2014 was a chaotic year. That’s no secret. In Cicero’s report, ‘Curve Balls – Global Political Risks in 2015 and Beyond‘, published today in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Insurance (CII), we explore a number risks for 2015, which have their roots in the past year: the rise of ISIS, the Ebola Crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, populist success in the European Parliament elections, and the unwinding of quantitative easing in the US.
We are now approaching a year of great political risk in the UK (explored in more detail in our UK-focused report for the CII, available here). For the first time since 1974, it really is impossible to call the winner of the next General Election. The current coalition will look relatively stable – a radical government that’s lasted longer than anyone could have predicted – when compared with a minority government or grand coalition. To try and make sense of this, usual UK political analysis would look at national polling and polling in marginal constituencies. It would also assess voter interest in important issues like the economy, healthcare, immigration and personal finance.
That’s a sensible approach, but it is also worth considering global factors. So let’s look at the international landscape and what influence it will have on our General Election on 7 May, namely: EU reform and renegotiation; a possible Greek exit from the Eurozone; the risks of US household debt and a tightening of monetary policy; and foreign policy concerns.
The EU has been on a path towards closer integration since the 2010 sovereign debt crisis. For those outside the Eurozone, this presents issues. Measures needed to create stronger EU institutions and a more harmonised European banking system can rub some, like the UK, the wrong way. Facing an ongoing Eurosceptic rebellion within his party, and externally from UKIP, the Prime Minister David Cameron has to appear strong when negotiating with the EU. By ramping up the rhetoric and trying to distance himself from EU decisions, Cameron is becoming isolated. Renegotiating a new settlement with the EU, including measures around free movement of labour, will be difficult. It’s unlikely Cameron can secure anything other than limits on immigrant benefits. With immigration a key electoral issue, this may not be enough to win the right, while his approach has already lost much of the centre.
The Conservatives have focused their campaign on the economy, an area in which they are seen as stronger than Labour – a 15 point lead according to YouGov. While current growth in the UK is good, it is highly susceptible to poor economic performance in the EU, which is responsible for around half of UK trade. A possible victory for anti-austerity Syriza in a snap election in Greece on 25 January could lead to a Greek exit from the Eurozone.
Another economic threat is the tightening of US monetary policy. The Fed has ended its five-year quantitative easing programme, though interest rates remain low – between zero and 0.25% since December 2008. When rates rise – and they will have to – the stock market will fall. The effects will spread from the NYSE to the LSE. Additionally, as the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency, a rate rise will affect the global economy, particularly emerging markets in Latin America and Asia. This will compound the negative effect on UK stocks and bonds through contagion.
If either come to pass, the resulting turmoil in the EU and/or global fall in markets, particularly in H1 2015, could knock down growth projections immediately prior to the General Election and scupper Conservative chances.
On wider foreign policy, the clear message of August 2013’s Syria vote was that the public no longer supports interventions in foreign conflicts, a view adopted by Labour. In the wake of the vote Labour had a ten point poll lead (according to YouGov), a six point swing on the previous day. The boost did not last, so it may be fair to assume that foreign policy concerns occupy voters over the short, rather than long-term.
In the previous US Presidential elections, Obama was criticised for his handling of the Benghazi attacks, which took place two months before the election. It hurt his polling. However, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, support for Obama increased. He was able to look Presidential when responding to a crisis and received additional airtime as his competition was briefly ignored. Thinking along these lines, an escalation in Ukraine or Iraq, or a new conflict, could be of benefit or detriment to the Government parties. They will want to look strong, not weak, in such a situation.
In closing, this will be a tight election. While domestic concerns will dominate, it will be a matter of every vote counts. The Government will be keen to mitigate the influence of external factors, but many of them are out of its control. If the Conservatives want to be the biggest party, they will hope for a stable global economic environment and stability in foreign conflict. Labour may be hoping for slightly choppier waters. The other parties? They will probe for weaknesses in the big two, looking to make jabs and pick up the pieces, particularly if there is a high horse they can ride.