A poll is a snapshot of opinion at a particular point in time. A poll on political opinion predicts what would happen if a general election was held tomorrow – but of course a general election isn’t going to happen tomorrow.
That’s why it’s important to track opinion poll trends over a period of time. Tracking these trends allows us to forecast ahead, and make a good prediction of what’s going to happen at say the UK general election in May 2015.
Let’s look at the current situation at Westminster. After losing Corby to Labour, the Conservatives have 306 seats. To win an overall majority a party needs 326, and to get a comfortable majority that protects against rebellions and by-election losses – you need a majority of at least 30. This means the Conservatives have to win about 340 seats, ie a gain of 34 seats. This is a tall order!
Can the Conservatives do it? Recent polls have, on average, put Labour 5-6 % points ahead, with UKIP around 12% and the Liberal Democrats around 10%.
Doing the snapshot – election held tomorrow stuff, means that if these poll results were replicated at a general election then Labour would have around 360 MPs, the Conservatives 240 MPs and the Lib Dems 21, with UKIP on zero.
However, as I said, it’s the trends in polling that count, and opposition poll leads usually decline in the run-up to elections as people shift from protest mode to decision mode.
History therefore suggests that the Conservatives are well placed at the moment being only 5-6 points behind Labour. They should gain 9-12 seats from the Lib-Dems, and they’ll have the incumbency factor working for them in the marginal seats that they won off Labour in 2010.
This incumbency factor arises, if the current MP has been working hard on the ground, and should therefore have built-up a personal support base in their own constituencies, making them more difficult to oust from their seats. This applies more in rural areas (mostly safe Tory seats anyway), but also in suburban areas where a lot of the Tory-Labour marginals are to be found.
All the Northern Ireland (NI) seats have a strong incumbency factor – that is, once someone gets elected as an MP it’s very hard to shift them. This is why Peter Robinson losing his East Belfast was such big news, and it remains to be seen how the incumbency factor will work for Naomi Long in 2015.
But what about UKIP I hear you cry? Yes, UKIP are predicted to do very well in the Euro elections in May this year. As well as gaining a good overall national vote, the system that’s used in the Euro elections is an additional factor that will significantly help UKIP.
In Great Britain (GB) it’s held under the closed-list party-list system of proportional representation (PR) – NB In NI we use the single transferable vote (STV) system of PR. The GB Euro election system suits minority parties who have their support spread evenly throughout the country – parties like UKIP.
However, if this year’s Euro election system will suit UKIP, next year’s Westminster first-past-the-post election system couldn’t be worse for them. This is why, if the current poll ratings are repeated in a UK general election, UKIP would end up with no seats whereas the Lib Dems would have 21, despite the Lib Dems polling a lower number of votes nationally than UKIP!
Why is this? - It’s because the Lib Dems are well dug-in well in certain geographic areas e.g. the south west of Britain, and don’t have their vote spread randomly and evenly throughout the country. Interestingly, this factor also works well for the Alliance party in NI with their support coming mostly from in and around Belfast. If Alliance had their current support evenly spread throughout NI, they would have only 1-2 seats in the NI Assembly.
An additional factor that affects a 2015 election forecast is that the current GB Westminster boundaries are favourable towards another hung parliament, as it’s currently very difficult for the Conservatives and also Labour to get to the magic 326 seats.
These election system imperfections arise, not because electoral boundaries have been designed badly, but because they can’t keep up with population movement. Well they could, but the cost of redrawing constituency boundaries every six months would be prohibitive!
This is why LucidTalk polling predict another hung parliament after 2015 with the Conservatives the largest party at around 320 seats. This will be enough for Cameron to form a relatively stable minority government with probable regular support from the DUP, and other minority parties including the Lib Dems.
What can upset this prediction? – Well ‘Events, dear boy, Events’ as former UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said. One of those events will be this year’s Euro elections, and how Cameron reacts to UKIP’s probable success in these elections will be key as to how well the Conservatives do at next year’s Westminster election.
My advice to Cameron would be to sit tight through this year’s probable UKIP Euro election success, and let the Westminster first-past-the-post electoral system work in his favour. Never mind his success at the Euro elections, if Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party end up with no Westminster seats, then that’s all people will remember, and it’ll finish him, and his party. UKIP may gain a sizable national vote in the Westminster 2015 election, but gain no seats, and end up with a large No. of ‘best 2 place finishes’, and as US president Jack Kennedy said ‘In politics a win’s a win – coming close only counts in shuv’hapenny’!
Bill White is Managing Director of LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph