Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Dark vistas

Next May’s election may resemble that of October 1974, believes Lewis Baston

Time is running out for two polling phenomena which many have been expecting to kick in before the next general election. The first expected pattern was that the support for insurgent parties would fade as the choice of governments started to loom larger in the electorate’s minds. Thanks to the general slough of despond, and the timing of events like the European elections and the Clacton by-election, there has been little sign of this happening. The United Kingdom Independence party has continued to poll upwards of 15 per cent of the vote, and the Scottish National party and the Green party have been on an upward trend as well during 2014. The combined Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat vote share has hardly hit 80 per cent in the polls this year (it was 90 per cent in 2010). The vote for the others may subside as the election approaches, but this cannot now be regarded as a certainty, merely an unproven possibility.

It was also widely expected that the Conservatives would move ahead of Labour once the economy showed signs of improving. The severe economic underperformance of 2010-13 has come to an end, and some polls have shown a huge spike in economic optimism since spring 2013. While Labour’s lead has drifted down from the heights it reached in 2012, this has not been because the Conservatives have regained any support, and the blue line has remained narrowly and stubbornly below the red line on charts of voting intention. The polling trends are following wages and living standards in remaining stagnant. None of the main Westminster parties currently has much wind in its sails.

The situation is worst for the Liberal Democrats. They should have started to recover by now, but they still seem to be in decline. The May 2014 local elections were shockingly bad for the party, and its polling numbers are still subterranean – having been overtaken by Ukip they are now in some danger of being overtaken by the Greens. Most observers during this parliament have expected 40-45 of their current 57 MPs to survive, but many such estimates are now being revised down to 30-35.

Labour’s performance in Heywood and Middleton was certainly unnerving, even if not quite as woeful as some commentators made out. A tiny increase in the party’s vote share since 2010 is not a good sign. During 2012, Labour achieved some genuinely good results in by-elections, with solid swings from the Conservatives not just with reference to its 2010 election defeat but also compared to its election victory in 2005. Other than in Wythenshawe and Sale East, performance on this yardstick has been mediocre since the end of 2012 when Ukip started to absorb a lot of voters who were disenchanted with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats and might otherwise have gone to Labour.

What was ominous about Heywood and Middleton was that Ukip monopolised, as never before, the anti-Labour vote in a seat where the party has always been ahead but where there have also always been significant votes for other parties. In the by-election the Conservative vote collapsed to Ukip. Sixty-five per cent of non-Labour votes were cast for Ukip, compared to a previous high of 49 per cent in South Shields last year. There will be few direct losses of seats from Labour to Ukip in 2015, but the big risk is of Nigel Farage establishing himself as the main opposition in Labour areas and posing a real threat in by-elections after 2015, and then at the next general election.

The Conservatives are also in deep trouble. They are widely regarded as governing in the interests of the rich, and do little to dispel this perception. It has an asset in David Cameron, who is bafflingly over-rated, partly because he seems to ‘look like a prime minister’ (which says a lot about the cultural expectations we have about our rulers), and partly because he does have genuine skills in short-term situation management, if not in some of the longer-term aspects of the job. The one time Cameron’s statecraft rose to the occasion was in responding to the election results in 2010, seizing the agenda through his ‘big, open and comprehensive’ offer to the Liberal Democrats and successfully seeing it through to a full coalition agreement. The ‘veto’ in the European negotiations in 2011 and his use this September of the victory of the cross-party ‘No’ campaign in Scotland to launch a partisan intervention mostly concerned with England are less impressive.

Cameron’s wheezes can move the dial of public opinion, if only briefly, but this still makes him one of the most effective short-term political operators since Harold Wilson. A good conference in 2007, at which the Tories managed to get the entire media (so it seemed) talking about inheritance tax, impressed enough of the public that it frightened Gordon Brown out of calling an election. His 2014 conference speech (can anyone remember any of it now?) might have produced a two-day blip in public opinion in his favour. One is tempted to conclude that the returns have diminished to near zero, but that would be a mistake – he, and the powers that the office of prime minister gives him, do not need a blip to last long if it comes at the right moment of an election campaign.

It is possible, even probable, that Stuart Wilks-Heeg of Liverpool University was right when he predicted in 2011 that neither of the main parties has a stable path to a parliamentary majority. Neither has enough of a core vote upon which to base an election-winning coalition, and trying to broaden out in one direction means shedding support in another direction. Go socially conservative to win voters back from Ukip? You might win some of them, although they are cynical about all political offers, but then you might lose voters to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens in marginals like Broxtowe or Lancaster.

The political mood is one of melancholy. The party conferences, more than ever, seem like meaningless rituals. The only people who have had any fun have been the Scottish Nationalists (and the wider ‘Yes’ campaign in Scotland) and Ukip. Responsibility has been a burden: for leaders of local authorities, for government, and for the opposition that hopes to be the government.

Darkening the mood even further is the thought that the next parliament may be even worse. Disaster and crisis seem to be on the way in the NHS, the welfare system and in everything the major local authorities try to do in the face of massive budget cuts. The deficit is still enormous, aggravated by the unnecessarily slow recovery and the structural change in the economy. Where once an inflated financial sector could generate funds which one could use to good effect, now a low-pay economy (and the policy of raising tax thresholds) means that the tax revenues are just not coming in. But the Conservatives still brandish tax cuts for the better-off. The sheer triviality and gamesmanship of Cameron and George Osborne at a serious moment is offensive. But Labour, hobbled by caution and a sense of the tight limits of what is possible, cannot convey its seriousness of purpose because it has so little to offer, and such a weak and uncertain tone of voice in offering it.

Politics today looks like the grim vistas on offer in 1974 and 1981, but with the social bases of the parties hollowed out and the public even more alienated. It is quite possible that Labour will get a result next year something like October 1974 – an unworkable, small majority and a nightmarishly hard slog in the years ahead. And that, regrettably, is the relatively optimistic scenario.


Lewis Baston is a contributing editor to Progress

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Lewis Baston

is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit and author of the Progress pamphlet, Marginal Difference


  • Estimates for the Lib Dems should have been revised down to 20 to 25 as soon as Nick Clegg refused to resign in June 2015. It may even be less. We are probably witnessing the final demise of Liberals as an independent force in UK politics. It may take 30 years for the final step, but the failure of its MPs in refusing to wield the knife has condemned them to a lingering death.

    For a party whose councillors would walk over burning coals to fight for a mistreated housing case, the cowardice of all its senior MPs to fight for the party’s values against a bullying leadership is truly shocking.

  • I would make 2 points, first, the recent Ashcroft Polling showed that nearly half of UKIP support came from “Voters” who didnt Vote in 2010, cut them out & the current average of 16% falls to 9%, a massive increase on last time but nowhere near the level where they would begin to win Seats.
    Second, while you are right that we would normally expect Governing Parties to have begun to recover at this point, that was before the introduction of Fixed-Term Parliaments. By this stage we would normally have had a year of Press speculation about a “Snap Election”. Such stories are generally rubbish but most Voters dont know that. In the new conditions everyone knows its another 6 Months to The Election, thats another 4 Months before ordinary Voters need to start thinking about their decision. Fixed-Terms have effectively extended the old “Mid-Term” by an extra 18 Months.

  • 25 years since Berlin Wall demolished? Gorbachev [looking a bit wan on tv] is drafted in by Putin [nothing allowed without his approval] to defend his leader? Scraping the barrel, Vlad? A quarter of a century ago USSR were a real threat to West’s survival. It is said a Bear only hibernates.

    Whilst our politicians fiddle polls, popularity ratings and stats for GE UK the rest of Europe burns.
    Whoever is in the hot-seat @Number 10 next May [Labour fine sailing – if it holds its nerve in the ranks] should not let things slide back to those Cold-War Days – Le Carre would turn in his grave.

  • …. sorry, le Carre’s alive it was George Smiley who was [born] in 1906.
    Its George who would turn in his grave if he saw the state of affairs over in Russia presently. Poking a Bear with a stick to see if there is any reaction is a dumb thing to do? “We sure as hell are giving that there Bear some stick, Pardner! And it aint movin’ a doggone inch! ha! Poke it some more!”
    Somebody’s going to get a reaction alright, and the Yanks are miles away.

  • See “Defusing the debt timebomb” at There is no more than a couple of years before this gets totally out of hand if not faced up to.
    to quote

    IEA research has estimated that, given future spending commitments, achieving long-term fiscal balance in the UK would require immediate tax rises maintained in the indefinite future of 14 per cent of GDP. This would be impossible to achieve, because such an increase in tax rates would lead to a fall in economic growth. Alternatively, spending cuts of around one quarter of all government spending or cuts of around one half of all health and social protection spending would be necessary. In other words, to balance the books, the government will have to renege on the commitments it has made to future generations.

    I’s love to know how Miliband (or any of the parties) proposes to tackle this.

  • “It is quite possible that Labour will get a result next year something
    like October 1974 – an unworkable, small majority and a nightmarishly
    hard slog in the years ahead.”

    Given recent polls, an outright majority (even of 3 as in ’74) would be considered a massive result for Ed and would probably cement his leadership for the whole term of 2015-20. He could then spend his 5 years battling one by-election crisis after another.

  • I’ve been thinking this for some time that the whole political situation from 2010 onwards was going to be a re-run of 1973 to 1979, but I’m more inclined to think of Cameron as being more like Ted Heath than Wilson…. I’m not the only one thinking along these lines then….

  • Like David Cameron did, you mean? Wouldn’t make a jot of difference. Those who didn’t want to, simply wouldn’t trust his offer.

  • Oct 1974 was at the time the lowest turnout, since universal suffrage,labour got 39% of the vote, and the liberals strongly disagree with the EEC referendum, the union laws,nationalising british Steel,, as such the 1979 election saw a 77% turnout, and they got 44%, I need to Remind you of the 4 following elections,if we did win next year ,the four following elections could reflect,the 79-97 ones

  • Except in my area where they run the council and have two mps it’s the lib dems that seem to be going from strength to strength and Labour who are in turmoil over three defections to Independent in a month. Also, UKIP are so disorganised here they failed to put up a candidate in a crucial by-election as they didn’t do the paperwork in time.

  • You could very well be right. But at least the offer would put him on a par with Mr Cameron in that respect and avoid the charge of running away. A vast improvement on his current dismal position.

  • It might be sensible for Labout to form a coalition with another party even if it wins a majority. It might also be the case that a pact with other parties or candidates will be the only way to avoid inevitable defeat in 2015.

  • It’s interesting to hear there is still someone who claims to be doing well for the Lib Dems. Sadly a look at the results last May shows how thin the veneer of success is. One place in the whole of mainland UK that delivered a majority for the Lib Dems in the Euro elections; in most MPs
    constituencies share of the vote in council elections down to barely a third; and a tiny number of places where they gained a couple of seats on the council. Did any gain more than two?

    It is sad that a once principled party is reduced to clinging to reciting
    problems with Labour and UKIP when they have let the Tories in by the back door through Clegg’s inability to run a coalition. If you don’t sort yourselves out quickly, the electorate will sort you all out quick time, but it is probably is too late already.

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