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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”