Much has been made recently of the public’s ongoing disenchantment with the political establishment in Westminster. The rise of fringe parties such as UKIP and the Greens, allied to the poor polling of the main three parties, has led many to predict that there will be a significant protest vote against the established parties in next year’s General Election.
This is not a particularly new phenomenon in British politics. This rich tradition has been illustrated by individual politicians such as George Galloway and Martin Bell, while the Liberal Democrats built much of their electoral success in past elections by defining themselves against the Governing parties and offering a home to disenchanted Conservative and Labour voters.
A strong protest vote is not a situation that will be unique to the 2015 General Election. What is different is how this protest vote is manifesting itself and the implications for the Conservatives and Labour.
In most election cycles over the past thirty years the protest vote has not decided the overall election outcome. Until 2010 the Conservatives or Labour had been able to command clear electoral majorities in the previous eight elections. But public disenchantment with both the Conservatives and Labour has been growing steadily over this period and this manifested itself in the Conservative failure to command a clear majority in 2010.
The long-term polling trend since 2010 shows that neither party is currently able to attract more than 35% of the electorate.
Since 2010, this disenchantment has only increased. The long-term polling trend since 2010 shows that neither party is currently able to attract more than 35% of the electorate. Added to this, the Liberal Democrats’ decision to join the Conservatives in a coalition Government has seen their support haemorrhage to below 10%, as the majority of their protest votes look for alternative homes.
This collapse in support for the main three parties has left the door open for alternative parties to aggressively target this protest vote and reap the electoral benefits. The success of this strategy can be seen in the meteoric rise of UKIP over the past four years. In 2010 UKIP only managed to capture 3.1% of the public vote and were not close to securing an elected MP. They hurt the Conservatives but were not a serious electoral force. Looking ahead to 2015, UKIP are on course to potentially capture up to 15% of the vote nationally and to end up with anything from 5 to 10 MPs in Westminster.
Similarly, in 2010 the SNP only received 1.7% of the national vote, translating to 6 MPs, and the Greens only secured 0.9% of the vote. Looking ahead to 2015, recent polls in Scotland have the SNP capturing over 50 seats in Scotland and the Greens are regularly polling over 5% in national polls, occasionally pushing the Liberal Democrats into fifth place.
Of course, this surge in support for alternative parties is not just down to a protest vote. The SNP are reaping the benefits of a powerful referendum campaign, which enabled them to make serious inroads into traditional Labour electoral heartlands throughout Scotland. UKIP, perhaps the party most obviously positioned to appeal to the protest vote, have capitalised on the faltering economic recovery and confused Conservative messages on Europe and immigration. All three parties have also benefitted from the failure of David Cameron and Ed Miliband to inspire and secure their parties’ electoral bases.
This is the key worry for both the Conservatives and Labour ahead of 2015. The recent elections in both Clacton and Heywood & Middleton provided ample illustration of what UKIP can achieve when it unifies the protest vote with disaffected Conservative and Labour voters. If UKIP can repeat this in 2015 with the Conservatives and Labour, and if to a lesser extent the SNP and Greens can do this to Labour and the Liberal Democrats in certain seats, then this will make it almost impossible for either party to form a majority Government.
It will also significantly complicate the possibilities and negotiations for any future coalition or minority Government. When finalising manifestos and policy red lines, Labour and the Conservatives will have to plan for a range of possible scenarios and potential governing partners.
The importance of the protest vote and the potency of the alternative parties will also seriously hamper the ability of the Conservatives and Labour to project a consistent message to the electorate in the run up to 2015. Both parties need to appeal to the centre and at the same time appease a disenchanted base.
Constituency boundaries make this a more serious problem for David Cameron, but both parties are being attacked on multiple fronts and will have to adapt accordingly. Ed Miliband will have to craft a message which combats the SNP in Scotland, UKIP in the North and Midlands, and Conservatives in the South, no easy task. David Cameron will have appeal to centrists in crucial marginal seats across the country while also setting out a robust and traditional Conservative message to combat the UKIP threat, a potentially impossible task.
How much of the protest vote will stay with UKIP and the SNP in 2015 is unclear at this stage. But the electoral map across Britain is clearly changing. The main traditional parties will have to recognise this and adapt accordingly – or they will pay the price in 2015.