Don’t bet on a Tory Euro-win unless you expect a Blue landslide in 2015

Don’t bet on a Tory Euro-win unless you expect a Blue landslide in 2015

Governments rarely win interim elections

William Hague was not a very successful leader of the opposition.  Against Blair’s prolonged political honeymoon, Hague’s Conservatives were regularly so far behind in the polls as to be out of sight.  Not only did they fail to gain a single seat during the parliament but they actually went backwards, losing Romsey to the Lib Dems.

However, in the midst of that constant popular battering, he did manage one significant victory: the Conservatives won the 1999 Euro-election.  At the time, Labour was regularly 20-25 points ahead in the Westminster polling, scoring above 50% most of the time and occasionally topping 55%.  Was this because the Conservatives were particularly good at that particular election format?  In small part, yes: the huge constituencies turn the differential turnout which at Westminster is an advantage for Labour into a drawback for them.

The main reason though is that if you wanted to design an election where the public can give the political establishment a good kicking, you would produce something very much like the Euros.  Few really care about the outcome; few know who the candidates are, who the MEPs were, what they achieved or what they’re promising; the public has a much longer list of minor parties to choose from (one of which specifically exists to stick two fingers up at the EU); and under PR, tactical voting considerations don’t apply to anything like the same extent.

Consequently, it’s unsurprising that no party in government has won one since 1984, when the contests were in single-member constituencies and when there were virtually no minor parties standing.  Last time, Labour finished third with UKIP and the main opposition party taking the top two spots.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised at the equivalent outcome in May, with the Tories in third and the Lib Dems fighting for fourth at best.  The majority of local elections (where turnout should be relatively higher) being in the big cities this year should help Labour too.

There’s been quite a bit of speculation here in recent months as to whether the Conservatives are value at 10/1 to win the election (and even odds that long are no longer available).  I simply cannot see it.  Although Labour’s Westminster lead has been cut since last year, it’s still steadily in mid-figures.  Why would the Conservatives suddenly perform better – or Labour that much worse – when there is so little at stake, when voters can express their displeasure of the day without risking Ed Balls at the Treasury, when UKIP can be expected to perform much better than their Westminster polling, and when the simultaneous local elections should benefit Labour?  Similarly, there is no incentive whatsoever for the LD-Lab switchers to return in 2014; quite the opposite.

Unless we think that the minor parties will disproportionately take votes from Labour, there’s no realistic route for the Blues to finish on top.  It’s not quite inconceivable: the Greens do draw from the left and UKIP has made much play about attracting ex-Labour voters.  Yet most UKIP support in the Westminster polls has still come from the Tories.  Will the additional share the Purples are likely to take in May be so very different?

What we can say is that if Cameron did pull off a win as PM – something Blair never managed – it would both place tremendous pressure on Miliband and burst UKIP’s bubble.  It’s surely difficult to see either government party performing worse at the polls next year than this.  Indeed, every natural political dynamic would imply that a Con victory in May should point to a healthy overall majority in 2015.  And reverse-engineering that logic, if we don’t expect the Conservatives to make substantial gains next year, we shouldn’t expect them to win in this one.

David Herdson

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