The European Union is more of an issue than at recent general elections. The rise of Ukip, which triumphed at last year’s European Parliament elections, has ensured that. There are also significant differences between the Conservatives and Labour on Britain’s future in the EU.
IN OR OUT?
Ukip is the only party committed to withdrawing from the EU. It won only 3 per cent of the vote at the 2010 election but now averages 13 per cent in the opinion polls. The loss of traditional Conservative supporters to Ukip persuaded David Cameron to pledge an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 if he remains in power. The Tories hoped his promise would kick the EU issue into the long grass growing beyond this election. It did not. Nigel Farage’s party continued to prosper and two Tory MPs defected to it, holding their seats in by-elections. Experts predict that Ukip could win about six seats on May 7.
REFERENDUM OR NOT?
Labour and the Liberal Democrats have criticised Mr Cameron’s referendum pledge, saying the public should get such a vote only if Britain proposed transferring new powers to the EU. Ed Miliband admits that a referendum would be “unlikely” in the 2015-20 parliament under Labour. Many senior business figures are nervous, fearing that a referendum would cause uncertainty and deter job-creating foreign investment in the UK. The Green Party’s policy has been described as “Three Yesses” --Yes to a referendum, to major EU reform and to staying in a reformed Europe.
In pictures: Experts' predictions for the General Election - 04/04/15
In pictures: Experts' predictions for the General Election - 04/04/15
1/10 Andrew Hawkins (ComRes)
“My position has moved: no party can win a majority now. I have also shifted in favour of the Conservatives winning more seats than Labour. That, however, assumes that the current Tory momentum is maintained and that they don’t do anything daft or careless between now and polling day. But the underlying pattern is distinctly in their favour.” (In January he predicted Labour would be the largest party, possibly with a small majority.)
2/10 Joe Twyman (YouGov)
“Probably: a ‘well hung parliament’. Possibly: Conservatives winning most votes and seats, thanks, in part, to SNP gains at Labour’s expense. Speculation: Conservatives unable to form another coalition, not having enough seats with just the Lib Dems, but Labour better placed with SNP and Lib Dems – albeit informally.” (In January Twyman said: “Gun to my head? Labour minority government.”)
3/10 Ben Page (Ipsos MORI)
“Stuck in ‘too close to call’ mode still, made harder by the way votes translate into seats in Parliament. If the parties remain neck and neck, Labour might just end up with more seats, but not a majority. We still have weeks of campaign to go and no clear picture for the marginals, where the polling that is being done suggests a lot of local variations that have plenty of potential to surprise us in May.” (Last time Page said it was a “mug’s game” to make predictions four months before an election.)
4/10 Rick Nye (Populus)
“Since January, the Conservatives have clearly improved on the polls relative to Labour to the point where I’d expect the Conservatives to win the most seats as well as the most votes 7 May. What’s less clear is whether the Conservatives would be able to form a government. (In January Nye expected a hung parliament in which Labour would win most seats but not necessarily most votes.)
5/10 Nick Moon (GfK)
“Something would need to change dramatically for there to be any chance of a one-party majority government. My guess: the Tories will be largest party, but some way short of forming even a two-party coalition. A Labour minority government seems most likely, but I won’t be putting money on it.” (Prediction unchanged since January.)
6/10 Damian Lyons Lowe (Survation)
“On Survation’s public polling, Ed Miliband remains the person most likely to form the next government. However, he’s far from the workable majority figure required . Friday 8 May will remain a day of deals and discussions with other parties to form the next government.” (In January he expected Labour to be the largest party in a hung parliament, by 40-50 seats over the Conservatives.)
7/10 Michelle Harrison (TNS)
“It’s less a case of who wins but who can scrape over the line. Labour polls better on the NHS; the Tories poll better on the economy. Can any claim additional territory from the other over the remaining weeks? Probably not. But our polls show that the public thinks the Tories will be the largest party. In the absence of a firm lead, I’ll go with the wisdom of crowds.”
8/10 James Endersby (Opinium Research)
“Despite the recent weekly statistical ties, we’ve witnessed the faint whispers of movement in the air and a slow, unsteady and shaky sway towards the Tories. How this shift plays out over the coming weeks obviously depends on a huge number of factors. My call, if this holds fast and momentum gathers: Conservatives 288, Labour 267, SNP 45, Lib Dems 24, Plaid Cymru 3, Ukip 3, Greens 2.” (In January he put Labour on 320 seats.)
9/10 Martin Boon (ICM)
“I’m tempted to say: how should I know? I’m just a pollster. But I feel that Miliband may just have raised himself from the grave, so I’ll add a couple to where I had them before. Everyone else largely becalmed although, I see the Greens disappearing from view and Ukip sliding a touch. Tories 34 per cent, Lab 32 per cent, Lib Dems 14 per cent, Ukip 12 per cent. I don’t trust any academic model that translates vote shares into seats, so a seat projection from this is a pure and simple guess, which is Labour to be touching 300 seats with the Tories just behind.” (In January Boon predicted Labour on 290 seats.)
10/10 Lord Ashcroft (Lord Ashcroft Polls)
He refuses to make predictions. “My polls are snapshots, not predictions.”
A NEW DEAL FOR BRITAIN?
Mr Cameron would use the period between the election and 2017 to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership. He hopes to win enough changes to be able to recommend an In vote in the referendum. But his party is split. Some ministers and many Tory MPs are likely to campaign for an Out vote. There are mixed signals from other EU countries on how many concessions they would make to keep Britain in the 28-nation club. The pivotal figure is Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor. Allies say she wants to help the man she sees as her “naughty nephew” but would only go so far to meet his demands and would put German interests first. Mr Cameron has already had to lower his sights, dropping plans to challenge the EU’s “free movement of people” principle after Ms Merkel made clear she would not dilute it.
Mr Cameron would have to make his referendum pledge a non-negotiable “red line” in any talks on another coalition in order to win the support of Tory MPs for such a partnership. Nick Clegg has not ruled out allowing a referendum but the senior Lib Dems Vince Cable and Tim Farron have sounded a warning that their party might not accept such a move. It would have to approve any deal with another party. If Labour and the Lib Dems were discussing a post-election deal, Europe would not be a problem since their views are very similar. Ukip might support a minority Tory government if Mr Cameron speeded up his referendum. Some Tories have hinted that it could be held in 2016 to limit the party’s in-fighting, but that would leave the Prime Minister little time to secure a new deal from Britain’s EU partners.
THE NATIONALIST DIMENSION
Europe has become a lively issue in Scotland and Wales. The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are pressing for a requirement that all four nations in the UK would have to vote Out for Britain to leave the EU. That will be resisted by the Conservatives. If the UK as a whole voted Out while Scotland voted to stay in, that could be grounds for the SNP to demand a second referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country.
All the parties insist they do not favour the status quo in Europe. For example, the three main parties want further measures to complete the single market to help British firms. But any incoming government could face a battle to retain Britain’s influence at the EU table. There are fears that the 19 nations in the euro are increasingly driving the agenda for the EU as a whole.
Ukip has skilfully merged the Europe with the more potent issue of immigration, arguing that the only way to control it is to leave the EU. Labour and the Lib Dems have joined calls for curbs on of the rights of EU migrants to claim benefits in the UK, one of Mr Cameron’s key renegotiation demands. All three parties want to end the ability of EU migrants to draw the UK’s generous child benefit payments when their children do not live in this country. There is support for benefit restrictions in several European nations, so this is one area where change is likely.
The Independent has got together with May2015.com to produce a poll of polls that produces the most up-to-date data in as close to real time as possible.
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