Until recently, I was rather dismissive about Ed Miliband and Labour’s chances, on a superficial level, at the next general election which is now only nine months away. However, after looking into it in greater detail I’ve had second thoughts. I now think that prospects are looking better for Miliband and his party and it is the Tories who have more to be concerned about.
The reasons why I – and no doubt others – have been doubtful of a Labour victory were incumbency and Miliband’s unpopularity with the electorate. It is uncommon in British politics for a government to be voted out of office after only a single term. This last time this happened was in 1974 which is the only time in the postwar era. As for Miliband’s unpopularity – he has been consistently less popular than David Cameron – who’s not exactly Britain’s favourite man either. Another fact that will sit uneasily with Ed: no Opposition has ever triumphed at the ballot box without having either a more popular leader or a better reputation for economic management than the government of the day.
The Labour leader has struggled to make a solid impression on the country and his party has had problems as well. Labour has never held a commanding lead over the Tories in four years in opposition; previous oppositions who have gone on to win power have held substantially larger leads over their rivals in government, according to leading pollsters. Labour is losing the argument on the two most salient issues to the British public: the economy and immigration. On both, the Tories are deemed more competent.
So why, in spite of all this, you may ask, do I believe that the outcome will be a Labour win? I think that Miliband could be ushered into Number 10 not because of widespread rejection of the Conservatives and the coalition, or for real popular support for Labour. Instead, Labour’s victory could come as a result of an inherent bias in the electoral system that disadvantages the Tories – something that will play on the minds of Tory activists, insiders and politicians. This is due to Labour’s support being based mainly in densely populated urban areas whereas Conservative support is more widely distributed.
The last two general elections illustrate this well. Labour topped the popular vote in 2005 and gained a majority of sixty-four with 35% of the vote. In 2010 the Conservatives gained 36% of the vote yet were twenty seats short of an overall majority. It has been calculated that Labour will need a lead of three percentage points in the popular vote to return to office next May. The Tories will, because of this bias, need a lead of seven percentage points. Labour has been better placed to secure this lead, according to polling.
Cameron’s party will also be in the odd position that they will have to increase their share of the vote of 36% won in 2010 to secure the further seats to ensure a majority at Westminster. In achieving this they will have to go against precedence: ruling parties have been more likely to experience a depletion of their vote share at subsequent elections. Incumbents have lost, on average, 3.7% of their vote. The Conservatives can’t afford this to happen to them this time. To make matters worse for Cameron and his party it looks very unlikely that they will be able to count on their coalition partners the Lib Dems to make up the necessary numbers in the Commons. Languishing in the polls Liberals are expected to slump badly on election day. Should they claim say 15% of votes cast then this would translate to around 19 seats, in what would be a hefty defeat for a party with currently 57 to its name.
The European elections in May have passed but UKIP’s role in next year’s contest still remains, and will continue to remain, in political discourse. This could be to the advantage of Labour. Although some of the most pro-UKIP areas are in Labour constituencies like Doncaster and Rotherham, these are seats, as columnist Andrew Alexander, writing for the Oxford Royale Academy points outs, where Labour hold commanding majorities whereas the Tories are in danger of losing votes to UKIP in marginals, the seats needed to win an election. In another piece of bad news for the Tories, Lord Ashcroft’s polling of marginal seats has Labour leading in most. Yet have UKIP peaked and when the general election comes, will many UKIP voters defect like they did between 2009-10 and give the Tories a boost? Well, a British Election Study survey found that 58% intend to stick with UKIP next May. (That figure was 26% in 2009.) Andrew Alexander delivers a stark verdict:
“Their (UKIP) presence will destroy any Tory chances in the marginal seats, costing them government.”
A week is a long time in politics, to use the cliché of clichés, making nine months seem like a long time indeed. Even if more ‘UKIP-Tories,’ scared by the prospect of Prime Minister Miliband, flock to the Conservative banner, a reduced UKIP base could still spell anathema to the Tory party in the marginals. Then there is the big obstacle that is the bias in the electoral system. They will simply need more votes to gain those extra seats. This could be the biggest mountain of all to climb considering incumbents do tend to lose, not gain votes at subsequent elections.
Ed may surprise many of us if he receives the keys to Number 10. But has it been a real possibility for a while now?