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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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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