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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