As you might imagine, a year out from a general election the one question I get asked more than any other is “well, who is going win then?”. It’s a question I try to avoid answering like the plague. The simple answer is we don’t know – polls measure public opinion now, not a year ahead. Assuming no change from the polls now (which would imply a Labour majority) is a naive approach that would have served you poorly in past Parliaments. Assuming public opinion will change in the same way as it has towards the end of previous elections gives you a prediction (hung Parliament, Tories the biggest party), but also gives you huge confidence margins that stretch from a Tory landslide to a comfortable Labour majority.
My answer, therefore, tends to be to give the five questions (and one observation) that I think will decide the next election one way or another…
1) How will the growing economy effect the polls?
The economy has universally been the issue that voters see as most important in polls since the economic crisis began, and as such has been a major influence on voting intention. Economic confidence amongst the general public started rising sharply early in 2013 in all the major trackers, and has continued on a broadly positive trend. This has coincided with movement in public attitudes towards the government’s economic policies. From being neck-and-neck with Labour on the economy last year the Conservatives now have a consistent lead. Last year YouGov’s cuts trackers consistently showed that people thought that their cuts to public spending, while necessary, were actually bad for the economy, now they show more people think the cuts were good for the economy. It is impossible to draw a causal link, but over the same period the average Labour lead has dropped from about 10 points to around about 5 or 6 points.
Whether or not the facts back them up (that is a discussion for some economic blog elsewhere), the recovering economy seems to be having the effect of convincing some the public that the government’s economy policy was right and that the Conservatives can be trusted more on the economy. I am not an economist and this is not an economics blog, so I have no educated view on if the economy will continue to grow, which seems to be what commentators expect. Assuming it does, will that lead to continuing increases in government approval and a bigger lead for them on the economy, and will that translate into increased support? More specifically, while polls show people are more optimistic about the economy as a whole, they are still downbeat about their own personal finances. Will people themselves start to feel better off in the next 14 months, and would that translate into more government support?
A final thing to watch there is how important people say the economy is. There are examples of government’s losing elections despite being ahead on the economy – the classic is 1997. The reason becomes apparent if you look at what issues people told pollsters were important in 1997 – it wasn’t the economy (where the Tories were still holding their own), it was public services like the NHS and education where Labour were a mile ahead. I don’t think 14 months is long enough for this to happen, but if the economy really starts getting better keep an eye on whether people stop telling pollsters it is such an important issue.
2) Will Ed Miliband’s unpopularity matter anymore than it does now?
I find the contrast between Ed Miliband’s ratings and Labour’s support a puzzle. There really is a gulf between them. The basic facts are straightfoward – for an opposition leader whose party has been consistently ahead in the polls for years Ed Miliband’s ratings are horrible. His approval ratings are horrid, down at IDS, Howard and Hague levels; best Prime Minister ratings normally track voting intention pretty closely but Ed Miliband trails behind David Cameron by around 15 points. Polls consistently find that people think Ed Miliband is weak and not up to the job of Prime Minister. This is not just a case of opposition leaders always polling poorly compared to incumbent Prime Ministers – if you compare Ed Miliband’s ratings now to David Cameron’s in opposition Miliband is doing far worse. For example, in 2008 49% thought David Cameron looked like a PM in waiting, only 19% think the same about Ed Miliband now. To claim that Miliband’s ratings are not dire is simply denial. Yet Labour consistently lead in the polls.
Pause for a second, and imagine that we didn’t ask voting intention in polls. Imagine all you had to go on was all the other figures – the polls asking who people would trust more on the economy, who would make the better Prime Minister, who people trust on the issues they currently think are most important. Based on those figures alone the next election looks as if it should be a Conservative walkover…and yet Labour consistently lead in the polls.
The paradox between the underlying figures, which in most areas are increasingly favourable to the Conservatives, and the headline figures, consistently favourable to Labour, are fascinating. They are something I’ve returned to time and again without apology, as I’m sure there’s a key message here. Whatever the result of the next election, it’ll tell the loser something very important. If the Conservatives win, Labour will need to learn about using the goodwill an opposition gets to actually build up the foundations to, well, support their support (I suspect they’d also have to accept that getting a leader who people take seriously as a potential PM really is a prerequisite). If Labour win, the Conservatives should take home the message that leadership, economic competence and being preferred on policies really isn’t enough, that they have a serious issue with how people perceive their party and its values that needs to be addressed (I doubt they would learn that lesson, but there goes).
Given Labour are ahead now, I think the question is whether perceptions of the opposition and the choice of Prime Minister increase in importance as the election approaches and voting intention becomes less of a way of people indicating their opinion of the government, and more a choice between two alternatives. The reason Labour poll badly on so many of these underlying questions is not because Labour voters say they prefer Cameron and the Tories, it’s because many Labour voters simply say don’t know (or none of them). They aren’t convinced Miliband would be a good PM or Labour would run the economy well. Will those people overcome those doubts? Vote Labour regardless? Or do something else?
3) What level of support will UKIP get at the general election
Looking back over UKIP’s performance in the Parliament so far their support has mostly followed a pattern of election successes leading to boosts in the polls, followed by a decline to a new, higher plateau. I think UKIP can fairly comfortably expect a strong performance European elections (personally I would still expect them to come top, but whatever happens it’s going to be a strong showing). This will in turn be followed by another publicity boost and another boost in the Westminster polls. It will vary between different pollsters, as ever, but I think we can expect UKIP in the mid to high teens with the telephone polls and up in the low-twenties with the more favourable online companies.
From then on, it’s probably a case of a decline as we head towards the general election as the focus moves more towards the Con-v-Lab battle. The question is how quickly that support fades and to what extent. Here we are very much in unknown territory. UKIP got up to around 8% in the Westminster polls following the 2009 European elections, but declined to around 3% by the 2010 election; the Greens got up to 8% in the polls following the 1989 European election, but declines to 0.5% of the vote by the 1992 election. This time round is clearly different in terms of the size and scale of UKIP’s support and history provides no good guide. Neither does present polling – people are notoriously bad at answering questions on whether they’ll change their mind or what might make them change their mind. We are flying blind – but given that UKIP support has thus far disproportionately come from people who supported the Conservatives at the last election it is something that would have implications for the level of Tory support come the general election.
4) How resilient will Liberal Democrat incumbents be?
The three points so far have been about levels of overall support at the next election. The fourth is instead about distribution of the vote and therefore the outcome in numbers of MPs. On a uniform swing the Liberal Democrats will face severe losses in the election. It obviously depends just how badly they do, whether they are still in the coalition, whether they recover towards the election and so on, but projections of them losing half their seats are not unusual. However, there is also an expectation that Liberal Democrats will do better than this because of their incumbent MPs’ personal vote. Analysis from past elections and from studies like the PoliticsHome and Lord Ashcroft polls of marginal seats are pretty consistent in showing that Liberal Democrat MPs benefit more from personal votes than politicians from other parties, they handily won the Eastleigh by-election and have managed to hold on to councillors in some (but not all) of the areas where they have MPs. This would point to the Liberal Democrats actually doing better in terms of MPs than the raw numbers would suggest, although don’t expect magic… Lib Dem MPs might outperform the national trend, but it doesn’t render them immune to it. If you’ve lost a third to a half of your support, it has to come from somewhere and would be naive to expect it all to come from places you don’t need it.
As a caveat to this Lib Dem optimism though, look at the Scottish Parliament election in 2011. In that case Lib Dem incumbents didn’t seem to do any better, if anything the Liberal Democrats lost more support in areas where they had the most support to begin with, the very opposite pattern. The cause of this is probably a floor effect (the Lib Dems lost 8% of the vote in the election, but started off with less than 8% in many seats, so by definition more of their lost support had to come in their stronger seats). If the Lib Dems do really badly we may see the same effect at Westminster, if the Lib Dems lose enough support it’s impossible for it all to come from seats where they have hardly any support to begin with! The question is to what degree, if any, Lib Dem MPs can outperform the swing against them.
5) Will Scotland be voting?
Or perhaps more accurately, will the Scottish MPs be sticking around afterwards! All the polls on the Scottish referendum so far have shown the NO campaign in the lead. There has been a slight trend in the direction of yes, but nothing more than that. Personally I would expect the NO campaign to win, but there is obviously a chance they won’t and if so it would massively change our predictions for the next election. Exactly how and when Scottish MPs cease to be members of the House of Commons would need to be decided, but it would obviously disproportionately affect Labour – the Conservatives have only one Scottish MP to lose. More important though would be the wider effect on politics, thus far the Scottish independence referendum is something that has had minimal effect upon politics south of the border. Until January the London based media barely even mentioned it, it’s still something that’s very much a sideshow. If Scotland were to vote yes then then the negotiations in the following 18 months would suddenly become an issue of paramount importance, David Cameron’s position would presumably come under some pressure but either way, nothing would be the same anymore. I don’t expect it to happen, but it would be remiss of me not to include it here.
So, five things that I think will decide the election. I said there was an observation too – remember the impact of the electoral system. This one isn’t a question, we know that the system is more helpful to Labour than the Conservatives and, given the government’s failure to get the boundary review through, will remain that way. Getting ahead in the polls is not enough for the Conservatives – it would probably leave Labour as still the largest party. To get an overall majority the Conservatives need a lead of somewhere in the region of 7 points. We can’t be certain of the exact figures (the double incumbency bonus of MPs newly elected last time round will shift things a bit), but we can be confident that just being ahead isn’t enough for the Tories – they need to be well ahead.