Sunday, 11 January 2015

Inching towards a call on the UK General Election

Here at Public Policy and the Past, we long ago concluded that a Labour overall majority at the next UK General Election was just not going to happen. Labour's leadership was unpopular (it's even more unpopular now). The party was (and is) still blamed for causing the Great Recession - wrongly in our view, but there you go. Its local government and by-election performances just don't suggest a party storming towards power. Its opinion poll ratings have been gradually deflating for just about two years now.

Now that the General Election's just three and a half months away, time's arrow is finally approaching its target. And we can be a bit more firm again: the Conservatives now have a rather better chance of forming the next government than Labour does.

The writing on the wall is pretty large if you want to see it. The Conservatives have a massive brand problem. They are perceived to be the party of the rich - of 'the few', in New Labour parlance. They are just not seen as being on the side of 'average' voters. They have trashed just about every element of the modernisation that drew many voters to them in 2010. Environmentalism has turned to 'green crap'; David Cameron's three-letter priority of 'the NHS', and promise of no more reorganisations, has degenerated into a messy reorganisation that one can apparently see 'from space' and a winter A&E beds crisis that is partly caused by government cuts to social care provision.

But that doesn't mean that they can't win when Labour is no more popular. Now for a long time we thought that Labour might just make it over the line anyway. Left-leaning Liberal Democrats had defected in their droves to Ed Miliband's similarly left-of-centre outfit. A group that might amount to (say) six or seven per cent of the electorate would give Labour 35 or 36 per cent - enough to be the biggest party pretty much whatever the Conservatives did. Except that calculation doesn't look quite so smart now. Labour is clearly flagging just in the last mile, and the 'swingback' towards the Government - voters' return to the governing party's banner in the weeks and months running up to polling day - is pretty much on the same tracks as it has traversed, on average, in every electoral round since the 1960s. We see it in every informed report about on-the-ground developments and the parties' views of likely individual gains and losses. We see it in Lord Ashcroft's polls of marginal seats, which have seen margins get tighter during the last year. Now, it's true that the Ashcroft data has been moving down the list of Labour's Conservative target seats, and these might be less 'swingy' than ultra-marginals. But it's even more likely that Labour's challenge is very slowly waning. Voters are peeling off towards the Greens, towards 'don't know', towards 'won't vote': enough, perhaps, to depress Labour's score just enough to see Mr Cameron (above) back into Downing Street.

And then there is, of course, Scotland. All Labour would usually need from the Conservatives is twenty five seats or so - plus the ten they're likely to win from the Liberal Democrats - to reach 293 seats. If they've taken 25 seats from the Conservatives, that'll put that latter party down on 280 already. Then the Conservatives would need 14 gains from the Liberal Democrats - not as likely as it sounds - to remain the largest party and have the first crack at forming a government. But Labour's Scottish retreat since the referendum throws all those maths in the bin. If Labour really does lose about 20 seats to the Scottish National Party - and all the data we have suggests that this is more than likely right now - then Mr Cameron can relax. The regional 'skew' that meant Labour could still take power with fewer votes than the Conservatives is thereby 'righted', because their efficient 'spread' of voters exactly where they need them to win seats is watered down. They could still win a third of the vote in Scotland - only eight per cent down on 2010 - and still lose 20-30 seats given the scale of the SNP surge. Such is life. And making up for that with 20 more gains in England looks just about possible for Mr Miliband's party right now, with Labour perhaps one point ahead on average at the UK level, but by early May it would seem less likely.

So we are inching towards what the Americans would term a 'call': that Mr Cameron is likely to be able to continue as Prime Minister after May, because the Conservatives are more likely than not to have the greatest single bloc of MPs in the House of Commons. We're not quite there yet. It's not yet set in stone. We're at about a 55/45 likelihood. But the numbers are moving towards the Government, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to see a path to victory for the Labour Party. If they can really make their ground game work in the marginals, and if they can somehow cling on in Scotland, if ex-Conservative supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party stick with their present inclination, they can still make it. But it's a big ask, and it needs a lot of moving parts to go in just one direction.

We get the impression that this is not a particularly welcome conclusion, even sometimes to Conservatives themselves. Who wants a resumption of the regime that's given us the pathetic and embarrassing disaster area that is Universal Credit, the cruelty, incompetence and downright nastiness of the Work Capability Assessment, the student fees debacle, the chaos that's overtaking the probation and courts systems, the ridiculous threats to the European Convention on Human Rights, the great macro-economic U-turn that pushed most of the budgetary pain into the next Parliament, or the fantasy economics of austerity-plus tax cuts that will never actually occur?

Only about a third of the public say they want that. But right now, and given Labour's leadership as well as its problems in Scotland, it looks like that'll be just about enough.