The Queen’s speech was light on legislation. There is little any party could oppose in principle. In terms of law-making, this will be a quiet year. But for party politics, it will be anything but quiet.
The next big political event will be the referendum on Scottish independence in September. The potential implications of this vote are enormous. The very existence of the UK is at stake.
We have now entered the official referendum campaign period, although in reality the campaigning has been going on for the past two years. Marking 100 days until the referendum, the pro-Union Better Together campaign has adopted the slogan ‘No Thanks,’ which echoes the polite negativity which won the no-campaign against Quebec independence. Along with several other Labour ‘big beasts,’ former Prime Minister Gordon Brown has entered the campaign. His suggestion that David Cameron should have a debate with Alex Salmond will not have gone down well in Downing Street. Scottish First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond longs for this and Better Together have resisted, saying that Alistair Darling, as the leader of the campaign, should be the one to debate Alex Salmond. Alex Salmond would prefer a referendum on David Cameron, who is unpopular in Scotland, rather than on the question of independence for Scotland.
All the polls suggest that a No vote is by far the most likely outcome. True, the polling gap has narrowed this year, but Yes Scotland would still need to make up a lot of ground to win the vote. Many in the Yes camp hoped that the European elections could be the ‘game changer’. They had hoped, if the SNP managed to increase their number of seats in the European Parliament from 2 to 3 out of 6, to give the impression of ‘momentum.’ If Scotland elected no UKIP MEPs while UKIP topped the poll in England, the SNP hoped also to reinforce their narrative that Scotland is heading in a different political direction from the rest of the UK. The SNP ran with the message that people should vote SNP so they could pick up the sixth seat and keep UKIP out of Scotland. However, UKIP won a Scottish MEP seat. The Conservatives also held their one seat and Labour held their two seats, so the SNP made no gains. Scotland had a different result from England and Wales, but UKIP’s gain north of the border undermines the SNP’s idea that Scottish voters were much different to their southern neighbours or immune to ‘Euro-scepticism.’
UKIP’s gain was at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. The LibDems’ vote collapsed across the UK, pushed into sixth place behind the Green Party and the SNP. They came close to losing all of their 11 MEPs, managing to hold only one seat, in the South East. The LibDems’ abysmal election performance lead to a clumsy attempt by one peer to oust Nick Clegg as leader.
Mr Clegg’s position appears secure for now, but the LibDems’ face a difficult task over the next year and at the next election, where all the trends of the past few years suggest they are going to lose a significant number of seats, largely to Labour. With no prospect of the ‘Cleggmania’ of the last general election returning next year, they are likely to be squeezed between Labour and the Conservatives in a genuine contest for power which no-one can currently predict. After four years in office, they can no longer harvest the ‘protest vote’ – that role has gone to UKIP.
UKIP presents a challenge to both the main parties, but all the evidence suggests that they cost the Conservatives more votes than Labour. Attrition on the Conservative vote in some marginals will give Labour the seat. Until recently, the Leadership may have been in some denial about this. This reality is now inescapable. True, UKIP will not gain a general election vote share anything near the Euro-elections 27 per cent share of the vote. For a start, the general election turnout (34 per cent) will be double the Euro elections. Also, any UKIP voter who at the very least cares about whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband is Prime Minister, will tend to return to one of the main parties. So there is no doubt the UKIP vote share will collapse, but not down to the piffling 3.1 per cent at the 2010 election. Perhaps it will be double, or perhaps more. We Conservatives are cheered by holding Newark in the by-election, but this was a safe Tory seat and UKIP support still leapt up dramatically from where it was four years ago. Conservatives cannot complacently assume that those who have switched to UKIP will automatically return to the fold in 2015. This will affect the ability to hold certain seats challenged by Labour in the East and South East and in the South West of England. UKIP might even win one-or two-odd seats. Great Grimsby, a traditional Labour seat, could be their top target.
This underlines that Labour also faces big challenges. They are not recovering vote share as they need to look like winning outright in 2015. As the official opposition, and with less than one year to go until the next election, the party came second in the European elections and only third in the Newark by-election. Its narrow lead in the opinion polls is currently much smaller than the lead David Cameron had one year before the last election. On the issues of leadership and economic trustworthiness, polls continue to show Ed Miliband and Labour trailing behind David Cameron and the Conservatives.
On the face of it, neither Labour nor the Conservatives look set to win an outright parliamentary majority at the next election. The Conservatives failed to win a majority last time when they were faced with the unpopular government of Gordon Brown. To win one next year after four years in power and cutting public spending seems a challenge. Much may depend on unknown events, such as international conflicts or economic shocks, which we cannot predict. Labour have an inbuilt advantage, since the LibDems ratted on the coalition deal to create more equal constituencies. And it is worth being reminded that under the UK voting system, coalitions are rare. With the collapse of the LibDems, a hung parliament is therefore less likely. The real possibility of a Labour majority government despite their lack of popularity may yet concentrate minds and deliver the Conservatives the votes we need to win outright.