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5 things you need to know about the next election

Is this election unpredictable? Are the main parties in good shape? We expand on Biteback's election guide.

For daily election news, analysis and predictions, explore our elections site, May2015.com.

The Politicos Guide to the 2015 General Election (ed Iain Dale; Biteback Publishing, 2014)

Earlier this month Biteback Publishing released a thick paperback guide to the next election. Its dozen chapters range from overviews of the parties to recent election results and profiles of individual constituencies.

It's an expansive and engaging introduction for any reader trying to make sense of the next 192 days.

We thought five ideas stood out. Here is a further reading guide for "politicos":

1. How unpredictable is this election?

For Iain Dale, the book’s editor and Biteback’s director, this election is the “most difficult to predict for twenty years”.

We took a look at why this is last week.

Now that we are more likely to vote for other parties than either of the major two, we can’t easily use “uniform swing” to turn national polls into actual constituency results.

To approach the detail forecasters have in US elections, we need regular marginal polls of the 150 or so seats that matter.

Lord Ashcroft’s polls are the closest thing we have. He has polled 76 seats across seven batches of polls so far. We have begun to cover them in depth here:

• "Will the Tories win any of Labour’s seats in May 2015?"
• "Ashcroft’s latest polls: Labour ahead but any majority likely precarious"

The public service he’s providing is invaluable. But he has only covered half the seats we need, and he hasn’t returned to the majority of them. Yet it will have already cost him nearly £1 million.

To approach the detail forecasters have in US elections, we need regular marginal polls of the 150 or so seats that matter.

In lieu of more polls we can use demographic data, as well as local and European election results, to get an idea of how specific seats might pan out. The recent Roberts, Ford and Warren Fabians report did this to show exactly where Ukip could threaten Labour.

And we can also keep a close track of national polls, even if they are of limited use.

• Our "Poll of Polls" keeps a rolling four-day average of all the latest polls from the UK’s eight major active pollsters live on our homepage.
• We are also regularly studying specific polls in-depth to explain and challenge surprising headlines.
• Looking at how polls have moved in the past can help too – our database has nearly 4,500 polls dating all the way back to August 1970.

In other words, it’s a little strong to suggest that “no one knows” how the Lib Dem’s collapse, or Ukip’s rise, will play out.

This election is complicated but we’re not clueless. But Dale is right – without more billionaires, predicting British elections will remain a mixture of extrapolation, implication and guesswork.

2. Labour and the Tories’ messages are apparently really clear

The Tories now have “clearer messaging and [more] hard-headed strategy” than in 2010, and Labour’s “campaign has a clear strategy, theme and message”, a pair of chapters tell us.

Someone let the voters know.

Not only are more of us now planning to vote for “other parties” than either of the main two, but the number of voters who do not identify with any political party has now doubled in the past thirty years.

Party activists may be reassured by their new campaign teams, but there’s little data to suggest either party is winning this election yet, and what either campaign’s ‘clear message’ is.

3. If they are clear they haven’t been convincing

The two main parties’ problems are detailed in Lord Ashcroft’s forensic essay in one of the book’s best chapters (available here).

As we argued on launch last month, Ashcroft suggests “too many people” still think the Tories exist “to benefit the few”.

“In government it has had the chance to show it is for those who want to get on, or just get by. The need for austerity and genuinely tough choices have made it a harder test to pass – but for the Tories to blame being in coalition would be a cop-out.”

This is why they still trail despite leading on economic competence and leadership. Their intentions are still mistrusted.

Lord Ashcroft’s forensic essay is one of the book’s best chapters.

As for Labour, Ashcroft argues they have not only failed to win back economic trust but have “refused to hand in their homework” by opposing every cut while complaining the deficit wasn’t falling fast enough.

His analysis highlights an under-discussed point. If Labour win this election it won’t be because voters that they lost between 2005 and 2010 have swung back to them. It will be because the Lib Dem vote collapsed and they held on.

4. Get ready for the Ukip posters

Ukip’s head of press, Gawain Towler, authors one chapter, in which he promises a “hard-hitting poster campaign” at the start of election season.

Voters in Rotherham, where Roberts et al. think Ukip could threaten Labour despite a near 30 per cent majority, got a sense of what that might mean this week with this poster, which played on the Labour-run council’s failure to counter child abuse.

Two other ideas stood out.

First, what do Ukip believe in? Towler argues they are “classically liberal”, believing society is “best governed when least governed”.

Labour will seize on pronouncements like this, using it as evidence in northern seats that Ukip are more Tory than the Tories: will such libertarianism protect the NHS?

Labour's attempt to paint Ukip blue has fallen flat in more working class seats like Heywood & Middleton.

Towler is resolute. He suggests the party’s “core messages matter more to the blue- rather than white-collar worker”. Labour can argue otherwise, but so far their attempt to paint Ukip blue has fallen flat in more working class seats like Heywood & Middleton.

Second, will theoretical Ukippers actually vote for the party in May 2015? As Towler says, the party’s greatest problem has always been a “credibility gap”. Voters can use by-elections to send signals, but they may revert to the main parties when choosing a government.

But recent data is encouraging for Farage and co. Ipsos MORI’s most recent monthly poll for the Evening Standard showed the credibility gap is closing.

If it did, the party could poll even higher. Yesterday’s fortnightly Opinium/Observer poll suggested 31 per cent of voters would vote Ukip if they thought the party could actually win their seat (although hypotheticals mean little if real numbers never match them).

5. What else do we know? By-elections, polls, Scotland and Twitter…

The book’s overview of by-elections is more of a description than an analysis. We analysed them here – "Labour have performed as badly as the coalition in by-elections since 2010" - and used past results to predict Heywood & Middelton would be far closer than the polls suggested.

Anthony Wells’ overview of the polls since 2010 is invaluable. Here’s a look at how the numbers have moved each year. Anthony’s data powers our historical polling graphs – you can read his polling thoughts on his site.

Is this the first “internet” election? We can add two ideas to Jay Singh’s overview. Demos’ Centre for the Analysis of Social Media looked at “7 ways Twitter will shape the next election” for us earlier this month, and the New Statesman profiled Labour’s new digital campaign team over the summer.

The book’s chapter on Scotland anticipates the renewed wave of Scottish polling we about to get, with YouGov releasing a Scotland-only poll this week and Survation soon to follow.

We expect this week’s Scottish polls to reinforce our findings on the rise of the SNP.

Last week we picked up how well the SNP are consistently polling in YouGov’s sub-polls. In 2010 they won 20 per cent of the vote, compared to Labour’s 42. A year ago YouGov’s sub-polls suggested little had changed. But now, in post-referendum Scotland, the SNP are polling in the early 40s and Labour have collapsed to around 25 per cent.

We expect this week’s Scottish polls to reinforce our findings, which could mean Labour loses dozens, rather than a handful, of seats north of the border.

Finally, the back half of the book is filled with stats, from election trivia, to demographic data and short constituency profiles.

The demographic tables, which show things like which seats have the oldest voters or most migrants, highlight how we could connect the way seats vote with the types of people who live in them (as our maiden index on the quality of jobs attempted).

"The Politicos Guide to the 2015 General Election" is available from Biteback Publishing for £13.99 in paperback and £9.99 as an e-book.

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May2015 is the New Statesman's new elections site. Explore it for data, interviews and ideas on the general election.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.