2013–Where Could It All Go Wrong for the Main Party Leaders in the UK this Year?

January 24, 2013

Delivered at last…

Yesterday the UK Prime Minister delivered his long awaited ‘EU speech’ (the speech it never looked like he was going to make). Much of the content was leaked last weekend and it reminded the British people that when it comes to ‘Europe’ the Conservatives simply cannot agree on policy. Mr Cameron now faces the unenviable challenge of trying to corral these Euro-Sceptics and Pro-Europeans into some semblance of a ‘unified’ Conservative Party, and he has until the 2015 general election to succeed.

The speech did little to assuage the detractors in his party, and it remains to be seen whether it will really clarify the Tories’ position on the EU. But for Mr Cameron it’s just a relief that he’s made his speech. The daunting task he now faces is effectively setting the terms of the debate on Britain’s future relationship with the EU and winning the argument. Expect EU tensions in the party to continue to rumble on throughout 2013.

Who agrees with Nick now?

Whoever said politics is a popularity contest was exactly right and the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, along with his party, have recently become aware of just how important popularity is. Looking at the polling it’s clear that since entering the Collation in 2010 the Lib Dems have suffered at the polls with a YouGov poll out just last week putting them on 11% compared to the Conservatives on 31% and Labour’s 43%.

Mr Clegg really is proving to be an unpopular leader with his approval rating at minus 45 and just 23% who think he is performing well as leader (in a survey conducted by YouGov and Sunday Times Jan 10-11, 2013). Those heady days of the televised leaders’ debates in spring 2010 must feel an age away for the Liberal Democrat leader when he enjoyed surging popularity.

In an effort to turn ‘it’ around Clegg has been appearing on a weekly London radio station phone-in ‘Call Clegg’. This may raise the Deputy Prime Minister’s profile but it’s a risky tactic. It’s difficult to stage manage a radio phone-in and could easily back-fire

The 2012 by-election in Corby demonstrated the state the Lib Dems are in. The Lib Dem candidate came fourth with 1,770 votes, the equivalent of 5%, and failed to get her deposit back. In 2013 the Lib Dems should be concerned with their falling popularity and also with the recent increased popularity of UKIP who are now registering 9% in the polls compared to the Lib Dems 11%. Positioning themselves as a campaigning party against Europe and state intervention, 2013 could see UKIP become the main protest vote party. With a charismatic leader in Nigel Farage, who courts the media at every opportunity, UKIP could steal the ‘disaffected voter crown’ from the Lib Dems. While the UKIP vote will have consequences for the Tories, the effect on the Lib Dems could be far worse and the local elections across the country this year will test this out.

Putting the beef into ‘One Nation’ Labour

For the Labour Party the year started with the vote on the welfare bill which Labour voted against. Labour leader Ed Miliband and his MPs debated fiercely with the Coalition over the bill. However, when pushed, Labour has little or no plans for what they would do to lower the overall cost of welfare. Economic credibility is the key way that the Labour Party and Mr Miliband can regain the public’s trust. According to a January YouGov poll Labour are currently at 43%, a lead of 12% on the Tories, but the party’s reputation on economic competency still lags behind. Last week’s ICM poll asked ‘who do you think is best able to manage the economy?’, Miliband and Balls received just 24% compared to Cameron’s and Osborne’s 34%.

With the Coalition’s plans to means test many universal benefits, and the introduction of the Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship welfare policy, Labour can no longer be seen to simply label these plans as ‘unfair’ but must offer a credible economic solution. Labour recently launched its first pamphlet in what is to be a major policy review for the party, but to beat the Coalition they need strong economic policies. In the next 12 months Labour needs to focus on putting together a credible economic alternative to the government’s policies, while they maybe ahead in the polls this more down to the failings of the government rather than any enlightened policies from the opposition. Mr Miliband’s personal poll ratings demonstrate this showing that 54% of people think he is doing badly as leader of the Labour Party (YouGov Poll, 2nd December 2012).

It’s a minefield out there

The next 12 months offer each leader and their party the chance to tackle fundamental issues which, if not resolved, could cost them dearly at the next election. The three problems outlined are real sticking points for each party and require tough leadership to face them down. Mr Cameron doesn’t have to unite his party around one view on Europe but he needs to be in control of the party’s message on the EU. Mr Clegg and the Lib Dems need to raise their PR game and likeability factor. Mr Miliband and Labour must come up with a convincing set of policies because continuing to argue against the Coalition without an alternative offer will only damage the party’s credibility even further in the eyes of the electorate.

Alexis Darby is a Senior Account Executive with the Corporate & Public Affairs Practice at Ketchum Pleon London. Her areas of expertise include media relations, political analysis and stakeholder engagement. A self-confessed political geek and a marathon runner in training (thinking New York!), Alexis can be reached at @alexis_darby.