In unchartered voting territory is there anything in the polls that we can be certain about?
It’s almost impossible to write anything about this General Election without using some form of the hottest cliché in Westminster, that this election is “the most unpredictable / difficult to call / closest” in recent history. All those things are true. It is some comfort, however, to at least know that we don’t know what’s going to happen.
The fracturing nature of the electorate, looking beyond the traditional two or three major parties, is causing political pundits, forecasters and pollsters alike to reassess everything we thought we knew about how elections go. UKIP, the SNP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are attracting voters in ways we’ve not experienced before. Therefore, the old “universal national swing” (UNS) calculation, used to work out how many seats parties would win depending on their national share of the vote, is no longer a useful tool. UNS relied on voters mainly switching between Labour and the Conservatives.
In this most unpredictable of elections, it is helpful to understand what we know and don’t know.
We know that the Conservatives and Labour are running neck-and-neck. Individual polls may show a slight lead one way or another, but the average ‘poll of polls’ shows a dead heat. Suspicions about Labour’s lead not being enough, voiced in the heady post-omnishambles budget days of 2012, appear to be bearing out. Labour’s lead has been narrowing steadily since the end of 2013. However, we don’t know what this means in terms of the number of MPs each Party will win. Remember, Labour have the in-built advantage that even if the Conservatives were to win more votes, with for instance a lead of around 2 percentage points, in all likelihood Labour would still come out with more MPs in the House of Commons.
We know that Labour will lose a significant number of seats in Scotland. Labour currently hold 40 Scottish seats to the SNP’s 6, and any seats Labour lose in Scotland will of course mean they have to gain more in England or Wales, as they strive for the magical 326 seats needed for a majority. We don’t know quite how well the SNP will do, but it looks like they will be battling the Liberal Democrats to be the third largest party in the House of Commons.
We know the Liberal Democrats are facing a torrid time, as they have been averaging single figure poll ratings. While history would suggest they should improve their national vote as Election Day draws closer, that historic record is likely based on them simply being the third party. They’re now a junior member of a coalition government with a record to defend as well as an identity to carve out against their government partners. However, their national poll standing looks to be fairly irrelevant compared to their local MPs’ campaigning and popularity. What we don’t know is just how many Liberal Democrats will be able to hold onto their seats. They are likely to, despite halving their Party’s number of MPs, hold considerable sway in post-election negotiations.
We know UKIP have enjoyed unprecedented levels of support over the course of this Parliament: winning the European Elections last year, picking up two MPs and consistently out-polling the Liberal Democrats. What we don’t know is just how this level of support will hold up, and what it means for the number of seats they will actually win. There are some signs that UKIP’s support has levelled off and is beginning to dip slightly.
We know then, that it will be a close election, so close that it’s likely that even as we wake up on May 8th we probably won’t know the make-up of the government. The shape of the next government will be hammered out at the negotiating table in the weeks that follow.