The popularity of incumbent MPs like Simon Hughes is saving the Lib Dems. Photo: Getty.
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Introducing the New Statesman Political Index: Lib Dems to win at least 30 seats

The Lib Dems are polling more strongly than public polls suggest. They could hold onto as many as 35 seats in May.

The Political Index will run on May2015.com – our election site. Read this piece on May2015. 

Since launching in September, May2015 has tried to become a home for all the election data you might need. We began with a ‘Poll of Polls’ to keep on top of the 10-11 polls coming out each week. Then we used a version of uniform swing to turn that into a seat prediction.

In December we added ‘The Drilldown’: our unique insight into the polls, which allows you to break down voters’ attitudes to the economy, government and different issues by age, class, gender and political ID.

But our method for predicting seats was still too crude. Like all traditional models, it didn’t use all the polling Lord Ashcroft was doing of individual seats. So in January we launched a real election-forecasting machine: now we combine all the latest national and constituency polls to make our prediction. But we still have a problem.

That prediction is reliant on public polls. There is no way to plug in what we might know about individual seats. The parties are doing their own constituency polling, but those polls aren’t publicly released.

The Lib Dems are polling more strongly than public polls suggest.

But sometimes we can get a sense of how parties are faring in those polls. And we can add this to other information we have about specific seats – on how strong the parties’ ground campaigns are, how much money is being dedicated to each seat, and how favourable demographics are for different parties in certain places. By doing all this, we can expand on May2015’s polling data and offer a more precise forecast.

This is what we will now be doing until election day. May2015’s objective forecast, based purely on the polls, will still be our main model, but we’ll have a second prediction that we’re calling the “New Statesman Political Index”.

It will pool all the information gathered by the New Statesman’s political team, from May2015 editor Harry Lambert to NS deputy editor Helen Lewis, political editor George Eaton, ‘Staggers’ editor Stephen Bush, and NS writers Anoosh Chakelian and Tim Wigmore.

We will soon explain and add the Report’s ratings to May2015’s seat lists. But ahead of that, we can reveal that the Lib Dems are polling more strongly than public polls suggest.

The party has spent around £350,000 on private polling of marginal seats, conducted by the pollster Survation.

Current election forecasts, from academic models to the betting markets, predict the party will win just 23 to 28 seats in May. In other words, they will lose at least half of their 57 MPs. But the New Statesman Political Index now predicts they will win at least 30 seats.

In half a dozen seats – St Austell & Newquay, Cardiff Central, Solihull, Bermondsey, Leeds North West, St Ives – the party has reasons to be confident.

It is competitive in races where forecasters have written them off. The odds of a Lib Dem win in St Austell & Newquay are just 37 per cent. In Cardiff Central and Solihull, they’re even lower – 27 per cent and 24 per cent. (Via Firstpastthepost.net.) But the New Statesman Political Index now considers all three seats “toss ups”.

Current election forecasts predict the party will win just 23 to 28 seats in May.

The party is being helped by an ‘incumbency effect’ that May2015 first highlighted in early September. That effect may be ever stronger than Lord Ashcroft’s public seat polls suggest.

Ashcroft asks two questions: a generic and abstract national voting question (“Who would you vote for in an election held tomorrow?”), and a specific local question (“Thinking about your own seat…and the candidates likely to stand there…”). By comparing answers to these questions we can test whether Lib Dems MPs are out-polling their national party.

We have showed how they are, and how that is hurting Tory hopes of winning many Lib Dem seats. But the Lib Dems’ believe there is an even greater effect if an MP’s name is included in the question (as it is on election day), and this is giving them confidence in many marginal seats.

The party is also encouraged by its success in reaching out to young voters and women. They are seeing the significant impact that direct campaigning can have – a reminder to all forecasters that this election still needs to be fought.

The Lib Dems are not recovering in the national polls, and aren’t holding up well in seats they didn’t win in 2010 (that’s nearly 600 seats). But they think they can compete in almost every seat where they have an incumbent MP.

There is reason to believe the party could win as many as 35 seats.

47 of the Lib Dems’ 57 MPs are standing in May, and the party still believes it can hold onto 40 seats, although the rise of the SNP in Scotland has made that harder. The Lib Dems aren’t resigned to losing any Scottish seats, but nor are they certain they will win many.

The SNP are hurting them both directly and indirectly. Lord Ashcroft has shown how they trailing the SNP in Gordon and Inverness, Danny Alexander’s seat. But the nationalists’ rise is also hurting the Lib Dem in seats like East Dunbartonshire, a Lib Dem-Labour marginal until recently.

However the party’s most important battle will be with the Tories. They are competing with their coalition partners in 31 seats. That compares to 14 Labour contests, 11 against the SNP and one against Plaid Cymru.

The New Statesman Political Index has rated every single one of these contests. Doing so gives us a new overall prediction for the party: 30 seats. (There is reason to believe the party could win as many as 35 seats.) That contrasts with May2015’s polling-based prediction of 26, and all other forecasts for the party.

The difference may seem trivial, but four seats could prove pivotal in May.

Explore May2015.com.

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

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.