Monday, 2 June 2014

General election: one year out.

As the dust settles on the recent electoral ‘earthquake’ it is time to survey the damage done and look at the likelihood of any aftershocks a year from now in what is likely to be one of the closest elections of recent times. With 51% of people agreeing that UKIP has highlighted important issues which other parties aren’t taking seriously enough (a figure that includes 52% of Conservative voters and 44% of Labour voters) the media could seem justified in heralding a new age of four party politics. But after vote shares of 16% and 17% in the last two European elections resulted in shares of only 2% and 3% at the following general elections respectively, it remains far from clear what discernable impact on the general election UKIP’s share of 28% will garner this time around.

Nigel Farage certainly plans to “turn the heat” up and to carry momentum forward to win “a good number of seats in Westminster next year”, but general elections are not the same beast as the European elections; UKIP will have to answer to the electorate on the bread and butter issues that often decide general elections. In fact, only one quarter of UKIP voters from the European election say that Europe will be the most important issue in deciding who they vote for next year and recent scrutiny of their policies beyond Europe means they will be busy refurbishing their dated manifesto this summer, much like they have renovated their party representatives recently. But for UKIP it is not just a question of can they compete, but whether the public want them to: only 51% of UKIP voters say they will vote for them again next year[1] leaving the question on Labour and Tory lips being where will UKIP voters go? Will they vote at all? If they do, who will it be for? The two biggest parties will aim to welcome back to the fold the 6 out of 10 UKIP voters that said they were sending a message that they were unhappy with the party they usually support[2].

However things turn out in next year’s election, we can be sure that it will be predictable in its unpredictability:

  • ·         A government hasn’t increased it’s vote share after more than two years in office since 1955, one of only two times it’s happened since the turn of the twentieth century
  • ·         An opposition party hasn’t been elected with a majority after a single parliament out of office since 1931
  • ·         We have seen successive hung parliaments only once (1910) since The Great Reform Act of 1832

So not only does any feasible outcome have very little precedent, but we are dealing with unknown conditions here: we just don’t know what happens when a party outside of the top two wins a national vote as it hasn't happened for over 100 years; a time when the 1905 Aliens Act was introduced to respond to concerns about immigration from Eastern Europe. How times have changed.

Let us consider the prospects of the parties through their respective leaders, each of whom are facing tough questions and decisions in the aftermath of the elections.

Nigel Farage, UKIP.

Nigel Farage has been the epicentre of the earthquake but it remains to be seen whether they can buck the trend of previous elections and hold on to a decent number of their euro votes. Farage will take some hope from the party’s steady rise in popularity since the 2010 general election. Compared to the boom and bust support they have previously achieved, burgeoning at European elections and crashing soon after, he will hope the party are cementing their place in national political discourse. But UKIP risk being suffocated for column inches and will have to strive to remain relevant as the national debate shifts to the Scottish independence referendum and away from UKIP’s comfort zone. They will know that they won’t achieve anywhere near 100% success in their 20-30 target seats, and will be hard pressed to hit double figures in vote share come next May. Whether this is enough for a seat remains to be seen but, if they do pick up one or two, our electoral demographics mean it will most likely be from Conservative incumbents.

David Cameron, Con.

David Cameron’s Conservative Party is facing a cynical electorate. With the most reason electorally to worry about UKIP’s popularity they face a real possibility of gaining the most votes but not the most seats – our first past the post voting system mean the Conservatives need an 11% favour in vote share to win a majority, whereas Labour ca do so on a 2.6% lead. The backdrop is still a difficult one for the Tories; Ipsos MORI’s Political Monitor still places their party as the most disliked (56%), even beating UKIP into second place (53%). Despite this they will hope that an improving economy, seen as the most important issue facing the country at the moment (IM political monitor) combined with their image as the most competent party at managing the it (enjoying a 13% lead over Labour on the issue) will carry them into a majority government come next year. If this is to be realised they will be hoping to turn around the perception that 48% of the public expect to see no personal benefit from the improving economy, even if they don’t think Ed Miliband would fare any better at the helm.

Cameron faces a number of decisions over the next 12 months or so. On Europe he faces calls from his party’s right wing (so aptly represented by Jacob Rees-Mogg) to form an official deal with UKIP and run on a joint coupon, though recent YouGov polling predicts a boost to Labour if this scenario ever materialised, and domestically he has to steer the coalition ship into port through indubitably tumultuous seas whilst his Deputy PM and first mate openly sets plans afoot for a mutiny. Despite these challenges the RSA’s Matthew Taylor, speaking at an Ipsos MORI/ Kings College London event, argued that the Tory story of unfinished work sorting out Labour’s mess remains the most powerful amongst the main parties. Labour’s cost of living narrative is still not striking a perfect chord with the voters, so Cameron will look to capitalise on this. As to always seem to be the case with the Conservative Party, the next general election could be a crossroads for the party. On one side, defeat, though it is unclear exactly what constitutes defeat, would leave the euro-sceptic right of the party baying for blood and weighing up their options: jump ship to UKIP or install one of their own at the ships helm to steer away from European shores? On the other hand, victory would constitute a mandate for austerity and the ensuing In/Out referendum would quieten down UKIP in the long term, giving the voice to the electorate instead.

Ed Miliband, Lab.

Ed Miliband’s battle over the next year is a personal one, 54% of the public are dissatisfied with the job he is doing as Labour leader and only 54% of his own party’s supporters think he is doing a good job. Struggling to convince people at his leadership qualities and suitableness to the role of PM and reeling from a slightly bloody nose from underwhelming election results, the clock is ticking on Miliband presenting his Labour Party as an attractive proposition to the electorate.

These question marks over the Labour leader are likely to see the Conservative election campaign focus in on him, much like they did (successfully) on Neil Kinnock in 1992, an election that saw the highest voter turnout since the war. One option available to Ed in an attempt to neutralise any such campaign is to accept his persona, stop battling against perceptions of him being a ‘geek’, and try and shift the debate onto his chosen ground. However, a similar approach for Iain Duncan Smith was less successful – he failed to make it to the end of the year as leader following his 2003 “the quiet man is here to stay and he’s turning up the volume” tory party conference speech. Comparisons to Iain Duncan Smith don’t end there unfortunately for Ed Miliband and his team: his poll ratings as leader of the opposition compare much more closely with the unsuccessful IDS, Michael Howard and William Hague than they do with Blair or Cameron in their time leading the second party. The fact that Lord Ashcroft recent polling of 26,000 voters found that 56% prefer Cameron to Miliband as PM will be cause for concern in the Labour camp.

Labour’s concern’s do not end with Ed. Question marks over the party’s economic credibility are reflected in dwindling vote shares in the polls. A year before the 2010 general election the Conservatives held a 13 point lead in the polls and didn’t win a majority a year later. In this context, Labour’s 1 point lead looks as tenuous as ever and the fact that in 6 out of the 9 elections since the war where there was 1 party slightly ahead in the polls a year before the election the other party won will hardly inspire the Labour party faithful. As has already been said, this election will be nothing if not unpredictable.

Nick Clegg, Lib Dem.

The Liberal Democrat leader has had the toughest fallout from the Local and European elections. Facing in-fighting in his party, calls to resign from prospective parliamentary candidates and the Lord Rennard issue refusing to go away, Clegg is in for a tough 12 months. The dynamics of the coalition over the next year has the potential to reinforce or undermine the case for plural politics in the UK. The reality for the Liberal Democrats, according to the editor of The Day, Miranda Green (speaking at Ipsos MORI/Kings event), is that the party is in a difficult purgatory between it’s non-government forming radical centre left past, and a future that is only being discovered day by day. Re-finding their market in the electorate in this context is a difficult task, but one they knew they were taking on when they entered into a “politically toxic” coalition with the Conservative Party. The difficult question for Lib Dems to answer currently is: If they are polling at 8/9% and are to get 13% vote share come next May, where are these votes coming from?

Lib Dem hopes rely on their citadel strongholds carrying them through. Ironically, first past the post is likely to benefit them in the general election this time around and they will be looking to hold on to over 30 of their 57 current seats, despite completely plummeting in the polls. The mentality of the Lib Dems will be to fight a series of by elections much like in Eastleigh last year where they combined their traditional local approach spearheaded by Paddy Ashdown’s Lib Dems of the 90’s with national government success stories to retain the seat.

Whatever their approach, Lib Dem supporters are not particularly optimistic – only 24% of their supporters say it is very important to them personally who wins the next election, compared to 54% of Labour supporters and 51% of Conservatives. With the vote next year expected to be as close as any, it is perfectly likely that the Lib Dems will once again hold the balance of power, despite Nigel Farage’s grandiose claims. That means they will write their manifesto knowing they could be faced with the prospect or taking it into negotiations with both Labour and the Conservatives – posing a strategic challenge for Nick Clegg and his team.

As we approach 11 months until the electorate delivers their verdict on 5 years of coalition, 5 years of austerity and UKIP’s VE day, the result itself is as unclear as it ever has been. Whilst the economy is the most important issue facing the electorate nationwide at the moment by some way, the picture is more subtle in marginal seats where immigration ranks as much more important than elsewhere. How the main parliamentary parties react to this remains to be seen in full however and alienating other voters by swinging to the right on the issue will be a concern at the forefront of party strategist’s minds. With the Conservative’s strongest on the economy but the public not feeling the benefits, it seems like Labour have an opportunity to capitalise on but the success with which they can do this relies on Ed Miliband connecting with voters in a way he has thus far failed to do.

One thing that definitely will be on trial in next year’s election is the UK’s acceptance of pluralist politics - a stake in which is one of the only things UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have in common. Will Nick Clegg’s Lib Dems be booted out of government as swiftly as they acceded to it? Can UKIP’s earthquake really rattle the foundations of Westminster? Will a 10% UKIP vote with perhaps only a single seat to show for it place more strain and scrutiny on the first past the post system? The local and European elections have raised more questions than they have answered and the fortunes of each party are sure to rise and fall many times before the all-important vote on 7th May 2015.

"The three party leaders are like goldfish that have been tipped out of their bowl onto the floor and are gasping for air."
Nigel Farage

[1] Lord Ashcroft polling
[2] ibid