Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Poll of polls and the great debate debate

A poll on the EDP website at the weekend asked: “Has UKIP outlived its usefulness?” (When I cast my vote, the verdict was ‘yes’ by a margin of 56 per cent to 44pc.)
Another poll last week suggested that 15pc of voters intend to put their cross by the names of UKIP candidates on May 7. Which may or may not be a bigger story than the fact that the same poll (by Tory researcher Lord Ashcroft) gave the Green Party 11pc support.
That is, a party considered “not major” by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom, came in two percentage points ahead of the LibDems.
The back story to that – one of the back stories – is that while UKIP support appears to have levelled off or slipped slightly, support for the Greens has grown at a rate almost never seen before in British politics.
Of course, a high percentage rise in not very much is still not very much. But other surveys – including what you might think is a crucial one, a head-count of party members – show the Greens surging past both the LibDems and UKIP.
Among the 18-24 age group, only Labour is now more popular than the Greens. If it were to go on growing at the recent rate (it won’t, of course), the Green Party would be the biggest party in the country by the time of the election.
Part of that is no doubt down to policies. The Greens are the only party to seriously oppose the present government’s policy of austerity. The only one, at least, which appears capable of winning a seat in England.
Much of it is also down to disgust at the aforementioned Ofcom ruling, and the TV companies’ decision – since overturned – to include UKIP but exclude the Greens from their pre-election debates. That seemed to an awful lot of people to be an injustice.
In turning it to their advantage, Green leader Natalie Bennett and MP Caroline Lucas showed a cannier political judgement than has normally been associated with their party.
Much of the debate lately has been about the debates.
Are they, as David Cameron has suggested, a distraction from the “proper” election campaigns? Or are they a crucial factor in forming public opinion?
It seemed indisputable at the time that Nick Clegg’s stellar performance against Cameron and Gordon Brown helped his party in 2010. So who will be the winners and losers in what now looks like being a seven-way debate this time – with the Scottish National Party and Wales’s Plaid Cymru also getting in on the act?
If nothing else, the line-up will demonstrate that British politics is now a multi-party affair. And therefore that the first-past-the-post constituency-based system, which only works well in a two-horse race, is no longer fit for purpose.
There will be an awful lot of opinion polls between now and May, and it will no doubt be interesting to see how the various parties’ support fluctuates.
The only poll that really counts, of course, is the one taking place 100 days from now. It will represent the views of millions, not just a random sample of 1,000 or so.
Its outcome, in terms of parliamentary seats and the colour of the next government, is not only too close to call – it is too complicated to call.
The system means the support of a fifth of the electorate could translate into no seats at all. While the backing of not much more could put a party into power – the LibDems had 23pc of the vote last time.
It is not impossible that either the Tories or Labour could win an outright majority, though neither looks remotely likely to get anywhere near a majority of votes. It seems, on current form, more likely that one or the other will have to rely on the backing of one or more smaller parties.
Which could give UKIP, Greens or the SNP a big say in how Britain’s future shapes up for the next five years.
Yet another poll I examined last week asked people to rate their preferred options among a list of possible coalitions or alliances that could emerge in May.
The second most popular option, with 18pc support, was a Tory-UKIP coalition. Just ahead, on 19pc, was a Labour government reliant on Green support. North of the border, the most popular version by would be a Labour-SNP alliance.
When the present coalition decided on fixed-term parliaments, it was almost certainly with the intention of giving themselves a guaranteed period in power. It’s probably an unintended consequence that the campaigning is now already well under way.
It’s going to make the next 100 days interesting – though not as interesting as the morning of May 8 promises to be.

Only then will we know the true depth of the Green surge – and how useful or otherwise UKIP really is.

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