After nearly a decade of boring politics (let’s be honest – who couldn’t predict a Labour majority government in 1997, 2001 and 2005?), it’s suddenly getting quite interesting and 2014 promises to be a real cracker.
Indeed, 2014 might be the last year in the political history of the United Kingdom as Alex Salmond’s foot soldiers ready themselves for the biggest decision Scotland has faced in over 300 years. Can Salmond do it? Can any of us image waking up on Friday 19 September to news headlines that the United Kingdom is finished? Gone. Just like that. The country which fought one half of Europe while freeing the other half (not just once!) consigned to the history books?
Scary if one is a staunch unionist yet exhilarating if one wants Scottish independence.
The polling certainly should ease unionist nerves. Surveys repeatedly show the No campaign with a healthy lead of 10-20 points and the Yes camp lagging behind on the mid 30s.
There is this niggling feeling in the back of my neck, however, that if anyone could reverse this trend it is Salmond. The previous Labour government designed devolution in order to kill the separatist movement stone dead. A majority government was not meant to be possible and a SNP majority government utterly incomprehensible. But Salmond did just that. This is the moment he and all his supporters have been fighting for their whole life and they are not going to simply be defeated without giving it their all. Alastair Darling’s Better Together campaign better be aware.
As for Westminster, 2014 will almost certainly be the year of UKIP. Despite party members whacking journalists, being caught up in racism scandals and the party receiving countless attacks from across the political spectrum, UKIP constantly outpolled the Liberal Democrats last year. In English local elections they won 23% of the vote – just 2% behind the Tories. Those results shocked Westminster to the core. Not for over a century has a party emerged that can seriously threaten to break the existing three-party consensus.
The borders have been opened to Romania and Bulgaria, and with thousands of new immigrants expected and public opinion overwhelmingly averse to further immigration, UKIP seem certain to capitalise on annoyed Conservatives but also disillusioned Labour supporters. In fact, as UKIP leader Nigel Farage keeps telling us, a large share of UKIP voters are ex-Labour supporters.
Cameron, obviously spooked by the grinning Farage, made distinctive right-wing turns throughout 2013 in an attempt to win back lost Conservative voters. In January he offered a much wanted referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU if the Tories won a majority in 2015. Later in the year, the Home Office sent out ‘Go back home’ vans targeted at illegal migrants. There were also emergency laws rushed through to stop new migrants claiming benefits for the first three months of their arrival. Yet none of this has even dented the UKIP vote. Many would argue UKIP are directing government policy and setting that favourite media phrase, ‘the agenda’.
An agenda that Labour leader Ed Miliband has desperately sought. After spending the whole of 2011 telling anyone who would listen that ‘Tory cuts’ would lead to a double dip or even triple dip recession, Miliband and his sidekick Ed Balls have scrapped that line in favour of the ‘cost of living crisis’. And this time it’s something that certainly resonates with millions of voters, with the average real wage falling by more than 10% and inflation continuing to outstrip wage increases.
But 2013 saw Miliband’s lead of low double figures cut to around 4-6 points with the Labour vote share around 36%. Owing to several factors such as the emergence of UKIP and Clegg’s defeat on electoral reform, Miliband only needs 35% to win a majority in the 2015 general election. And yet politicians, pundits and the public just don’t see Miliband as the next prime minister. He has shockingly bad ‘approval’ ratings ranging from -30 to -40. David Cameron’s approval ratings, by contrast, hover either side of -20.
Furthermore, while Labour might be ahead in the polls, history shows us that the lead is just not big enough. Both Thatcher and Major were behind in the polls by double figures but turned it around into majority victories. If Miliband is to become prime minister, he will create history in doing so – no opposition has ever claimed victory with a leader disliked as much as Miliband nor with such a small lead. It doesn’t help that the public still see Labour as the party of ‘excess’ and blame them for the financial crisis – something Miliband doesn’t help correct by keeping Gordon Brown’s right-hand man, Ed Balls, as shadow chancellor.
Amid all these high-stakes scenarios linger the Lib Dems. Make no mistake, they are fighting for survival. Party members did have a few encouragements in 2013: they were able to hold on to seats where the party has a strong local base, such as the Eastleigh by-election, and their dramatic poll collapse has bottomed out at around 9%-12%. As part of this survival strategy and to woo back all those Labour defectors, Clegg has gone against the political grain and started the new year with a major gamble – delivering the strongest pro-EU speech given by any politician for a very long time. This seems silly when one considers the negative opinion of the EU held by the majority of the British public. There is a significant minority who are very pro-EU, however, and Clegg is hoping they will vote for the Lib Dems. If the strategy fails, there is a real possibility that the Lib Dems may find themselves beaten by the Greens in May’s European elections.
As so, as we enter 2014, the political struggle for victory in 2015 is wide open. Miliband should win but has yet to convince the public he would make a better prime minister. Cameron’s Conservatives have held up well in the polls despite deep cuts to several public budgets and will hope to improve as growth rises and inflation falls. But there is a huge difference between registering a lead of Labour and winning a workable majority. For that, the Conservatives need around 40% of the vote. Another coalition anyone?
By the end of this year, we’ll have a much better idea of what politics in the UK will look like in the next few decades. 2014 will either cement UKIP as a major player or expose their 2013 glory as their high point. And for Alex Salmond, 2014 is his to win.