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10 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 9:40am

All the polls agree: the Conservative lead has been slashed

By Stephen Bush

The polls all agree: in England and Wales, Labour is closing the gap on the Conservatives. YouGov’s MRP model, which correctly predicted a hung parliament in 2017, is the latest to show the same trend, with the Tories’ projected majority falling from over 60 seats to just under 30.

Although the Conservatives are the favourites, it really is all to play for.

I said right at the start of the campaign that the Conservatives’ political position was akin to a football team that had a 2-0 lead with ten minutes played: you would be unwise to confidently state that the match was over, but you’d also be pretty silly to say we “didn’t know” how the game was going. Now, if the polls are right, Labour have made it 2-1 with two minutes left on the clock. Don’t forget that due to the Conservatives’ political isolation on a variety of issues, Labour don’t need to win the election or even be the largest party to take office. A draw, in the right circumstances, may be sufficient.

You’d rather be in the Tories’ position than Labour’s: but the Conservatives are in for a tense 48 hours – and Labour can go into the election’s final days with some hope.

If the polls are correct

That comes with an important caveat: it’s possible that the polls are wildly off. That doesn’t look all that likely to me, because results in local council by-elections, which are usually a pretty good gauge of actual public opinion, are looking pretty close to what we’d expect were the polls accurate. Less significantly, the pattern in the polls fits with what I’m hearing from around the country.

There’s a “but” coming, though, and it’s a big one: because of our erratic and antiquated electoral system, the polls don’t have to be that off to produce a very different result. A normal-sized polling error is the difference between a Labour minority government or a Conservative landslide.

As luck would have it, YouGov are about in the middle of the pack as far as the polls are concerned: some, like ICM and Survation, have tended to show a slightly smaller Conservative lead, others, like IpsosMori, have tended to show a slightly larger Conservative lead. The latter group would mean a Labour or Conservative minority, the former a Conservative landslide.

No one can really say anything with confidence, other than that the Conservatives are on course to get more votes than Labour and that we have a terrible, unreliable electoral system.

First-past-the-post increasingly doesn’t work for anyone

The United Kingdom’s electoral system is, famously, hard on the Liberal Democrats, who are on course to essentially double their vote on 2017 and receive a whole three extra seats for their trouble if YouGov’s model is correct.

Owing to Labour’s collapse in Scotland, the party has essentially switched unilaterally to a proportional system: they received roughly the right number of seats for the votes they won in 2015 and 2017 and if YouGov’s model is right they will do the same in 2019.

But the Conservatives, while winning more seats than their vote share would indicate, would, if YouGov’s estimate is correct, win a majority of less than 30 with a lead of nine points: for context, Tony Blair’s Labour got a majority of 66 seats with a lead of little more than two per cent in 2005. Despite their cult-like status in some Tory circles, and the fear they inspire among some Labour MPs, constituency boundary changes would not resolve this problem. As it stands, the Conservatives either need the near-total eradication of the Liberal Democrats, or a very large lead over Labour, even for small majorities to be assured under our system. They could luck out on a big majority from time to time, but the path to one is increasingly unreliable and rocky.

We now have a situation where the British electoral system discards the votes of most people in the UK but can’t keep up its end of the bargain by reliably delivering majority government even when one party is palpably ahead. And that dysfunctionality is why, while we can pretty safely say the Conservatives will get more votes than anyone else, we can’t say anything else with certainty about Thursday’s election.

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