It’s fair to say that political anoraks are really looking forward to the coming general election. In fact, we’re positively salivating. With the major parties so close in the polls and the smaller parties running rampant, it’s all so deliciously unpredictable.
But then along comes Atul Hatwal of Labour Uncut to spoil the fun:
“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.”
What a killjoy!
Still, having argued that the result is predictable, he does stick his neck out and make some 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.”
Such a result would allow for a continuation of the current Coalition – albeit with a much reduced majority.
On what grounds does Hatwal expect the status quo to reassert itself?
First of all, he believes that many voters haven’t made a real decision yet:
“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…
“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.”
This is true to some extent – but misses a number of complicating factors. For instance, it’s always been the case that a large number of voters don’t want to choose a governing party. This is why the Lib Dems always did so well – and why Lib Dem voters got such a shock when that nice Nick Clegg wound up in Downing Street. These voters are now looking for a new home and their wanderings represent a major source of psephological uncertainty.
Furthermore, the experience of coalition means that those voters who do want to make a firm decision aren’t just doing so between Labour and Conservative, but between a range of possible party combinations. As has been clearly demonstrated, a vote for a minor party isn’t necessarily a wasted vote, but can have a major influence on the composition and character of the next government.
The second plank of Hatwal’s argument has to do with the changing saliency of different issues:
“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.”
A particularly interesting example is that of immigration, which is frequently cited by voters as the most important issue “facing the country”, but only comes “fourth or fifth” in terms of “voters’ personal experience.”
Hatwal argues that the economy will be the key issue of the campaign – and that the Conservatives will benefit as a result. But which aspects of the economy? The current Conservative message is much stronger on economic sub-issues of national importance (such as GDP growth) than it is on those that are personally experienced (such as wage levels). Unless the Conservatives can make their message relevant to ordinary working people, the economy will be not be the trump card that many people think it will.
The third and strongest part of Hatwal’s argument is the leadership factor:
“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.”
There’s no getting around this one: Miliband is a disaster. The only question is whether he’s such a disaster as to offset Labour’s advantages in other areas – such as the bias of the electoral system, Lib Dem defections and the UKIP factor.
I fear that he won’t be. Nevertheless, he still serves as a warning to any party that might need a new leader of their own this year.