The next British General Election will take place on Thursday 7 May 2015. Can the Conservative Party remain in power – perhaps this time without even forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats – or are Labour set to take back the keys of No.10 Downing Street?
In order to answer this question, we can monitor three aspects over the next year – first, the role of economic voting, especially important since the global financial crisis; second, the issue of European integration as a persistent electoral battleground; and third, the significance of party leadership approval ratings amongst the UK electorate.
First, there remains a large question mark over which party can be trusted to manage the British economy. Voters may not go quite so far as to blame Labour entirely for the economic downturn but equally, surveys suggest that they are clearly not prepared to reward the party for its handling of it whilst in government. More detailed polling suggests that the Conservatives also have some way to go to convince voters that they ought to remain in charge of fiscal policy, although they are helped by the economy increasingly showing signs of recovery - growth is back, while inflation and unemployment are both down.
Second, Labour’s present poll lead over the Conservatives looks more fragile if we take into account the complicated matter of British membership of the European Union. The Euro-sceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) is presently polling at around 14 per cent, and consistently ahead of the Liberal Democrats – receiving a boost from its strong performance in the local elections last year. We can be sure that many people are likely to vote differently at the General Election next year from the European elections next month, and that large numbers of UKIP voters will actually end up voting Conservative in 2015.
Third, we must note the enduring importance of factors related to party organisation and leadership. Approval ratings for Labour leader Ed Miliband as an individual tend not to match those of his party as a whole – in fact, in many surveys, there appears to be substantial doubt amongst the British electorate that Mr Miliband looks like a future Prime Minister. In contrast, Conservative leader David Cameron’s personal ratings have remained relatively healthy. Voters tend to be influenced increasingly by ‘valence’ indicators related to broad evaluations of competency and those will become even more prominent as the 2015 campaign begins.
Much can happen in the next year, and we will try to revisit some of these themes in the autumn, six months or so ahead of polling day. Predicting election results has always been notoriously difficult partly due to constituency factors such as the advantages of incumbency for Members of Parliament – a popular local MP can often outperform his or her own party. However, this is especially the case in an era of mass disengagement from politics and a volatile, fragmented electorate. Not only does the typical British voter identify much less with a political party than in the past, he or she is also much less trusting of politicians in general. Both Labour and the Conservatives will have to work very hard to win an outright majority in 2015 and avoid another ‘hung parliament’ which was the outcome at the last election in 2010.
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Dr Martin Steven teaches on our BA Politics programme.
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