by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2015
Here’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. Agree/disagree with my predictions? Let me know… My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.
Domestic politics can seem small. The bloody shock of the Charlie Hebdo murders jolt us into recognising that it isn’t just faraway places of which we know little where fundamental liberties like free speech are under assault. My house is closer to Paris than it is to York; yet there it was, in France’s capital city, that two killers decided 12 people they didn’t know no longer had the right to draw, to offend, to breathe. The instant, apt, overwhelming response was solidarity: je suis Charlie, nous sommes tous Charlie (though, sadly if unsurprisingly, some hand-wringers contrived to find victim-blaming reasons to distance themselves even from this inadequate expression of unity in grief). Meanwhile, in Britain, the debate du jour was whether there will be televised leaders’ debates. Like I said: small. But, of course, politics carries on. Unless it did, what would there be to satirise?
Last year, I made some predictions, and they didn’t turn out too badly. The wise thing to do, then, would be to quit while I’m ahead. It would be wiser still to do so noting that this general election is “the most unpredictable in years” (© Every Pundit) and that anyone who actually thinks they can prophesy anything at this stage is, to use psephological terminology, a total mug. But where’s the fun in that? So here goes…
I’ll start with what I know best: the Lib Dems. A year ago, I pessimistically thought we’d still be stuck at 10 per cent in the polls, not realising I was being optimistic. What I had thought was Nick Clegg’s canny, risk-free decision to challenge Nigel Farage to debate Europe mano a mano backfired, reducing my party to just 8 per cent. Feed that dismal rating into an online prediction tool like Electoral Calculus and it’ll tell you the Lib Dems will be scythed down from 57 to just 19 MPs. Ouch.
But I don’t buy it. No, I’ve always thought our popularity would recover (or, to put it more accurately, our unpopularity would recede) closer to the day of reckoning, 7th May, and I still do. For sure, there will be vast swathes of the country where the Lib Dems will crumble, just as we have in so many by-elections this parliament. The solid runners-up and bronze medal positions we amassed in hundreds of seats up and down the country in 2010 will fall away into embarrassing fourth and even fifth places this time. But in the five dozen constituencies where Lib Dems have battened down the hatches we’ll weather the storm. Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but it’s backed up by the findings from Lord Ashcroft’s polling which shows where Lib Dem MPs dig in they’re hard to uproot (where the Conservatives are our main opponents, at any rate).
Next to Ukip, for whom the last year has been a tactical triumph and a strategic disaster. Yes, 2014 saw Nigel’s army win its first ever national election and its first two MPs elected. And yes, this May will likely see Ukip surge into winnable second places in a range of downtrodden seats too long neglected by Labour and the Conservatives. It would be foolish not to acknowledge the significance of those events. Yet 2014 has also seen Nigel Farage re-toxifying his party’s brand with casually xenophobic and sexist remarks, instead of broadening Ukip’s national appeal. As a result, Ukip is further away than before from achieving its goal — the UK voting to withdraw from the European Union in any future referendum — because its leader chooses to preach to the 15 per cent of zealots who already believe, rather than reach out to the majority in Middle Britain to try and convert them.
I don’t think Ukip will collapse; but nor do I think they’ll maintain ratings in the high-teens as we approach polling day; and nor do I think the number of votes they win will be reflected by the number of MPs elected. Welcome, Ukippers, to the world of the Lib Dems for the past half-century.
The real wild-card in 2015 is not Ukip — whose parliamentary presence will remain tiny — but the SNP. I have no inside Scottish knowledge, so I’ll rely on my gut wisdom: election results are usually a lot more dull than the speculation which precedes them. While the Scottish polls currently indicate the SNP could sweep almost all before them — and their startling membership surge suggests their ground-game will be hard to beat — I don’t think Scottish Labour will be rubbed out of their heartland just yet. The swing required in one bound is just too great, as the May2015.com website highlights here. The SNP will instead have to settle for replacing the Lib Dems as the second party of Scotland.
(I would have written a paragraph here about the Greens, but Ofcom’s decision not to classify them as a major party saves me the trouble. It looks like they’ll hold on to their single seat, Brighton Pavilion, though.)
As for the Conservatives and Labour — well, as I pointed out in my last column, neither party has really tried to make a pitch to win this election outright, not really. Labour is too easily portrayed as the party of financial incompetence, defenders of the public sector at any cost. The Conservatives are too easily characterised as the party of social injustice, defenders of the haves and have-yachts. Neither has done much this past five years to live down their respective reputations, no matter how unfair each may believe them to be. As a result, there has been precious little movement of voters between the two main parties, and therefore very little likelihood of either doing well enough to win a majority.
So there you have it, my predictions for the coming election… Oh, wait. You want numbers, you say? If you insist:
Conservatives: 35% (291 MPs)
Labour: 32% (283 MPs)
Lib Dems: 12% (32 MPs)
Ukip: 11% (3 MPs)
Others: 9% (41 MPs, including 22 SNP MPs)
If that happens, then David Cameron will remain as Prime Minister. (Somehow.) But the other three party leaders, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage (who won’t win in South Thanet), will all depart.
Reckon I’m spouting rubbish? Then pin your tail on the electoral donkey below, and let’s check back in 114 days’ time.