by Atul Hatwal
The next election is not too close to call. Neither is it a contest where the current party system is under threat nor one where voter volatility renders meaningful predictions impossible.
There are excuses wheeled out by pundits and pollsters who are frit. Here are my predictions.
The Conservatives are going to repeat their 2010 performance and secure 36% of the vote while suffering a small fall in their number of seats to the range 290 to 300.
Labour will struggle to 32%, boosting its seats by 20-25 to the high 270s or low 280s and the Lib Dems will exceed their current polling to get to 16% with seats in the high 30s or very low 40s.
Ukip will under-perform their current poll rating to achieve 7% with one seat (Douglas Carswell) while the SNP will lose to Labour in Scotland. However, they will make some progress, boosting their representation by taking 6-10 Labour seats and reducing the majorities for most of Labour’s Scottish MPs.
This is why.
As May 7th draws near, three shifts will take place in the way that the voting public go about their choice that will move the current polling.
These changes happen in every electoral cycle and are the reason that decades of forecasts of new settlements, moulds being broken and unprecedented uncertainty are usually wrong.
They relate to the nature of the decision that voters are making, the criteria they use to make it and how they judge the parties meet that criteria.
First, the way most voters perceive their choice fundamentally changes in the run up to a general election.
For the majority of the parliament, when pollsters (or indeed friends and family) ask about voting preference, the question is taken as a referendum on the government.
Rarely is a government popular in absolute terms, so its rating will suffer and support for the opposition will rise. Even Michael Foot’s Labour party managed to sustain an average poll lead of over 10% for a period of months just a year and a half after Mrs.Thatcher’s 1979 victory.
But as the election draws near, the decision is transformed; it becomes a polarised choice between the Conservatives and Labour – the only two parties that can lead a government – on who governs Britain.
It doesn’t matter if both are unpopular or their campaigns are poor, all that matters is being less disliked than the other because one will almost certainly rule Britain following the election.
This will squeeze fringe parties as voters face a choice of wasting their vote or influencing who runs the country.
It is why the Conservative pitch to their ex-voters who are currently in the Ukip column – vote Farage, wake up with PM Miliband – will ultimately resonate.
It’s why Labour’s pitch to its ex-voters who are currently in the SNP or Green column – vote Nat/Green, wake up with PM Cameron – will be effective.
And it is why the Lib Dem pitch as a moderating influence on both Conservative and Labour parties, is the only way that they can be relevant in the campaign and positions them as a receptacle for anti-Labour or anti-Conservative votes in seats that they already hold.
The binary nature of the choice of government under first past the post, between Labour and Conservatives, is the strongest guarantor that the two-party status quo will remain intact.
The last time there was a major political realignment was almost 100 years ago, when Labour replaced the Liberals in the duopoly. But that took a World War, a massive extension of suffrage and most importantly, the Liberals to split into two bitterly opposing parties – one led by Lloyd George, who was prime minister and the other by the previous prime minister Herbert Asquith – which then remained at daggers drawn for the best part of a decade.
Nothing in 2015 is even vaguely comparable.
The second imminent shift is that the criteria voters’ use to make their choice will change.
The issues that influence voting preference will move from ones that are seen as most important to the country to those that are most important to voters and their families.
This is a critical distinction.
In most cases voters rank issues in both categories similarly; for example, the economy is always the most important for voters personally by some margin, and either the first or second most important issue facing the country.
But for two areas in particular, there are major divergences: immigration and welfare.
In YouGov’s monthly polling throughout 2014, immigration was cited as the first or second most important issue facing the country with 49%-60% giving it top rating.
But in terms of voters’ personal experience, it was only ever the fourth or fifth most important issue, with a maximum of 21% viewing it as most important.
On welfare, upto 30% viewed it as one of the most important issues facing the country, but never more than 16% viewed it as most relevant personally.
Voting is a very personal act and as the public prioritise the policies that will make a difference to their lives, there will be two impacts: a further squeeze on fringe parties and damage to Labour.
Ukip’s strongest electoral issue is immigration but based on what matters most to voters, its electoral salience will be negligible.
This might sound hard to believe but immigration will be a marginal issue in terms of determining peoples’ votes in May.
Similarly, for Scottish voters considering the SNP, independence will matter less than which of the two main parties would be preferable on the big issue: the economy.
And as the economy becomes the focus for the campaign, Labour will suffer. The Tories have led on the economy by double digits for several months and seem set to maintain this lead if there is not a major game-changing moment.
The third shift in the coming months will be how voters evaluate parties’ ability to deliver on their policy commitments.
The public’s view of the parties’ leaders will be central to this. Electors’ preference for prime minister reflects not only who they feel looks right in front of Number 10 – very important in its own right – but also impacts their assessment of parties’ competence to make good on their promises.
This is why on health – which is currently the second most important issue facing voters personally – Labour can lead by 10+ points every month through 2014 when it is posed as a choice between the parties, as per YouGov’s polling; but when the names of Ed Miliband and David Cameron are added into questions on who is trusted to manage the NHS, as ComRes did recently, Labour’s lead falls to two points.
It’s why Ipsos Mori could find in April 1997 that the Tories led Labour on the economy by 7 points, but in the Labour research that I saw (in the course of my duties as minor Millbank apparatchik), which added in Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s names versus John Major and Ken Clarke, Labour was ahead.
The primary impact of voters viewing delivery through the prism of party leaders’ competence will be to hurt Labour. Ed Miliband has such a poor personal rating that his negatives bleed into every issue and undermine Labour’s offer in every respect. In YouGov’s polls on preference for PM, Ed Miliband has trailed David Cameron by over 10% for the best part of two years.
These shifts will not be evident immediately in the opinion polls.
The general election campaign might have started yesterday for the parties, but it will be months before most of the public engage actively with their election choice. At that point though, the numbers will begin to change and its why, on the 8th May, we will have another Tory-Lib Dem coalition preparing for office.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut