Jon Owen Jones assesses the chances of the party leaders as they face two years of electoral hurdles.
I am not sure if Ed Miliband gets honest advice but if he does it cannot have cheered him. The public have not warmed to him or to be more accurate they do not see him as a Prime Minister. He started 2013 with a negative polling of -21 per cent and ended it even less popular, at -34 per cent. No politician in recent times has become Prime Minister with such a poor public perception.
True the Labour Party is far more popular than its leader and has led the polls throughout the past year. However, the party lead is also in decline. Last January Labour enjoyed a 10 point lead but that soon began to recede and by the summer had nearly halved. Miliband then made a speech in Labour’s Conference which changed the terms of the debate. As the economy has begun to pick up Labour has started to argue that this headline improvement had no beneficial effect on families when the cost of living increased more than their wages. This argument gained salience when Miliband announced a promised freeze on fuel prices. For several months this initiative boosted Labour and its lead began to recover but has since eroded as public confidence in a growing economy is slowly having an effect.
Though the conference initiative was a highpoint, on the wider economy Labour and Ed Balls the Shadow Chancellor are struggling to be heard. Generally the public have accepted the austerity agenda and Labour has also agreed to similar budget tightening. The public believe that Labour will be more sympathetic but they need convincing they will be sufficiently determined to carry through cuts against powerful opposition. The continuing row over constituency selections and the role of unions in that is not helping Ed Miliband look decisive.
In spite of this gloom Miliband’s friends will point out that were there an election tomorrow Labour is best placed to win. Not because it is strong but because its opponents are weak and the public support is so divided.
Carwyn Jones, Labour’s Leader in Wales should view the Welsh polls with great confidence. At 46 per cent Welsh Labour has over twice the support of its nearest competitor. The road to a clear majority in the 2016 Assembly seems clear. Yet how much of this lead is dependent upon a Conservative led government in Westminster? Carwyn’s feelings about a Miliband victory must be a little conflicted.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has the demeanour of an optimist and his confidence is better grounded at the end of 2013 than at its start. Why? Well as Clinton observed, it is the economy which wins elections (generally true but there are exceptions). The UK economy has at long last emerged from recession and stagnation. Official figures anticipate growth at 2.4 per cent this year but independent analysts such as Goldman Sachs believe that 2.7 per cent is more likely.
Not only are we growing but we are growing faster than any of our neighbours with the EU Commission believing that UK growth will exceed that of any other EU country in 2014 and 2015. Unemployment is also dropping and will probably drop below 7 per cent by the election. The Prime Minister should feel good about these figures and the momentum behind them which he hopes will propel him to office again.
The flies in the ointment are that as public confidence in the economy grows public concern moves on to other issues. Labour has had some success in shifting the argument from economic indices and onto the cost of living. However, public worries about immigration has become a major problem for the Conservatives. UKIP have captured this issue and is currently preventing the Tories enjoying the polling benefit that the economy should bestow. Economic success also brings its own problems and house price inflation may well be one. Interest rates cannot remain at rock bottom for the next 18 months and as they rise mortgage owners will feel the pinch on the other hand older voters with pensions and savings will benefit.
Apart from UKIP the biggest obstacle to a Tory majority is geography. They have only one Scottish seat and only a quarter of the seats in Northern England. In Wales they have a fifth of the seats. They cannot win a UK majority in southern England alone, they have to do better in these ‘hostile’ territories. In Wales their 8 parliamentary seats are a high watermark that was surpassed in Margaret Thatcher’s pomp in the early 1980s. Winning more seats here will be a big ask as will holding what they have. The Euro election isn’t going to help. Will UKIP out poll them and could they lose their seat?
Of all the leaders surely Nigel Farage has had the best year. Not only that, he can, I think confidently predicted that 2014 will be even better. This party of “nutcases, fruitcakes and closet racists” (according to David Cameron in 2006) has now to be taken seriously. Until 18 months ago it was regarded as a fringe party (apart from in Euro elections) and not included in UK polling figures. Since then it consistently out polls the Liberal Democrats and has replaced them in its ability to harness the protest vote in by-elections. No serious political leader now dares to denigrate UKIP voters.
Last UK poll of 2013
Farage will aim to top the poll in this year’s Euro election and win a host of council seats in the English local elections. If he is lucky a by-election or two would be great news especially if they occurred in the Spring or early Summer – that is, around the time of the European election. More UKIP MEPs are virtually guaranteed but an MP or two might herald the real breakthrough.
In Wales UKIP have one Euro seat which they will probably retain. However, in the 2009 Euro elections they were the fourth most popular welsh party. This year I expect they will do better.
It’s been a mixed year for the Liberal Democrats. They were battered in several by-elections and afflicted by a few scandals. Yet it was the Eastleigh by-election caused by the jailing of the Chris Huhne that at last gave them hope. They held the seat after a very strong UKIP challenge. If Farage had stood the outcome may have been very different. However, the Liberal Democrats confounded the polls and showed they can hang on to seats where they have a strong local machine. This has to remain true for Nick Clegg to justify his strategy and retain the leadership of his party as well as the prospect of continued power in government.
Having decided to enter a coalition with the Tories (which I think was the only available option) the Liberal Democrats have risked or abandoned several political advantages. They no longer appeal to disaffected Labour voters and they are no longer the protest party. They have to live up to their promises (for example, to students) and they can no longer be all things to all men.
For these sacrifices they have tasted a degree of power and have acquired a degree of credibility. So far, Clegg might conclude, his strategy has played out as well as it could. The coalition has survived and looks like staying the course. His leadership is secure. Over the remaining 18 months his party will increasingly claim that the Tories are a nasty bunch, but restrained and controlled but his nice Liberals. At the general election they will aim to hold what they have, or at least the majority of their seats. They will hope that another hung parliament will see Mr Clegg continue as Deputy Prime Minister.
I doubt if they have any realistic expectation of a Welsh Euro seat and so their priority will be to strengthen their base in their three parliamentary seats. Only Brecon and Radnorshire looks safe (does it tempt Kirsty?) with both Ceredigion and Cardiff Central affected by large student populations. Holding both will be quite an achievement.
Plaid Cymru and Leanne Wood’s priority and focus will be on the Assembly elections in 2016. Their realistic aspiration is to come a good second with a diminished Labour group. Before then there are a few electoral hurdles that they need to clear and whose results will affect that later contest. An excellent by-election victory in Ynys Mon last summer has given the party some confidence. However, it is difficult to discern any strategy and Rhun ap Iorworth’s political ideology is a little different from his leader. In May, Plaid has to defend their Euro seat. Losing it would dent their credibility, but coming second or third would be a reasonable result. After that we have the Scottish referendum. If the SNP win all the rest of the UK will be affected. I think it would be a bad result for Wales but it might be good for Plaid.
Another result that would benefit Plaid would be a Labour victory or better still a Lib/Lab coalition in 2015. Regrettably Welsh parties often define themselves as being against whoever governs in Westminster. Is it Leanne or is it Carwyn who most sincerely wishes Ed well?