In January 2014, Labour were hoping to hang on to a nine point lead in the polls,1https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/107/Voting-Intention-in-Great-Britain-Recent-Trends.aspx while the Conservatives hoped rising economic optimism 2https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/43/Economic-Optimism-Index-EOI-State-of-the-Economy-1997-Present.aspx could bring up their vote share. The Liberal Democrats were just hanging on to third place in the polls ahead of UKIP, who the public thought were as likely to win the European elections later in the year as we were to find life on Mars!3https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3335/Britons-give-UKIP-as-much-chance-of-winning-the-European-elections-as-finding-life-on-Mars.aspx The ‘No’ campaign held a twenty-six point lead in the polls for the Scottish Independence Referendum,4https://www.ipsos-mori.com/contactus/offices/scotland/indyref2014/polling/votingintention.aspxand looked likely to win easily.
Skip forward and UKIP have not only won the European elections, but have two elected MPs. The race in Scotland had a nail-biting finish and a massive post-referendum boost for the SNP, and the hopes of all of the three traditional parties failed to come to fruition.
So what happened?
The ‘war of the weak’ between the traditional parties continues, with the combined vote share held by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats at just 70% in November, down from 90% in the 2010 general election.
Continuing economic optimism has so far failed to bring the Conservatives the poll boost they need for a majority government next year. May saw 53% thinking the economy would improve over the next year, the highest level ever recorded in the 36 years since we began asking the question in 1978. Optimism has since dipped, in line with other peaks of economic optimism, but the Conservatives’ vote share has stayed pretty static throughout – even when economic optimism was at its height, they were still only on 31%.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party have had a bad year. Their vote is falling, despite the fact that the Conservatives are not making the gains they would like either. Labour’s vote share averaged 35% in the year to November, with their vote share unchanged from August through October at 33% – down from 39% in January and an average of 38% in 2013.
Ed Miliband’s ratings remain very poor, to put it politely, with November seeing his ratings drop to the lowest of any Labour leader since Michael Foot. He is even struggling for support from Labour voters; six in ten (58%) were dissatisfied with his performance in November, the highest level of dissatisfaction ever recorded for a leader of a major party amongst their own followers in the 20 years we have collected this data.
The Liberal Democrats have been consistently in fourth place behind UKIP since April – and for three months were on a level pegging with the Green Party. The weakness of Labour and the Conservatives would traditionally have been a great opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. In November 2014 just 61% supported one of Britain’s two largest parties; the last time support for the two was that low was April 2010, when the Liberal Democrats were flying high on 32% following the pre-election television debates. Their lack of ‘protest party’ status in the coalition no longer gives them this opportunity.
Instead, UKIP have now seized the mantle as the party that is different to the rest, hitting a record 16% of vote share in October, following their win in the Clacton by-election – disproving any prediction that they would fizzle out following the European elections. They are also on par with the Conservative and Labour parties on immigration policy, one of the three topics most important in deciding people’s vote, along with the NHS and the economy. UKIP are no longer seen as a ‘wasted vote’ by the majority of Britons.
Mark Diffley gives an in-depth overview of the massive upheaval in Scottish politics elsewhere in this issue, but promises of devolution made by the ‘No’ campaign in the final days before the Scottish Referendum have also left the rest of the country in a quandary over the ‘West Lothian question’ – if only Scots can vote on Scottish policies, should the English alone be able to vote on English policies?
The majority of the British public support the Scots being able to decide their own rate of income tax – but also think similar powers need to be provided to the English and Welsh (55% support Scots to have these powers, 56% the English and 54% the Welsh). The devil, as ever, is in the detail, with the public split as to how exactly laws only affecting England should be made.
2014 has been a year of political tumult – and reminds us that even the best of predictions can be overturned by events. The 2015 general election has many unusual characteristics – the ‘war of the weak’ between the main parties, the rise of UKIP (and other parties, notably the Greens and the Scottish National Party), Britain’s first post-war coalition government, various contradictory historical precedents – which only suggest that 2015 may be even more unpredictable than 2014. And we haven’t even heard back yet regarding life on Mars…
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