Is 2015 really the race to lose?

25 Feb 2015


As the already seemingly endless warm-up to the General Election grinds on, once again the doom-mongers insist that no-one would want to win in May.


The view that 2015 is a race most parties would want to lose has been floating around for a while now. On the face of it, it seems that the prognosis for any party of government after 2015 looks grim indeed. For Labour, the need to continue with austerity plans which are deeply unpopular amongst the party’s supporters runs the risk of giving a boost to the Greens, as young people in particular become disillusioned with the party for being insufficiently radical (we’ve seen hints of this already).


Furthermore, a Labour government would be unlikely to pursue a massive redistribution of wealth or a spending splurge, lest it destroy its fragile economic credibility. This means the party could lose a cadre of its ‘left-behind’ voters to UKIP, which without an EU referendum would be free to grow for another five years.


For the Conservatives, another five years in power also seems extremely unappealing. If David Cameron can clinch a majority in May, he would lose his sole defence against his backbencher’s frustrations on a host of issues from hunting to immigration. Throughout this parliament, Cameron has consistently been able to blame any government shortfalls, particularly on issues relevant to social conservatives, on his Lib-Dem fair-weather friends. But can anyone see the ‘vote Blue, go Green’ moderniser consider repealing the hunting ban or giving yet another tax break to millionaires?


This problem is compounded by any Conservative government having to make good on his 2017 EU referendum pledge. If withdrawal from the EU is put to the people but the Prime Minister recommends a vote to stay in (as he most likely would), the Conservatives would surely be torn asunder. With many tory MPs working alongside UKIP for a long period, the game of ‘spot the defector’ could last for months. Throughout the referendum campaign, the parliamentary party would have no regard for the PM or the whips’ office, chaos would reign and the government would become a joke.


Two further factors complicate government for both of the two main parties. The first is the global economic outlook. With Eurozone brinkmanship looking set to last for the foreseeable future and the financial instability promised by a (to my mind inevitable) Greek debt write down or Eurozone exit, the economy’s prospects are far from certain. Combined with predictions of a new era of ‘secular stagnation’; Chinese growth and demand beginning to fall as well as IMF pessimism about future growth, it will be a herculean task for any government to better our current, somewhat plodding, rate of economic progress.


The second complicating factor is the sheer difficulty in attaining anything near a majority of seats. For Labour, the rise of the greens and SNP alongside poor approval ratings for Ed Miliband, have conspired to frustrate them getting anywhere close to a majority, despite looking set to demolish around half of the Lib-Dem’s seats. Meanwhile the sheer task of holding all of their marginal seats, let alone making inroads into Labour territory, seems too much for Conservative high command. Despite polling well in some marginals like Pudsey, the UKIP surge has given them an enormous hill to climb in some of their notionally safer seats. The result of such a fractured parliament could be a Labour government which needs the votes of Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell or a Conservative minority propped up by Alex Salmond and a bullish SNP caucus. In short: complete anarchy.


Despite all of these challenges, the major parties do really seem to be throwing the kitchen sink at the coming election. With continuing calls for more donors and volunteers (often sadly in that order) and the longest campaign in history dominating our TV screens and Twitter feeds, the parties are obsessed with squeezing out every possible vote. Why is this?


The bulk of the answer lies with the fact that our politicians are not as Machiavellian as many media outlets would have you believe. Most MPs really did get into their line of work to help their country and their constituents, government is plainly the best place to do this. Furthermore, given the hordes of backbenchers eager to climb the greasy pole, there is still a feeling that ministers are capable of making real changes through their departments and policies.


There is a more selfish dynamic to this battle as well. Remember that every incumbent in a tight race will fight tooth and nail to save their job and that everyone else on the ballot paper is desperate to steal the (fairly substantial) spoils of victory. The few key races that will tilt the balance of power one way or the other could well be decided by how big a personal stake the candidates have in the result.


And although the challenges facing an incoming government this time around are tough, it’s important to remember that very few governments inherit a country in perfect condition. Take the current government, they were saddled with a fiscal basket-case, a Eurozone on the brink and they were stuck in a potentially fractious coalition to boot. Despite having had to implement a tough regime of austerity alongside facing down an insurgent party on its right flank, the Conservative party at least doesn’t seem to have come out of this government in too bad a shape, with its leader more popular than the alternative and a solid lead on economic competence. The future may look bleak now but it’s impossible to predict which events will shape the next parliament or what condition the opposition will be in.


This still leaves one question unanswered: are there any political advantages to a victory in May? Although they are hard to discern, there do seem to be a few reasons a party could benefit from taking office for the next five years.


In my view, a stint in government most obviously benefits Labour. If they could avoid playing fast and loose with the public purse, they would be able to improve their economic credibility, solving probably their largest weakness. In addition to this, Miliband’s failure to look like a Prime Minister would perhaps be addressed once he got up the steps to number 10, then again, many had similar hopes before he became Labour leader. Labour would also be forced to have a comprehensive set of policies, which free from mountains of pre-election pledges could be both popular and practical.


For the Conservatives, government seems a somewhat more difficult exercise. However, the chance to finally settle the EU issue is tempting for people on all sides of the party and presents a chance to knock the wind from UKIP’s sails. Finally, another opportunity to run the country allows the Tories to redress perceived mistakes in areas like health and education.


So, though some commentators choose to portray 2015 as an election neither main party should really want to win. There are a great many personal and political benefits of them both desperately wanting to do so.

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