Don't be fooled by the economic recovery, the odds are still against a Tory win in 2015

The challenges facing the Conservatives are mostly structural and may be impossible to overcome.

The extraordinarily rapid recovery of Labour's popularity following its poor share of the vote in 2010 (29% - a 25-year low) should not be construed as evidence of Ed Miliband’s irresistible charisma. It was simply the inevitable consequence of the entry of the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives, which left the left wing of the electorate with nowhere to go but Labour. Other parties used to carp that the Liberal Democrats stock in trade was appearing all things to all voters, thus enabling them to pick up the disillusioned voters of both the Conservatives and Labour. Not anymore. Polls indicate that the Lib Dems will lose about half of the 22% they managed to win at the last election, with most of it going to Labour.

But whilst the left has been united, the right has splintered. UKIP’s rise to national prominence has seen it take votes from all parties but most of all from the Conservatives (polls indicate that around 60% of UKIP supporters voted Conservative in 2010). Nigel Farage's party looks likely to do particularly well at the European elections in May 2014 (it always punches above its weight in the Europeans) and will likely reach the apex of its popularity just 12 months before the general election.

Some of this support is likely to ebb ahead of the 2015 election, particularly as it becomes clear to voters that a high UKIP vote will make a Miliband premiership more likely. But it is a near certainty that UKIP will build significantly on the 3% it polled in 2010, and that this will come largely at the Conservatives’ expense. Neither is the oft-mooted suggestion of an electoral pact between the Conservatives and UKIP likely to prove a neat solution either. Personal antipathy between David Cameron and Farage makes a full-scale pact nigh impossible, but there have been suggestions that the party could make deals with individual eurosceptic Conservative MPs. Polling data suggest this would do little good, however. This is because a hypothetical pact with UKIP causes a full quarter of the Conservatives’ current supporters to jump ship, with 5% going to Labour.

This encapsulates the Conservatives’ catch-22 going into the next election: try to hold the 'centre ground' and they encourage voters on the right to switch to UKIP, but try to shift rightwards or form a pact with UKIP and they stand to lose many more moderates.

The Conservatives’ challenge is compounded by the enduring difficulty they have connecting with ethnic minority voters. Data from the Runnymede Trust indicates that just 16% of non-white voters plumped for the Conservatives at the 2010 election, whilst 68% voted Labour. Since the Conservatives’ last majority victory in 1992, the contribution of ethnic minorities to the UK population has roughly doubled from 7% to 14% (figures from the 1991 and 2011 censuses for England and Wales). If the party cannot rein in Labour’s advantage then it may well find that demographics have moved decisively against it.

So could David Cameron’s personal popularity and campaigning abilities shoot Ed Miliband’s fox? Since the dust settled on the Labour leadership contest back in 2010, the Conservative Party has been smiling inwardly (and indeed outwardly) at Labour’s folly in plumping for 'Awkward Ed' Miliband over his brother, 'Dashing David'. There are two reasons why this is likely to prove a false comfort.

First, Britain’s is not a presidential system. Cameron is certainly more popular than Miliband – 37% say he would make the best Prime Minister versus 23% for Miliband. Yet history shows that success on this measure is not a guarantee of victory. Margaret Thatcher trailed Jim Callaghan by nearly 20% on the same question in 1979 and yet won a comfortable majority. John Major and Ted Heath were hardly barrels of charisma either. Second, Cameron is nowhere near as popular now as he was at the last election. His current net approval is -11%, at the last election it was +33%.

Labour strategists fret that their poll lead is 'soft'. Yet even their worst recent poll, an outlier which showed the Labour lead at just one point, would give the party a majority of four seats. The Conservatives by contrast could not win a majority even with a lead of 7% in 2010. With the economy improving, the likelihood is that the next election will be close in terms of national vote share, yet the obstacles in the way of the Conservatives even remaining the biggest party are so great, and the hurdle for Labour becoming the biggest party so low, that the distribution of seats looks likely to fall decisively in Labour’s favour. 

David Cameron with Ed Miliband as they stand in Westminster Hall ahead of an address by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on June 21, 2012 . Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.