Although the opinion polls at the moment (the end of January 2014) give only a small lead for Labour over the Conservatives, there are more reasons that not to believe that Labour will win the next general election.
For one, the Labour Party is united, and the Conservatives aren't; on Europe, the Tories' division is becoming not only a regular feature of parliamentary amendments, it's showing David Cameron to be a laughing stock as the leader of his party.
The amendment to help deport terror suspects, raised by Conservative MP, Dominic Raab, was called illegal by the government. However, instead of opposing the idea due to its illegality, under the direction of David Cameron, the government told its MPs to abstain - the Conservative MPs that support the government, that is. The fact that the Conservative-led government feels so terrified of its own backbenchers that tells them to sit on their hands, is astounding, and probably unprecedented in modern British politics. So the government had the amendment thrown out thanks to the votes of Labour and the LibDems.
The Conservative Party has basically fractured, and cannot be honestly called a "party" in the fullest sense. As I've said previously, there are now the "Cameroons", who support the government, and the "rebels", who are, for the want of a better word, "UKIP-lite". The "rebels" (who number around a hundred) have no fear of their leader, because they have already calculated that: their re-election depends on how well they come across to their constituents and their constituents' expectations, rather than how well they toe the "party line"; and they will never get a promotion because Cameron and Osborne only promote people within their circle, so therefore have nothing to lose by opposing them.
We know how that went for the Conservatives the last time they were in government (although there were other factors at play, of course). A divided party doesn't win elections.
David Cameron was appointed as Conservative leader partly because of his background in PR. It's therefore ironic that he has given the Conservatives such a radical image re-haul, that the average person on the street thinks they are all a bunch of Eton-educated toffs.
Head-to-head, Cameron beats the personal popularity ratings of Ed Milliband hands down, but both leaders are at odds with the public popularity of their parties. Cameron is more popular personally than his party is; the Labour Party is more popular than Ed Milliband is personally.
Which perception is more important: leader or party? Past evidence would suggest the former, but the issue is more complex than that. Few people warmed to Margaret Thatcher's personality; yet she was elected Prime Minister three times. Jim Callaghan, the incumbent Labour PM that Thatcher succeeded, seemed much more obviously "humane" and "likeable"; but it was his party's perception that did the most damage in that election. John Major was hardly an awe-inspiring public figure, yet he won a huge number of votes in the 1992 general election.
It could be said that "personality politics" is a relatively new fascination, then. We can blame Blair for that (!). In this way, Cameron was always trying to emulate Blair's approach with the Conservatives; by contrast, Ed Milliband has done almost everything to distance himself from that approach since becoming Labour leader. But while Cameron's approach has seemed obviously superficial, the person in Westminster politics that is the biggest example of "personality politics" is Nigel Farage. The UKIP leader has created a new phenomenon in modern British politics, and his party are the great unknown for 2015 (more on that later).
Apart from the "personality" of the leaders, the public perception of the party is just as important, as I mentioned about 1979. In general, few of the public warm to the Tories, but those swing voters that vote for them do so out of a grudging respect for their perceived competence at the job, and doing the best for British interests. The Conservatives' term in office with the LibDems has, apart from the odd exception, been a catalogue of incompetence and a betrayal of British interests. Although the economy may appear to be on the rise (more on that in a moment), public perception has not yet given the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt yet.
Although Labour have appeared rudderless in the ideas department much of the time since the last election, in recent times, Ed Milliband has been able to give more flesh to the bones of his "vision" for the country. He has been able to cannily tap into public dissatisfaction and frustration at the "cost-of-living crisis", correctly seeing this as an issue that the Tories would ignore at their peril. This is because although elections are, in general, about "the economy, stupid", the public also understand that "the economy" improving is not automatically the same as saying that "their life" is improving. In this age of "austerity" and rising living costs, the debate has moved on from simple GDP figures showing that "the economy" is improving. Things are more complicated than that, and Ed Milliband has seen that the public have realised that too.
Ideas like "bashing the bankers" or "squeezing the rich" may be used by the Tories to say that Labour are a bunch of Marxists, but some people also recognise an injustice when they see it, and see that the Conservatives are doing nothing about it.
What's the plan?
Each of the parties have a "plan" for the economy, and for Britain's future.
The Conservatives' plan seems to be a permanently slimmed-down state, and tapping in to people's dislike for "benefit cheats" in order to achieve it. Furthermore, the Conservatives' idea of the economy appears based on (almost) the same national economic model as the previous government's, and all of those of the past thirty years: the promotion and indulging of the financial industry as the major national economic generator, making service industries reliant on the success of the financial industry, while allowing manufacturing to essentially fend for itself (or be given over to foreign investors).
Labour's plan (although it lacks clarity at this point) seems to be based on a more humane approach to government service provision, a less stringent application of "austerity", and more active government support with jobs schemes and the like, as well as some possible steps to help rein in the uncontrolled activities of some privatised utility industries.
UKIP's plan is not taken seriously by either Labour or the Conservatives, yet both of them are secretly terrified what effect they may have the 2015 election indirectly. In terms of domestic politics, UKIP are more "pro-austerity" than the Tories (and appear more "pro-City" as well), but also argue that many of the economic problems are caused by EU workers taking "British" jobs, and EU regulations tie up The UK from spending money on things that are more useful (as well as EU laws affecting a plethora of other issues). Because neither the Conservatives or Labour want to talk about "Europe" seriously, UKIP is given a free rein on this whole issue: this, as well as Farage's version of "personality politics", explains why so many voters see UKIP as the real alternative to the usual suspects.
Based on these three comparisons, it is not hard to see that, on the balance of things, people are more likely to vote for the "easiest" of the three options: Labour. Theirs offers the least hassle for the average person, and the most comfort in the future.
The jokers in the pack
The "UKIP effect" is one thing that makes the 2015 election unique in modern politics; different from the SDP/Alliance in 1983, for example. That election is the nearest comparable general election, but again the variables are different this time around.
The "UKIP voter" tends to be either a former Tory, or a traditional Labour supporter, or a new voter. Nigel Farage seems to think UKIP can supplant the Conservatives as the second biggest party in the North, at least in terms of votes cast. This is possible, given that Northerners have a different social attitude and background to "traditional" Conservative voters in the South. UKIP's simple, anti-establishment appeal is something that would appeal more in the North (this also explains why they are attracting new voters); in the South, they tend to attract "traditional" Conservative voters because their appeal is based on preserving or regaining a lifestyle that has passed with the coming of the EU and social change.
So while UKIP threaten both Labour and the Conservatives in terms of votes (if not many actual seats), this means more problems for the Conservatives than Labour, both in the North as well as the South.
While the recent polls talk of a narrowing of the gap between Labour and the Conservatives, this is due to less a rise in the Tories' popularity, than a relative decline in Labour's, to the benefit of UKIP. The Conservatives are still only in the low thirties even in the more optimistic polls, with Labour in the mid-thirties. No government went on to win an election in such circumstances before. It's almost unheard of for the governing party to increase its percentage of the vote from one election to the next.
Besides, this government is a coalition, in any case. It was formed because the Conservatives couldn't get the votes needed. They are even less likely to do so now; even assuming that the recovery continues purring ahead flawlessly, it relies on ignoring other variables, such as UKIP, and the damage done to the public's perceptions of the Conservatives from their often shambolic (and unpleasant) manner of governing. And the fact that most of the Conservatives' "austerity" programme hasn't even been fully put into practice yet; this may also be at the back of some voters' minds. Would some Turkeys really vote for Christmas?
And then there is the electoral system, still skewed in Labour's favour, which the Tories failed to convince the LibDems to support them to change. That was always going to be a painful opportunity for the Conservatives to miss.
They may not get another chance for a while.