Have the events of the past 18 months left political parties with much to look forward to in the year ahead?
It’s been a fascinating time in British politics. The General Election, the Scottish referendum and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader have all grabbed the headlines and surprised many pollsters, pundits and observers alike. But what now for the political parties? Have the events of the past 18 months left them with much to look forward to in the year ahead?
Back in May the Conservatives won a surprise Parliamentary majority, their first since 1992. But while this majority was unexpected (particularly among us pollsters) it was by no means enormous. Ahead of polling day, one thing that the Conservatives were keen to do was to avoid being reliant upon half a dozen or so Ukip MPs holding the balance of power. However some might argue that this is precisely what has occurred, it just so happens that the Ukip MPs were elected wearing Conservative rosettes.
In YouGov’s end of year poll for the Times, the Conservatives enjoyed a ten point lead over Labour, 39% to 29% on voting intention, but with a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU ahead (at some point), will the Conservatives now be fated to internal divisions more damaging than the early 1990s? With Britain currently evenly split 49% to 51% in favour of leaving, such divisions within the Conservatives, the government and the party then run the risk of being amplified by the protracted battle to become the new Conservative leader as Boris, George, Theresa and perhaps even others continue to jostle for position over the years to come.
Labour, on the other hand, also risk divisions of their own. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid was supported by only a small minority of his fellow MPs, with notable figures refusing to serve in his shadow cabinet faster than in took for the cheers of his supporters to die down.
Polling data has shown that the position he has taken on issues such as the Syrian air strikes and Trident are supported overwhelmingly by those that voted for him to become leader. Among those Labour supporters who did not the results are, however, far more mixed while the electorate is directly opposed. In the days before the vote on Syrian air strikes YouGov found 72% of those who had voted for Corbyn in the Labour leadership election were against the move while 52% of those who voted Labour in May and 59% of the general public supported them.
Senior Labour insiders have said they will not make the mistakes of the past and break away, choosing instead to position themselves inside the tent, albeit often from the backbenches. In doing so, will they doom their party to years of squabbling, backbiting and infighting that will make Brown v Blair look like a period of brotherly love? The protracted New Year reshuffle suggests it might.
The problems faced by the Liberal Democrats will be clear to anyone who can count. With only eight MPs remaining, the party chose to elect a new leader who leaves himself open to accusations of being ‘illiberal’ thanks to previously saying abortion is wrong and abstaining at a third reading of the gay marriage bill. Can they recover and increase the 6% of the vote they achieved in YouGov’s end of year survey, or are they now destined to perpetual electoral obscurity?
On the face if it the situation for the Scottish National Party is bright. With surging support and the prospect of strengthening their grip on Holyrood following the Scottish Parliamentary election in May.
But with 56 seats in Westminster, beyond the hopes of most SNP members, there are questions about whether the party can be sure that each of their recently elected members are of sufficient calibre to make it in the House of Commons. Are there problems around the corner for the inexperienced and ineffective among their ranks? SNP business spokesperson Michelle Thomson’s recent resignation due to 'irregularities' in her property deals hints at the potential downsides of unexpected and rapid success.
In exercising effective party discipline, questions may also be asked about how well the SNP represent the Scottish people on specific issues. All of their MPs voted against Syrian air strikes (97% of all Scottish MPs), but 44% of Scottish adults supported the move compared to 41% who opposed. Even among their own supporters YouGov found nearly a third (31%) supported strikes and just over half (56%) opposed.
And what of Ukip, battling with the SNP for the title of greatest political success story of recent years? Despite the millions of votes at the General Election they failed to make a breakthrough in terms of seats. Even before the latest in an increasingly long line of public spats between senior figures political attention had started to shift towards an EU Referendum and donations to the party were reportedly well down.
A great deal of first rate academic work has looked at the potential that exists for Ukip among white, working class voters and beyond. Will they ever be able to realise that potential or are they destined to always be a party simply for the dissatisfied, distrusting and disapproving? How much higher in the polls can they rise above the 17% they managed in the end of year survey?
Finally the Greens. Did 2015 represent their best chance for a breakthrough into the mainstream? The Green Surge never really materialised in any lasting way and, compared to her opponents, their leader underperformed in the televised election debates. They achieved just under 4% of the vote at the general election and have fallen below that figure since. Does Labour’s ideological repositioning under Jeremy Corbyn mean they are destined to focusing their efforts in the coming years to hold on to the one MP they returned last year?
Maybe there’s not much hope for any political party in the year ahead. But a week is a long time in politics, it’s a marathon not a sprint, the only poll that matters is the election etc. etc. etc. Much can still change and what lies ahead of us for 2016 and beyond is far from certain.
And there will be always be politicians hoping to rise to the top, hoping to gain power and hoping to hold onto it. The next 18 months could be even more interesting, confounding and unusual than the last.
Image from PA