By Ian Waller
UNDER a daily barrage of public opinion polls going up and down like yoyos it is scarcely surprising that the electorate—or at least the very small part that has yet got itself involved in electioneering — is deeply baffled about the state of public opinion and the outcome of the general election.
The pollsters, of whom there are now at least half a dozen different organisations claiming to be taking the nation's pulse, explain the differences (and they amount, according to your taste, to a Labour lead of 100 or a Tory victory of 40) by saying that public opinion is very volatile. Alternatively, that their answers are within the margin of statistical error. Personally, I have a higher regard for the good sense of the average voter than that. I do not believe—which some polls ask me to accept—that in a space of 48 hours something like four million people change their political allegiance. The volatility lies with the competence of the pollsters rather than the electorate; but it is a sad thing that both Mr. Wilson and Mr. Heath should be so obsessed with this new black magic.
Naturally the polls during the week-end — the Sunday Telegraph Gallup showing a 11 per cent cut in Labour's lead to, nonetheless, a still very substantial 5f per cent; and the Sunday Times O.R.C. poll showing a 2 per cent Conservative lead — excited the Conservative Central Office and worried Downing Street even though, obvia ously, they cannot both be right.
The truth, as so often in life, probably lies between the extremes. The potential Labour vote is holding firm and increasing slightly while a lot of unenthusiastic Tories, disappointed as they may be with the thought of Ted Heath as a future Prime Minister, are returning to the fold, horrified by the prospect of another five years of Harold.
In between it is the Liberals and the "Don't Knows" who are being squeezed and my own guess (and frankly that is just as good as the expensive rubbish that the pollsters are turning out) is that Labour has a moderate, although narrowing lead but still one large enough to give them victory on June 18.
The real electoral battle has, of course, only just been joined. The Conservatives had a splendid time last week spending as much of the million pound Carrington fund as they could get through in advertising the main theme of their campaign: high prices and high taxation; Mr. Wilson, for his part, remained silent in the belief that the voters can only take 18 days of electioneering; but he and Mr. Heath— to say nothing of Lord Byers on behalf of the Liberals— went into action officially on Monday at their respective daily press conferences.
The opening shots were pretty banal. Mr. Wilson, in a hired red-lined hall in a Westminster back street, sits with his Defence Minister, Denis Healey, and the party's General Secretary Harry Nicholas. He is benign, witty, and very much the man in charge—personifying the impression he sought to create in the first of the party TV broadcasts on Monday: that Labour is the natural ruling party and he the most natural of the nation's leaders.
After that we journalists move down to the Liberal conference or, it might be more accurate to say, cannot escape it since it is strategic-• ally sited between Labour's Trevelyan Hall and the Conservative Central Office.
There Lord Byers flanked by Lord Beaumont, denounces both parties with splendid impartiality. But who, with any sense of history, would ever have thought that the Liberal Party would depend on a couple of peers to state their case?
But it has to be since Jeremy Thorpe is largely engaged in defending his very marginal seat. Then to the Conservative Central Office. On the stroke of 11 Mr. Heath arrives, crisp, clean and blue-suited. In the last two election campaigns Sir Alec Douglas Home sat against a background of the Palace of Westminster; Mr. Heath's background this time is a fascinating series of circles and, quite clearly. a symbol of enormous significance to the Public Relations experts who advise him.
But just what it is intended to convey I am not sure. His answers to questions are precise and efficient; but somehow he totally fails to establish the easy rapport with his audience that the Prime Minister creates, or the sympathy for the underdog battling against the odds, that the forthright Lord Byers arouses.
There is not much to be said of the content of the campaign so far. There was a time when some eager Conservatives wanted to fight it on the lines of the "New Society" : the gritty purposeful and dynamic world of private enterprise and personal endeavour and Mr. Heath still hankers after, as his manifesto—reading between the lines—shows.
For the election, however, he has decided on a more negative but perhaps more rewarding line: the Labour failure. But what Mr. Heath, unless he is to risk falling into Gaitskell's 1959 trap, has got to show, is just how he is going to cut taxes. It is a theme that Mr. Wilson is harping on and which comes up again and again at Mr. Heath's press conferences. So far there has been no compellingly satisfactory answer.
The main party leaders are concentrating their efforts on daily press conferences with. in Mr. Heath's case, evening speeches and, for Mr. Wilson, a "meet the people tour."
Meanwhile both leaders have let their mavericks loose ! George Brown, one of the best mob orators in the business. is on a marathon nation-wide tour which could be brilliantly successful but also holds the frightening prospect for Mr. Wilson of a boob on a scale that only George is capable of.
Then there is Enoch Powell who, to the embarrassment of the Conservative Party leadership, launched his own manifesto last weekend. It was very simple and undoubtedly very compelling for many on the Right: stop all immigration and "I shall do my best to make sure we never enter the Common Market." And, as only Powell can do, he commanded all the party press conferences on Monday.
To the question "What comment on the Powell mani festo." Mr. Wilson simply said, and with unspoken but heartfelt thanks, "He is not my problem"; Lord Byers challenged Mr. Heath to disown him as a Tory candidate and future M.P.; Mr. Heath simply observed that Tory policies on the Common Market and immigration were well known and would not be affected by the views of individual Conservative candidates.
Mr. Powell, and who can doubt he calculated it, in fact threw a very big stone into the Tory pond with his weekend manifesto. But just what is he up to? Is he. as Mr. Heath hopes, just an off-stage noise to be tolerated and humoured? Or does he represent something very deep in the Tory soul?
Is he trying to split the Tory party in the hope of gaining power when Mr. Heath is consigned to political oblivion in the aftermath of defeat? On Tuesday night I went to Dudley and Stourbridge, to hear the Messiah in action.
It was an extraordinary experience. "You will arise again, the nation needs you", proclaimed the Chairman to rapturous applause, "You are a man, who can take up any ministerial appointment Mr Heath can give". His themes at his meeting that evening were the irrelevance of the balance of payments and ihe importance of the control of the supply of money. Though neither was routine electioneering material. the argument was followed with starry-eyed admiration by a thousand or so Conservatives.
All at once the problems that have baffled Chancellors and economists for 20 years disappeared: the prophet had spoken. Most significant perhaps was the loud applause for his attack on the Common Market: "Each man must make up his own mind; but I say to my electorate, we must not go in".
I was still no wiser at the end about what Mr Powell's motives really are. The potency of his appeal to a section of the Conservative party is unmistakeable. But so too is his disruptive potential. The appeal by a Conservative peer, Lord Hartford, urging Conservatives in Wolverhampton to vote Labour in order to defeat Mr. Powell, "a man whose views are evil . . and a menace to our civilisation," is a straw in the wind. Mr Powell may enrapture some but he horrifies others and there is nothing Mr Heath needs more than the support of liberal opinion.