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.