Belfast Telegraph

Projecting the result of the May 2015 general election

Just how will the political landscape across the UK look after the next general election in May? And what are the chances of the DUP reclaiming East Belfast? Before he even has his Christmas pudding, pollster Bill White can't resist a few new year predictions

While you're handing out the presents and eating your Christmas dinner on December 25, we political anoraks will be noting that from Christmas Day it will be exactly 19 weeks to the UK general election 2015.

Sad, isn't it, that pollsters think of such trivia! So what we thought we'd do as a way of a Christmas review is take the latest YouGov 2014 UK (ie Great Britain) polls, include our own LucidTalk Northern Ireland (NI) polls, and project the result of the May 7, 2015, UK general election. Thanks to my UK polling colleague Peter Kellner (president, YouGov) for his Great Britain poll projections and data.

Basically, there are three key factors that will affect the outcome of the 2015 UK general election: the in-built advantage that the current electoral boundaries give to Labour, Ukip's performance in England and Wales, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) performance in Scotland.

In terms of the first factor, there is a good chance that Labour will emerge as the largest party next May, even if it trails the Conservatives significantly in votes. For example, if we take the most recent average Britain (not NI) poll scores we have Labour and the Conservatives both on 34%, and with these GB-wide percentage vote shares Labour ends up being 32 seats ahead of the Conservatives.

However, to make our forecast more accurate we have applied two different calculations, one for Scotland, and one for England and Wales, as we believe this provides a more accurate overall UK projection. Plus, we have also included our own projections for Northern Ireland based on LucidTalk's polling during the past 12 months.

One of the key reasons for this approach is that, according to the latest polls, the SNP is currently thrashing Labour in Scotland, with a recent YouGov poll putting the SNP 16 points ahead, and the prediction models show that this will result in 31 seat losses in Scotland for Labour.

The overall effect of this is to reduce Labour's GB-wide total by 20 seats - Labour gains 11 seats if England/Wales is forecast separately. With these numbers Labour remains the largest party, but falls well short of a majority.

So what about Ukip? It has the big momentum at the moment, but is at a disadvantage in terms of winning seats under the one-constituency first-past-the-post election system used at Westminster elections.

If it could get its GB vote share up to around 20-22% from its current poll rating of 17%, then that's when seats start tumbling to it.

So, there is a huge upside for Ukip, and with its momentum anything could happen. However, at its current poll rating it could end up as close second place in 70-80 seats, and as JFK said: "Coming close only counts in shuv ha'penny - not politics." As such, the UK Westminster election system may turn out to be very unfair to Ukip, and frankly the only seat that it seems certain of winning at the moment is Clacton.

Ukip is showing some shrewdness in terms of tackling the very difficult (for it) UK Westminster election system, by targeting specific seats, eg Boston and Skegness, and Thanet South (where Nigel Farage is standing). This is a similar strategy that the Green Party followed when it targeted Brighton Pavilion in 2010 and won the seat - a seat we predict as a hold for it. So if Ukip picks its spots and targets key seats then it could make a breakthrough.

Then we have the incumbency factor, which is becoming increasingly important in a large number of seats.

This is when the current MP has an advantage because he/she is already the MP, is active full-time on-the-ground in the constituency, and have dug themselves in. They also have the "status" of being the sitting member.

In Britain this incumbency factor is worth about 2%, and would allow the Conservative Party to hold on to around 20 seats it would otherwise lose.

But the party that knows most about incumbency, and "digging itself in", is the Lib Dems, and it is also likely to enjoy a significant incumbency bonus, though the scale of it is hard to predict at this stage.

This incumbency factor is very strong in Northern Ireland, so don't expect too much change in the make-up of Northern Ireland MPs after May 7 next year.

In fact, we don't see any change in 17 out of the 18 Northern Ireland seats, with the key unknown being East Belfast.

For this current review, we have to go with our recent NI-wide polling, which projects (from NI-wide poll figures) that the DUP would currently be slight favourites to regain the East Belfast seat.

LucidTalk will be conducting a major constituency poll-project in East Belfast in January, which will provide a more accurate picture of that specific constituency - but that's a different story for another day.

So, onto our projection table. We've already said that we expect Douglas Carswell to hold Clacton for Ukip, and that Caroline Lucas will hold Brighton Pavilion for the Green Party, and in NI we're assuming that Sylvia Hermon will run again in North Down and will hold that seat.

So we end up with the following forecast table:

As can be seen, Labour and the Conservatives end up neck-and-neck in terms of both votes and seats. The basic bias in Labour's favour in Great Britain's electoral geography is wiped out by the combined impact of Scotland and the incumbency factor. Note how Ukip with 17% national vote share end up with one seat, and the LibDems on 7% win 27 seats - such is the first-past-the-post election system!

For those who like stable, one-party government this forecast and projection is not good news. To get an overall majority (ie 326 seats) requires three parties, with one real possibility being a Labour/LibDem/SNP coalition, which on our projections comes in at around 350 seats.

One thing is certain, the situation will change before May 7, 2015. For a start, if previous pre-election patterns apply again, then the government party, ie Conservatives, will gain 4-6% poll points as we approach the election. This will put them up to about 300 to 310 seats, still short of the 326 seats overall majority. But at this stage, five months from the election, it's hard to see how any one party will get an overall majority next May.

So we could have Miliband (or Cameron) as Prime Minister with Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond all in the same cabinet, and if Nigel Farage can target some extra key seats he could end up in there as well. You never know, the DUP might end up doing a deal, and we could have Nigel Dodds or Jeffrey Donaldson taking up a ministerial post. What about Michelle Gildernew as a UK Minister of Agriculture?

Yes I know that Martin McGuinness has ruled out Sinn Fein taking their Westminster seats, but then I remember a top republican telling me that they would never, ever, allow "foreign" games to be played on the hallowed turf at Croke Park - but it happened! With an election in the south also coming up, we could have Sinn Fein in government in Belfast, Dublin and London! Now that's a thought!

Bill White is managing director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph

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