Archive | May, 2010

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

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

Posted on 07 May 2010 by admin

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, leaving the party where it had stood in 2005 in terms of vote share and, to general surprise, exposing sitting Lib Dem MPs to electoral defeat by Tories and Labour alike. Although Clegg’s personality and political stances were going over well in national public opinion, something went very wrong indeed in translating this into votes for candidates who might win. Perhaps the nationalisation of the party’s appeal undercut the local power base of its MPs, who relied on personal support from people who did not particularly “agree with Nick”.

The flipside of the great Clegg deflation was Labour’s resilience. Many commentators expected Gordon Brown’s gaffe in describing a Rochdale voter as a “bigoted woman” to lead to meltdown in the Labour vote, and were surprised that the polls did not budge. Somehow, despite everything, Labour could call on deep reserves of solidarity on the part of a large proportion of voters. The victory of Brown’s candidate in Rochdale, over a sitting Lib Dem MP, was surely a delicious moment for the prime minister. Labour Britain was shaken to near destruction in 2008-09 but the election showed that a surprisingly sturdy fortress was still standing.

Unfortunately the exit pollsters decided to cut back on a number of the questions about attitudes and beliefs that they have asked in previous years. Over the next few months the academic British Election Study will explore this territory. We will then discover more about quite what kept people with Labour, turned them on and then off to the merits of Nick Clegg, and caused enough of them to reject the Conservatives’ remodelled appeal to deprive them of a majority in a recession-year election. Perhaps ultimately, Britain turned out to be too much of a centre-left nation to trust the Tories with untrammelled power.

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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

Posted on 06 May 2010 by admin

The polls have shifted no more than usual, but the result may yet be a surprise

One of the many strange things about this volatile campaign is how little it has actually changed most of the fundamentals that held when it started. A modest rise in the polls for the Lib Dems from start to finish is a usual feature of campaigns (up about 4 points) and in 2010 this is what has happened (albeit via a big surge in mid-campaign).

Even looking at the findings about what people think about the party leaders shows a fair amount of continuity despite the first Prime Ministerial debates in a British election. The main change is that more people have a high opinion of Nick Clegg than before, albeit mostly on the softer criteria of ‘charismatic’ (up from 12 per cent to 45 per cent over the campaign) and ‘in touch with ordinary people’ (up from 24 to 37 per cent). Neither Cameron’s nor Brown’s ratings (both pretty poor) moved much, with the biggest change being that more people now consider Brown good in a crisis (up from 18 per cent to 24 per cent). Compared to past movements during campaigns, in favour of Neil Kinnock and John Major, opinion about the Labour and Conservative leaders did not shift.

The post-debate polls, woefully misreported for the most part, confirmed merely that people thought the leader of the party they intended to vote for anyway ‘won’ (whatever ‘won’ means in a debate) but that most people were impressed by Clegg. The debates therefore amplified the usual process of the Lib Dems gaining from equal broadcast time, and compressed it into the few days after the first debate. Despite the media obsession with process, the debates did seem to pique the interest of voters and will have contributed to what seems likely to be a respectable turnout.

The debate polls were an example of how they can be misused, but on a more general level can one trust opinion polls? One of the more foolish objections to opinion polls is that each one only asks about a thousand people for their views. How can that possibly be representative of an electorate of 45 million? The science of statistics has a well established answer. You only need a sample to get the answer right, provided that the sample is representative of the whole. A common analogy is that you can tell how salty a huge vat of soup is by tasting a teaspoonful, provided that the vat has been stirred properly.

However, stirring the soup is an increasingly delicate art. It is remarkable to look back to how opinion polling worked back in the 1960s and 1970s. It was mostly done through face to face interviews, and got the results more or less dead on (with the notable exception of 1970). Despite its unsophisticated methodology, it worked until another surprise election result in 1992 when the polls showed the parties level pegging but the Conservatives were actually clearly ahead when the votes were counted (7.5 per cent). Since then, polling companies have tried ever more sophisticated mechanisms to get representative samples. The obstacles are formidable. Turnout used to be reliably somewhere around 75 per cent, and was also much the same regardless of class or region. Now it varies wildly – 72 per cent in 1997, around 60 per cent in the last couple of elections, and probably higher today. More people vote by post. More people are difficult to reach because they work long hours or live in gated communities. There are more parties in the game. The technology is constantly changing. Pollsters have to re-weight the raw figures to get a representative sample. It is a thing of wonder and beauty that they got it as right as they did in 2005, and that YouGov called the 2008 London election so accurately. But the electorate is a moving target, and at some point the weightings will go wrong. We shall know tomorrow whether the eve-of-election consensus of the polls is right or not.

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

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

Posted on 05 May 2010 by admin

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


*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

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

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 a 5% swing to the Conservatives but who may also merit a cautious tactical vote to protect them from any local or sudden surges.

Lib Dem seats worth shoring up

Sitting Lib Dem MPs may benefit from cautious tactical vote in support

Leeds North West 26 33 37
Brecon & Radnorshire 35 15 45
Camborne and Redruth 26 29 36
Newton Abbot 35 11 46
Devon North 36 9 46
Cornwall South East 35 11 47
St Austell & Newquay 35 14 47
Winchester 39 8 51
Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk 29 16 42
Argyll & Bute 24 22 37
Oxford West & Abingdon 32 17 46
Bath 34 15 44
Colchester 33 20 47

Part two: Conservative/Labour marginals

1. These are Labour seats which the Conservatives would win on the basis of a 7% swing, as implied by the recent Ipsos Mori research in the marginals, and covering the 5.5% swing implied by the final ICM poll plus a 1.5% buffer in case the Conservatives are doing rather better in their target seats, or otherwise do better than expected. The “tactical power index” is a rough indicator of how powerful tactical voting might be in deciding the outcome in the seat. The figures in the chart are crude projections of the national poll changes. The index is the proportion of people who currently intend to vote Lib Dem who would be needed to vote tactically to save the seat for Labour (Labour having a one-point lead on the projection), taken away from 100 so that a high number indicates seats where tactical voting may be particularly effective.

Possibly defensible Labour seats

Tactical voting for Labour advised

Swing for Con gain
Tactical power index

* Croydon Central – notionally Labour under new boundaries, but Conservative MP elected in 2005 now standing as Independent

Amber Valley 6.3 37 38 15
Barrow & Furness 6.3 36 37 21
Basildon South & Thurrock East 1.1 42 33 14 29
Batley & Spen 6.8 35 37 18
Battersea 0.4 43 33 16 31
Birmingham Edgbaston 2 42 35 16 50
Blackpool North & Cleveleys 4.2 40 38 17 82
Bolton North East 6 37 38 19
Bolton West 6 36 37 22
Bradford West 4.2 34 32 22 86
Brigg & Goole 3.9 41 38 16 75
Brighton Kemptown 2.4 37 31 20 65
Broxtowe 2.2 40 34 19 63
Burton 2.4 40 34 16 56
Bury North 2.5 40 34 18 61
Calder Valley 1.4 39 31 22 59
Cardiff North 1.3 39 31 22 7
Carlisle 6.7 36 39 20
Carmarthen West & Pembrokeshire South 2.7 34 29 17 19
Chatham & Aylesford 4.1 40 37 17 76
Chester, City of 1.1 40 31 25 60
Cleethorpes 3 40 35 18 67
Copeland 6.7 36 39 17
Corby 1.6 43 35 16 44
Crawley 0.1 42 31 18 33
Croydon Central* 0.4 43 33 16
Dartford 1 44 35 13 23
Derbyshire South 2.7 40 35 16 63
Dewsbury 4.4 35 33 17 82
Dorset South 1.9 41 34 19 58
Dover 5.2 38 37 19 89
Dudley North 5.6 34 35 14
Dudley South 4.5 38 36 16 81
Dumfries & Galloway 2.9 38 33 11 15
Elmet & Rothwell 5.7 37 38 19
Eltham 3.8 38 34 19 74
Gedling 4.8 40 39 17 88
Gillingham & Rainham 0.1 44 33 18 33
Gloucester 6.5 38 40 17
Great Yarmouth 3.7 41 38 14 71
Halesowen & Rowley Regis 4.8 40 38 15 80
Halifax 4.4 36 34 21 86
Hammersmith 4.2 37 34 22 82
Harlow 0.3 44 33 16 25
Harrow East 3.4 42 37 17 65
Hastings & Rye 1.3 41 33 19 53
Hendon 4 40 37 17 76
High Peak 1.9 40 33 22 64
Hove 0.5 39 29 21 48
Hyndburn 6.9 35 38 17
Ipswich 5.9 34 35 24
Keighley 5.2 37 37 15 93
Kingswood 6.9 35 38 21
Lancaster & Fleetwood 4.4 37 34 19 79
Leicestershire North West 4.8 39 38 15 87
Lincoln 4.7 37 36 21 90
Loughborough 1.9 40 33 21 62
Milton Keynes North 0.9 39 30 24 58
Milton Keynes South 1.5 41 33 18 50
Morecambe & Lunesdale 5.9 40 41 17
Northampton South 1.9 41 34 17 53
Nuneaton 4.9 40 39 16 88
Portsmouth North 0.4 41 31 23 52
Pudsey 5.9 37 37 21 95
Reading West 5.7 37 37 19 95
Redditch 2.6 41 36 17 65
Rossendale & Darwen 4.2 38 35 18 78
Rugby 2.6 41 36 18 67
Sefton Central 6 37 38 22
South Ribble 2.7 42 36 18 61
Stafford 2 42 35 17 53
Stockton South 6.8 37 40 19
Stevenage 4 38 35 21 81
Stroud 1 41 32 17 41
Swindon North 3.1 42 37 16 63
Swindon South 1.8 40 32 20 55
Tamworth 2.9 40 35 17 65
Thurrock 6.5 36 38 14
Tooting 6.1 34 35 23
Tynemouth 5.8 40 40 18 94
Vale of Glamorgan 1.7 40 33 16 8
Warwick & Leamington 5.2 37 37 19 95
Waveney 6 36 37 18
Westminster North 3.3 36 32 23 78
Wirral South 4.7 36 34 25 88
Wolverhampton South West 2.7 41 35 16 56
Worcester 3.4 38 34 19 74

2. Conservative seats where a tactical vote for Labour may produce change. This small selection is composed of Labour incumbents in seats where boundary changes have made the constituencies notionally Conservative on new boundaries, and a few cases of very small Conservative majorities where if there is a late swing to Labour there may be some chance of a gain. In each case, the Liberal Democrat vote starts too low to be in contention to win the seat:

Sittingbourne & Sheppey
, Clwyd West, Hemel Hempstead, Kettering, Somerset North East (incumbent defends), Finchley & Golders Green, Shipley, Rochester & Strood, Wellingborough, Gravesham, Wirral West, Preseli Pembrokeshire, Thanet South (incumbent defends), Enfield North (incumbent defends), Staffordshire Moorlands (incumbent defends).

3. Labour seats vulnerable on a larger swing. Even on an average swing in the marginals of 7% to Conservative, there will be Labour seats that would succumb because the swing is a bit above average, and if Labour support falls as polling day approaches more may come into contention. For this reason, voters wishing to ensure the Conservatives do not gain an overall majority should support Labour in:

Renfrewshire East, Lancashire West, Vale of Clwyd, Telford, Coventry South, Warwickshire North, Newport West, Crewe & Nantwich, Leeds North East, Erewash, Dagenham & Rainham, Sherwood, Ellesmere Port & Neston, Luton North, Chorley, Norwich North, Gower, Birmingham Selly Oak, Bristol East, Wakefield, Blackpool South, Bassetlaw, Harrow West, Middlesbrough South & Cleveland East, Ealing North, Feltham & Heston, Plymouth Moor View, Blackburn, Delyn, Clwyd South, Slough and Birmingham Northfield.

This list comprises all those seats which would be Conservative gains from Labour on a 7-10% swing, and in which the Liberal Democrats do not come within 10% of the current winner when national poll figures are applied.

Part three: Other seats

There are a few constituencies where a candidate other than Labour or Lib Dem is best placed to keep the Conservatives out. In the marginal seats of Perth & North Perthshire and Angus, the SNP is narrowly ahead of the Tories. In Wyre Forest, Independent Richard Taylor (MP 2001-10) is the best-placed anti-Conservative candidate.

Part four: Debatable territories

Lib Dem supporters who are very keen to keep the Conservatives out should consider voting Labour in these constituencies, even if a movement in line with the current national polls would bring the Lib Dems into distant contention locally.

Debatable territories

Labour-held seats where Lib Dem supporters should consider a vote for the incumbent to keep out the Tories

Swing for con gain
Aberconwy 2 29 25 24
Bedford 4 37 34 25
Brentford & Isleworth 4.1 34 31 26
Edinburgh South West 8.2 23 32 26
Exeter 8.6 25 34 26
Luton South 7.4 31 35 26
Nottingham South 9.6 27 38 29
Pendle 2.7 35 29 26
Plymouth Sutton & Devonport 5.6 30 33 28
Poplar & Limehouse 5.4 24 27 19
Southampton Test 8.6 25 36 29
Warrington South 4.6 35 33 27

The Liberal Democrats may be best placed to defeat the Conservatives in these constituencies, despite being third in the 2005 election, and Labour supporters may wish to consider tactical votes in these cases.

Slim Tory majorities

Seats where the Lib Dems may be best placed to defeat the Conservatives

Bosworth 46 24 25
Filton & Bradley Stoke 38 26 31
Hexham 45 22 29
Reading East 39 26 27
St Albans 40 26 28

The principal challenger to the Conservatives in two further semi-marginal seats (namely Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale and Shrewsbury & Atcham) is not clear.

The following seats had Labour first in 2005 and the Conservatives in second, but on the basis of recent polls are three way contests:

Bristol North West, Colne Valley, Ealing Central & Acton, Northampton North.

The following seats had Labour first in 2005 and the Lib Dems second, but the Conservatives in a competitive third place:

Derby North, Edinburgh South, Hampstead & Kilburn, Watford.

Part five: And finally

The final list includes Labour seats ordered by how vulnerable they are. In most cases, a tactical Labour vote is advised. In some three-way marginals it is hard to offer advice which is not liable to be counterproductive.

Labour seats by order of marginality

Recommendations given case by case

Tactical voting recommendation
Gillingham & Rainham Labour
Crawley Labour
Rochdale None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Harlow Labour
Croydon Central Labour
Oxford East None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Portsmouth North Labour
Battersea Labour
Edinburgh South None – Three-way
Hove Labour
Hampstead & Kilburn None – Three-way
Ochil & South Perthshire None – Three-way
Islington South & Finsbury None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Milton Keynes North Labour – definite
Arfon None – Lab/Plaid marginal, Con no threat
Stroud Labour
Dartford Labour
Basildon South & Thurrock East Labour
Ealing Central & Acton None – Three-way
Chester, City of Labour – definite
Watford None – Three-way
Colne Valley None – Three-way
Cardiff North Labour
Hastings & Rye Labour
Calder Valley Labour
Stourbridge Labour
Milton Keynes South Labour
Corby Labour
Aberdeen South None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Vale of Glamorgan Labour
Ynys Mon None – Lab/Plaid marginal, Con no threat
Swindon South Labour
Dorset South Labour
Northampton South Labour
High Peak Labour
Loughborough Labour
Aberconwy Labour – probably
Birmingham Edgbaston Labour
Stafford Labour
Broxtowe Labour
Burton Labour
Brighton Kemptown Labour
Edinburgh North & Leith None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Bury North Labour
Redditch Labour
Rugby Labour
Pendle Labour – probably
Wolverhampton South West Labour
Carmarthen West & Pembrokeshire South Labour
South Ribble Labour
Derbyshire South Labour
Bristol North West None – Three-way
Dumfries & Galloway Labour
Tamworth Labour
Cleethorpes Labour
Swindon North Labour
Westminster North Labour – definite
Worcester Labour
Harrow East Labour
Durham, City of None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Great Yarmouth Labour
Norwich South None – Lab/LD/Green marginal, Con no threat
Eltham Labour
Brigg & Goole Labour
Bedford Labour – probably
Stevenage Labour
Hendon Labour
Chatham & Aylesford Labour
Brentford & Isleworth Labour – probably
Bradford West Labour – probably
Rossendale & Darwen Labour
Hammersmith Labour
Blackpool North & Cleveleys Labour
Halifax Labour
Leicester South None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Lancaster & Fleetwood Labour
Dewsbury Labour
Liverpool Wavertree None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Dudley South Labour
Northampton South Labour
Warrington South None – Three-way
Wirral South Labour – definite
Lincoln Labour
Leicestershire North West Labour
Gedling Labour
Halesowen & Rowley Regis Labour
Nuneaton Labour
Warwick & Leamington Labour
Oldham East & Saddleworth None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Dover Labour
Keighley Labour
Poplar & Limehouse Labour – probably
Stirling None – Three- or four-way
Plymouth Sutton & Devonport Labour – probably
Dudley North Labour
Elmet & Rothwell Labour
Reading West Labour
Tynemouth Labour
Morecambe & Lunesdale Labour
Pudsey Labour
Ipswich Labour – definite
Bolton West Labour
Glasgow North None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Bolton North East Labour
Waveney Labour
Sefton Central Labour
Tooting Labour
Amber Valley Labour
Barrow & Furness Labour
Swansea West None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Gloucester Labour
Thurrock Labour
Brighton Pavilion None – Three-way Lab/Con/Green
Copeland Labour
Stockton South Labour
Carlisle Labour
Batley & Spen Labour
Blaydon None – Lab/LD marginal, Con no threat
Kingswood Labour
Hyndburn Labour


Figures in charts are crude projections of results using the national vote changes implied by the final Guardian/ ICM poll which put the Conservatives on 36 (up 3 percentage points since 2005), Labour on 28 (down 8 percentage points) and Lib Dems on 26 (up 3 percentage points). These are applied to the standard Rallings & Thrasher estimates for the composition of the new constituencies in 2005.

For the avoidance of absurdities, no Labour constituency vote share is projected below 5 per cent; the crude figure is levelled up first from the 3 points otherwise accruing to ‘others’ and then if necessary from the Lib Dem gains.

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Hung parliament: The numbers game (4 May 2010)

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Hung parliament: The numbers game (4 May 2010)

Posted on 04 May 2010 by admin

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 two main parties, if it has around 310 MPs. If the largest party is much below 310, we are in proper hung parliament territory and the opinions of the Lib Dems would count. However, they would be likely to give a free pass in terms of “confidence and supply” to a party that gets over the psychological barrier of 300 seats, so most of the interesting possibilities start below that point.

Winning the key votes is one thing; day-to-day survival in the division lobbies is a bit different. A minority government with fewer than 320 MPs might have to take a relaxed view of Commons defeats on legislation (ministers often need to be away on government business), although it will be bolstered by the SNP and Plaid Cymru’s self-denying ordinance not to vote on what they consider “England only” matters. But the committee stages may be the problem, as the government would be vulnerable to defeat if the composition of committees reflected the lack of an overall majority in the house. It might have particular difficulty overturning Lords amendments and dealing with any backbench rebellions (although in the circumstances backbenchers would be less inclined to rebel than usual).

The position is not symmetrical. If the Conservatives are the minority government, they may face a poor attendance record from Labour MPs whose morale will be low and who will be busy tending to their constituencies. The opposition in general would not want to push its luck against a new minority Tory government, for fear of triggering a new election, while a minority Labour government would seek to avoid a second election and be more inclined to explicit co-operation with smaller parties to avoid being brought down by a “one more heave” front of Tories, Lib Dems and others.

A more nuanced idea of where the winning post is on election night is therefore 326 for a technical majority, 320 for an effective majority, 310 for a single party government without agreements with other parties, and around 300 for an undisputed, if provisional, right to govern.

A perhaps odd conclusion about this is that there is a set of outcomes that would lead directly to a second election later this year or in the first half of 2011, covering the ground between the Tories winning around 300 and 340 seats (the stresses of governing with a tiny majority are as great, if not greater, than those of governing without one). A minority Conservative government with fewer than 300 seats, existing by permission of Nick Clegg, would also be looking to have another election as soon as it could. But a full Tory-Lib Dem coalition, or any stable arrangement featuring Labour, would almost certainly try to govern for a full term.

A government with a long-term perspective is therefore most likely to emerge from either an election that produces a working majority, or a proper hung parliament in which parties have to reach agreement on a programme from the start – and not from the shadowlands of 300-340 in which a government has its eye on a second election and day-to-day survival in the division lobbies.

Published 4 May 2010

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