Britain enters the election with all the main election outcomes – a majority, coalition or minority government led by either the Conservatives or Labour – being of broadly equal probability, if you ask the bookies at least.
British Future’s annual State of the Nation survey asked voters to peer into the crystal ball and think about how the election year may shape up. Asked who they would like in government, voters give all of the parties a thumbs-down verdict.
However, ask them to peer into the crystal ball and most think the Conservatives will still be in charge after the General Election: 54 per cent think it more likely than not that the Conservatives will still be in office, while 43 per cent think it likely that Labour will be in power. Only ethnic minority voters think Labour are more likely to be in; Scottish and Welsh respondents saw the outcome as on more of a knife-edge, while English voters see a clearer Conservative advantage.
UKIP supporters are strongly confident about their party prospects: one in four UKIP voters even predict that Nigel Farage will be waving from Downing Street as Prime Minister in May. Those voters may well be looking at the world through purple-tinted spectacles, but the fact that two-thirds of UKIP supporters believe that the party is likely to form part of the next government will make it pretty difficult for their opponents to persuade them that they are wasting their votes.
It is not only UKIP supporters who are confident about the outcome. 88 per cent of Conservatives think their party will be in government, while 78 per cent of Labour supporters think theirs will. 49 per cent of Liberal Democrats agree with Nick Clegg that the party can survive its current unpopularity and return to power.
This difference between the certainties of the partisan tribes and the uncertainties of the wider electorate may well set the election year tone. Across the political spectrum, everybody tends to overestimate how many people agree with them. Perhaps the hardest thing for the partisans hitting the campaign trail will be to understand why the voters who they need to persuade don’t already see the world as they do.
Neither of the two big parties has given up hope of crossing the winning line to a slim Commons majority. The chances of a strong working majority, however, still less the type of thumping majorities won in successive elections by both Thatcher and Blair in the 1980s and 1990s, now seem a distant memory. The idea of a 35 per cent strategy began as a pejorative reference to a core vote strategy. In many polls, both of the major parties are a good way short of that mark, still less the 40 per cent share that was long considered the benchmark for a decent majority victory.
The Conservatives go to the polls aware they have not won an overall majority since John Major’s comeback victory in 1992. Only those over 40 today took part in that election, which took place in a rather different demographic to that which will go to the polls in 2015. Ask voters if they would like to see the Conservatives still in government after May, and there is a very striking age gradient. Half of over 65s would be pleased, but only one in five of those under 65. The State of the Nation survey suggests that generation, as well as region, ethnicity and class is a key challenge for a confident majority Conservatism.
The new findings confirm that if the Conservative party is to broaden its appeal in election contests to come, it would need to be more confident about reaching out in several directions: as well as north of the Watford gap, they must reach across the generations to give as clear an account of the future to younger voters as it does to pensioners about security in retirement; and they will also need to close the ethnic voting gap which cost the Conservatives an overall majority in 2015.
It is naturally difficult both to extend the party’s appeal to potential future ‘joiner’ voters while stemming the loss of votes to those attracted by Nigel Farage. Any majority Conservatism will have to address this conundrum. Though Conservative ‘defectors’ and ‘joiners’ tend to have very different views about immigration, the answer will not be to try to ‘change the subject’ and talk about something else. Ironically, both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have now shown that not talking about immigration can generate headlines too, as when the announcement of the six Conservative election themes generated more discussion of the issues left off the list, than those on it.
Those six key campaign themes – the deficit, jobs, tax levels, home ownership, education and retirement – do omit three of the top five issues for Conservative voters, according to the British Future survey. Tories agree that the economy is the number one issue that will affect their votes (60 per cent), but place immigration second and the NHS third, ahead of tax and Europe. Running scared of debating immigration won’t work. It misunderstands the nuances in public attitudes too. The answer should be to talk openly about immigration, and what governments must do to actively manage the pressures, so as to secure the benefits too.
Less noticed is how UKIP too may soon face a similar dilemma of needing to find the common ground if it is to avoid toxifying the ‘out’ camp’s attempt to reach a 50 per cent plus majority if a future EU referendum is the biggest moment of the next Parliament. None of the dramatic European politics of 2014 – Romanian immigration, Nigel Farage’s European election win or David Cameron’s arguments in Brussels over Jean-Claude Juncker or the EU budget – did much to change views of the in/out question at all. In fact, we found a slight four point rise for ‘In’ compared to a similar ICM/British Future question exactly a year earlier. Most people say they could change their minds: the voters who will decide a referendum haven’t given it much thought yet.
For the next few months, the idea of a majority appeal will seem an unaffordable luxury. The parties mostly know how to talk to the third of voters who see the world as they do, running three parallel campaigns – on the economy, the NHS, and immigration – while the LibDems focus on a local ground war to hold their existing seats. This will help get the partisans to the polls. But a General Election is not a single issue campaign. Many voters expect to hear party leaders address the range of challenges which will face the next government, not only to only seek to change the subject back to the issue where their own party is more popular.