What can past electoral cycles tell us about each party's electoral prospects next May? John Curtice finds that three unprecedented factors mean there are more 'known unknowns' than clear indications.

Last summer there were signs of panic in Labour ranks. Having stayed consistently above 40 per cent in the polls for over a year, the party saw its rating fall to around the 37 per cent mark. What had once been an almost double-digit lead over the Conservatives was now no more than five points – well below what previous oppositions that eventually went on to victory enjoyed at that stage in the preceding parliament.[1] Some Labour MPs appeared to raise questions about Ed Miliband's ability to lead the party back into office in 2015.

But then the opposition leader, not for the first time, gave a widely praised speech at conference. Among other things, it put the Coalition on the back-foot on the issue of the 'cost of living crisis' – thanks not least to his promise that an incoming Labour government would freeze energy prices during its first 20 months in office. The speech and its aftermath ensured that the party regained its composure and its faith in its leader.

However, there is one thing that last year's conference speech did not do: restore Labour's electoral fortunes. Labour's average support in the polls at the start of this year was still no more than 37 per cent. Indeed, now it has slipped even further, averaging no more than 35 per cent during summer 2014. According to Ipsos MORI, satisfaction with Mr Miliband's performance as leader is as low now as it has ever been since he first took on the job. Meanwhile, voters are no more willing to trust Labour's team to run the economy now than they were in the early years of this parliament, and they are still more likely to blame Labour rather than the Coalition for the need to make spending cuts.

That said, Labour still remain ahead of the Conservatives in the polls, albeit only by enough to produce the smallest of overall majorities. However, as Stephen Fisher has pointed out, governments tend to gain ground as election day approaches. He has calculated that once we take that historical trend into account (as well as an apparent tendency for the polls to overestimate the level of Labour support relative to what actually materialises in the ballot box) Labour has rather less than a 50 per cent chance of emerging as the largest party next May, let alone of securing an overall majority.[2] Similar considerations led the Polling Observatory team, which is currently producing forecasts each month for the Daily Telegraph, to paint an only marginally brighter picture of Labour's prospects.[3]

A unique electoral cycle

Britain is now gradually emerging from one of the most severe recessions in its economic history, a development that has caused voters to become quite optimistic about their economic prospects. Ipsos MORI suggest that over half of the public now think that the economy will improve in the next 12 months – indeed, the company has never found us more optimistic about the economy's future prospects since it first started charting the nation's economic mood in the late 1970s. And is it not one of the golden rules of electoral politics that voters are inclined to re-elect governments that appear capable of delivering economic prosperity?[4] All in all, it would seem that some kind of Conservative recovery is inevitable in the next eight months.

However, the past can only be regarded as a reliable guide to the future so long as the circumstances that pertained in the past continue to be in place. The circumstances under which the 2015 election will be fought will be different in three key respects from those that have pertained at any other recent British election. Between them, they suggest that while being far from secure, Labour's position may be rather stronger than past precedent would seem to suggest.

First of all, this is the first time that the prime minister of the day has not had any say in the timing of a British election. One reason why support for the incumbent government has often been higher at election time than in the middle of a parliament is that prime ministers have been able to choose to go the country when their party's poll rating has enjoyed an uplift. In other words, elections have often happened because support for the government has increased, rather than government support having increased because an election is in the offing.

Indeed, Mr Cameron will have to break the postwar record books if he is to win a second full term after enjoying a full five years in office. On four of the five occasions on which the government has gone to the country after being in office (or in one case, after trying to remain in office) for five years it has been thrown out of office. That was Labour's fate in 1979 and 2010 and the Conservatives' misfortune in 1964 and 1997. Although Labour did win power again after five years in power between 1945 and 1950, its internal divisions and small parliamentary majority saw it opt to go to the country again just 18 months later.

In each case, of course, the government clung on to power for five years because it appeared to be heading for electoral defeat, so we cannot infer that being in power for five years is necessarily a barrier to re-election (though it is perhaps doubtful that Mr Cameron would have gone to the country early even if he had been able to). But the record does help to underline the point that the onset of an election does not in itself necessarily rescue a government from electoral unpopularity.

Secondly, of course, the 2015 election will be the first postwar election to have taken place following a spell of coalition government. Their involvement in government for the last five years means that the Liberal Democrats have forfeited their role as the potential haven of protest which tends to gather support at election times, when it benefits from the oxygen of greater publicity. Rather, thanks to its record in government (at least as the voters perceive it), the party is now the victim rather than the beneficiary of protest. Indeed, after hovering for most of this parliament at just above the 10 per cent mark, its support has actually now fallen below that level. This suggests that the party is at risk of recording its lowest share of the vote since the then Liberal party first re-emerged as a nationwide force in the 1970s.

Labour are the principal (but not the only) beneficiaries of this development. The party continues to enjoy the support of around 30 per cent of those who say they voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 – a shift that is potentially worth some 7 per cent or so of the vote. Indeed, it is this movement – which was in evidence as early as the autumn of 2010 – that more or less wholly accounts for the advance that Labour has made from the 30 per cent it recorded in 2010.[5] Without it the party would be in deep trouble. As it is, Labour can reasonably hope that these Lib Dem defectors will not be easily won back by Nick Clegg and his colleagues.

But that still leaves what would appear to be the biggest threat to Labour's chances of returning to power – the prospect that the Conservatives will be able to ride back to power on the crest of a wave of financial optimism. That, however, takes us to the third way in which the 2015 election will be different: the rise of Ukip.

Player 4 has entered the game

Ukip's success during this parliament is unprecedented. Never before in the whole of the postwar period has a wholly independent fourth party (something that the SDP in the 1980s was not) enjoyed the level of electoral success and opinion-poll popularity that Nigel Farage's party has achieved during the last 18 months. That more than one in 10 voters now persistently say that they will vote for a party that has yet to win any Westminster representation at all is in itself indicative of an electorate whose behaviour now cannot necessarily be read from what it has done in the past.

Some of the characteristics of Ukip voters are well-known.[6] They are virtually unanimous in their belief that the UK should leave the European Union. This is why the Conservative promise of a referendum – in which the government of the day could well be encouraging voters to vote to stay in the EU – was never likely to be sufficiently attractive to Ukip voters to switch (back) to the Conservatives. The one aspect of the UK's membership of the EU that particularly concerns many Ukip supporters is the constraints that it places on the government's ability to control immigration.

But Ukip supporters, who are disproportionately male, older and from the less affluent C2DE social grade as defined by market researchers, also have another distinctive characteristic. They remain remarkably pessimistic, relatively, about both their own economic future and that of their country as a whole. For example, in August 2014 Ipsos MORI found that among the public as a whole, 51 per cent believed that the economy would improve over the next 12 months, and only 19 per cent anticipated that it would get worse: a net economic optimism score of +32. However, among Ukip supporters only 34 per cent anticipated that it would get better, while slightly more – 38 per cent – said it would get worse: a net optimism score of -4. That meant that Ukip supporters were even less optimistic than Labour supporters, among whom the equivalent score was +16.

When YouGov ask people whether they think the finances of their household will get better or worse, Ukip supporters are again distinctive. On this measure optimism is much less widespread among voters in general – in mid-August 2014 it remained the case that almost twice as many believed their household finances would get worse (35 per cent) as believed they would get better (18 per cent), creating a net optimism score of -17. But among Ukip supporters, net optimism stood at -44 – again showing the group to be rather more pessimistic than those who say they will vote Labour (-36).

Here perhaps is a vital clue as to why the economic recovery, which voters have been acknowledging now for at least a year, has so far proven to be a voteless one for the Conservatives. On average the polls suggest that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the votes the Conservatives have lost since 2010 have been lost to Ukip. Winning back votes from Ukip would thus seem the most likely way for the Conservatives to restore their fortunes. However, the economic recovery appears to have largely passed by Ukip's older, less affluent electorate. If this continues to be the case then the Conservatives may find restoring their fortunes rather more difficult than they anticipated.

A break with precedent
So, the past may not be a good guide to what will happen in 2015. Even though Labour's position in the polls looks weak, and large sections of the public have not come to regard the party as a more attractive alternative to the Conservatives, the party's narrow lead in the polls might yet prove relatively robust. Furthermore, thanks to the fact that the Lib Dems scuppered the Conservatives' plans to redraw constituency boundaries, leaving them likely to once again operate in a way that is substantially advantageous to Labour, even a narrow lead could prove to be sufficient to deliver victory for the party.

Victory, but perhaps not a majority. Any further fall in Labour's support (and thus its lead over the Conservatives) beyond what it has already experienced could mean that the party becomes nothing more than the largest party in a hung parliament next May. In that event, Mr Miliband could well find himself in much the same situation as Mr Cameron did in May 2010 – one in which his ability to claim the keys to 10 Downing Street depends on winning the permission of Mr Clegg. Perhaps the one precedent that Mr Miliband does need to take notice of is how, in those circumstances, Mr Cameron managed to get his deal.

John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University and a columnist for Juncture.

This article appears in edition 21.2 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas.

1. Curtice J (2013), 'Labour's mid-term melancholy: Why pole position isn't everything', Juncture 20(2): 155–8. ^back
2. Fisher's forecasts can be found at ^back
3. See ^back
4. Sanders D, Clarke H, Stewart M and Whiteley P (2001) 'The Economy and Voting', Parliamentary Affairs 54(4): 789–802. ^back
5. Curtice J (2014) 'Beware the switching voter: Why the protest vote is no safe bet for Labour', Juncture 20(3): 233–236. ^back
6. Ford R and Goodwin M (2014) Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain, London: Routledge. ^back