Bill Jamieson: 2014 may have no political winner

Alex Salmond and David Cameron at the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012. Picture: Getty
Alex Salmond and David Cameron at the signing of the Edinburgh Agreement in 2012. Picture: Getty
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EXPECT 2014 to be a frustrating 12 months in which very little of a political nature reaches resolution, says Bill Jamieson

WE are used to viewing politics as a race of winners and losers. Every race has to have a winner. But as 2014 opens, the portents are not just abnormal but positively freakish. There may not be losers, exactly. But this could be a year in which nobody wins. Not the Conservatives, not Labour, not the SNP, not Ukip. Who did I miss out? The Lib Dems. Please, let’s be serious.

Ahead of three critical voter judgments – the European elections, the independence referendum and the UK general election – we have entered strange terrain in which no party appears to be pulling ahead with any conviction or momentum.

Arguably the most striking abnormality is the poll standing of David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Two months ago I set out here how politics across the UK were defying the conventional wisdom that “it’s the economy, stupid” – the belief that poor economic performance works to the benefit of the opposition party and that an improving one raises public support for the incumbent administration.

Few would dispute that the last 12 months have brought a marked change for the better in our economic performance and our prospects. Today we are seeing a significant and sustained recovery. Business and consumer confidence is on the up. Manufacturing, construction and service sectors are all signalling improved activity and prospects. Numbers in work are at record levels. Mortgage lending has sharply improved. House prices are rising. And there are record numbers of businesses being formed in Scotland. Growth is running well above consensus forecasts. And pundits now predict that growth could hit three per cent in 2014 – a rate unthinkable a year ago.

Yet a fat lot of good it has done the Conservative-led coalition. The latest YouGov voting intention figures still show the Conservatives trailing Labour by a substantial margin, while the Liberal Democrats continue to trail Ukip. Who is winning? Not David Cameron. For most voters the recovery seems a matter of statistical abstraction, an artifice of eggheads and boffins, unrelated to the daily pressures on household budgets. And on the political front, his party seems more concerned at the prospect of a drubbing from Ukip in the elections to the European Parliament in June than of a close result in the Scottish referendum in September.

The swift move by Ukip’s Nigel Farage calling on the government to allow in Syrian refugees caught the Conservative leader flat-footed, adding to a sense of growing Tory paranoia over the Ukip challenge.

Perhaps the full guns of Cameron’s concern over the break-up of Britain on his watch will open up after June. But equally, a growing number of Conservative MPs by then may be even more fearful. The Lib Dem veto on long-overdue Boundary Commission reforms prolongs an absurd over-representation of small Labour boroughs. The prospect of Scottish independence, with a sharply diminished Labour representation at Westminster, is thus one that many Conservatives may come to view with some sanguinity.

Are Labour and Ed Miliband winning? Shadow chancellor Ed Balls has been left floundering as his critique of the economy woefully under-estimated both the extent and the robustness of the recovery. His credibility has been blasted. As for the party more generally, its flirtation with welfare reform and its new working party on a “zero-based spending review” – whatever that is – suggests a capitulation and a failure to resolve the existential challenge that it faces: what is it, exactly, that a social democratic party can offer voters in an era of high budget deficit and shockingly high levels of government debt – now at more than £1.2 trillion (circa 77 per cent of GDP) and still rising? The image of former Treasury Secretary Liam Byrne’s 2010 near-criminal leaving note to his successor – “all the money’s gone” – is hard to erase from the memory. Now the route of more deficit spending is effectively closed and more tax rises at this stage would be intolerable for voters, it is hard to see what radical reforming vision Labour can offer.

What is Labour for? And where is its alternative grand strategy? There is precious little sign of one under the reputational rubble of Falkirk and the task it faces in convincing voters – particularly in Scotland – that in many constituencies it is bound to the wishes of Len McCluskey and the unions.

So has it been a good year for Labour? It can hardly be said to be winning when its opinion poll lead has halved from 11.3 per cent at the start of 2013 to 6 per cent now. It might be argued that by contrast, Ed Miliband has had a good 12 months. His offer of a cut in household energy bills was a hit with voters, together with his attacks on payday lenders and the continuing ineptitude of banking executives. His defence of his late father in the face of a Daily Mail assassination won widespread sympathy.

But is Miliband winning? His personal poll standing has fallen, not risen. A year ago this stood at minus 21 per cent. Today it is nearer minus 34 per cent. That does not at all look like a winning run.

Is Ukip winning? It looks set to trounce the Tories and Lib Dems in the European elections. But already the conventional wisdom has it that this will be a rebellious, one-off, anti-politics spasm. Conservative paranoia, say party apologists, will abate after a few weeks and its fortunes will recover. Ukip’s victory will be seen as Pyrrhic. But the standing of Cameron as a national leader will be diminished.

What of the SNP? Surely it is winning? The party can reasonably hope to narrow the opinion poll margin by which the Yes campaign is trailing the No vote. But Scotland could be set on course for a narrow result either side of the independence question. A narrow defeat for the Yes campaign would see no resolution of the issue. The SNP would fight on, its grievance politics increasingly fuelled by the relentless growth of the London megalopolis and an ever more unbalanced UK. Scottish politics is set to be mired in a continuing war of indyref attrition. Households and businesses will remain uncertain and confused as to what – or who – will determine their future rates and taxes. How can such an outcome possibly be hailed as a victory?

It never does to write a year off just as it has barely begun. But be prepared for a year of thwarted promise and resolution in which very little is in fact resolved – a year in which nobody wins.