One might think that the Cameroons would be desperate about a poll showing their leader’s personal approval rating to be the lowest it has ever been. But the Prime Minister’s negative rating, minus 27, looks positively healthy when compared to those of the other two party leaders: the same poll showed Ed Miliband at minus 41 and Nick Clegg at minus 53. We are now in an era when the public are dissatisfied with all political parties and their leaders. Ask them which of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband would make the best prime minister and 46 per cent of them say they just don’t know.
This is part of a broader sense of national alienation. Senior aides in Downing Street have been much struck by polling which shows that more than 40 per cent of Britons would emigrate if they could.
This feeling of disenchantment is only going to get worse. All the party machines now know how to do negative campaigning but none of them know how to inspire voters. As one senior Labour figure puts it, ‘We can sum up our attack on the Tories in three words — out of touch — but it takes us at least eight paragraphs to explain what we’re actually offering the public.’
In this anti-politics age, voters are predisposed not to like politicians. So it is a lot easier for a party to persuade the public that its opponents are incompetent and not to be trusted than to make a positive case for themselves. Indeed, after George Galloway’s victory in Bradford West, the internal Labour critique of their campaign was not that it lacked a message but that it had not done enough to attack Galloway.
If growth does not return before 2015, then the next general election campaign will be even more negative than the last one. Labour will say that the Tories have failed while the Tories will claim that Labour would have been even worse.
In these circumstances, one would normally expect the Liberal Democrats to thrive. Last time round, they almost capitalised on this dissatisfaction with the two main parties. After the first televised debate, Nick Clegg was, according to one poll, the most popular British politician since Winston Churchill. But then a barrage of negative campaigning, brilliantly masterminded by the Conservatives, burst his bubble. The Liberal Democrats ended up losing seats.
No one, though, thinks that we’ll see even a short-lived repeat of Cleggmania at the next election. The Lib Dems’ decision to go into government has ended their status as the ‘none of the above party’. One Labour source admits that ‘if the Lib Dems weren’t in the coalition, they’d be hoovering up votes right now’.
The question, then, is where these disillusioned voters will go. So far, the answer seems to be: all over the place.
In Labour’s traditional strongholds there is a craving for an alternative opposition to the coalition. North of the border, the Scottish National Party triumphed at last year’s election, winning an overall majority at Holyrood; something that the Labour-devised system was designed to prevent it from doing. This year’s Scottish local elections might bring further embarrassment for Labour. Already, thanks to defections, it has lost its majority on Glasgow City Council for the first time in close to 40 years. The chances that the SNP will be running this traditionally Labour city after 3 May are growing by the day. If the Nationalists can also make advances in North Lanarkshire, then there will not be a single Labour-controlled council in Scotland.
Labour’s heartland problems are not limited to Scotland, as Bradford West demonstrated. Some in the party are keen to dismiss the by-election result there as a freak event, the product of the combination of George Galloway and a large disaffected Muslim vote. But the party is so keen, desperate even, to avoid any more local defeats that it is considering banning Labour MPs from standing in this November’s mayoral and police commissioner elections. Clearly, it fears that what happened in Bradford West could happen elsewhere. The leadership is acutely aware that, in a large number of notionally ‘safe seats’, the party apparatus is now a Potemkin structure.
The Tories are not without their troubles, either. At the last election, in favourable conditions, the party only secured 36 per cent of the vote and just one seat in Scotland. The party is also weak in the north and in the English cities. No ambitious Tory today would try to build a political career from Leeds North East as Keith Joseph did half a century ago.
To compound their problems, the Tories are also having difficulties with their traditional base. A post-Budget ConservativeHome poll of Tory activists revealed that only 23 per cent of them think that the party will win a majority at the next election. One minister, a constructive critic of the Prime Minister, attributes these tensions to the fact that the Cameroons never secured their base before trying to reach out to the rest of the country.
In the same way that alternatives to Labour are emerging on the left, there is also growing support for a right-wing alternative to the Tories. The United Kingdom Independence Party has doubled its support since the last election and, unlike in the past, the vast majority of its new backers are former Tory voters. Senior Ukip figures are increasingly confident that the party will top the poll in the 2014 European elections.
It would seem, then, that British politics has reached a turning point, a moment at which the three-party mould could be broken. But there are good reasons to think this will not happen. A Labour strategist points out that when a general election comes along the electorate, albeit reluctantly, accepts that its role is to pick the next government. It then tries to decide who the least worst option is. But it is hard to imagine that the electorate’s dissatisfaction with all three parties can go on much longer without something cracking.