Swings and narrows of outrageous fortune

The Conservatives have stalled in the polls again and a hung parliament is more likely.

Cross-country running

After a bit of a boost in the polls before Easter, the Conservatives have stalled. They are generally hitting around 37 per cent now - and Labour are just 6 or 7 points behind (see graph, right). On a uniform national swing, these numbers would almost certainly signal a hung parliament, although that projection has to be treated with care: there are strong indications of significant variation across the UK.

Perhaps the most useful indicator has been a regional breakdown of the aggregated data from YouGov, based on nearly 10,000 responses from the firm's polling during the first week of the campaign. On this evidence, Labour is doing particularly well in Scotland, holding on to almost all of its 2005 vote share.

In England, the Liberal Democrats face a swing of half a per cent against them in the south-west, where the party is defending a number of seats against the Conservatives. There is also a huge differential between the north and the south. Draw an imaginary line from the Severn to the Wash. Above it, the average swing from Labour to the Tories is 7.5 per cent; below it, just 5 per cent. This could be good for the Conservatives, given the heavy concentration of marginal seats throughout the Midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west. In the West Midlands, for instance, the data suggests a swing of 9 per cent.

Personality politics

In the opening phase of this election campaign, the polls of voting intentions have been at odds with numerous other indicators which suggest that things are going well for David Cameron. His approval ratings have increased markedly while Gordon Brown's have stood still. Most surveys considered Cameron the "winner" of the campaign's first week, and ICM is still finding that almost two out of every three voters believe that it is "time for change". Yet this success does not translate into a better rating for the Tories when questions about voting are asked. Although voters like the party leader and many of them want a different type of government, there seems to be a reluctance to take the next step and support the party.

Camera on Cameron

But more generally it seems that the election is still not really engaging the public. Interest is relatively low and just 55 per cent of those surveyed for the latest ICM poll said they were certain to vote.

Clearly, everything could change after the leaders' TV debates, which seem certain to have an impact on a far greater number of people than just those who watch them. The sheer novelty of the event will result in extensive coverage and this could alter perceptions of any or all of the three leaders.

For Cameron, the challenge will be meeting expectations that are running high.

Moving the margins

It looks as if tactical voting could have a big impact in some closely fought seats. In ICM's latest poll of marginal constituencies, nearly one in three voters surveyed said that they would be ready to vote tactically to keep a party they opposed out of power (see chart, below left). Among Liberal Democrat supporters, this proportion rose to 42 per cent. And they are likely to be squeezed very hard in the next three weeks.

Polls we can believe in

An interesting discovery by the Independent on Sunday, which asked eight leading pollsters for their 6 May predictions. Seven went for a Conservative majority; the eighth went for a hung parliament - then changed his projection to match those of his peers. So how come, you might ask, the latest surveys by all but one of the pollsters' firms contradict these views?

Mike Smithson is the editor of politicalbetting.com

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice