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Too many known unknowns to risk predicting General Election result, but it’s not looking good for the old parties

Too many known unknowns to risk predicting General Election result, but it’s not looking good for the old parties

🕔27.Jan 2015

With 100 days to go to the General Election Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale reflects on the 11th campaign he will have covered as a journalist and reckons this contest is impossible to call.

The only thing that can be said with any certainty about the 2015 General Election is that nothing can be said with any certainty. For the first time since 1992 it is impossible to predict who will be sitting in 10 Downing Street after May 7 and anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themselves.

Unlike 1992, a straight race between John Major’s Tories and Neil Kinnock’s Labour, the balance of power following this year’s contest will almost certainly rest on the shoulders of the political parties that until fairly recently used to be lumped together rather condescendingly as “others”.

Will the Ukip surge continue and if so can Nigel Farage’s party inflict damage on both the Conservatives and Labour? Are the Greens really emerging as a popular left-wing alternative to Labour? Are the SNP on the rise in Scotland and how many seats will Labour lose as a result?

These are just three questions at the heart of a fascinating and unpredictable contest.

There are still plenty of MPs who insist they take no notice of opinion polls and that the only poll worthwhile takes place on the day of the election. But the process of polling has become more sophisticated and accurate over the years, and more surveys than ever before are being conducted. Most point to an inescapable conclusion – the era of two-party politics is over, at least for now, and the age of coalition and partnership is with us.

The latest poll by Lord Ashcroft published this week puts Labour and the Conservatives neck and neck on 32 per cent with Ukip on 15 per cent, the Greens on nine per cent and the Liberal Democrats on six per cent. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times on January 23 also had Labour and the Conservatives on 32 per cent and put Ukip at 15 per cent, the Greens and Lib Dems each on seven per cent.

A Mirror/Survation poll on January 26 put the Conservatives on 31 Lab, 30 Ukip 23, Lib Dems seven and the Green Party on three per cent. A YouGov poll published on the same date had the Conservatives on 34, Lab on 33, Lib Dems 6, UKIP 15 and Green seven.

It is a highly volatile position but one clear trend has emerged – the Conservatives and Labour are failing to move their joint support above the 70 per cent mark, making a hung parliament a certainty if results on May 7 reflect the opinion polls.

It would take a brave pundit to predict a result, but as Donald Rumsfeld put it, there are a few known unknowns to ponder. But as I see it, there are a few conclusions to be drawn too:

Advantage Labour

Labour enters the General Election with an in-built advantage thanks to the way its heartlands are concentrated in a large number of smaller constituencies in heavily populated towns and cities, while the Tories dominate a smaller number of huge constituencies in mainly rural areas.

This means the Conservatives require a most improbable swing of two per cent from Labour, or an 11-point lead in the popular vote, for an overall majority while Labour overtakes the Conservatives with a two per cent swing, and then crosses the finishing line with a five per cent swing which equates to a three-point lead.

David Cameron’s failure to agree a deal with the Liberal Democrats over a boundary review is likely to go down as his costliest and most likely fatal mistake.

The Miliband Factor

There’s no subtle way of putting this. Ed Miliband is not an electoral advantage for Labour. A clever and well-intentioned young man, perhaps, but for whatever reason Mr Miliband does not appeal to voters in the way that his brother, David, the former Foreign Secretary, once did.

It is beginning to dawn on many in the Labour party that they elected the wrong Miliband. A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times just before Christmas showed that 73 percent of voters thought Ed Miliband was doing badly, with only 18 per cent saying he was doing a good job. That gave him an overall approval rating of -55, which is a disastrous place to be in six months before an election.

The Reuters news agency summed up Mr Miliband for its mainly foreign readers: “Derided by the press as socially awkward since he assumed the party’s leadership in 2010, Miliband, an Oxford-educated career politician with the demeanour of an academic, is seen by some in and around his party as an electoral liability rather than an asset.” Ouch.

Let’s be clear, Ed Miliband is not as unelectable as, say, Michael Foot or Gordon Brown, but there are shades of Neil Kinnock and 1992. When push comes to shove, can enough voters really envisage Mr Miliband as Prime Minister? The Tories will be hoping the answer is ‘no’.

It’s the economy

Ultimately, for most people, General Elections boil down to selfishness however much we may like to pretend that noble ideas determine voting patterns. In the privacy of the polling booth issues such as ‘do I have a job?’, ‘am I paying too much tax’, ‘do I feel confident about the future’ and, crucially, ‘is this Government a better bet for me than the others?’ come to the fore.

With a Budget up his sleeve and an economy that has out-performed all post-financial crisis expectations, George Osborne can deliver a tax-cutting boost to the Tories, and that may help his Liberal Democrat coalition partners too.

Farage and the ‘others’

Ukip has had a good run and added to the national sense of mirth along the way. After all, most of us like to see the old political parties getting a good thumping. It seems doubtful, though, that Nigel Farage’s party can maintain its 12 to 18 per cent showing in polls right up until May 7 given the public scrutiny that the party’s policies are bound to face.

On the other hand, Farage’s bloke down the pub image may turn out to be an escape hatch that voters disillusioned with the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats grasp. The first past the post electoral system weighs against Farage winning many seats at Westminster, but Ukip may succeed in drawing enough support away from the main parties to cause some very unpredictable results – expect the Tories to suffer in the south and Labour to feel the pressure in the north.

The Green Party may be the joker in the pack on May 7 after recording its strongest ever showing in opinion polls, boosted by fed-up Labour supporters switching to a ‘left wing’ alternative.

According to research in the Observer newspaper the rise of the Greens is causing “serious anxiety in Labour’s high command, as worries grow that many left-leaning voters, particularly students and first-time voters, are rejecting Ed Miliband’s agenda in favour of a more radical left-wing offering”.

Birmingham Edgbaston, where Gisela Stuart has been the Labour MP since 1997, is on a list of 22 marginal seats where it is feared Labour support could leak to the Greens, allowing a Conservative win through the back door.

A Ukip-style health warning must also apply to the Green Party where a series of screamingly radical policies, or sheer barmy depending on where you are coming from, will face intense scrutiny over the coming weeks. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett provoked a media storm by suggesting people in the UK should not be banned from joining terrorist groups ISIS or Al Qaeda, and promoting a plan to abandon the British Army in favour of a home defence force.

As for the Scottish Nationalists, the post-independence referendum euphoria points to a major headache for Labour and Mr Miliband. Last September, 45 per cent of voters in Scotland supported independence. The latest Scottish-only polls show most of these will stick with the SNP for the Westminster election. Labour is projected to lose 36 seats which could more than wipe out any electoral advantage from constituency boundaries in England and Wales.

Cleggmania

Remember the astonishing rise and rise of Nick Clegg in 2012 off the back of the Liberal Democrat’s performance in the first televised live debate between party leaders? This year’s debate, or series of debates if they happen, is beginning to take on a surreal shine with everyone from the Greens, SNP, Ukip and Plaid Cymru promised a spot as well as the main parties. This, if it actually happens, will provide an unprecedented opportunity for the smaller parties to gain air time, and perhaps swing votes their way.

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