In 2014, Labour and the Tories learned – for the first time – that they could both lose

The red-blue duopoly that had held for decades fractured as insurgent tribes invaded the pitch.

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British politics once moved to a predictable rhythm. If the fortunes of either the Conservatives or Labour declined, those of the other would rise. The identity of the winning party changed but the game of zero-sum politics remained the same.

This was the year in which it ended. The red-blue duopoly that had held for decades fractured as insurgent tribes invaded the pitch. Rather than either side winning, Labour and the Tories learned that they could both lose.

In the summer, Ukip triumphed in the European elections, becoming the first party outside of the big two to win a national contest since 1906. The SNP came within 10 points of achieving Scottish independence in September – a far narrower margin than most in Westminster originally forecast – and prompted pure panic on the unionist side. Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless swapped Tory blue for Ukip purple and won by-elections in Clacton and Rochester under their new banner. Although the Farageists failed to capture a defector from Labour, they came within just 617 votes of defeating the party in Heywood and Middleton. That by-election was the most visible indicator of how Ukip had burrowed into Labour’s working-class core. By fusing the issues of the EU and immigration, Nigel Farage succeeded in remorselessly expanding his party’s appeal beyond its initial base.

The ascent of Ukip on the right was mirrored by that of the Greens on the left. By framing themselves as the only anti-austerity party, they rose as high as 8 per cent in the polls and tussled with the Liberal Democrats for fourth place. Alive to the dangers of a divided left, Labour (as the New Statesman revealed in October) established an electoral unit led by the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, to combat the threat.

The net result of this voter promiscuity was that the two biggest parties ended the year with less support than they started it. Some polls put their combined share at just 59 per cent – the lowest level on record. Rather than a battle of the strong, British politics became a war of the weak.

The mood of resigned misery was distilled by one shadow minister, who told me in November: “It’s a battle between a shit Labour Party and a shit Conservative Party. The winner will be the one that’s a little bit less shit.”

Neither party came close to achieving the breakthrough that eluded them in 2013. George Osborne finally had an economic recovery to speak of as the UK grew faster than any other G7 country (surpassing its pre-recession peak) and unemployment fell by record levels. But it proved a voteless advance for the Conservatives. The failure of rising GDP to translate into rising real wages, and the enduring toxicity of the Tory brand, left their ratings frozen at around 32 per cent.

The party’s ambition to beat Labour by exploiting its lead on the economy and on leadership was hindered by the need to fight a war on two fronts. The continuing rise of Ukip proved a permanent obstacle to an all-out assault on Ed Miliband. Even more than his party’s two by-election triumphs, Farage’s achievement lay in setting the agenda from outside of Westminster. All three of the main parties stiffened their stances on immigration and benefits for EU migrants in tacit tribute to “the people’s army”. The Tories’ muted liberals warned that David Cameron’s relentless pursuit of Farage only served to validate his doctrine of despair. “If we make immigration the problem, people will always view Ukip as the solution,” one said.

A line was finally drawn when the Prime Minister, against expectations, used a heavily trailed speech on immigration to affirm his support for the free movement of people. But moderates feared that the damage – the alienation of those liberals attracted by Cameron’s modernising project – had already been done.

Labour could claim prescience as the “cost-of-living crisis” it diagnosed in 2013 persisted in 2014. Yet all too few voters regarded the party as the cure. Rather than advancing in the task of rebuilding its economic reputation and establishing Ed Miliband as a prime minister-in-waiting, it went into reverse. The Tories’ lead on the public finances rose to an unprecedented high and Miliband’s personal ratings fell to a record low, entering the subterranean territory hitherto reserved for Nick Clegg.

The Labour leader’s aides contrast what he once described as his “intellectual self-confidence” with Cameron’s ideological gymnastics. Against the wishes of some in his own shadow cabinet, Miliband refused to match the Tory promise of an in/out EU referendum. Rather than abandoning his distinctive social-democratic agenda and his strategy of grappling with “vested interests”, he doubled down. “In the face of extraordinary turbulence, Ed has kept his focus and kept his shape in a way David Cameron has not,” a strategist told me.

But anguished MPs returning from marginal constituencies and from the Scottish referendum testified that few voters knew what the Labour leader stood for and that his image problems were deterring supporters. Miliband attempted to address the issues of his unpopularity in a self-deprecating speech in July, bluntly stating: “If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me.”

However, his flat address to the Labour party conference, with its forgotten passages on the Budget deficit and immigration (a mistake he cursed as soon as he left the stage), was brandished by opponents and by some of those who had previously supported him as proof of his unreadiness to rule. Conservative strategists are confident that the public’s negative view of Miliband has “crystallised” and that nothing he or the party now says or does will change it.

As Labour shed voters to Ukip, to the SNP and to the Greens (but almost never to the Tories), Miliband’s allies lamented how easily Farage and Alex Salmond had been able to bracket him with the “LibLabCon” establishment. Despite his assault on the free-market economic consensus of the past 35 years, the Labour leader’s narrow Westminster background left him struggling to be seen as an insurgent.

In this new era of decline, MPs from all three of the main parties cast around for imagined electoral saviours. The Lib Dems flirted with regicide in June after losing all but one of their 11 MEPs in the European elections. But the ineptitude of Clegg’s enemies and the party’s fear of a prolonged civil war persuaded them to stand by their surprisingly resilient leader.

The pessimism of many Conservatives about their election chances and the growing expectation that Cameron would not serve a full second term helped accelerate the manoeuvring to succeed him. Boris Johnson, who retained his status as the UK’s most popular politician, finally confirmed his ambitions by winning selection as the Conservative candidate for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. Theresa May’s stock rose further as she became the longest-serving home secretary since Rab Butler in 1962 and delivered a remarkably frank speech to the Police Federation. George Osborne, booed at the London Olympics in 2012, enjoyed a political recovery to match that of the economy, recasting himself as a “blue-collar” Conservative committed to a higher minimum wage and to building a “northern powerhouse”. By contrast, Cameron’s friend and ally Michael Gove was ruthlessly demoted from education secretary to Chief Whip in an attempt to end the damage wreaked on the Tories by his unending Kulturkampf against the educational establishment, or “the Blob”, as he called it. The intermittent rumours of a leadership challenge to Cameron came to nothing, but demonstrated how little affection there is among Conservatives for a leader still derided for his failure to win a parliamentary majority in 2010.

In early November, Miliband faced the most serious threat to his position since his election after a critical New Statesman cover story (“Running out of time”) triggered several surreal days of crisis. The talk of a coup attempt proved overwrought but the angst over his leadership exposed the depth of despair over his failure to inspire the country. That Alan Johnson, the man some MPs urged to seize the crown, was forced to reject their entreaties was a mark of how febrile the situation had become.

It is testimony to the unprecedented weakness of the three main parties that Cameron, Clegg and Miliband can all reasonably be grateful for still being in place. An election that has long held the status of the most unpredictable in four decades has grown no easier to read as we enter the new year. The late swing to the SNP and the Greens has fractured what some in Labour believed was a winning coalition of its core vote and left-leaning former Lib Dems. Much will depend on how successfully Miliband can squeeze their support by framing his party as the only force capable of beating the Conservatives. The Tories are confident that their double-digit lead on the economy and Cameron’s polling advantage as “the best prime minister” – a position from which no party has ever lost an election – will ensure they make it over the line, albeit without a majority. That the UK is heading for a second successive hung parliament for the first time since 1910 is regarded in Westminster as perhaps the only safe prediction.

All the main parties face the existential question of whether they are in secular or merely temporary decline. For some, the rise of alternative parties, from Ukip to the SNP, is confirmation that politics, like other markets, has entered an era of unrelenting competition. Others retain faith that an outstanding individual or project could revive the monopolies of the past. Rather than resolve this debate, the election will likely only sharpen it. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 19 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Issue 2014