If the moving averages of recent opinion polls are to be believed, only 73% of the electorate are prepared to vote for a party that has been in a UK goverment – and that diminishes to less than two-thirds if you only count those two parties that have formed a majority administration post 1945. No single party seems to have succeeded in persuading the voters that they can be entrusted with the governance of the nation.
Let me put these numbers into some context – until Labour scraped home in 2005 with 36% of the vote, no party had ever formed a majority government in modern times with less than 40% support of the electorate. UK elections until this point have effectively been between the government (whether Labour or Conservative) defending their record against an opposition party presenting the case that they would do a better job, while the third party (the Liberal Democrats in various guises) put forward the case that single-party governments were part of the problem, and only a large vote for them would change politics for the better. The Liberal Democrats therefore became the beneficaries of a considerable ‘anti-government’ vote that had previously transferred to the major opposition party when these voters grew dissatisfied with the goverment. Now that the Lib Dems have had a term in goverment, and an unpopular one at that, the disastisfied vote has found itself without a natural home to flee to.
Of course, it is overly simplistic to say this is why UKIP have emerged as the new major party in British politics – I would (and will) need to devote a whole post to that particular phenomenon! I would simply instead say that the dissatisfaction with the three traditional parties has left a considerably larger percentage of the electorate undecided and up-for-grabs. And it is playing merry hell for the opinion pollsters – where before the outcome could be predicted with reasonable certainty on how far Labour were ahead of the Tories (or vice versa), there are now a lot of unpredictable voters, and there is no guarantee that there will be one cohesive national pattern – and that’s even before we get to the possibility of a massive vote increase for the SNP in Scotland!
I will be making a case in this blog that despite the circumstances, we should still think of this election as a vote on determining who will govern Britain – not least for the simple reason that on Friday 8th May the British Prime Minister will be one of only two persons – and that (unless their respective parties decide otherwise) will be David Cameron or Ed Miliband. But as we consider the issues, it would be to turn a blind eye of Admiral Nelson-esque proportions to avoid facing the issue that every party needs to win the electorate over. If none of the largest three parties succeed in reaching this bloc of voters, then the biggest story of the next election will be whether these voters are still willing to turn out, and if they do, who they cast their vote for instead. Party workers for all parties therefore ought to take heart – I strongly suspect that the battle lines for this election are far from as settled as they have been in previous elections.