Andrew Marr made a welcome return to TV this morning, interviewing David Miliband in the latter’s final interview before he leaves for New York to become head of the International Rescue Committee.
The most striking moment came when Marr asked Miliband whether he agreed that the age of single-party majority governments was at an end. Miliband replied: “I don’t take the conventional wisdom on this. I actually think the conventional assumption that we’re bound to get a coalition is wrong.” He warned, however, that the Tories as well as Labour could win a majority.
“I actually think that, in the end, the British people will take a view and I think that is a great prize for Labour. The danger is it could be a great prize for the Tories as well.”
He also suggested that Labour should avoid drawing false comfort from “meaningless” opinion polls.
“I think there’s a bit too much mathematics going on in the way people are looking at the polls. Remember that the polls are meaningless at this stage because they start with the question ‘how would you vote if there was an election tomorrow?’ There isn’t an election tomorrow.”
He concluded: “People will come to a judgement about the future of the country in two years’ time and I would say it’s all too play for; it’s open.”
While Miliband expressed disdain for the “mathematics” going on, the numbers do show that it will be far harder for the Tories to win a majority than it is for Labour. Based on a Lib Dem share of 15 per cent, Labour needs a lead of just 1 per cent to win an overall majority, while the Tories require one of 7 per cent. In 2005, Labour won a majority of 66 sets with a lead of three points but in 2010 the Tories fell 20 short with a lead of seven. This apparent bias has less to do with the unreformed constituency boundaries than it does with the fact that Labour’s vote is far better distributed than the Tories’ and that it benefits disproportionately from tactical voting.
It’s important to remember that uniform swing calculations are an unreliable guide to election outcomes since they don’t take into account factors such as the incumbency bonus and above-average swings in marginal seats. Had there been a uniform swing in 2010, the Conservatives would have won 14 fewer seats, Labour eight more and the Lib Dems five more. But even if, as seems likely, the Tories perform disproportionately well in their existing seats, they will still to struggle to establish the lead that they need over Labour to even remain the largest party.
A Labour majority, however, remains a formidable challenge for Ed Miliband. As he has observed before, there is not a single example in the last 80 years of an opposition party returning to power with an overall majority after one term.
David Miliband may be right when he suggests, as Disraeli did, that “England does not love coalitions” but it does not follow that enough people will vote the right way to prevent another hung parliament.