The market thinks the SNP will win 25-26 seats, not 50-plus. Photo: Getty.
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Who do the betting markets think will win the election?

The markets are clear: the SNP surge is over-hyped, Ukip will win few seats and a hung parliament is extremely likely.

This piece was originally published on May2015 – our general election microsite.

In the beginning there was the betting market. Long before anyone worked out the basics of statistical sampling, quotas or past vote weighting, the betting markets proved remarkably accurate in predicting political outcomes.

And in recent years things have only got better. New exchanges, such as Betfair, have eliminated the bookie, and allowed customers to create their own markets. Each punter can choose to either take a bet (the normal method everyone is familiar with) or “lay” one (in effect becoming the bookie).

If the market has many returning punters – if it is “active and deep” – you can have faith in the odds the market is offering. Bias is all but eliminated. And you can then work out the implied probability of an event, like who is going to win the next election. This involves a little maths but is relatively simple to do.

The bookies were an invaluable insight during the independence campaign, when they always heavily favoured a unionist victory. When the polls narrowed in September, the likelihood of a “No” vote fell, but still never dropped below 65 per cent (having been more than 85 per cent in August).

We can now use the bookies to track the implied probabilities of outcomes in May 2015. Here are five things they show which the polls miss.

1. Prepare for a hung parliament

While the polls still have Labour ahead for now, many are adamant it will all turn around for the Tories in the last few months. My response to that would be the market does not agree with you.

In the last few months "no overall majority" has become by far the most likely election outcome. The probability of it is now greater than 70 per cent. Compare that to Labour's and the Tories’ chance of winning a majority – they are less than 20 per cent.

2. Largest party? It's 50:50

The "long" election campaign theoretically only just started, but it's been quietly raging since 1 September. Back then, when Labour had a consistent 3-4 per cent lead in the polls, Labour were favoured to be the largest party by 58:42. After Labour's challenging autumn and early winter, those odds are now effectively 50:50.

Ladbrokes, the bookies, agrees. They think the odds of either party winning the most seats is 10/11 (52 per cent). [1] William Hill even slightly favour the Tories: they also put the Tories' odds at 10/11 but Labour's slightly lower – at "evens" (50 per cent).

3. No one has any idea what the post-election government will be

Both of the above markets are relatively active and deep so one can be confident about the information contained within the prices. In the more exotic markets you start to get quite speculative, however even here we can see a few interesting pieces of information.

For example the market for the next “type” of government is basically a shrug of the shoulders, with money spread everywhere and “any other” more likely than any specific scenario. Should we prepare for a Tory or Labour-led government? A majority or minority? A coalition involving the Lib Dems? All outcomes rate as equally unlikely.

For anyone thinking the next government is going to be a Tory/UKIP coalition, right now you have a 94 per cent probability of being wrong.

4. The SNP surge is only being taken half seriously

In Scotland we are all mulling over the possibility of an SNP advance after the independence referendum. Right now the party are riding high in the polls with double-digit leads over Labour (predict how many seats they might win on May2015).

This has led to near weekly forecasts that the SNP will sweep all of Scotland. The markets are, as yet, unconvinced. The SNP currently hold six seats. Polls suggest they could win the vast majority of Labour's 40 seats and all of the Lib Dems' 11. May2015 recently looked at why they might struggle to win more than 20 Labour seats. The bookies agree – Ladbrokes thinks they will win 25-26, adding 19-20 to the six they currently hold.

The bookies think the SNP will win 25-26 seats, not 50-plus.

The exchanges offer less precise odds but concur – they suggest the SNP will to more than 12 but fewer than 35. If we look to the polls, something revolutionary is going on in Scotland. If we look to the markets, the SNP is surging but will still be smaller in 2015 than Scottish Labour are now. Wait for the markets to move before taking the latest apocalyptic poll too seriously.

5. Ukip are not expected to win many seats

The other big unknown in May is Ukip. They are consistently polling around 15 per cent. They now have two MPs, and Lord Ashcroft's polls have suggested they are challenging in another half a dozen or so.

But the markets suggest they will only win between three and six seats. What should you trust? The betting exchanges offer a crowd-sourced level of analysis of what is expected to happen in May – only a mouse click away. The more you get into analysing odds the more you will start to understand their power (and limitations).

The information is even updated second-by-second, so you needn't wait for the latest polls to get an idea of who is up and down. [1] The combined odds are slightly greater than 100 per cent because of the "over-round", which is how bookies make money.

May2015 will keep you updated with the latest odds – on which party is expected to win the most seats and most votes, who is favoured to be the next PM, and what the next government will be, from now until May.

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

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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