The Racing Card

The Bet - How many seats will the parties win at the general election?

Labour: 374-382
Tories: 211-219
Liberal Democrats: 38-41

(Source: City Index)

If, like me, you spent a fortune over Christmas and New Year, you may want to get some money back by having a punt on the election. With Labour at 1-7 to win with William Hill, you may be tempted to put your mortgage on, but my advice is to get on it before they close the book.

The main point of interest in this election, to be held in May (1-3 favourite), is the number of seats each party will win. From now until the election, we will concentrate on this, popularly known as the spread. This will be the first election where the internet will play such a significant role for the bookies, and they are hoping for a bigger bonanza than the £4m that punters waged last time.

As soon as the election is called, you will also be able to bet on individual constituencies, and it is here, with local knowledge, that you will be able to beat the bookies. Ever since last June, the number of seats the punters think Labour will win has steadily increased, rising to 382 today.

The gap between the main parties has widened from 110 to 163 but, as I've said before, the gap in 1997 was 253, so even at 382 it is still worth "buying" Labour, which won 410 seats last time. Or you could ask for a spread on the number of seats by which Labour will beat the Tories.

The bookies will also be opening a book on the turnout, which will undoubtedly be a big issue as Labour desperately tries to convince its supporters to vote in an election that, for them, already seems won. Don't forget Scotland, because the Tories will still struggle to win a seat there, and last time the bookies offered 50-1 on that happening. The SNP could also struggle to win the same number of seats - and you can bet on that, too.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.