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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,

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.


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

Richard Burden
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The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016

Xenophobia does not usually lead to Srebrenica. But it can do.

Two weeks ago, I joined a visit to Bosnia organised by Remember Srebrenica. If you have ever seen one of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries in Northern France, you will have a sense of what the cemetery in Potocari, near Srebrenica, is like. Row upon row of identical white headstones stretching into the distance. Whereas in France, of course, most of the headstones are marked by the cross, in Potocari they are white obelisks. Overwhelmingly, they mark the graves of Muslims.

In the 1990s, the old battery factory of Potocari was the headquarters of Dutch troops. They had been deployed to uphold the United Nations designation of the enclave as a safe area. Their presence, however, did not stop Serb troops from rounding up around 25,000 people sheltering at the base in July 1995. Once the UN troops stood aside, families were divided. Most of the women and children were loaded and sent west to areas of the country still controlled by the Bosnian government. The men and boys were loaded on to separate trucks. Within days, most of them were systematically shot.

Many other men and boys had already taken to the woods to escape, only to face shells, snipers and ambush on the way. Some, like 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic, made it through to free territory around Tuzla. Many did not. Those did not die in the woods were either persuaded to give themselves up, or were captured. Like the men and boys who had been taken from outside the UN base at Potocari, most simply disappeared. To this day, their bones are still being found in or near mass graves in eastern Bosnia.

And so, 21 years on, I met Hasan at Potocari. July1995 was the last time he saw his twin brother Hussein, his father Aziz or his uncle, Hasan.

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described the Srebrenica massacre as the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War. Indeed, the word massacre doesn’t convey the enormity of what happened. Earlier this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found 1990s Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic guilty of involvement in genocide. The verdict in the trial of military leader Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

Nobody who visits Potocari can fail to be moved by what you see there. For me, it brought back memories of how, as a new MP back in the 1990s, I was one of those calling for more assertive international action to stop the carnage that was unfolding in Bosnia. It was an unfamiliar position to find myself in. All my political life until that point, I had been amongst those opposing involvement in military action abroad. Now I found myself supporting intervention. For three years before the Srebrenica genocide, people in Sarajevo had been starved of food, medicines and even the means to defend themselves as their city was remorselessly pounded from the hills that surround it. We knew it. We could see it on TV. We also saw that neither Europe nor NATO nor the UN were taking action that could have stopped it.

There were always so many geopolitical reasons not to intervene effectively. I heard them day after day from Ministers in the House of Commons. But that did not help the men, women and children who were dying in Sarajevo, and in 1995 it did not save Hasan’s twin brother, his father, his uncle or the 8,000 others who ended up in the mass graves around Srebrenica.

Since I have returned from Bosnia, two things keep dominating my thinking. The first is about Syria. The political circumstances that have led to the destruction of Aleppo today are not the same as those facing Sarajevo in the 1990s. For people trapped there though, the parallels must feel much more real than the differences. I don’t claim to have an off-the-shelf action plan for what the international community should do today any more than anyone else does. I just keep thinking how in twenty years’ time, people visiting Aleppo - hopefully reconstructed as Sarajevo has been today - will ask: “How could the world have let this happen in 2016?” What will be our answer?

The other thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.

What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.

Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being "them" not "us", don't shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and a Shadow Transport Minister. He visited Bosnia with the Remembering Srebrenica charity in October 2016. You can find out more about the Remembering Srebrenica charity here.

Richard Burden is MP for Birmingham Northfield. Follow him on Twitter @RichardBurdenMP.