And the winner is…election abstention once again?

Whether people will vote at all is a very open question

Whether people will vote at all is a very open question

With less than a month to go until polling day, the UK General Election promises to be the most unpredictable – and dare we whisper, exciting? – contest in the modern era. If the opinion polls are anything to go by, then it seems increasingly unlikely that any two parties will be able to muster sufficient votes and seats to form a majority two-party coalition government on May 7th. The prospect of a three- or four-party coalition government is therefore a very real one.

Let’s consider the evidence.

1. Firstly, recent polling suggests that there is very little to separate the levels of public support for Labour and the Conservatives – the traditional leading protagonists. Over the course of the last 12 months, Labour will hardly have enjoyed it’s only very slender lead over the Conservatives of between one and three per cent; and the opinion polls conducted since the start of this election campaign will have left both parties feeling increasingly anxious as public support seems to have flat-lined for each at about 34 per cent.

2. Furthermore, that only two thirds of intending voters support these two traditional political heavy-weights suggests that about a third of people support other parties. Indeed, both Labour and the Conservatives will be anxiously glancing over their respective shoulders at the performance of these other contenders. The SNP will be causing Labour deep consternation in Scotland, where a recent poll suggested that Nicola Sturgeon’s Nationalists might double its levels of voter support – and in so doing, sweep the electoral board by capturing as many as 50 of the 59 seats in the country, the majority of these currently held by Labour.

3. The resurgent Greens – who are the fastest growing political party in the UK – also represent a threat to Labour’s electoral prospects. The Greens have been consistently polling at between five and seven per cent over the last year, and the concern for Ed Miliband and his team is that many of their core left-wing voters might defect to the Greens. Should this happen, this will leave Labour vulnerable in many key battleground constituencies that it must win if it is to have any chance of leading the next (coalition) government.

4. But the Conservatives are not without rivals from the margins. UKIP have been performing strongly in the opinion polls since their success at last year’s European Assembly elections, and seem to have displaced the imploding LibDems as the third party in UK politics (at least in terms of public support in the opinion polls, if not by actual representation in the House of Commons – yet). And although it’s not entirely certain from which party they are winning their support, there is evidence from the British Election Study that UKIP’s voters are more likely to have crossed over from the Conservatives than they are to have done so from Labour. And of course, UKIP has been the beneficiary of a number of high-profile defections from the Conservatives in recent months.

5. But things are not all positive for UKIP. In the constituency of South Thanet, a three-way contest is underway, with UKIP leader Nigel Farage trailing the Conservatives by one per cent, with Labour only one point further behind. That the charismatic Farage has recently claimed that he will stand down from the leadership of UKIP should he fail to win the seat does not bode well for a party that is particularly vulnerable to the gaffes of many of its supporters and election candidates.

However, perhaps the biggest factor underpinning the uncertainty of next month’s election is that the electorate has fallen out of love with the our political class. Citizens are looking for parties to offer clear solutions to bring an end to austerity politics and the hardships, risks and uncertainties that they have faced in recent years. So who they will vote for – and indeed whether they will vote at all – is at this stage, a very open question. The recent Audit of Political Engagement suggests that only 49 per cent of us are certain to vote next month. Interestingly, only 16 per cent of young people aged 18 – 24 say they will do so, which compares with 24 per cent last year. Nearly three times as many say they are certain not to vote.

Our own research conducted at NTU indicates that if the political parties want to feel more secure in their relationship with the voters, and convince them to turnout and support them at the ballot booth, then they need to reach out to the electorate, and present clear messages that connect with the concerns, hopes and ambitions of the public. With only four weeks to go before next month’s election, time is fast running out for our party leaders to demonstrate that they are capable of doing so effectively.

Professor Matt Henn
Professor of Social Research
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University

This article originally appeared on the Political Studies Association blog

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