UK election 2010: Erratic swings snap Labour’s thread of support (7 May 2010)

While Labour has lost support, no clear swing to the Tories and the Lib Dem losses leaves this election without a real verdict The 2010 election was even more fractured than one might have expected. There was no real national verdict, except perhaps that the thin thread of public support by which Labour had clung on to power in 2005 had snapped. The results were a kaleidoscope of peculiar local results. National swing broke down in the 1970s; now it seems that even regional swing has become a thing of the past. Nor can one read off politics from social composition any more – how could Birmingham Edgbaston stay Labour, but Nuneaton go Tory, without politics having assumed a new form? The swing from Labour to the Conservatives was uneven. Apparently clear patterns in past polls and local elections, such as a Conservative surge in the Midlands, did not appear when the votes were counted, and Labour even held on to the Nottingham suburb of Gedling (a seat the party had not won before 1997). Most observers expected the Conservatives to do better than average in their target marginals, but in some that had been showered with resources and worked hard for years there were feeble swings. In some seats, like Corby, Hastings and Stroud it was just about enough to eke out a gain. In others, mammoth swings blew away the competition – Leicestershire North West fell with a double-digit swing. But Labour has held on well in marginals across Scotland and in ethnically mixed areas of England (holding both Luton seats, for instance). 2010 was supposed to be one of the great Liberal revival elections, alongside 1974 and 1983, but as well as the irregular gains of the Conservatives, one of the stories of the night has been the dashing of so many Lib Dem hopes. Not only did they miss most targets, including low hanging fruit in academic Labour seats like Durham and Oxford East, but some established Lib Dem seats like Harrogate and Hereford fell to the Tories – and Rochdale, supposedly Brown’s Waterloo, was a surprise Labour win. There is better news elsewhere, and surprise victories like Redcar (where a steelworks closure led to a landslide swing against Labour), but breaking the mould of Westminster politics (as opposed to breaking the two-party grip, which happened years ago) will remain an ambition rather than a reality. Nor has it been the year of the Independent – party politics having reclaimed Blaenau Gwent and Wyre Forest, and Esther Rantzen having flopped in Luton. The anti-Westminster mood at the time of the expenses crisis in 2009 is certainly not reflected in these results....

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Pollwatch: Election forecasts hold up but questions remain for analysts (7 May 2010)

Pollsters told us more or less what would happen but have not yet explained local differences or Clegg’s collapse For the opinion pollsters the 2010 election was neither a humiliation like 1992 nor a routinely efficient performance like 2005, but wayward and difficult to capture accurately. It was at least good for business, in that there was an unprecedented volume of polling commissioned during the campaign. The average error on the eve of poll forecasts was bigger than last time, largely because the Liberal Democrat vote was falling faster than they could measure accurately in the final days. But the rough impression, if not the exact numbers, did convey what was going on. The last round of opinion polls before election day showed the Conservatives on about 35-37%, Labour somewhere around 29%, and the Lib Dems a bit below that and on a downward trend. The exit poll, organised by broadcasting and polling consortiums, was met with raised eyebrows by the broadcasters and even the occasional journalist and commentator, because it was quite so bearish for the Lib Dems and showed the Tories well short of an overall majority. I recall saying something about eating my hat if the Lib Dems were as low as 59 MPs, but it was the pollsters who had the last laugh. The seats projection was as good as anyone could ask for, even though it was not the story we were expecting. The pollsters told us more or less what would happen but have not yet really told us why. Labour over-performed in Scotland, picked up with admirable accuracy by the polls, and in inner London, but other than those areas there was no strong regional geography as there has been in most other recent elections. Despite the debates giving a new shape to the national campaign it was not a case of national factors overcoming regional differences. The wildly varying swing in apparently similar constituencies – Leicestershire North West and Corby, for instance – and the low swing against incumbents despite an alleged anti-incumbent mood in the country indicate that there was something unusual about the way people approached this election. Their responses were very varied and localised. The other big question for analysts of public opinion is quite what happened to Cleggmania. At one stage 2010 was shaping up to be a Liberal Democrat breakthrough of a kind that had not been seen since 1923: promotion to being taken seriously as one of the three main parties of state was implied in the debate format and seemed a possibility at Westminster, even under the distorting influence of first-past-the-post elections. But it all collapsed like a cooling soufflé in the final week,...

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General election 2010: Lewis Baston’s tactical voting guide (5 May 2010)

Our psephological expert offers the ultimate guide to deploying your vote to best advantage in a range of scenarios, based on the special eve-of-election Guardian/ICM poll Part one: Conservative/Lib Dem marginals 1. The Lib Dems have a chance of gaining these marginal seats from the Conservatives, and tactical voting for the Liberal Democrats is strongly recommended if you want to avoid a Conservative majority: Lib Dem targets from the Tories Tactical voting for the Lib Dems strongly advised to prevent Conservative majority Con Lab LD *Lib Dem MP 2005-10 but notionally Conservative on new boundaries Bournemouth West 43 15 35 Chelmsford 42 19 33 Devon Central 47 5 42 Devon West & Torridge 45 5 40 Dorset North 49 5 41 Dorset West 50 5 42 Eastbourne 46 5 45 Guildford 46 5 43 Harborough 46 11 38 Ludlow 48 5 44 Meon Valley 49 5 44 Newbury 52 5 43 Solihull* 43 8 42 Totnes 46 5 40 Wells 47 8 41 Weston-super-Mare 43 11 39 Worcestershire West 48 5 42 2. The Lib Dems will need tactical votes to defend these seats from the Conservatives because they have been targeted for Tory gains, and in such seats a national swing may not be completely relied upon to keep the seat Lib Dem. These seats were within a 5% swing of the Conservatives in 2005. Vulnerable Lib Dem seats Tactical voting for the Lib Dems advised to defend the seat Con Lab LD Carshalton & Wallington 41 10 44 Cheadle 43 5 51 Cheltenham 42 5 42 Chippenham 41 8 45 Cornwall North 38 5 45 Eastleigh 40 13 41 Hereford & Herefordshire South 44 5 45 Portsmouth South 37 14 45 Richmond Park 43 5 49 Romsey & Southampton North 46 5 47 Somerton & Frome 43 5 47 Southport 40 5 50 Sutton & Cheam 44 5 50 Taunton Deane 44 5 47 Torbay 39 6 45 Truro & Falmouth 35 11 44 Westmorland & Lonsdale 47 5 47 York Outer 39 19 40 3. You may want to vote tactically for a Lib Dem in these seats, which are targets from the Conservatives which Clegg’s party may be able to win with a big national swing or helpful local factors. Optimistic Lib Dem targets Tactical voting for the Lib Dems may help Con Lab LD Aldershot 47 14 32 Bournemouth East 48 11 34 Broadland 45 15 33 Cambridgeshire South East 50 13 35 Gainsborough 47 18 29 Haltemprice & Howden 50 5 39 Somerset North 45 14 33 Suffolk South 45 16 31 Sussex Mid 51 5 39 Woking 50 8 35 4. These are seats with Lib Dem incumbents who are safer than...

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Hung parliament: The numbers game (4 May 2010)

A slight difference in seats won can drastically change the long-term outcome of government, prompting divisions and even a second election. In principle, it is simple to determine whether a party has a majority in the House of Commons or not. There will be 650 seats in the new parliament, so to obtain the smallest overall majority requires 326 seats, giving a majority of two. However, it is rather more complicated in practice, because of the complexities of the devolved British constitution and party politics. In 1964 the Speaker was the only MP unaffiliated to the three largest British parties. In 2005 there were 31 of them, and the number could well increase this time, and the disposition of these “fourth parties” affects where we can place the winning post. There are some election outcomes which, while technically being a hung parliament, would allow the Commons to be run by the largest single party without the need for Cameron or Brown to consult the Liberal Democrats. The Speaker customarily does not vote except to resolve ties, so a party with 325 seats will have an effective majority of one (assuming that John Bercow holds Buckingham and is re-elected to the Speaker’s chair in the new parliament). Sinn Féin MPs do not recognise the sovereignty of Westminster and therefore do not take their seats or vote, so the Commons will probably be around five MPs short. So 323 MPs is a working majority of two. Staying with Northern Ireland, the Conservatives can rely on any MPs elected from their Ulster Unionist party alliance (a couple, perhaps) and Labour has a rather looser bond with the Social Democratic and Labour party and the independent (ex-UUP) Sylvia Hermon, which will account for two to four MPs. The two big British parties can therefore regard the winning post as being around 321 seats. The first Queen’s speech in the new parliament, on 25 May, will come before the postponed election in Thirsk and Malton (27 May), so 320 will be enough for a short period. Even a bit below the 320-seat mark, there will not be much uncertainty about a party’s ability to get a Queen’s speech and other key votes through the Commons, even without Lib Dem acquiescence. The Democratic Unionist party (around eight MPs), even if it dislikes a government’s agenda, would be unlikely to precipitate another election by voting against it, and the Westminster representatives of the SNP and Plaid Cymru (10-12 seats probably) would probably feel similarly. Taking these 20 MPs out, a government could win a Queen’s speech vote without giving more than the most minor concessions to smaller parties, in the face of opposition from the other...

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Pollwatch: Election campaign is now a war of movement rather than attrition (21 April 2010)

The surge in support for the Lib Dems adds two element of huge uncertainty into the electoral equation Although details vary between pollsters, the position on the eve of the second debate seems to be that the Conservatives and Lib Dems are fighting it out for first place, with support somewhere in the low 30% range. Monday night’s ComRes Tory figure, which put them on 35%, would have been regarded as terrible 10 days ago but now almost seems like a good result for the Conservatives. Labour seems narrowly but definitely in third at the moment, with support somewhere around 26-28%. What is remarkable so far is Labour’s sangfroid in the face of this apparently disastrous situation, compared with the Conservatives’ obvious nerves. Part of this is of course the ludicrous first-past-the-post electoral system, which could still deliver Labour the most seats in this situation. But the dynamics of campaigns can be brutal when one falls into a consistent third, and it is possible that a spiral of decline could set in. The bright side of the situation for Labour is that to win this election, something dramatic had to happen – if the campaign ground on as it had been, with the Tory lead falling slowly, Cameron would probably have just about won enough seats to form a minority government. Now that it is a war of movement rather than attrition, anything can happen. And perversely, despite riding so low in the polls, there seems to have been a slight shift (including among Lib Dem voters) towards regarding a Labour-led government as being a good outcome of the election. There are two elements of huge uncertainty in the equation. One is to what extent the Lib Dem surge is sustainable until polling day (although if they are still doing well next week, that should be reflected in the postal votes being cast and therefore the result). This is simply imponderable, and depends on the perceived outcomes of the two debates, and whether the need for an interesting narrative to tell in the media will cause the overdone adulation of Nick Clegg to be replaced by another story – of battler Brown coming through, or Cameron keeping his nerve and steering safely to victory. The other uncertainty is more measurable. A huge amount depends on who these new Lib Dems are. Several different versions are possible. In the surges of 1974 and 1983, the Labour vote collapsed in the party’s weaker seats, sending the Liberals and Alliance into good second places in a lot of Tory territory. If this happens again (and is mirrored by a Tory collapse in their weaker seats in urban England) it could produce a...

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Pollwatch: Election 2010 could be the death knell for first past the post (18 April 2010)

Electoral system could not long survive a perverse outcome in which first party comes third, and third comes first Small-c conservatives often argue that before a reform is introduced it should be tested not only against normal operating conditions but also against unlikely possibilities, because these can produce unintended consequences. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system is capable of spectacular malfunctions, particularly when there are more than two parties in contention for the lead. YouGov, ComRes and Bpix this weekend showed four-point spreads between first and third parties, and election outcomes that seemed extreme must now be considered. The Bpix numbers for the Mail on Sunday (Lib Dems 32, Tories 31, Labour 28) would produce a bizarre result on uniform swing. The largest party in votes, the Lib Dems, would come third in seats with 120, and the smallest of the three main parties, Labour, would win the largest number of seats – 268. The Tories would have 230. If we transpose the Conservative and Labour Bpix percentages, then despite the Lib Dems being the largest party on 32%, Labour with 31% would have 323 seats in parliament. While not quite an overall majority, it would be an effective majority given the Speaker’s neutrality and Sinn Féin MPs not participating. The reason for these peculiar possibilities is to be found in geography. Labour is resilient to a falling national share because it has an efficiently distributed vote – a large number of low-turnout strongholds, competitive marginals and few votes in its high-turnout hopeless seats. But because Lib Dem support is fairly evenly spread, it is hard for that party to translate broad increases in its share of the vote into seat gains, and the gains it does manage tend to come from the Conservatives. The Lib Dems received respectable 20-30% losing shares in many constituencies in 2005, and a 10-point increase across the board would merely produce impressive 30-40% losing scores in most of these seats. The electoral system could not survive a perverse outcome in which the first party comes third and the third party comes first – or one in which the second-placed party has an overall majority, despite the support of fewer than one voter in three. Either case would make Florida in 2000 look like a model of democracy. There would be a justified crisis of confidence in a political system that had produced such a travesty. Gordon Brown’s preferred reform of the alternative vote (AV) would help the Lib Dems win more seats under AV than FPTP. Rather than being unfairly penalised in a near-even, three-way split of votes, the Lib Dems would hit the jackpot. If three party politics is here to stay, Labour...

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