Ukip likely to play defining role in determining next PM's prospects
One year out from a general election and party strategists are eyeing fickle voters
Labour leader Ed Miliband, Lib Dems leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Conservative leader and prime minister David Cameron are a mere 12 months away from testing their popularity at the polls. Photograph: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA
Nick Clegg went to a nightclub this week – although admittedly one of London’s most famous ones, the Ministry of Sound – to launch his party’s campaign in this month’s local elections in England.
Given the party’s unpopularity at national level, a few in the nightclub could have been forgiven for thinking that a nightclub with the word “ministry” in the title may be as close as any of them will ever again get to power.
The general election is just a year away, unless something extraordinary happens to break the alliance that has lasted since May 2010 between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
For now an early break-up is unthinkable, though difficult days lie ahead for both in the European Parliament and, indeed, the local elections to be held on May 22nd. Civil servants are concerned that they will face partisan pressures in the year ahead.
Labour leads in the national polls, though the gap is narrowing. Wages for some groups – not public service workers – are rising for the first time in five years. Growth figures are rising. Voters, however, are cantankerous.
Predictions are useless so far out from an election. However, the landscape is particularly complicated for those who might like to try their luck this time since it is filled with utterly contradictory signals.
Broken down, voter preferences read as follows: the Tories are judged to be the best on the economy and crime. Labour, confusingly, are believed to be better on dealing with the cost of living. The United Kingdom Independence Party, on the other hand, scores best on immigration.
British prime minister David Cameron, though disliked by many, is seen as the one who most looks like a prime minister. Labour’s Ed Miliband is considered honest and most in touch with the British public – but also, in the same breath, seen as remote and geekish.
Meanwhile, it has been an axiom of British politics that the opposition wins power only if has a reputation for better economic management than the government it is seeking to dislodge. Despite all of the difficulties since 2010 Labour has never once occupied that position.
Despite this, Miliband has occasionally chimed with public opinion – once, or twice he actually led it – by favouring state direction of the business world, most notably when he proposed an energy price freeze.
Now, Miliband has widened his agenda, proposing curbs on rent increases. Some of his prospective MPs propose a state takeover of the railways, an idea popular even with those who would regard themselves as Tory.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, believe that they will lose perhaps a third of their House of Commons seats, yet still remain a viable player in post-election coalition talks that they see as inevitable.
However, Clegg’s strategy of protecting his party’s core vote in the European Parliament elections – by branding the Liberal Democrats as “the party of In”, looks set to fail ignominiously, if feedback from canvassing is a guide.
Though much is unpredictable, there are a few central pillars to British politics that appear immutable: one, the combined share of the vote won by the Tories and Labour will fall, as it has in every election since 1951. Second, Labour needs fewer votes than the Tories, because of an in-built voting system bias which enables Labour to take north of England constituencies with small populations, while the Conservatives win in more heavily-populated ones down south.
Indeed, it is argued that election 2015 was decided when Clegg refused Conservative demands to change constituency boundaries – in retaliation for the Tory campaign against his desire for an end to the first-past-the-post voting rules.
Nearly a decade ago, Tony Blair won his third election in 2005 with just 35 per cent of the vote, but it was still good enough to give him a 64-seat majority. Five years later Cameron took a percentage point more, yet fell 20 seats short of a majority in parliament.
Usually, just 150, perhaps a few more, of the 650 seats in the Commons are genuine contests. In such constituencies, voters of a different persuasion to the majority have little, if no chance of their choice coming home.
That arithmetic will have been affected too by the impact of the fixed five-year term that was set down after 2010 by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats as one of their first acts in office.
The value of “the incumbency factor” could be heightened this time, since the 2010 intake, particularly Conservatives, have been far more assiduous about tending to their constituencies with a fevered dedication that has made older colleagues blanch.
Finally, there is the impact of Ukip. Opponents now concede that they will be the major winner in this month’s European elections, but they still pray that Ukip will fall back by the time voters decide who runs Britain.
Such an outcome is likely, but Ukip’s performance seems certain to be the one result that will determine the next occupant of No 10 Downing Street. Conservative defectors make up around 45 per cent of Ukip’s present strength, according to polls.
In 2010, Ukip got just 3.1 per cent in the House of Commons elections. If it gets more than 10 per cent in May 2015, or perhaps even close to that, Cameron cannot hope for another five years in office, regardless of what happens elsewhere in the campaign.