Things that will definitely happen in British politics in the next two and a half years

Chris Calland

The final weekend of the festive period’s journalistic silly-season came to a close with a focus on the two parties that currently make Britain a two-party-ish system.

The Mail on Sunday, one of the newspapers arguably most sympathetic to the UKIP cause, celebrated the party’s latest surge on the front page. According to Survation, UKIP are at 16%, with the Lib Dems on 11%. The Labour lead is consistent with other recent polling –eleven points.

The Observer, which along with its sister paper the Guardian supported the Liberal Democrats at the last election, gave a platform to Lib Dem Party President Tim Farron. Farron outlined why, despite the party’s extended slump in the polls, the Liberal Democrats should not be written off at the next general election. He cites as evidence their performance in local council by-elections and revenue from individual donations.

So where will we be twenty eight months from now? Will UKIP do as the polls are starting to suggest, and replace the Liberal Democrats as the third party in British politics? Will the Liberal Democrats be driven from the cities and Scotland and reduced to a small rump of seats in the South West? Or is Farron right – is this just normal mid-term blues for a party in government that has had to take tough decisions for the sake of the economy and the stability of the coalition? Will UKIP fail to make the inroads they hope for and start fighting amongst themselves again?

The destiny of these two parties is, of course, tightly bound to the question of who will form the next government. This is of course important – so important, in fact, that it’s better that we all know in advance. So I have made a list. It is mixture of a) things I think you should think about before making any political predictions based on voting intention polls, local council elections, anecdotal evidence or gut feeling, and b) things I think you should think.

  1. There could well be an election before 2015. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act allows for an early election if the House of Commons votes for one with the support of two-thirds of its members. If Cameron wants an election he will get one. The opposition couldn’t say no to an opportunity to get rid of the Government, and any MPs loyal to the Prime Minister would vote with him. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which this wouldn’t amount to a two-thirds majority.
  2. Turnout of the Labour vote is (almost) the whole ball game. Between 1997 and 2010 the Conservatives gained just a million votes. Labour turnout is the difference between either party winning a landslide or losing miserably.
  3. The Liberal Democrats always pick up a bit when Parliament is dissolved before a General Election and equal broadcast coverage rules kick in. The impact of this may be softened this time since they have been getting more attention in this term than previous ones. UKIP will not get equal coverage.
  4. If Cameron promises a referendum on Europe it wouldn’t end support for UKIP. Most people who would consider voting UKIP don’t cite Europe as the most important political issue. In fact most trust the Conservatives more than UKIP when it comes to defending Britain’s interests in Europe.
  5. The biggest issue for UKIP “considerers” after the economy is controlling immigration.
  6. Why is this a problem for Cameron? Most people want tighter controls on immigration and don’t trust Labour or the Liberal Democrats to deliver.
  7. It’s a branding issue: electoral success isn’t just about having the selection of policies that appeal to more voters than the other parties. It’s about the way voters feel about a party and its leadership. When Conservatives start talking about immigration it reminds them that they are the “nasty” party, and this is particularly devastating if Cameron wants to hold on to the centre ground, with all those “middle England” voters he worked so hard to win back.
  8. Before 2010, UKIP were rarely prompted in polling questions, it was always “Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or some other party”. Prompting a smaller party automatically bumps them up a few points, and has no basis in real voting intention.
  9. UKIP have a terrible ground game. They have enough volunteers for a by-election but not a general election.
  10. The Lib Dems have an excellent ground game. There has been no mass exodus from the party among councillors and activists, so this is likely to be maintained.
  11. Lib Dem MPs temd tp be popular and hard to shift.
  12. The electoral system is currently stacked against everyone except Labour. Redrawing the boundaries would help the Conservatives, but only a little.
  13. Labour could lose the popular vote by a significant margin and still end up with the most seats. They could win a majority with just over a third of the national vote.
  14. The more seats the Lib Dems lose, the less likely a hung parliament will result from the next election, unless of course UKIP gain more than the Lib Dems lose.
  15. In 2015 it will be over four years since tuition fees. Apart from a very small, if vocal, minority, my generation won’t be voting on it as an issue.
  16. On the other hand, most people don’t know anything about Nick Clegg except that he broke his promise on tuition fees. This is a problem, but it is much more Clegg’s problem than the Lib Dems’ problem.
  17. The party leaders matter less in the middle of a parliamentary term. It matters when voters start to seriously think about who they want to be their next Prime Minister. Ed Miliband has had a good year, but he has a lot more to do.
  18. George Osborne is less hated and more trusted than is often made out to be the case.
  19. Groups like Occupy and UK Uncut help Labour no end. People who are seen to be “real people” without an ulterior motive attack the Government from the left and help to shift the debate on the economy. They do this without providing any electoral threat to Labour from the left, and have effectively replaced left-wing political parties and get more attention than trade unions. Young idealistic people are joining these groups rather than the Greens or forming any far-left coalition like Die Linke or Front de Gauche. Many of these people will hold their noses and vote Labour at the next election.
  20. MASSIVE CAVEAT THAT RENDERS THIS POST POINTLESS (but covers my back when I get everything wrong): It’s the economy, stupid. A real recovery that everyone recognises as a recovery could change everything. Here are some predictions based on what we know at this stage, and what I think is the likely trajectory of the next months and years.

Before the next General Election:

  • UKIP will win the most votes and seats in the European Election in 2014.
  • At least one of these MEPs will subsequently be involved in a scandal involving money.
  • The Lib Dems will struggle to come fourth in the European Election.
  • Issues that MEPs will debate and vote on in the European Parliament will not be discussed in the run up to the European Election.
  • We will hear more from the Lib Dems about “what we stand for”. Expect more post-Leveson style moments where Clegg and Cameron make separate statements.
  • The main parties will match each other on EU policy. If Cameron gives a clear commitment for a referendum after 2015, so will Labour. If he says something waffly, so will Labour, although they will claim they are being less waffly.

At the General Election:

  • The General Election will be held in May 2015 because the coalition will hold together until then.
  • The Lib Dems will lose about a quarter of their seats and about half their vote share.
  • The popular vote will be close between Labour and the Conservatives, but Labour will form the next Government with a small majority.
  • UKIP will get under 5-8% of the vote and no MPs.

It’s too hard to predict:

  • Who will be the leader of Labour, the LDs or the Conservatives at or after the next General Election.

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