Two weeks to go – and the choice is still ours

It’s just over two weeks until the nation goes to polls, and my prediction from the very start of this blog has been borne out – this will be the most uncertain and unpredictable election for a generation, most probably since the snap election of February 1974. I will admit however that two things have not gone as I expected – I did not expect the SNP to so comprehensively out-manoeuvre Labour in Scotland, and I expected that there would be a small swing from Labour to Conservative, and a larger swing from UKIP to Conservative. Instead of which, the major feature of this campaign is that the polls have largely stood still.

We should take one great encouragement at the very start – in such an unpredictable environment, the choice is truly ours. Very small shifts in the vote in individual seats all across Britain can have a profound impact on final seat numbers in the House of Commons, and in determining whether we have a hung Parliament (as all the pollsters are predicting) and whether it will be David Cameron or Ed Miliband who is able to pull together enough votes to ensure they can form a government – the BBC have actually got a very interesting game that aptly illustrates just how much the type of coalitions possible can vary according to very small changes in the numbers of seats held by a party.

I now want to contest one of the great assumptions doing the rounds at the moment – that a hung parliament is a certainty. I grant you that is what the opinion polls are currently telling us, but as one pollster in particular continually observes, opinion polls are snapshots of current intentions, not predictions of future outcomes! There are lots of uncertain variables – not least of which is that the election is decided constituency by constituency, and not in terms of the overall national vote. That could mean that the SNP for example, have a massive swing to them overall in Scotland, but finish second in many seats due to tactical voting by Unionists for the strongest non-SNP party. There is no accounting for how well the Liberal Democrats have ‘dug in’ to seats they already hold, or where their vote will go in the seats that they do not. And it could mean that the Conservatives (or, though I think it unlikely, Labour) do enough in 326 seats to win those seats, even if they suffer elsewhere.

I also think it is highly probable that this election will be very similar to the 1992 election on two fronts. Firstly, the conduct of the left-leaning minority parties (ie. the SNP, Greens, and Plaid Cymru) participating in the Leaders’ Debates very much had the tone of parties that assumed the election was going to fall into their lap, and that they could turn up to coalition negotiations with an extensive shopping list. There was more than a strong resemblance to Labour’s celebratory rally in the 1992 election when Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet were presented as though certain they would be the next government. The British electorate take a dim view of such self glorification, and may think twice about their desire to hand the balance of power to these parties.

Secondly, the tone by these parties (and to a certain extent the media) has been thoroughly anti-Conservative. I will be the first to admit the Conservatives have not got everything right, and I can think of several policy areas where I wish the Government had said more. It was nothing short of ridiculous however to see the left-leaning party leaders lining up to take pot-shots on ‘austerity’ while not making a coherent argument for a credible alternative. My distinct impression is that the prospect of a hung parliament was generating a certain triumphalism by the left, which one imagines makes it more difficult for moderate voters to admit that they approve of the government’s record on the economy. But the government, while not eliminating the deficit completely as I would wish, has performed an economy recovery that has been described as ‘textbook; by the IMF. Unemployment has decreased, real wages are rising, and the deficit is being reduced, with a concrete plan to eliminate it completely – and the left leaning parties have not set out a credible alternative. Similar to 1992, I think a lot of voters will not find it easy to admit publicly that they approve of the Conservative plan with so much public anti-Tory sentiment – but in the calm space of the voting booth they will not be prepared to trust any party that won’t take the public finances seriously.

I also want to challenge the assumption that somehow voting for a left-leaning alliance of parties will somehow ensure our economic recovery will be ‘fairer.’ It is not fair to borrow for our lavish lifestyle today and leave the cost to our children, grand-children – or potentially even our great-grandchildren. It is not fair to raise taxes so high that wealth is driven away from the UK so that the burden of taxation falls on those not able to so easily move their wealth, and who also can least afford to carry that burden. And it is certainly not fair to inflict five years of economic mismanagement on the nation by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, who still refuse to admit that they spent and borrowed too much while they were in government under Gordon Brown.

Which is why I make an unashamed appeal for how you should use your choice.  It is clear that either David Cameron or Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister – no other party will command a large enough number of seats. I am not only voting Conservative – I am actively campaigning in Oxford for our local candidates to be elected, because they are the only party with a credible and coherent plan to ensure the economic recovery continues, and to eliminate our spending deficit – and the only way to get that security is by voting for your local Conservative candidate.


The most uncertain election for a generation

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.

Average of Polls - dated 17-11-2014

Average of Polls – dated 17-11-2014

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.