I am predicting that the Labour Party will win the next General Election at Westminster, but only just. Why am I doing this?
The American philosopher Richard Rorty argued that one of the most impressive and powerful aspects of science was its ability to predict the future. The key feature of experiments was that they could be repeated. This, he suggested, gave science a major advantage over the humanities.
I agree with Rorty that making good predictions is powerful, but I disagree that those in the humanities can’t do it as well. So I want to indulge in a bit of humanities based soothsaying. We are about halfway through the current government’s term so now is the time to begin to ask, who will win the next election?
In essence my prediction is that no one party will really win, although the Liberal Democrats will lose, but that Labour will form the next government. In other words my prediction is (in football terms) a scoring draw, with Labour edging it on penalties. This prediction assumes there will be no unforeseen scandals, such as Dave or Ed confessing to high crimes and misdemeanours.
Why this prediction? A major part of the election campaign will be about coalition government. The Liberal Democrats will try to argue that it is a good thing, and so we should vote for them to prevent either of the two main parties achieving an overall majority. They will claim they have tempered the worse extremes of single party rule. But few, precious few, will believe them. On the whole most people see coalition government as institutionised division, and voters don’t like divided parties or governments. Also, importantly, people will not forgive the Liberals for changing their mind about tuition fees. Politicians usually are not to be trusted and in this case they are more than definitely not to be trusted.
The Conservatives will argue that the coalition has been quite good, and here they partially agree with the Liberals, but things would be a lot better if they could have governed alone. So they will argue for more of the same, but a bit more so. The Labour Party will say it has all been dreadful and a failure, so let's stop it and have a change.
If any party can win this argument they will win the election. But I don’t think they can. In part, winning will depend on the state of the economy, although as 1992 and 1997 show, the economy on its own doesn’t decide elections.
We can assume the economy will have improved by the time of the next election and so the government will be able to argue that ‘we did what was necessary’ and now all can see the fruits of our endeavour. But it may not have improved a lot and any attempts by the government to keep blaming Gordon Brown will not wash; that is now political ancient history. The government will try to argue that its good work shouldn’t be undermined and threatened by a return to Labour but I don’t expect that will convince many voters, and it certainly won’t if the economy is not that strong.
What this means is that coalition government might be seen to have worked quite well if the economy is improving, but this alone won’t win it the election because coalition government in principle is disliked. An improving economy against unpopular coalition government leads to a score draw.
Opinion polls also suggest a score draw. The polls have been suggesting for quite a while now that Labour has around about a 10 point lead. This is not enough to win the election because it is likely to be ‘soft’. That is, when the campaign begins and people think about who will govern them, rather than what is wrong with the government, then support will go back to the Conservatives.
It is also noticeable that personally Cameron has better poll figures than Miliband. Cameron’s problem is that he is far more popular than his party, Miliband’s that he is no more popular than his. Part of the difficulty is that both of them seem to lack the ‘vision thing’. Cameron has charisma but seems to lack the backbone (or principles) to face down the far less charismatic and more extreme bits of his party. Miliband just lacks charisma.
The attempt to implant some charisma, or make explicit the charisma those who know him say is there, with an account of his personal vision at the party conference hasn’t worked. One Nation Labour looks a bit like ‘we are all in it together’, even if it is a bit more believable coming from Ed. So again we are left with something of a scoring draw. That said, if Ed can communicate a vision he will win well; the 'vision thing' does work.
So why will Labour edge it? Five reasons, in no especial order.
First, incumbent governments always lose votes and seats, they never gain them. The Conservatives have upset some people who supported them in 2010 and will be punished for it.
Second, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is resisting the constituency boundary changes which would have helped the Conservatives at the next election. Without the changes it looks even harder for them to win more seats.
Third, they will not escape the problem that the coalition government is divided, and at some point they will start campaigning against themselves. Voters do not like divided parties or governments.
Fourth, the backwaters of the Conservative Party don’t look like they have changed much. They still seem a bit nasty to poor people, a bit extreme on Europe, and very posh, rich and arrogant. Cameron might be pretty but his party isn’t.
Fifth and finally, Miliband is just a bit relentlessly steady. He may not be great, not inspiring, not charismatic, but he is somehow dependably there. People might just decide to give him a go, and in the circumstances that will be enough for a slight victory.
So my prediction, a scoring draw with Labour going through after a penalty shoot out. You read it here first.
© Graeme Smith is Reader in Public Theology at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the international journal Political Theology (http://www.politicaltheology.com/PT/) and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.