There is little precedent for the General Election we are about to experience here in the UK. 1974 is the closest parallel we have. This resulted Conservative failure to form a stable minority government and a second Election in the Autumn – leading to the disastrous Labour administration that sowed the seeds for Thatcher’s triumph five years later. Today, a combination of coalition fatigue and malcontent with our political leaders means I see little appetite for a second election this year – however inconclusive a result we get on 7 May. And Dear God In Heaven inconclusive it is set to be. Below I examine the political landscape as I see it and some of the trends I expect to see over the next 3 months.
What has happened since May 2010?
While the polling gap between the Tories and Labour has closed in recent months, remember that the Election result achieved by the Tories in 2010 was against a backdrop of consistent polling around 40% – a level they have been nowhere near since 2012. The chart below shows how the haemorrhaging of Lib Dem support after 2010 went, on average, to Labour (Wave 1) – (unfortunately cannot be displayed). It has shown little sign of returning since or going over to the Tories. This will be key on May 7th because much of the subsequent movement in the polls are, in my opinion, temporary and likely to be reversed on Election Day.
The initial rise of UKIP (Wave 2) looks like being disaffected Tories frustrated by coalition and Cameron’s leadership. By contrast the second rise of UKIP (Wave 3) looks much more like they came from Labour voters disillusioned with Miliband’s leadership – captured succinctly by that infamous Emily Thornbury tweet. Finally Wave 4 has seen Labour voters move to the Greens. This has coincided with Ed Balls’ rhetoric on fiscal restraint in the next parliament and has disillusioned the core Labour vote.
So how many of these ‘waves’ are set to be sustained on May 7th?
Our First Past the Post electoral system here is key. With limited winnable seats for UKIP and the Greens I expect waves 2,3 and 4 to return to their original voting intentions in the marginal seats where the voting really matters. The problem the Tories face therefore is the swing back to Labour that this will trigger. It would also be further reinforced if, as I expect, the UKIP manifesto matches the views of their wealthy benefactors and aligns itself with the right-wing Tory view – this means Wave 2 may be more sticky. Labour face the same problem with Wave 4 if they produce a more centrist manifesto – and it is this latter reason that is behind Cameron’s desperation to have the Greens in the TV debates.
The Lib Dems remain key for the Tories – and the SNP have made it so
In marginal constituencies including student-heavy Sheffield Hallam (Nick Clegg’s seat) the sustainability of the Lib Dem vote, and their existing seats is key in May’s race for power. While there are regional examples (South West England) where the collapse of the Lib Dems may play to the Tories there are also London seats where this will let Labour in. The excellent Joe Murphy summarises this here: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/exclusive-election-poll-labour-could-seize-eight-london-target-seats-as-lead-grows-10002698.html . The Mansion Tax is not nearly as unpopular as many believe and Labour have a 10 point lead in London – they had 2pp in 2010 and still won 38 seats to the Tories 28.
The reason for the enduring relevance of the Lib Dems in this campaign is the changing politics in Scotland. With Labour poised to be all but wiped out this, perhaps paradoxically at first glance, lessens the chances of a Tory Government. Its impact is to bring the SNP in as the likely kingmaker, overtaking the Lib Dems as the third largest parliament (graphic below). As the SNP have categorically ruled out a deal with the Tories this puts Labour at a significant, if unenviable advantage. Yes a Labour agreement with the SNP (either coalition or more likely as an issue-by-issue supporter in a minority government) is fraught with risk for the Labour party – but ask yourself would Labour voters be any more forgiving if they failed to form this coalition and let the Tories back in for a second term? Expect the wily old fox Salmond to use “vote SNP and get our voice heard in Westminster” and for this to be deeply effective in sustaining the SNP lead. This narrative appeals to Unionists as much as it does Separatists.
The Numbers Game
The big thing that is so often overlooked is the electoral arithmetic that provides an inherent bias to Labour. This from Mark Field’s (Tory MP for the City of London) excellent website:
7.3%: This was the extent (in percentage terms) of the Conservative lead over Labour in the national vote in 2010. So remember – a Tory lead anything smaller than this in May implies a net loss of seats to the main opposition party. There is a tendency to lull ourselves into a false sense of security when looking at opinion polls as if being level pegging with Labour is somehow a competitive performance. In fact, even a 3.5 per cent Conservative lead (not something we have achieved in a single opinion poll since before the Budget of 2012) would imply a swing to Labour of almost two per cent, which repeated on a uniform basis across the UK would make them (just) the largest party in parliament.
The biggest mistake that Cameron made was not brokering a deal on electoral reform that addressed the innate bias in the system – should he fail to recover and leaves office in May I suspect he will confirm this in his inevitable memoirs.
The story you have to believe in to see a Conservative government, as I do is that Miliband has a “Kinnock moment” and the Lib Dems fight tenaciously in their incumbent constituencies. Not impossible, and indeed with a growing economy and the inherent nervousness around left of centre governments you would expect support to return to the Tories… but certainly the odds are against this scenario as we stand here today.