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Miliband’s five hurdles

February 28th, 2014

Ed with No 10 collage

What can stop Labour’s cruise to victory?

To say there’s been no movement in the opinion polls over the last two years would be untrue.  Most obviously, UKIP’s average share doubled between early 2012 and the time of last year’s local elections, pushing the Lib Dems into a regular fourth, which remains the case despite a slight drop off for the Purples.  There’s also been a small narrowing of the gap between Labour and the Conservatives, but at a glacial pace.  As things stand, Labour is cruising to a comfortable victory.  So what might prevent that?

1. Scotland

If the referendum in September results in a Yes – something the polls have been equally insistent it won’t – that would severely dent Labour’s chances.  Scotland returned 41 Labour MPs in 2010, against just one for the Tories, 11 Lib Dems and 6 SNP.  The consequences of a Yes would go further than just the raw numbers though, and would massively affect the political debate, as well as how the country, and each political party, saw itself.

2. Lib Dem switchers returning or defecting elsewhere again

Labour gained a substantial portion of 2010 Lib Dems early on in the parliament and they’ve been solidly in the Red column ever since, but then the Lib Dems have been solidly in a Con-LD coalition ever since.  Polling and anecdotal evidence suggests that the switchers see themselves as likely to stay there.  Labour must hope they do as they account for more than the party’s whole polling lead; there has been virtually no net direct swing between Con and Lab.

3. UKIP voters switching to Con

The big story of the parliament has been the rise of UKIP.  That story may climax with the 2015 election – or they may fade like other smaller parties who’ve polled well in mid-term, such as the Alliance in the 1980s.  An implosion from UKIP, a positive reason to go Blue or a negative reason to keep Red or Yellow out could all be factors, though again, the consistent strength of UKIP polling suggests a keen motivation.  On the other hand, from Labour’s view, it’s revealing that despite their being the only major party of opposition, so many voters are still looking for another option.

4. The economy

By the time of the election, the economy will have been recovering for two years if there aren’t any bumps in the road between now and May 2015.  That should have fed through into a nascent feel-good effect, as well as giving the justification of “they worked” to the government’s policies.  By contrast, Labour’s economic policies have been all over the place during the parliament.

5. Leadership perception

One reason that parties outside the big Westminster three are doing so well is because the leaders of those three are regarded so badly: they had a combined rating of -101 the last time YouGov asked the “doing well/badly question”.  However, apart from the perception of being ‘in touch with ordinary people’ (where he still only rates in the mid-twenties), Miliband’s characteristics still score particularly poorly.  The leadership question was significant in the rapid and late turnaround in the 2011 Scottish election and if debates are as prominent in the 2015 campaign as in the last one, there may be a lot of votes up for grabs on that score.

There are of course other hazards that Miliband will need to navigate but if he can overcome the big challenges, the small ones should naturally take care of themselves.  The question is whether the moderately favourable mid-term picture can be sustained through to polling day.  Of the five, the first three look quite hopeful for him; the final two, less so.  That tension is why I think current polling is still in a transitional, mid-term state and why we should see more movement in voting intention in the next year than we saw in the last.

David Herdson