2015 General Election Preview

2015 General Election Preview

This article was first published on Backbench on January 2, 2015

The 2010 General Election was one of the most uncertain and difficult to call in post-war Britain. The 2015 contest looks set to be even more closely fought, with a number of outcomes possible. Below, I look at the prospects of each major player in next year’s election game, before discussing other significant elements that may affect the outcome.

Conservatives

David Cameron failed to lead the Conservatives to victory by an outright majority in 2010, despite circumstances highly propitious to an opposition success. Indeed, an increasingly unpopular Labour administration and a deep recession did not quite manage to sway enough voters toward the Conservatives. The party was caught between not quite shedding a perceptibly toxic ‘brand’ and alienating sections of its socially conservative core support in the process of modernising its image. This time around, the party is battling (and splitting) internally over its stance on Europe as it did in the 1990s, and struggling to deliver its message of economic growth and policy competence, despite polls indicating that it is the most trusted party on the economy.

They will be the largest party if:
The economy continues to grow and Ed Miliband is further isolated and discredited during the election campaign.

They will not be the largest party if:

Labour wins the public debate on austerity and standards of living and UKIP take more than a handful of seats from the Conservatives.

Labour

Labour has consistently led in the majority of credible polls since 2010, despite having a leader who has consistently polled lower than David Cameron during the same period. In the age of image and leader-centric television debates, the ‘Miliband problem’ is acute and Labour is aware of it. Along with the difficulties associated with Miliband’s leadership, Labour is also struggling to deliver a message to voters that the party remains true to its roots. In this regard, Ed Miliband and his core team will need outline Labour’s values more clearly than they have managed to in the past 5 years and posit the party as a credible alternative to the Conservatives on the economy.

They will be the largest party if:

They spend less time challenging UKIP and the Conservatives on immigration and more time developing a message that speaks to voters struggling to make ends meet.

They will not be the largest party if:

The party faithful continues with only a lukewarm defence of Ed Miliband in public and if they try to muscle in on issues that are perceptibly ‘owned’ by the Conservatives and UKIP.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems may lose more than half its seats in May in a rout similar to the European Parliament elections this year, where the party was left with just one MEP. The party is nevertheless standing by its leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, into the 2015 election. Protestations that without them in government, austerity would have been tighter, tax breaks would not have come as swiftly for low earners, and equal marriage would have been sabotaged, have largely fallen on deaf ears as most polls now place the party in 4th place behind UKIP, and some have started to put them in 5th place behind the Greens. There is precedent for the junior partner in a coalition becoming the public ‘whipping boy’; the German Free Democrats and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party have previously seen their vote share collapse after being in government alongside a large centre-right party.

They will get into government if:

Either the Conservatives or Labour fail to secure an overall majority. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems might already be positioning themselves for a renewed agreement in the event of another hung parliament. However, the Lib Dems’ inclusion depends on the party holding onto enough seats to be useful in Parliament.

Green Party

The hashtag #GreenSurge is now used on social media to describe the strong performance of the Green Party in recent months. The Greens are currently making good use of the publicity surrounding its exclusion from the televised debates in the run-up to the General Election. They have expanded their message beyond the traditional focus on ecology and sustainability to include social justice and have positioned themselves as a radical alternative to Labour. The party is currently polling between 7-10%, but is primarily focused on ensuring that Caroline Lucas holds her Brighton Pavilion seat.

They will get into government if:

Labour is the largest party and they win enough seats to be useful to an agreement or formal coalition, or if a Labour-Lib Dem agreement doesn’t have the necessary 326 seats and/or Labour chooses to form a minority government.

UKIP

2014 was a stunning year for the UK Independence Party. Farage’s party won the European Parliament elections, took two MPs from the Conservatives which were also shored up by subsequent by-elections, almost beat Labour in one of their strongholds, and their leader, Nigel Farage, was recently gifted the title of ‘Briton of the Year’ by The Times. Despite being Britain’s ‘most disliked party’, they consistently poll between 10-15% in opinion polls and are beginning to position themselves as Britain’s political alternative.

They will get into government if:

Although some would say the answer is ‘when Hell freezes over’, UKIP may hold the key to a Conservative-led government in 2015. This, of course, depends on the electoral math and a willingness to work together. As such, UKIP playing a formal or even a clear supporting role in the next government is unlikely even if they manage to gain 10-15 seats.

SNP

The Scottish National Party has had a similarly high impact year, despite the resignation of former leader Alex Salmond in the wake of the ‘defeat’ of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the Scottish Independence Referendum in September. The party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is young, accessible, and has intelligently orchestrated a grand tour of Scotland in the wake of the referendum, speaking at events across the country with standing room only. The SNP is also cutting into Labour’s support base. The party is now polling consistently at above 40%, which could mean they gain 10-15 seats at the next election, to the expense of both Labour and the Lib Dems.

They will get into government if:

Labour need them in a hung parliament and agrees to scrap Trident as part of an accordbetween the parties. The SNP could genuinely have 20+ seats at the next General Election, which could even make them the third largest party after polling day. As with a UKIP-Conservative agreement, both parties would be forced to think very carefully about their own interests before joining forces.

‘Others’

As much as this term is demeaning to parties predicted to receive a lower vote share than the six listed above, it is less likely, but certainly not impossible, that they will significantly influence the formation of a government in 2015. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, also has a dynamic, young leader, but they have nothing like the platform enjoyed by their Scottish counterparts since the referendum. The same applies to the Northern Irish unionist parties, and the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, is extremely unlikely to service an agreement with either Labour or the Conservatives. Plaid and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party may help to facilitate a Labour administration, but Plaid are fighting a losing battle in Wales against Labour; striking a deal with Miliband would likely harm them more than it would help them.

The ventilator effect of First Past the Post

We can confidently predict that Labour and the Conservatives will be the two leading parties at the next election, albeit with an evermore diminished combined votes share. They may achieve as little as 60% of the popular vote between them, but still hold more than 80% of seats in the House of Commons. Although this will damage smaller parties’ parliamentary ambitions, it will undoubtedly fuel the perception that politics no longer serves the interest of Britons, thus invigorating potential ‘alternatives’.

Economic growth versus ‘the cost of living crisis’

These are the respective narratives which the Conservatives and Labour will primarily use to fight their campaigns in 2015. If the economy continues to grow, the Conservatives will hope that the old adage ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ will hold. If it doesn’t, and the UK goes into another recession, expect all of the above speculation to be null and void: Labour will win an outright majority, barring regicide and another ‘bigot-gate’.

Assuming the economy continues to grow, Labour will have to hone its currently rough-edged ‘cost of living crisis’ message to challenge the Conservative narrative of growth, deficit reduction and market confidence to highlight social inequalities and the exploit the ‘squeezed middle’.

Distrust of politicians and political institutions

Voter cynicism is as acute as it was in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2008-10, even if it is less raw. The elevation of Russell Brand to the imagined position of Chief Social Justice Warrior, along with the Green, UKIP and SNP surges highlight a broad, chronic problem in the way voters view the political establishment. The Lib Dems are now firmly rooted in that mire of distrust, along with the Conservatives and Labour, but there is also little clear evidence that voters trust any of the challenger parties highly enough for their status to be a significant advantage. In short – it’s all up in the air as we hail in 2015.

By Andy Irwin

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