the first three or four days. YouGov found 40% had cast a ballot during polling a week ago. Insiders estimate that over half and perhaps three-quarters of those who will vote have done so.

So Question Time looks like ‘the ghost of hustings past’ – an action replay following the national tour. It is a fortnight too late to really matter.

Though, in theory, the programme – whose regular audience averages around 2.5 million - could provide one last opportunity for the candidates to extend the electorate.

3.5 to 4 million people have an affiliate ballot in this election – over 10% of those who voted at the General Election. Not all of those who pay a political levy would be prepared to declare themselves eligible: voters must self-certify that they share Labour’s aims and values on their ballot. Only around 40% of trade unionists are Labour supporters.

It is estimated that around 750,000 affiliate ballot papers will be returned.

David Miliband was getting at in telling the BBC politics show that the YouGov poll was a “wake-up call”, in an echo of recent Labour campaign slogans, such as “If you value it, vote for it” in 2005.

"It's good that there is a wake-up call for this election. Because too many people have thought that they can get a leader who can unite the party, from Dennis Skinner to Alistair Darling, get a leader whom the Tories fear, get a leader who sets out a forward agenda, but not have to vote for him. The truth is, if you want that leader, which I will be, then the people who are watching this programme need to go into their kitchens, pick up their ballot papers and vote."

His photo call with Gisela Stuart visualises the Don’t Bin Your Ballot message, aiming at Birmingham trade union voters.

There is a rational logic to the point. If it was possible to force the 3 million abstainers to make a choice, so there is a good chance that David Miliband would do better among them than among the other candidates, as he is polling more highly among all voters, and among Labour voters in the broader electorate, than he is among party members. (It may be stretching the point to suggest these voters have a strong and decided preference for David Miliband but are simply letting others do the work of getting him elected; four out of ten Labour supporters among the general public don’t have a candidate preference, and MiliD’s lead among the remainder will partly reflect higher name recognition among the general public for the ex-Foreign Secretary, making it be very difficult to accurately weight the different factors).

Among party members and affiliated trade unionists, YouGov found MiliD supporters are less likely to have voted already, and more likely to say they probably won’t vote in the end. (MiliD has a 6 – 2% lead among trade union affiliates with a preference who told the pollster they “probably won’t vote”, but is behind among those who say they have voted or are certain to, making differential turnout a potentially important factor).

Persuading another 7500 – 10,000 more members to vote would affiliate turnout by 1% - and so be worth 0.33% of the electoral college if they all broke one way. But these least engaged potential voters are going to be particularly difficult for the campaigns to identify and reach.

Question Time could be one final moment to try to do something about it.

But it will take quite something to look down the camera lens and persuade 100,000 more people among those missing 3 million to get out and vote.

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