With an unpopular Tory government in the last year of its mandate, the opposition Labour Party should be riding high. However, there is no mood of eager expectation in Labour ranks as the May 8, 2015, election date draws closer: indeed there is some apprehension. The reasons for this subdued atmosphere explain a lot about the state of British politics today. For most of 2014, Labour has headed the polls by three to four percentage points, but this may be too little for victory.
Neither the Scottish elections in 2013, nor the European elections in the spring of 2014, nor the Scottish independence referendum in September brought Labour much comfort. In 2013 the Scottish National Party, which like the Parti Quebecois projects itself as a broadly left-of-centre party, won an absolute majority in the Holyrood parliament, quite an accomplishment under a proportional electoral system. Labour, Scotland's traditional premier party, lagged well behind. In the elections to the Strasbourg parliament, the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) triumphed, with Labour a disappointing second (the Tories came third). The upsurge in the UKIP vote to 27.5 per cent sent shock waves through the political system. Since, UKIP has managed since to hold fast at around 15 per cent in the polls--way ahead of the Tories' coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
The European elections were soon overshadowed by the battle over the Scottish independence referendum. Over the summer the margin of a No victory narrowed sharply. In the event, No won quite comfortably (55 to 45 per cent) on an extremely high turnover of 85 per cent--the highest ever recorded in U.K. electoral history. If the vote had gone otherwise, the implications for Labour would have been dire. Of the 58 Scottish seats, Labour holds 40, the Lib Dems 11, the SNP six and the Tories one. Deprived of its Scottish seats, Labour would have struggled mightily to win a majority in 2015. This cloud has now been lifted.
But for Labour there remain other worrying clouds. The race over independence tightened largely because working-class voters in traditional Labour strongholds drifted to the Yes camp. Its great bailiwick, Glasgow, voted Yes and it was estimated that around 40 per cent of those who voted Labour in the 2010 Westminster elections opted for independence. Some of its seats are expected to fall to the SNP next May.
The plain fact is that Labour has struggled since 2010. There are many reasons but here I focus on the most pressing, what I call Ed Miliband's four predicaments: leadership, economic competence, immigration and social welfare. Then I turn to some considerations --stagnant living standards, fears over the National Health Service (NHS) and the operations of the party and electoral systems, which may ease Labour to the winning post even on a modest share of the vote.
Predicament no. 1: The question of leadership
The age of fixed and predictable party allegiances has vanished. Politics is fluid, the voters are fickle and the best-laid plans can easily be disrupted by capricious events. The act of voting is no longer the expression of preexisting loyalties, as it was once for many, but an actual choice. But how, in the ever-changing and often bewildering world of politics and policies, do voters actually choose? The theory favoured by many political commentators, that voters engage in some process of rational and deliberative decision-making, lacks evidence and plausibility. One alternative explanation of electoral behaviour is valence theory.
Valence theory holds that most voters agree on the ends of political action, such as price stability, rising living standards and domestic security, and what matters is which party is judged best able to realize them. Since most people are disinclined to invest time and effort in assessing the merits of differing policies, valence theory maintains that they rely on cognitive shortcuts.
The most important of these is evaluation of party leaders. Unlike issues and policies, which are complex and often abstract, party leaders are highly visible embodiments of their parties. (1) The leader who scores higher on such attributes as perceived competence, likeability and trustworthiness is assumed more likely to deliver desired policy outcomes. This is more an affective than a reasoned judgment--how people feel about leaders, whether they like or dislike them, whether or not they find them congenial and attractive. Miliband scores poorly (though not as poorly as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg). David Cameron is not particularly popular, but he comes over as competent, slick and self-assured, and Labour's leader has consistently and by a wide margin trailed behind him. In September 2014 the polling organization YouGov reported that:
* 15 per cent of people think that Ed Miliband has provided an effective opposition to the government, 68 per cent that he has not;
* 20 per cent think Miliband has made it clear what he stands for, 64 per cent that he has not;
* 18 per cent think he would be up to the job of prime minister, 63 per cent that he would not. (2)
Miliband is widely seen as "geeky," inexperienced, lacking leadership skills and "uncharismatic." Why so many voters have a negative image of him--aside from the fact that unlike Tony Blair he is no media natural --is something of a mystery. Certainly four years of negative anonymous briefings by assorted Blairites' portraying him as "laughable" and "abysmal" have not helped. (3) With so much of the press unremittingly hostile, he lacks the means to radically alter public perceptions of himself.