WHEN the election was announced on March 30, Conservative and Labour were just one point apart; 37 days and 80 polls later, they still are.
In the last 30 polls, the Conservatives led in 13, Labour in 13, with four tied. Barring a spectacular late surge, both remain well short of the 326 needed for outright victory tonight. Between 265 and 285 seems most likely.
Even the exit pollsters are preparing to be wrong this time, confessing that they “simply do not know”.
The region is a microcosm of today’s election – both parties need to win key marginals if they are to form the next government and the fate of the three Lib Dem-held seats will also be significant.
Ukip, even if not making the breakthrough that seemed possible last year, will affect individual constituencies by taking votes from the Conservatives and Labour.
David Cameron’s appearance in Addingham on Sunday to watch the Tour de Yorkshire, and Ed Miliband’s visit to the area yesterday, are no coincidences – Keighley is a Labour target. Its capture would signal them overtaking the Conservatives as the biggest party.
While making it difficult to call the national result, the closeness and consistency of polls ought to make constituency forecasting easier. All show Labour improving, on average by a three per cent swing from Conservatives.
When elections were predominantly two-party contests, predictions were simple. Factor in the occasional personal vote for a popular incumbent, or the impact of a strong third party, and the outcome was pretty evident.
However, the landscape has changed. Thirty years ago, Conservatives and Labour together attracted over 80 per cent of the popular vote; now, they struggle to reach 70 per cent. Add the effects of Ukip and increased tactical voting and it becomes hazardous to make projections, let alone predictions.
At best – armed with what the polls do tell us, together with recent local election results – we can indicate what might happen.
For an overall majority, the Conservatives need seats like Great Grimsby, Morley and Outwood and Halifax in addition to those they took last time. None look likely to be Conservative gains.
This time it will be Labour picking up seats and Dewsbury (21st target nationally) should be comfortably within their grasp. Labour could regain this with a 1.4 per cent swing yet still find themselves with fewer seats than the Conservatives nationally.
Pudsey (26th target), with a Conservative majority of just 1,659, should also be winnable. Where Ukip draws its estimated eight per cent vote from will be crucial.
Keighley needs a swing of just over three per cent, but might be a better prospect. Local polling and council elections both put Labour ahead. However, Ukip will damage Labour in parts of this constituency, having won their only ward on Bradford Council there last May.
For outright victory, Labour would also need seats such as Elmet and Rothwell, Cleethorpes, Colne Valley, Brigg and Goole and Calder Valley. All appear optimistic.
Regaining Bradford West – lost in the 2012 by-election to Respect’s George Galloway – ought to be more achievable. On paper, Grimsby appears the local seat most vulnerable to Ukip. They topped the poll in last year’s Euro elections. However, Labour would have won on the basis of two of the last three local elections.
Similarly, in Rotherham and Rother Valley, Ukip will do well but are likely to fall short.
Liberal Democrats are more concerned with hanging on than moving forwards, but Bradford East looks like another Labour gain. They might do better in Leeds North West. Despite students comprising 29 per cent of the electorate, the Lib Dems could survive if recent local election results are repeated.
Unsurprisingly, the Lib Dem seat most in the spotlight will be Sheffield Hallam. With Labour requiring a massive 19 per cent swing, Mr Clegg should be safe. Local election results suggest that he will be, but much might depend on how many Conservative supporters switch.
And the overall result? Labour will certainly make gains, offset by losses in Scotland, but probably insufficient to overtake the Conservatives. Liberal Democrats will fare badly but may yet play a part in what happens next. Ukip will impact, but more through where they draw support from than through winning seats themselves. Tactical voting will be much in evidence. Putting all of this together – and this is more a guess than a prediction – Conservatives look likely to finish with around 280 seats, Labour with 270 and Lib Dems with 26.
The only safe bet, however, is that this will be one election when the real interest only starts after the results are known. It will be some days yet before we really know who won.
Colin Mellors is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of York.