1) Labour’s lead continued to fall
For the main horse race – who is in the position to win the next general election – the key point is always the lead in the polls, and throughout 2014 Labour’s lead over the Conservatives continued to fade away. In 2013 it fell from around ten points to around six points. This year the trend continued, with Labour’s lead fading from six points to just under two points. Given the complexities of the Lib Dem collapse, the rise of UKIP, a large number of new incumbents and the separate race in Scotland it is dangerous to rely upon on uniform national swing, but include all those factors and I think we are now into hung Parliament territory.
Labour’s lead has almost wholly been down to falling Labour support rather than increasing Tory support. The Conservative share of the vote started the year at around 32% and ended the year in roughly the same place, Labour supported started the year at around about 38% and finished the year at around 34%. While there is always some churn between different political parties and there will be some people who have moved from Labour to Conservative, it’s certainly not the main factor – rather what we’re seeing is an anti-government vote that had previously been going to the Labour party by default is now finding many homes and showing itself in rise of the Green party, the SNP and UKIP. The public’s lack of confidence in Ed Miliband and Labour isn’t manifesting itself in them running back to the Conservative party for safety… it’s manifesting itself in them going off to find more attractive oppositions to vote for.
This has in many ways been the pattern of the 2010-2015 Parliament. The Conservative party’s vote fell to around 32% early in the Parliament and has stayed there, seemingly immune to events, announcements, people or policies. Labour inherited a substantial lead early on thanks to the Liberal Democrat collapse and have watched it be nibbled away by rivals.
2) The Greens finally woke up
So to those rivals. The rise of UKIP has been covered by everyone, the most remarkable story of the Parliament. The increase in support for the Greens is a newer development. Earlier on this Parliament I was frankly surprised that the Greens were not doing better. They had elected their first MP, the government were implementing unpopular austerity policies and Labour were constrained in their opposition to cuts by a desire to establish their own economic credibility. Elsewhere in Europe radical left-wing parties were benefiting from an anti-austerity vote, yet here it wasn’t happening. The Greens were marooned on around 2%.
This year it finally did, and looking at the charts it appears to be the European elections – with the coverage and campaigning that it implies – that sparked the Greens into life. The European elections pushed them up to 4% or so, and since them other polls have shown them building on that, in many cases getting their highest levels of support since their first breakthrough back in the late 80s. What impact that will have at the election beyond providing a home for some people who might otherwise have voted Labour or Liberal Democrat is a different question – in 2010 the Greens managed to breakthrough and win a seat despite having a derisory national share of the vote. There has been an Ashcroft poll in one of their most viable targets (Norwich South), but it showed Labour well ahead, so it is possible that the increase in Green support may not translate into any extra seats.
UKIP meanwhile have managed to keep the bandwagon rolling onwards through 2014. There was an expectation that their support would peak after the European elections and then go into decline, but things were thrown off course by the defections and by-elections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless which kept the party at the forefront of politics through the autumn and allowed them to finish the year with higher support than in January. I would still expect their support to be squeezed as we get closer to the election, as the race focuses more upon the binary choice between a Conservative and Labour led government but events, such as further defections now a by-election is no longer unavoidable, could easily push that off course.
3) Economic confidence began to stall
We started 2014 with people being increasingly positive about the state of the economy, but still pessimistic about their own finances, and pondered whether the improving economy would filter through to people feeling more positive about their own finances. What actually happened in 2014 was that perceptions of the improvement in the economy peaked over the summer and have now started to falter – the economic statistics, GDP growth and unemployment, may have remained strong, but public perceptions have started to go back down again. In August YouGov found 50% of people thought the economy was showing signs of recovery or on it’s way to recovery, by December that had fallen to 40%.
The impact of this is difficult to call as the economy is something of a two edged sword. Improving perceptions of the economy have gone hand in hand with a growing Conservative lead on the economy and that has remained steady… so far. If falling perceptions of the economy eat into the Conservatives lead on economic competence it will damage them. On the other hand, as the economy has improved it has fallen down the list of issues people consider important and become a less salient issue; if people worry more about the economy and it dominates their thinking more it may help the Conservatives…
4) Concern over immigration overtook the economy
Between 2007 and 2013 polls were consistent in showing that the public thought the economy was the number one problem facing the country. This year we saw it overtaken by immigration, and in the most recent few MORI polls it has been fighting with health for second place.
These top three issues are each strongly associated with a party – the public invariably trust Labour more on the issue of the NHS, over the course of last couple of years the Conservatives have built up a solid lead on managing the economy and UKIP generally lead the other parties on the issue of immigration. It is in the clear electoral interests of the Conservatives to have an election dominated by the economy, for Labour to have an election dominated by the NHS, for UKIP to have an election dominated by the issue of immigration. Over the last year things the issue agenda has clearly been moving in UKIP’s favour.
5) We found out where the Lib Dems were doing well and badly
In previous round ups like this I’ve always ended up saying how Lib Dem national support is in a dire state, but their MPs may or may not survive due to their personal votes and tactical voting. Through 2014 though we have got a lot more data on where the Lib Dems are doing well and badly and where they may be able to withstand the tide against them. At the last election the Liberal Democrats won 57 seats. Thirty-three of these are English and Welsh seats with the Conservatives in second place, and twenty-six of those we have Ashcroft polls for. Twelve are English and Welsh seats with Labour in second place, and we have Ashcroft polls for eleven of those (all but Bristol West). A further eleven are in Scotland, where the impact of surging SNP support remains to be seen and where we will hopefully have some Ashcroft polling later this year. Finally there is the unique Lib Dem vs Plaid seat of Ceredigion.
The average swing in the LD-v-Con seats is a modest 2.2 points from LD to Con, enough for the Conservatives to take seven seats. However, because the majorities and the swings aren’t evenly distributed there were actually ten seats where Ashcroft found the Conservatives ahead and three more (St Ives, North Cornwall and Torbay) where it’s too close to call). The line on the chart below is the swing needed for each Lib Dem seat to fall, the bars the swings recorded in the Ashcroft polling (when Ashcroft has done more than one poll in the same seat I’ve averaged them)
In the LD-v-Lab seats it is a different story, the average swing is a towering 12 points from LD to Lab, enough to win all the seats at a trot. Again, there is some variation from seat to seat, but this is only enough to save two of these seats – the once unassailable Old Southwark and Bermondsey, and Birmingham Yardley where John Hemming seems to be bucking the trend.
While national polls are never going to tell us too much about Lib Dem seat numbers, based on the Ashcroft polling The Lib Dems look set to loose around twenty seats in England and Wales, plus however many in Scotland (and given their dire performance in Scottish polls and the 2011 Holyrood elections that’s unlikely to be pretty). I think a fair assessment is that the Lib Dems start 2015 looking set to loose about half their seats at the election.
6) The SNP lost the war, but are winning the peace
Which brings us to Scotland. The aftermath of the referendum has been stark in terms of Westminster voting intention, with all polls since mid-October showing substantial SNP leads, ranging between 16 and 29 points. Thanks to the electoral system, if anything even nearly approaching this happens at the general election it will have a huge effect on seat numbers.
For the last thirty years the electoral system in Scotland has worked heavily in Labour’s favour – they have enjoyed around 40% of the vote in Scotland, the rest being split between the SNP, Lib Dems and Conservatives, who have all struggled to get more than a quarter of the vote. That has translated into a consistent block of forty-plus seats for Labour. If that flips round in other direction, with a large lead for the SNP, we can expect the electoral system to deliver a similar boon for the SNP. There are still many unknowns about the Scottish vote – the post-referendum SNP is a new development, we don’t know if it will last, nor do we really know how the vote will be distributed and how the SNP surge in support is distributed. The Ashcroft Scottish polling will at least tell us more on that front, at present we can only say that things looks very good for the SNP in Scotland, and very worrying for Labour.