Colin Mellors: Tough to pick outright election winner

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THIS general election is the most unpredictable in modern UK electoral history. There is every prospect that, come May 8, we will still be asking ‘who won?’

With the move to a fixed-term parliament part of the coalition deal, we have known the date of the 2015 election for almost five years. Examining the results last time would have made us equally aware that it was going to be very difficult for any single party to win outright again this time.

The 2010 election was a disaster for Labour when they secured their lowest share of the popular vote since the 1920s. The Conservatives, by contrast, achieved their largest net gain in seats since 1931.

It was inevitable that Labour would recover some ground, especially against the background of a Government facing difficult economic issues. The task of overtaking the Conservatives, however, was daunting. Only for a brief period during 2012-13 have the polls suggested that it was within Ed Miliband’s grasp.

They need a net gain of 68 seats, a swing approaching five per cent. For the Conservatives, denied outright victory in 2010 by 19 seats, they need a two per cent swing to secure an outright majority. This requires either a further collapse in Labour’s fortunes or a return to the two-party politics that was once the norm. Neither of these has happened. According to polls, Labour has built modestly on its 2010 position – up around five points on its disappointing 29 per cent in 2010 – but insufficient to secure a majority.

The real challenge, however, is not their relative standing but the impact of all the other parties. Where once elections were effectively straight two-way contests, they have moved, initially, to three-way fights and, more recently, to four-way battles, It makes it very difficult for any single party to secure an outright majority.

This is illustrated by recent local elections and, even more graphically, by last year’s European elections and voting north of the border.

Last summer, Ukip topped the European elections with over 27 per cent of the popular vote. Had it been a general election, they would have picked up three seats from Labour in South Yorkshire and one each from Conservatives and Labour in North East Lincolnshire.

Their share now stands at around 13 per cent, unlikely to deliver more than a handful of seats but still sufficient to dent Conservative and Labour aspirations in some constituencies. It is also illustrative of the disaffection that many voters still feel about the two main parties.

Liberal Democrats have suffered in the polls as a result of their participation in the coalition, currently down a full 15 points from 2010. Even so, their tally of MPs might not decline so drastically.

The biggest electoral impact, however, is likely to be in Scotland. Without its Scottish MPs, the party would struggle to secure a Westminster majority.

The latest polls suggest a massive 19 per cent swing from Labour to SNP and the possibility of over 40 Scottish Nationalist MPs. The irony of losing the referendum on Scottish independence but becoming the group that effectively determines who runs Britain will not be lost on anyone.

There is one further factor. It is suggested that the failure to implement the new constituency boundaries during the current Parliament will disadvantage the Conservatives.

The most important element will be how people decide to vote. The indications are many are yet to decide. Even amongst those who say they are going to vote, almost half have not decided which way. The battle lines have been drawn – for the Conservatives it is their ‘long-term economic plan’ and for Labour the ‘cost of living crisis’ and ‘where the cuts will come’.

The first television encounter gave Mr Miliband a minor lift but the fact remains that, according to the polls, Mr Cameron is seen by most voters as the better leader. The main thing the polls reveal, however, is that it would be a brave pundit who plumped for an outright winner on May 7.

With the starting gun now fired, polls put both Labour and Conservatives on 34 points. Translated into seats, this would probably give Labour around 20 more seats than the Conservatives but still well short of an outright victory. The Liberal Democrats would fall back to 19 seats.

The Yorkshire Post will be monitoring the polls each week from now until the election and assessing the prospects for our region. Yorkshire will be an important battleground for the parties and, next week, the focus will be on the key constituencies and what the polls might mean for them.

Colin Mellors is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of York.