With polls like these, what is really interesting is what happens under the surface. Most 2010 Liberal Democrat voters appear to be switching to Labour, while both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats see significant numbers switch to UKIP. What is odd is that the Greens pick up more support from the Conservatives than from the Liberal Democrats.
If UKIP do come second, then this sees a continuation of by-election results in the north of England - Barnsley in March 2011, Rotherham in November 2012, Middlesbrough on the same day, and South Shields in May 2013, with UKIP coming second in a seat they did not even contest at the May 2010 general election.
Although we should note that a fortnight before Rotherham and Middlesbrough, UKIP made little progress in Manchester Central.
One of the more interesting northern seats is Chesterfield. In March 1984 there was a by-election, which saw Labour's Tony Benn return to Parliament. This by-election saw the Liberals come second. The June 1987 general election also saw the Liberals come second. In the April 1992 general election it became a Labour/Liberal Democrat marginal - note that the Labour vote actually increased, but the decline in Conservative vote was accompanied by a rise in Liberal Democrat support.
May 1997 was, of course, the Labour landslide, which staved off the inevitable until the June 2001 general election when Chesterfield fell to the Liberal Democrats.
If we look at other by-elections between the 1983 and 1987 general elections we don't really get anything similar. Penrith & the Border saw a greater increase in the Liberal share of the vote - with the Liberals nearly winning - but in the 1997 election the Conservatives safely held on. In both Surrey South West and Derbyshire West, the Liberals came close to winning the by-election from the Conservatives - but look at 1997, where Surrey South West remained a Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginal (as did its neighbour, Guildford, which the Liberal Democrats actually gained in 2001 despite in 1997 it being safer for the Conservatives than Surrey South West was), while in Derbyshire West it is Labour running the Conservatives close.
It is possible that in one of these seats where UKIP comes second in a by-election, it will keep its second place at the May 2015 general election. And this is where things get interesting.
Let's face it - unless something dramatic happens in the next 15 months (yep, that's how close we are), Labour will win the 2015 general election. Even if a revised European Union (Referendum) Bill is on the statute books by then, a Labour Government could ensure it is repealed by the December 2016 deadline for the Government to set a date in 2017 for the referendum. The referendum ain't gonna happen. Period.
The European Union Act 2011 ensures that a Treaty revision requires a referendum, so various things can happen in the 2015 - 2020 Parliament:
- There will be no Treaty revision (I am including things that "can" happen, however far-fetched, if you're wondering why this possibility is there)
- There will be a Treaty revision which the people approve by referendum
- There will be a Treaty revision which the people reject by referendum, and so the Treaty fails to come into effect
- There will be a Treaty revision which the people reject by referendum, and there will be further revisions taking into account the reasons for rejection, with the new revised Treaty being approved by referendum
- There will be a Treaty revision which the people reject by referendum, and the further revised version is also rejected, so the Treaty fails to come into effect
Like it or not, we will be part of the European Union at the May 2020 general election, and there will be a European election in May or June 2019. Europe is not a topic that will go away.
What we then have in parts of the north are Government MPs (i.e. Labour ones) representing constituencies where UKIP have come second, or a respectable third, at the 2015 general election. Europe is still an issue - with Labour having been seen as stopping the people having a vote on leaving (although if the people approve a Treaty revision, this can be taken as us willing to remain in). These are areas which will never elect a Conservative MP. And while the Liberal Democrats might once have stood a chance, they would be remembered for entering Government with the Conservatives.
Where does the anti-Government vote go?
I do not believe UKIP will have any MPs after the 2015 election, but I would not be surprised if in 2020 they pick up northern seats from Labour.
Now Scotland. It might leave the United Kingdom in March 2016. If it doesn't, then there are elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2016. They should have been in May 2015 (coinciding with the general election) under the Scotland Act 1998, but the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 postponed this to May 2016. However, as the Explanatory Note makes clear, the subsequent one is four years later, i.e. May 2020, coinciding with the general election. I have noted that May 2020 will be electorally busy, with elections across the United Kingdom being conducted on First Past The Post (the House of Commons), Additional Members System (Scottish Parliament, National Assembly of Wales, Greater London Assembly) and Supplementary Vote (Mayor of London, Police & Crime Commissioners).
In 2016, there are basically three outcomes:
- The Scottish National Party again wins an overall majority
- There is a hung Parliament with the SNP the largest party
- There is a hung Parliament with Labour the largest party
In a hung Parliament, there is the option of a minority government - such as the SNP after the May 2007 election, despite a preference for a coalition - or a coalition government, such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed after the May 1999 and May 2003 elections.
Rejection of independence doesn't have to be bad news for the SNP. In October 1995, the people of Québec narrowly voted to remain part of Canada. Despite this, in the next provincial election of November 1998, Parti Québécois was re-elected and formed a government (its majority reduced by 2) - though it is important to note that it fell to second place in the popular vote, behind the Liberals.
If there is a hung Parliament, then there is the question for the "winner" of whether to form a minority government or a coalition one. The Greens might do well enough to help the largest party over that 65 seat hurdle for an overall majority. With the Conservatives unlikely as partners for the SNP or Labour, that just leaves the Liberal Democrats.
If Labour is the largest party in the Scottish Parliament after the 2016 election, then it has choices:
- Aim for a "grand coalition" with the SNP
- Decide to govern as a minority and defy the other parties to team up and defeat it
- Depending on numbers, form a Labour/Green administration to the left of the British Government
- If the combined SNP/Liberal Democrat number of Members of the Scottish Parliament is greater than Labour's and they wish to form a coalition, it could enter opposition rather than trying to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats - this could come across as cutting of their nose to spite their face
- Or it could decide to revive its old 1999 - 2007 model of a Labour/Liberal Democrat government, beginning the process of rehabilitating the Liberal Democrats in Labour's eyes
Wales is slightly different. Labour always leads the Welsh government, whether as a majority, as a minority, or as a coalition.
Next, the Liberal Democrats. Iain Dale has predicted that they will win 30 to 35 seats in 2015. The question is then what do they do in a House of Commons where Labour has an overall majority. Any 2005-style strategy of positioning themselves as left of Labour would not be credible. In a political world where there is a choice of protest vote parties, the Liberal Democrats will need to carve out their own niche post-Government.
In 1997 I was a student and voted in Brighton Pavilion as Labour won the seat decisively from the Conservatives, with no-one really noticing the Greens losing their deposit in fifth place. In 2001 there was a move away from the two main parties, and the Greens came a respectable fourth, just under 10% of the vote.
But it was in 2005 that things really changed. In studenty, radical middle-class seats like Bristol West (1997), Cambridge (1992), Cardiff Central (1992), Leeds North West (1997) and Manchester Withington (1987), which Labour had over time won from the Conservatives (the dates in brackets show the general election where Labour gained the seat), it was the Liberal Democrats who benefitted from defecting Labour voters. If Brighton Pavilion had followed their lead, then it would have ended up a close 3-way marginal between Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - basically any of these could have won.
But it didn't. Yes, the Labour vote fell substantially. The Liberal Democrat vote rose - but not by much. It was the Greens who moved to third place, nearly pushing the Conservatives into third. And then the inevitable at the 2010 election - Labour falls further, and if you're uncomfortable with the Conservatives and know that the Liberal Democrats can't win the seat, then vote Green, and Caroline Lucas wins the seat.
The current Cambridge has a significant Green vote (fourth place, 7.59%), as does Norwich South (fourth place, 14.92%). Is it not unreasonable to assume that Labour will win these from the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens will either come second or a good third, positioned to win in 2020 as the Labour Government loses support?
While I expect Lucas to remain the sole Green MP in 2015, I would not be surprised if the Greens picked up a few seats in 2020.
Although it's over 6 years away, the May 2020 general election looks like it'll be interesting.