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.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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