As with any election, the one on 7th May is about lots of different issues and
different things for different people. The factors that will affect the outcome are more numerous and varied still. Nonetheless, many commentators are afflicted by a chronic temptation to try to define what particular elections are really all about.
Two main themes stand out this time: the economy and nationalism. The economic contest is between ideological positions on the size and role of the state as well as over competence in macro-economic management. For nationalism, the relationships between Scotland and the UK and between the UK and EU are the main issues.
Economic and national identity issues are often thought of rather separately, but they are linked when it comes to understanding both changes in party support and the choice of government.
The UK, some argue, faces a choice between a left-wing government dependent on nationalist support from Scotland (and perhaps also Wales and Northern Ireland), and a right-wing unionist government with elements of Euroscepticism. But while Scottish independence and EU membership will almost certainly depend on further referendums which may or may not be called, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that UK government debt will be a massive £90bn higher by 2019/20 under Labour plans than Conservative ones. So the economic issues, including funding of public services, are arguably paramount.
The misfortune of the Liberal Democrats, for a start, has little to do with nationalism but a lot do with economic issues. The 2010 election led to the Liberal Democrats joining the Conservatives to form the first post-war coalition government, ostensibly to ensure that Britain had strong and stable government to deal with the economic crisis. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say. Liberal Democrat support collapsed from 24 per cent at the election in May to around 10 per cent in the polls in December 2010, as their relatively left-wing former supporters moved to Labour.
The Liberal Democrats have basically flat-lined since then. Neither the Tories nor Lib Dems have been rewarded for the recent upturn in headline economic growth and employment.
This may be partly because, as Simon Wren-Lewis points out, “The prosperity of the average citizen in this country has hardly increased over the period of this coalition government – a result that is totally unprecedented since at least World War II.”
The rise of UKIP, from just 3 per cent in 2010 to 14 per cent in recent polls, has been much more steady. The party and their voters are first and foremost Eurosceptic and anti-immigration. But their supporters are also negative about the government’s handling of the economy and extremely pessimistic about their own economic circumstances. According to recent YouGov polls, 50 per cent of UKIP voters feel that the cuts have had a negative impact on them personally. This is important for understanding why recent good jobs and growth figures have not led to a big flow of votes back to the Tories. Most of UKIP’s support still comes from those who voted Conservative in 2010, even though they are the kinds of people who might have been expected to vote Labour based on socio-economic characteristics.
David Cameron’s 2013 promise of an in/out referendum on EU membership was ineffective in stemming the UKIP tide. Their current strategy of scaremongering about SNP influence on a Labour-led government might have more traction. A YouGov poll for last week’s Sunday Times found that 58 per cent of those intending to vote UKIP thought that “Labour intend to do a deal with the SNP, and it puts me off them.”
The rise of the SNP is ostensibly only about nationalism. Since 2010 a large section of disillusioned Labour supporters have moved over to the SNP, first for the 2011 Holyrood elections and then also to the nationalist cause in last year’s independence referendum. These people are relatively left-wing, anti-austerity and they no longer feel that the Scottish Labour party speaks for them. So this development too is about economic competition and not just pure national sentiment.
Since the spending and borrowing plans of Labour and the SNP are relatively similar according the IFS, the implications for a Labour government depending on SNP support are not so much on the economic side. Instead national defence, particularly the Trident nuclear deterrent, looks like it might be one of the most contentious issues.
The Conservatives used to frame the election as a choice between Cameron and Miliband. With the Labour leader doing rather better in the polls, they now frame it as one between a Conservative led government and a Labour one dependent on the SNP.
If the Tories are really worried about SNP influence, they could offer to join Labour in a grand coalition if necessary. This would diffuse both nationalist and economic divisions and lead to policy closer to the average voter. That may not benefit the Tory election campaign, but it would arguably be the best outcome for Britain.