Bill Carmichael: Slippery poll for political heavyweights

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IN less than a week we’ll be bidding farewell to an interesting 2014 and saying hello to what promises to be a fascinating – if troubled – new year.

Such are the many uncertainties that face us in 2015 it would take a braver man than me to dust off the old crystal ball and say with any confidence what will transpire over the next 12 months.

Unusually – thanks to the switch to fixed term parliaments – we know precisely when the general election will take place; in a little over five months’ time on May 7.

But other than the date nothing else is certain, particularly not the result. Come May 8 it could be Ed Miliband or David Cameron sitting at the head of the Cabinet table at Number 10.

Equally likely is some kind of cobbled coalition of one of the big parties with 
one or more of the smaller fry – the Lib Dems, Ukip, the SNP and other nationalist parties, and even perhaps the Greens.

What is clear is that we have witnessed a quite dramatic decline in two-party politics over recent decades. In the 1950s, for example, more than 90 per cent of voters supported either Labour or the Conservatives. Today both of these parties are struggling to poll much more than about 30 per cent each.

Most recent polls put Labour narrowly ahead, although Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls trail massively when it comes to issues of economic competence.

Labour has an inbuilt and unfair advantage – thanks to the Lib Dems reneging on a deal to reform constituency boundaries – and Miliband could just squeak home as a result.

But the Conservatives will hammer away at his weak points over the next five months – particularly on the economy – and if doubts are put in enough minds Miliband may just come up short of an overall majority.

In these circumstances Labour will be forced to seek allies in the smaller parties. One recently mooted possibility is a Labour-SNP alliance with Alex Salmond as Deputy Prime Minister – talk about a nightmare scenario!

Much depends on the performance of Ukip, which scored a stunning victory in the 2014 European elections, coming top of the poll and winning 24 seats – including three of the six Yorkshire and Humber places.

The crucial question is will Nigel Farage’s motley crew push on to further victories in 2015, or were the European elections Ukip’s high water mark?

The Conservatives are hoping Tory defectors, faced with the very real possibility of a Miliband premiership, will return to the fold.

And let’s not forget that Ukip also poses a threat to Labour in solid working class areas and came within a whisker of taking Heywood and Middleton in a by-election in October.

All this and Labour’s troubles in Scotland, where a resurgent SNP is threatening to take the seats Miliband needs for an overall victory, and you have a situation so complex and volatile that firm predictions are near impossible. We will be in for a very interesting few months.

Uncertainty and volatility are also key themes in terms of international affairs, largely thanks to the disastrous presidency of Barack Obama.

Enemies of democracy such as Iran and North Korea, have been emboldened by Obama’s weakness and Russia, pushed into economic crisis by falling oil prices, is like a wounded bear and in a particularly dangerous mood right now.

Obama also badly misread the so-called Arab Spring and then, like a barroom braggart, started boasting about setting out “red lines” to Syrian president Bashar Assad before meekly capitulating. As a result an already unstable situation in the Middle East has been made worse.

I hope I am proved wrong, but I see little chance of improvement in 2015 for the basket-case countries of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

And I am afraid, thanks largely to the sectarian slaughter in the Middle East, Islamist violence is likely to continue in the West. Our security services have done a magnificent job of stopping the big spectacular bombing campaigns, but steel yourself for more small-scale attacks such as the murder of Lee Rigby and the attacks on the Canadian war memorial and the Sydney cafe siege.

Not a very cheerful note to end on, I am afraid. It remains only for me to wish readers of this column a healthy, happy and prosperous 2015.