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2015: the most unpredictable General Election for 40 years

2015: the most unpredictable General Election for 40 years

🕔30.Dec 2014

Labour is struggling to make an impact, the Conservatives are hanging on, the Liberal Democrats appear to be in perpetual crisis, and Ukip remains the joker in the pack. Paul Dale looks forward to the 2015 General Election and analyses the Birmingham battleground.

Politicians are fond of reminding us that opinion polls are a mere snapshot of voting intentions and should not therefore be relied upon too heavily.

That is sound advice, but important trends can still be gleaned from polls over a period of time.

The period between the General Elections of 2010 and 2015 may turn out to be the most heavily and regularly polled five years in British political history.

And what the polls have been telling us with remarkable consistency is this: Labour maintains a slender lead over the Conservatives; Ukip’s share of the vote has been volatile but averages about 14 per cent; the Liberal Democrats are struggling to climb out of single figures; the Greens are not far behind the Lib Dems and may even have drawn level.

YouGov, which has been polling weekly during 2014, gave Labour a six-point lead over the Conservatives at the start of the year. That lead had dwindled to one point by December 28. Other pollsters have ranged in their findings from a Labour lead of about four points to a dead heat, or even a one point Tory lead.

Those bald figures hide some important factors that will make the result of the 2015 election unpredictable to say the least. In fact, this could be the most difficult contest to call since 1974 when Labour and the Conservatives battled it out in two General Elections.

During that year, Labour and the Tories between them took about 76 per cent of votes cast. The Liberal party, although picking up 19 per cent in February and 18 per cent in October, failed to translate their support into many seats. The two-party system has been under constant threat since then from voters who have fallen out of love with Labour and the Conservatives.

As the Tory pollster Lord Ashcroft points out, the combined Tory and Labour vote at the 2010 General Election was 67 per cent. Polls conducted over the past few months suggest that figure may have fallen to little more than 60 per cent. This makes it difficult to envisage either of the two main parties winning enough seats for an outright Commons majority, even in a first past the post electoral system.

The rise of Ukip in England and Labour’s apparent meltdown in Scotland at the expense of the Scottish Nationalist Party, plus uncertainty over whether the Lib Dems can recover, means that even the most experienced political pundit might hesitate at predicting what will happen in May other than forming a vague notion that we are probably in for another coalition.

Unsurprisingly, Ashcroft found wide variations in the marginal seats he has been polling and uncertainty over the final result appears to have become embedded in the public mood.

In November Ashcroft found about a quarter of voters expecting a Labour government, another quarter expecting a Conservative government, one eighth expecting a Labour-Lib Dem coalition and another eighth expecting a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition.

One fascinating aspect of Ashcroft’s polling is the revelation that most voters, including a majority of Conservatives, do not wish to see Ukip as part of a coalition government. In other words, Ukip seems to be viewed as nothing more than a protest vote, although the party’s anti-immigration and anti-EU stance has undoubtedly played to the public mood.

Tory voters give higher ratings to Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems than to Nigel Farage and Ukip. Ashcroft’s polling in the marginal seats has consistently shown about 75 per cent of Conservatives saying they will definitely not vote Ukip.

This led Ashcroft to urge his own party to avoid a dash to the right: “Trying to win back defectors being more like Ukip would not only fail on its own terms but would risk alienating some existing Tory supporters – not to mention putting off potential joiners from the Lib Dems.”

The biggest uncertainty of all involves people who expect to vote but are yet to make up their mind which party to support. Ashcroft’s polls regularly find that 50 per cent of electors are yet to decide how they will vote, while roughly half of Ukip supporters do not rule out returning to the Conservative fold before polling day.

YouGov, meanwhile, has tracked how immigration has become the most important issue for a majority of voters, overtaking the economy in May of this year. The YouGov polls also highlight Ed Miliband’s failure to attract a personal following – his popularity rating averaged -53 points in December compared to -35 in January.

Labour’s failure to break through the 40 per cent mark could prove fatal to Mr Miliband’s hopes of forming a government on his own.

Given the scale of public spending cuts imposed in the Chancellor’s austerity budgets since 2010, the fact that the Labour party has become becalmed in the mid-30 per cent range is one of the most surprising aspects of the current political climate. Labour is struggling to improve much on the 29 per cent support it attracted at the 2010 General Election, even with the apparent unpopularity of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.

One of the biggest uncertainties facing Labour is a question mark over the support the party has relied upon for years from ethnic minority voters – something that could skew results in Birmingham constituencies, particularly Hodge Hill and Hall Green.

The Ethnic Minority British Election Study published shortly before Christmas suggests a collapse in support for Labour from Indian voters and also claims that Pakistani and African Caribbean voters are increasingly turning their backs on the party.

The number of Indian voters identifying with Labour has fallen from 77 per cent in 1997 to 18 per cent in 2014. Pakistani support has fallen from 77 per cent to 57 per cent.

Dr Maria Sobolewska, of Manchester University, who is part of the ethnic minority election study team, said: “The Labour party think they have the minorities in the bag. The ethnic minorities are seen to be the core of the Labour vote, but Labour is not really sitting pretty on ethnic minorities any more.

“The percentage of people who identify with the Labour party is falling very fast.”

The Birmingham battleground:

Edgbaston

Gisela Stuart had 1,274-vote majority over Conservative Deirdre Alden in 2010. The Conservative candidate for 2015, local GP Dr Luke Evans, requires a 1.6 per cent swing to take the seat. Mrs Stuart first won Edgbaston in 1997, seeing off former Birmingham Post editor Nigel Hastilow, the Conservative candidate, and has held it ever since defying Tory attempts to win the marginal seat.

Northfield

Labour’s Richard Burden held on here in 2010 with a majority of 2,782 votes over Conservative candidate Keely Huxtable. But Burden’s share of the vote slumped by 10 per cent, prompting the Tories to name Northfield their number one Birmingham target seat for 2015. The Conservative candidate this time is local businesswoman Rachel Maclean. Ukip candidate Keith Rowe hopes to pick up support from disillusioned working class Labour voters.

Erdington

On paper, a safe Labour seat thanks to the constituency’s sprawling council estates. But shadow local government minister Jack Dromey managed only a 3,277-vote majority in 2010 and saw Labour’s share of the vote fall by 11 per cent. Since then Labour has lost council seats in the constituency and Mr Dromey faces a tough fight against Robert Alden, the Conservative candidate, who is the leader of the opposition Tory group on Birmingham city council. Ukip’s strength in areas like Kingstanding and Stockland Green will make the 2015 result all the more unpredictable.

Selly Oak

Labour’s Steve McCabe will expect to defend his seat easily enough. He enjoyed a 3,482-vote majority over Conservative candidate Nigel Dawkins in 2010. This is the only Birmingham constituency that could be said to be a three-way battle between Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. The Tories would expect to win in a good year. Will it be a good year for Conservative candidate Alex Avern, and what will happen to the Liberal Democrat vote?

Hodge Hill

One of Labour’s safer Birmingham seats. Former minister Liam Byrne should have no problem defending a 10,302 majority, although he may feel uneasy about Ukip which has been making up considerable ground and ran a close second to Labour in Shard End at the 2014 city council elections, failing by 37 votes to win the seat. The Liberal Democrats were second here in 2010 and a slump in the party’s popularity since then would appear to improve Mr Byrne’s position, although the strength of Ukip cannot be discounted.

Perry Barr

There should be no problem here for Labour’s Khalid Mahmood, who has held Perry Barr since 2001. He romped home in 2010 with 50 per cent of the total votes cast. Mahmood will be helped by a split between Liberal Democrat and Labour for second place.

Hall Green

Labour’s Roger Godsiff will be looking for a second victory in the constituency that was created for the 2010 General Election following boundary changes. Mr Godsiff won last time with a 3,799-vote majority over Salma Yaqoob, the Respect Party candidate. The demise since then of Respect leaves a huge number of mainly Muslim votes up for grabs. Will most of them go to Labour, or perhaps there will be a protest vote with Liberal Democrat candidate Jerry Evans the gainer?

Ladywood

Shabana Mahmood romped home for Labour in 2010 with 56 per cent of the vote and a majority of 10,105 over Liberal Democrat candidate Ayoub Khan. There is very little reason to suppose that Ms Mahmood will have any difficulty in being re-elected this time around.

Yardley

This is Birmingham’s only Liberal Democrat-held constituency where John Hemming will defend a seat he first won in 2005. Labour will throw everything they have at overturning Hemming’s 3,002-vote majority and have chosen city councillor Jess Phillips as their candidate. Labour requires a swing of almost four per cent to win. Strong performances by Ukip in council elections in the Yardley constituency may have some significance. It should be noted that Liberal Democrat candidates successfully defended all four Yardley wards at the 2014 city council elections.

Sutton Coldfield

In normal circumstances there’d be no doubting Andrew Mitchell’s ability to defend one of the safest Conservative seats in the Midlands. But there may be just a sliver of uncertainty in the wake of the Plebgate affair and Mr Mitchell’s subsequent libel action in the High Court, which he lost. Having said that, Labour candidate Rob Pocock does require a swing of about 17 per cent to unseat Mitchell, making a surprise here highly unlikely in any circumstances.

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