Ed Miliband speaks with David Cameron before listening to Angela Merkel's address to both Houses of Parliamen yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A Labour majority is far more likely than most think

Having failed to predict the hung parliament of 2010, commentators may now be making the reverse error by underestimating the chance of an overall Labour victory.

It is now rarely recalled how few predicted the hung parliament of 2010. Until just months or even weeks before the election, most pundits and commentators were forecasting a Conservative majority. A survey in April 2010 by the Independent on Sunday of eight polling company heads found that seven expected a Tory majority of between 10 and 50 seats, with just one (Ben Page of Ipsos-MORI) correctly predicting that they would fall short. 

Having failed to see the last hung parliament coming, the Westminster commentariat is determined not to repeat this error. This explains why talk of coalitions, and the stance Labour and the Tories should adopt towards the Lib Dems, has dominated conversation in the last fortnight. But after wrongly predicting a majority government in 2010, the press may now be making the reverse error: forecasting another hung parliament, rather than an overall Labour victory. 

With 15 months to go, Miliband's party continues to lead the Tories in the polls (as it has done for the last three years) by an average of five points. While the return of sustained economic growth has increased the Conservatives' lead on the economy and improved consumer confidence, it has not changed voting intentions in the way that many expected.

It is true that Labour's lead during this parliament has not been as large as those enjoyed by oppositions in the past (most notably Neil Kinnock's Labour). As former Downing Street strategist Andrew Cooper is fond of pointing out, no party in modern times has gone on to form a government without at least once achieving a vote share of 50 per cent (Labour's highest rating to date is 46%, achieved in a MORI poll in November 2012). But this iron rule ignores the fact that much past polling overestimated support for Labour by failing to account for the "shy Tory" factor (hence the 1992 polling disaster) and that in a four-party system, with UKIP consistently polling around 12 per cent, it is no longer possible to achieve leads of 20 points. But in the case of Labour at least, it remains entirely possible to achieve parliamentary majorities.  

As too few remember, when Tony Blair won a third term in 2005 he did so with just 35 per cent of the vote, the lowest share of any winning party in British electoral history. With the boundaries unchanged, Labour could, as one senior strategist told me last year, conceivably win a majority with as little as 34 per cent. In 2005, the party won a majority of 66 seats with a lead of three points but in 2010 the Tories fell 20 short with a lead of seven. This apparent bias has less to do with the unreformed constituency boundaries than it does with the fact that Labour's vote is far better distributed than the Tories' and that it benefits disproportionately from tactical voting. 

Uniform swing calculations can, of course, be an unreliable guide to election outcomes since they don't take into account factors such as the incumbency bonus and above-average swings in marginal seats. Had there been a uniform swing in 2010, the Conservatives would have won 14 fewer seats, Labour eight more and the Lib Dems five more. But even if, as seems likely, the Tories perform disproportionately well in their existing seats, Miliband has a significant chance of retaining the lead he needs for a majority. Crucially for Labour, polling by Lord Ashcroft suggests that it is winning an above-average swing in its target seats. 

The Tories' fortunes are likely to improve as the economic recovery accelerates and as Labour comes under ever greater scrutiny (hence why I put the chance of a majority no higher than 60 per cent). But even if the opposition's lead were to halve, it could still reasonably hope to emerge as the overall winner. One of the key points in Labour's favour is the unusually low level of switching between the two main parties (just 5 per cent of 2010 Conservative voters currently back Labour), with most of the increase in its vote share due to Lib Dem defectors. Unlike in the past, this means that falling support for Labour doesn't automatically translate into rising support for the Tories. In large parts of the country, the Conservatives simply remain too toxic for voters to lend them the support they need to stop Labour (no matter how strong the economic recovery). As polling published by Ipsos MORI this week shows, 40 per cent would never consider voting for them, compared to 33 per cent for Labour. Miliband is fishing in a far larger pool than Cameron. 

At present, the media debate does little to reflect these underlying realities. But as the experience of 2010 shows, the press rarely offers a reliable guide to the result. If 1992 was a pollsters' disaster, then 2010 was a commentators' disaster. 2015 could yet be the same. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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