YouGov CEO Stephan Shakespeare assesses the current electoral landscape
1. Labour’s lead is small, but it might be enough for victory
Labour is polling around six percentage points ahead of the Conservatives. Oppositions that have gone on to win elections usually enjoy leads in the high teens, so a six-point lead looks inadequate for Ed Miliband. But the failure of Parliament to enact the Boundary Commission’s fairer distribution of seat sizes means that Labour can conceivably win a small Commons majority with just 35 per cent of the vote. The Tories need a lead that is four times as large for victory.
2. Ed Miliband does not look prime ministerial
In September only 12 per cent of people said that the Labour leader “looks like a prime minister in waiting”. Whenever his ratings rise, as they did after his party conference speech, they quickly decline back to their former level. In contrast, David Cameron scored 49 per cent on this measure when he was Opposition Leader at the equivalent time. Now he maintains a consistent 10 per cent lead over Ed Miliband as ‘best for PM’. Does it matter? Maybe not in mid-term but at the election voters are making a real choice, and Mr Miliband’s poor personal ratings — including being perceived as weak — may play a vital role.
3. By two to one, voters think that the economy would get worse if Labour won
On average the Conservatives have a 10 per cent lead on which party is trusted with the economy and Labour is losing ground. At the start of the year the two parties were neck and neck but as the economy has grown, the Conservatives have pulled ahead. By a margin of two to one people expect the economy would get worse if Labour won. It is hard to imagine large numbers voting for a party they expect will damage the economy.
4. There’s not much of a feelgood factor . . . yet
Maybe it’s not the economy. Perhaps it’s the cost of living that people care about most? Pollsters always ask about the general concept of “the economy” but people only know the national picture by what they read in the papers. The one thing they know for themselves is how things are going in their own community, and they certainly understand their own cost of living. Last month 34 per cent of people thought the overall economy was improving, but only 22 per cent thought it was improving in their area.
5. Tories still seem out of touch
So what matters more, the national economy or the personal cost of living? And, worse, if the two seem to be travelling in opposite directions, does that make the economic losers feel left out and angry? Here, Labour become winners. Last year YouGov found that 52 per cent thought the Conservatives were “for one section of the country, not the whole country”; only 21 per cent thought that about Labour. This year we found that 27 per cent thought Mr Miliband was in touch, compared with 21 per cent for Mr Cameron. This could be important: exit polls from the 2012 US elections found Romney beating Obama on all the personality scores — good leader, vision for the future, shared values — except for one: Obama beat Romney by 81 per cent to 18 per cent on the “cares about people like me” measure. We know what happened when Americans cast their votes.
6. Labour is winning voters from the Lib Dems; Tories are losing voters to UKIP
YouGov compares what people told us at the time of the last election and what they say now. The main moves over the past three and a half years are Lib Dem voters to Labour (7.7 per cent of all voters), and Conservative voters to UKIP (4.6 per cent), with each losing similar amounts to “don’t know”. It shows the extent of the Conservative problem, needing both to win back lost votes on its right wing and win new votes in the centre, while Labour could do well enough just by soaking up disenchanted Lib Dems.
7. UKIP has split the centre-right eurosceptic vote
Many Conservatives and Eurosceptics see Nigel Farage as their true voice, and UKIP has created a strong anti-Establishment force that appeals to the kind of people that Norman Tebbit-style Conservatives once nicked from Labour. If UKIP does well in next June’s European elections Conservative MPs could panic. It’s anyone’s guess just how much momentum UKIP will be able to maintain until the general election. The party is very dependent upon Mr Farage’s personal popularity but it only needs a 7 or 8 per cent vote share to do serious harm to Mr Cameron’s prospects. It’s currently scoring 11 and 12 per cent.
8. It is becoming harder for any party to win an outright majority
Contrary to received wisdom, governing parties do sometimes increase their share of the vote between one election and another. It happened in 1955, 1966 and October 1974 but three big factors mean it will be hard for Mr Cameron to find the extra votes he needs for a working majority. First, lots of unhappy left-leaning former Liberal Democrats will boost Labour’s share of the vote. Second, the Lib Dems will probably hold on to most of their seats. Even if Nick Clegg’s vote halves, he could easily keep three quarters of his MPs, as we saw at the Eastleigh by-election. And third, the most significant postwar voting trend is the decreasing share of the vote enjoyed by the two main parties combined (see graph). This makes it increasingly hard for any party to gain a working majority.
9. New Tory mps will benefit from local popularity
Local MPs are often more popular than national parties and this gives incumbents an improved chance of holding their seats. This should benefit the Tories in 2015 because so many Labour MPs with local reputations were ousted by Tory MPs who have spent the time since 2010 digging in to their new constituencies. The effect of this in an election with so many first time MPs could be considerable. In the 2001 election when many new Labour MPs were defending their seats for the first time, Labour’s national vote dropped by 2.5 per cent, but Tony Blair lost only five seats.
10. The outcome of the next election is the hardest to predict in a generation
There will be lots of factors making this election different from all others of recent memory. We don’t know the result of the Scottish independence referendum, but even the expected “no” vote may change the political dynamics north of the border. It’s the first post-coalition election in modern times, and we have no idea quite how that partnership will end. The Tories should benefit from a recovering economy and an ineffective Labour leader but Miliband could be boosted by the potentially historic UKIP/Tory split and a large defection of unhappy Lib Dem voters. It’s all to play for.