The next UK election: a contest in unpopularity

24 Jan

Continuing in our series of posts on the European Left, Andrew Gamble takes up the case of the United Kingdom and the prospects of the British Labour party in next year’s general election. Though opinion polls have consistently put Labour ahead of the governing Conservative party, Gamble suggests that behind this stability lies a more uncertain and volatile political landscape.  

Andrew Gamble is a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. He is one of Britain’s leading political economists, and author of many critically acclaimed books, including The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism, Hayek: The Iron Cage of Liberty, Politics and Fate, and The Spectre at the Feast: Capitalist Crisis and the Politics of Recession. Professor Gamble is joint editor of New Political Economy and The Political Quarterly, and a Fellow of the British Academy and the Academy of Social Sciences.

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British politics exhibits a puzzling stability. In the eleven YouGov polls so far in January Labour has had an average lead of 6 per cent over the Conservatives. Its share has fluctuated between 37 and 40 per cent, the Conservatives between 31 and 34 per cent. The other two parties also have been stable; UKIP’s share fluctuating between 12 and 14 per cent and the Liberal Democrats between 8 and 11 per cent.  It has been a similar pattern for a long time now. Labour’s lead has come down but only gradually and there is no sign yet of it disappearing. If this pattern persists, Labour will win the election in 2015 and Ed Miliband will be in Downing Street. Most commentators are perplexed. The recovery from the crash is now finally under way, four years later than expected, and there is good news almost every week; inflation is falling, unemployment is down, and growth forecasts are being revised upwards. The Government is loudly proclaiming vindication for its strategy of austerity and retrenchment. An improving economy is normally associated with increasing optimism among voters about their own financial situation and that of the economy, and greater willingness to vote for the Government. But the polls are not moving.

The Conservatives have also been busy creating clear dividing lines between themselves and Labour, setting traps for their opponents on the deficit, on welfare, on immigration, and on Europe. On all of these issues the Conservatives are more aligned with public opinion than is Labour, which has been forced on to the defensive and has failed to develop policies which are either clear or popular. When to this is added the greater resources of the Conservative party, the strident partisanship of a tabloid press which is strongly pro-Conservative and anti-Labour, and the consistently negative poll ratings of Ed Miliband as Labour leader, it is easy to see why many think Labour is a lost cause. The Conservatives have a winning hand and will surge past Labour in the run-up to the election and win a decisive majority. On this reading of British politics Labour has lost the political argument, and lost the political initiative. It is going down to a second defeat.

Except that is not what the polls are saying. Labour remains for the moment comfortably ahead, and nothing seems to dent its lead. There are several possible explanations for this. One is that Miliband’s personal ratings do not matter as much as many think. All the leaders have negative ratings. Nick Clegg is at – 50, Miliband – 30, and Cameron – 20. That still means that in the comparison between Miliband and Cameron as preferred Prime Minister, Cameron wins, and there is still a barrage of negative campaigning to come. But the Tories do not have an overwhelming advantage. The contest between the party leaders is a contest in unpopularity. Trust in politicians and their ability to deliver what they promise remains low in Britain. Negative ratings are clearly a handicap in an election in which there will be so much focus on the personalities of the leaders, but they will only be one of many reasons why votes are cast.

A second explanation is that Labour has begun to perform better and is making more impact on voters. Since Miliband’s Autumn conference speech in which he announced his plan to freeze domestic energy prices for fifteen months if Labour won the election, Labour has managed to dominate the agenda with its message that despite economic recovery there is a cost of living crisis, and most workers are suffering real wage cuts every year, because wages are rising more slowly than inflation. Asset prices have been protected by quantitative easing, and the average share portfolio has increased by 25 per cent in the last four years. But real wages have fallen, so few people are feeling better off. Miliband’s proposals on energy, and his more recent proposals on splitting up the retail banks, have attracted a lot of scepticism from commentators, experts, and interest groups, but the polls show that they are popular with voters. Some of the pledges may well be hard to implement in government, but Labour has begun to stake out new ground and prevent the Conservatives from dominating the agenda as they have been doing during the last three and a half years. Labour still does not excite much popular enthusiasm, and it is still struggling to regain its reputation for economic competence. But it has begun to do better.

Yet it is hardly doing well enough to explain its poll lead. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats may be seriously unpopular, but Labour is not far behind them. There has been no great surge of hope and confidence on the Left. One explanation therefore of Labour’s continuing poll lead is that it is due to the failings and divisions among their opponents rather than because of Labour’s positive appeal. Support for the Conservatives is fragile. They have not won a general election outright or polled over 40 per cent of the vote since 1992. They have tried since 2005 to broaden their appeal but have only partially succeeded. There are still parts of the country where voters who have deserted the Conservatives show no sign of returning. The modernisers in the party complain that the modernisation project has stalled and that in some policies the party has started going backwards, alienating the voters it needs to secure a majority. But the Right complains that the reason the modernisation project has stalled is because it has lost the party many of its core voters to UKIP. At the 2010 election UKIP had only 3 per cent of the vote. Its share of the vote over the last two years has been above 10 per cent, and in some by-elections and local elections much higher. It is expected to do well in the European Parliament elections in May. UKIP is increasingly taking voters from Labour, but the polling evidence shows that the majority of its support comes from the Conservatives. It is the loss of Conservative defectors to UKIP which, as Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows, is the biggest single obstacle to an outright Conservative victory at the next election. The party is now doing everything it can to win these Conservatives back, by banging on about Europe, immigration, and crime in the way modernisers deplore. But it is seen as the only way to put UKIP back in its bottle. If it fails it is hard to see how the Conservatives can win a majority at the next election.

All of this makes the next election extremely open and difficult to call. It may well turn into a four party contest as far as England is concerned, and given the vagaries of the first past the post electoral system, the outcome in many seats will be very uncertain, since it will increase the number won by very small majorities and minority votes. If both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats maintain their present level of support, no party is likely to win an overall majority, certainly not the Conservatives, who have the added disadvantage of the bias in the electoral system. Measures to reduce it were blocked by the Liberal Democrats when the Conservatives failed to deliver on Lords reform.

The Conservatives are waiting for politics to return to normal, with the support for third and fourth parties shrinking as the election approaches, and the improving economy brings their defectors back to the fold. They are confident that in a straight fight with Labour they will win. But just as the economy did not behave as expected after the financial crash, neither is the political system behaving as expected now. The kippers are on the march, and there is a sizeable body of Conservative MPs who sympathise with them, particularly on their call to withdraw from the European Union, and to impose much more stringent immigration controls. The disaffection of Conservative voters is proving hard to reverse, because the Conservatives cannot outbid UKIP in its populist stances on either the EU or immigration. Short of backing withdrawal from the European Union, and freezing all immigration, the Government can never satisfy UKIP demands. But unless they can find a way to reduce UKIP’s appeal in the next sixteen months, they will struggle at the next election.

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