Pollwatch: Debate sees Lib Dems’ star rising to set Tory nerves jangling (April 16 2010)

The party in yellow always sees a spike during campiagns due to higher visibility but Conservatives should still be wary Even if the first reports of the post-debate boost for Nick Clegg were a bit outlandish, it seems that the leadership debates have added to the usual lift that the Lib Dems get from election campaigns. There have been already been several inconsistent accounts published concerning which of the larger two parties would suffer most from a rise in Lib Dem support. The answer must be, unfortunately, “it depends”. But in terms of the parties’ aims in the election it is more likely that the Conservatives will have most cause to regret Nick Clegg’s equal time and his effective use of it. Gaining seats from the Lib Dems is an element of the Conservative strategy to get over the winning line of 326 seats in the new House of Commons. Pre-campaign polls with figures like Con 40, Lib Dem 19 implied a 5.5% swing towards the Tories. Based on uniform swing (a particularly rough approximation when it comes to Lib Dems) this would gain 23 seats for the Tories, an important contribution to their target of 116 gains, which allowing for boundary changes would get them to 326. Even before the debate, there was evidence that the Conservatives were struggling in their efforts to win seats from the Lib Dems. YouGov’s regional trends showed them doing poorly in the south-west, where many of these seats are located, and the Crosby/Textor poll of marginal seats showed no Tory progress at all in the Lib Dem held marginals. The Tories may still pick off a few of the 23, but might also lose one or two to the Lib Dems such as Eastbourne. If there are no net gains from the Lib Dems, the Tories have to find 23 seats from somewhere else. It gets worse – the party is under-performing in Scotland and would be lucky to gain any of the apparently vulnerable SNP seats or more than one or two from Scottish Labour. There are 24 Lib Dem seats and two SNP among the 116 numerically most vulnerable to the Conservatives. If there were a neat, even swing from all others to the Tories, seat 116 (Waveney in Suffolk) would fall with a 6% swing. Taking Lib Dem and SNP seats, plus the more ambitious targets from Scottish Labour, off the boards means the required swing from Labour alone increases to 8 per cent. An 8-point national swing implies a Conservative lead over Labour of 13 points, although allowing for a 1.5% overperformance in targets from Labour would take it down to the Tories needing a 10-point lead to...

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Pollwatch: Conservative lead narrowed, but two polls don’t make a trend (14 April 2010)

The latest findings from Populus and ComRes may be just a statistical quirk Two polls today, by Populus for the Times and ComRes for ITN and the Independent, narrowed the Conservative lead, dangerously so for David Cameron’s hopes of becoming prime minister. It remains to be seen whether these are the start of a trend or a statistical quirk. Across the board, the polls barely shifted in the first week of the campaign. The Conservatives remain within a point or two of 38% support, and Labour within a similar distance of 31% in nearly all the polls. Perhaps this is not very surprising, because the first week was not particularly engaging and the big setpiece events of the campaign – the manifesto launches and the leader debates – were all yet to take place. We can expect more change and volatility if and when the events of the campaign start to excite the public. But if the polls remain constant at this level, the end of the campaign and the result will be pretty exciting stuff, because this is probably on the cusp of what the Conservatives need for an overall majority. Translating polls and vote shares into who will win how many seats at the election is an imprecise business, and depends on a lot of assumptions. The simplest is “uniform national swing”, which takes the change in each party’s vote since 2005 and then applies that change in every constituency. If voters behaved this way, the Tories would need a lead of about 11 points to win a majority. But there are good reasons for assuming that swing will not be uniform. In local elections and polls concentrating on marginal seats the Tories seem to be outperforming the national swing by a point or two. Their strategy since 2005 has involved relentless targeting of money, promises, messages and campaigning on the marginal seats to achieve this, and it would seem to be working. It is also to do with political strategy: Tony Blair’s rapport with swing voters in marginal seats long outlasted his honeymoon with metropolitan liberal opinion. Cameron, as shown in the detail of the Guardian’s latest ICM poll, seems to be going over well with the same voters (in social classes C1 and C2) that Blair targeted so successfully. The swing in the marginals is assisted, although not by as much as could have been expected last week, by people who had previously voted Labour for tactical reasons abandoning the party for the Lib Dems or Greens. Another factor that seems to be helping the Conservatives is the way changes in voting intention vary by region. According to YouGov’s combined data (reported in PoliticsHome), the...

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Pollwatch: How the general election scores could change by 6 May (6 April 2010)

The polls published yesterday may have appeared to be all over the place – but were more consistent than they looked The polls published just before the election was called may have appeared to be all over the place, but were more consistent than they looked. Conservative support stands at around 38-39%, and Labour somewhere around 31%. The Lib Dems stand firmly on 20% of the vote. The Saturday and Tuesday ICM polls for the Guardian appeared rather different, as Labour’s rating was a below-average 29 points in the first poll and 33 points in the second. If this is a trend, Labour has reason for confidence, but it may just be sampling variation around a constant figure of 31. However, polls measure how things stand now. Will the campaign change this, or will the next month of hectic campaigning, saturation media coverage and frenetic expenditure just confirm opinions held already? Fortunately for my trade, campaigns make a difference. Of the last 10 elections, the only one in which there was no change between the polls at the start and the end of the campaign was October 1974. Every other election has seen significant movement in the polls during the campaign (although in 1970 it was self-cancelling and brought the final polls back to where they started). Some elections, particularly 1992 and 1970, have seen significant differences between the final polls and the outcome, either because of late swing or methodological faults in the polls. However, the final polls were nearly spot on in 2005. Comparing poll averages at the start and finish of the campaign in elections gives us some clues as to how things may change between now and 6 May. If there is a general rule, it is that the Liberal Democrats (and their predecessors) gain support during the weeks just before polling day. In some elections this has been dramatic (eight-point gains in February 1974 and 1983) but a three-four point gain, as in the last four elections, is the least that can be expected. The only major exception was the disastrous Alliance effort in 1987, when Labour’s strong campaign and the increasingly obvious differences between the “Two Davids” (Steel and Owen) led to a five-point fall. In October 1974 an over-hyped Liberal campaign, featuring a campaign hovercraft, ran aground and left the Liberals a little behind where they started. The main explanation for Lib Dem growth during campaigns is in the broadcasters’ adoption of stricter balance rules, so that Lib Dems are included in panel discussions. This campaign will have more potential to boost the Lib Dems than most, provided Nick Clegg makes a decent showing in the leaders’ debates. The other reason is...

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Lewis Baston’s Regional Guides (26-30 March 2010)

Lewis Baston’s Regional Guides (26-30 March 2010)

Northern Ireland Northern Ireland does not have the standard range of safe seats and marginals, or swing from one party to another, common in other parts of the UK. Instead the political complexion of seats can be read off from the proportions of each of the communities living there. Westminster elections are quite often decided by whether the Unionist or Nationalist vote is more united, and this in turn depends on the relations between the parties on each side of the divide and which parties stand candidates. For all other elections, the proportional single transferable vote system is used because it allows more candidates to come forward and gives balanced representation. Sometimes Westminster elections that are a yawn in Britain are quite exciting in Northern Ireland – in 2001 turnout rose and 7 out of 18 seats changed hands. In 2010 much is still unclear. The surge towards the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in recent elections may well have halted, now that the party leads the power-sharing executive, its older rival the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has renewed its historic ties with the Conservatives and the problematic private life of retiring MP Iris Robinson. It appears that the DUP and UUP, under Conservative auspices, have been discussing a Unionist electoral pact that would change the nature of the election. However, a DUP-UUP pact would still leave an anti-agreement Unionist force outside it, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party led by former DUP MEP Jim Allister. Allister himself will contest Antrim North against the DUP, where Ian Paisley Jnr, son of the firebrand former first minister, will stand.In recent years, there have been essentially nine seats that are contested between different sorts of Unionist which would be non-competitive under a pact. There are a further six which have clear Nationalist majorities, and in these Sinn Fein has advanced steadily against the SDLP. Even with only one candidate, the unionists could win in these only if the nationalist vote were to be evenly split (as it was in West Tyrone in 1997). This leaves three constituencies where there is a contest between Unionist and Nationalist: Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Belfast North and Belfast South. If the Unionists unite and SDLP and Sinn Fein both put up candidates, the Unionists would defeat Sinn Fein in Fermanagh and hold Belfast North. The Northern Ireland MPs become important to the governance of the UK if there is a close overall result. The Conservatives hope to maximise the number of their UUP allies returned, although they received a blow when their only MP Sylvia Hermon, not a Conservative supporter, has quit the party to stand as an independent). SDLP MPs are far more useful to...

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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

Eric Pickles has proposed reducing the number of MPs. But ‘equalising’ the size of constituencies is a deeply flawed policy In his speech to the Conservative party conference today, Eric Pickles claimed to stand for “fair votes”. He did not mean an end to the first past the post system that gives all the power on the basis of under 40% of the vote and ignores votes cast outside the marginal seats. What he meant was a policy of cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 and a promise that “we will make all constituencies equal in voting size”. This would be accomplished in time for the general election after 2010. Cutting the number of MPs is a bit of easy populism, made even easier by the expenses scandal. It might not necessarily be a bad idea; the number of MPs should be determined by the need of constituents for representation and the needs of parliament to function well as an institution. However, the Conservative rationale is cost-cutting. It is doubtful that cutting the number of MPs will really make much of a saving in terms of public spending – after all, the same amount of constituency casework will just end up being done by fewer MPs. There is also the possibility that unless the number of ministerial jobs is sharply reduced, there will be more executive dominance of parliament than we have already. The principle that constituencies should be more or less the same size is generally accepted. The issue is how much tolerance for variation from the average constituency size one allows, and how frequently the boundaries are redrawn. Currently, the Boundary Commission allows around 10% either side of the ideal (ie 63,000 to 77,000 electors) with a bigger margin for geographically difficult mountainous or island areas. The Conservatives are talking in terms of a rigid rule not allowing more than 5% either side of the new ideal figure (77,000 after the number of MPs has been cut). To keep within this limit, boundary reviews would have to become more frequent and proceed faster than the current, admittedly ridiculous, system where the boundaries coming into force in 2010 are based on electorate figures from February 2000. Pickles appears to believe that the major cause of the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system evident in the 2005 election was variation in constituency size. This is factually untrue. Constituency size was a small component of the bias, but most arose from other factors such as low turnout in safe Labour seats. Labour’s vote is efficiently distributed, partly because of tactical voting in 1992 and partly through New Labour’s successful electoral strategy. It is quite possible that less...

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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

Gordon Brown’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is too little, too late for electoral reformers Labour retains some shreds of its constitutional reform programme that was part of its appeal in 1997, and Gordon Brown’s speech at conference on Tuesday featured three significant promises on reform. We have the most detail on the longstanding policy of ending the absurdity of hereditary peers and introducing an elected second chamber. Another, the ability of electors to “recall” erring MPs by forcing an election, has also been trailed but is a minor and possibly dangerous concession to populism. The other announcement is a genuine surprise. The 2010 Labour manifesto will contain a promise to have a referendum early in the next parliament on one form of electoral reform, the Alternative Vote (AV). This is welcome, but can only be greeted by constitutional reformers with the very thinnest of smiles. AV is a weak reform, and the promise at this stage of something in the Labour manifesto reminds one of Hunter Thompson’s cruel simile of a candidate making promises “like a farmer with terminal cancer bargaining for a loan on next year’s crop”. Even if Labour’s malaise enters spontaneous remission and Brown is still Prime Minister a year from now, this is pretty mild fare. The Alternative Vote (AV), which Gordon Brown has come to support, is a simple reform. The current system asks voters to mark an X by a single candidate (implicitly saying that the voter opposes the other candidates in equal measure). Under AV, voters choose their favourite candidate with a 1, next favourite with 2 and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of 1 votes, the 2 votes for the lowest-placed candidate are taken into account, and so on until someone gets to 50%. Nothing else changes – constituencies will be exactly the same. AV is simply an accommodation of the present system to circumstances where two thirds of MPs are there despite a majority of their local voters having voted against them. The electorate clearly no longer believes that a choice of two parties is adequate. AV broadens political choice a bit, makes tactical voting much less significant, and encourages a more honest and pluralistic relationship between large and small parties. To win marginal seats under AV, a party will need to build bridges with supporters of local minority parties and not pretend to have all the answers. Additionally, AV is probably the most extremist-proof electoral system ever devised, as – other than people who support the party – most voters will make sure the BNP is ranked last on their ballot. AV is not perfect by any means. By the same...

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