From previous elections it seems that the opposition party needs at least a 15% lead in the opinion polls one-year before the election before they stand a chance of forming the next Government. The Tories enjoyed such a lead in 2009 and were still not able to form a majority Government a year later. Previous 8% poll leads by the Tories in opposition still saw Tony Blair returned to Government with a majority the following year.
The current 2% lead enjoyed by Labour is, by historical standards, not enough.
There is a simple reason for this. Being in Government is much harder than being in opposition. Running the Government often means making tough, unpopular decisions. This is particularly true of the current coalition Government, which has had to implement unpopular austerity measures in order to get the budget deficit under control. At the beginning of the current Government some Labour politicians gloated that they would have to make such unpopular decisions that they would subsequently be out-of-office for a generation. Opposition parties are able to merely talk about what they would do or claim that they wouldn’t have implemented unpopular policies in the first place. The Labour opposition has been voting against the all coalition’s Government cuts for example.
The electorate use opinion polls, bye-elections and local elections to register a protest to the Government and to keep them on their toes. They can do this with the safe knowledge that there will be no change in the national Government. However the British electorate is very sophisticated and understands that being in Government is difficult. They are more forgiving in ballots that will choose the next Government and Prime Minister. Also protest votes that go to the third party (historically the Lib Dems) tend to be soft when it comes to a real election. This is because the British “first-past-the-post” electoral system makes the electorate more reluctant to “waste” their vote on a party that has no chance of winning a particular seat or forming a Government. They vote tactically to keep out the party they like the least.
Taking into account these historical trends Stephen Fisher at the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford has come up with an election forecast based on current opinion polls:
Approximate probabilities of key outcomes
(Con largest party) = 60%
(Lab largest party) = 40%
(Con majority) = 34%
(Lab majority) = 18%
(Hung parliament) = 48%
(Hung parliament with Con largest party) = 26%
(Hung parliament with Lab largest party) = 22%
To add to Labour’s woes no opposition party has been elected to Government at a General Election unless they have a majority of seats in local Government. The Tories currently hold the majority of local Government seats. And Ed Miliband is even less popular than his own party. This is important because in a general election the electorate also believe they are voting for the next Prime Minister. Labour also has low poll rating for their economic competence, which has historically acted disproportionately against parties when it comes to an election. Additionally the fact that the UK economy is likely to recover significantly in the next year will benefit the current Government at the expense of Labour.
But what is different this time is the possibility of UKIP adding an unknown dimension compared to historical trends.
The Conservatives may worry that some of their votes will go to UKIP in 2015 causing a split in the right and centre-right. This could give Ed Miliband a further advantage on top of his in-built 30 seat electoral advantage caused by the unequal constituency boundaries. But the local election results yesterday suggest that UKIP can also take votes away from Labour, even in the north of England. The Tories do seem to disproportionately lose votes to UKIP compared to Labour however.
In previous parliaments some protest votes went to the Lib Dems. As they are now in Government they have clearly suffered in the polls so they too may expect their core support to trickle back in line with historical values as the election approaches.
But as the official opposition Labour have not been collecting the protest votes that previously went to the opposition and the Lib Dems. They have instead have gone to UKIP. Labour should worry that they cannot even be trusted with a protest vote.
As the official protest party we should see UKIP’s poll rating decline towards the next election to favour the Tories. Labour’s poll rating would be expected to decline as the election approaches in favour of the incumbent Government. This may be partly negated by winning back some of the UKIP protest votes, so it is likely their poll rating will decline only slightly.
All this probably means that David Cameron will be back in Downing Street next year as leader of a coalition with the Lib Dems, as predicted by Stephen Fisher.