Labour has had quite a good month in the polls. The party’s share has edged up since mid-October, from the neighbourhood of 37 per cent to something more like 39-40 per cent, while the Conservatives may have softened a bit over the last couple of weeks in particular. The Liberal Democrats and United Kingdom Independence party continue to bob about at around 10 per cent each.
But to what extent is the result of the next election knowable? There are those who affect to believe that it is all ultimately at the mercy of events, but this cannot really be the case. The leaders’ debates in 2010 were dramatic, and changed the course of the campaign, but the eventual result was more or less as if ‘Cleggmania’ never happened. On the other hand, there is an argument that deep underlying trends enable one to predict election results considerably in advance.
There have been several predictive models that have performed reasonably well in the past in British elections. The first one (Goodhart and Bhansali) worked well in the 1950s and 1960s and depended on little more than a time-lagged response to changes in unemployment. It came a cropper in 1983, because the rise in unemployment was so extreme that it predicted the Conservatives would win a negative share of the vote. Another econometric model, devised by David Sanders, worked like clockwork for the 1980s and, in advance, 1992. But it was completely off-beam in 1997 when it predicted a Conservative victory.
There has been some interest lately in using opinion poll series as a predictive tool; on the basis of past trends, how is opinion likely to shift between now and May 2015? Nate Silver has made this area his own in US political commentary. I have indulged in a little mild ‘Chartism’* myself occasionally. As I noted in a previous Poll Positions piece, Labour’s position in terms of voting intention is comparable with where parties that have gone on to win previous elections have been at this stage. November is Month 42 of this parliament, Labour are around eight points ahead in the polling averages while ‘par’ for a winning party at this stage is six points. Losing parties have generally dropped behind in voting intention by now.**
However, the two most thorough models seem to be Steve Fisher’s work in progress and Martin Baxter’s work at Electoral Calculus. Unfortunately they point in very different directions – Fisher towards a likely Conservative majority, Baxter towards an overwhelmingly likely Labour majority.
Another Chartist model proposed recently by Jonathan Todd (the article is less provocative than the title!) links the Conservative share in opinion polls this parliament to economic perceptions. There is an obvious logic to that, and it does tie in with the downward drift in Labour’s lead from the first quarter of 2013 until October accompanied by a gradual rise in belief that the economy is doing well, from an ‘Elvis-is-alive’ baseline of three per cent last autumn to 14-15 per cent now. Whether the relationship will continue to hold good is open to question, but the Todd thesis has the merit of offering a testable prediction.
I commented, uneasily, to a colleague at Nuffield College in 1991 that being a bit ahead of the Conservatives in the polls late in a parliament is like having a one-goal lead over Manchester United. It’s encouraging, and better than being behind, but you can never rule out a last-minute recovery by an experienced match-winning side. The partisan press and the imbalance in political finance can give the Conservatives the electoral equivalent of ‘Fergie Time’ during the four-week campaign. While the Conservatives are a shadow of the political machine they were in the 1980s – and they have to look back to 1992 for any real silverware in their cabinet – they are still to be feared at least until the ballot papers from Sunderland are spilled onto the trestle tables on the night of 7 May 2015.
*An allusion to financial markets rather than pro-democracy campaigns of the 19th century; Chartism is the minority view among analysts that past price patterns and trends have useful predictive qualities; polling is sufficiently different from financial markets that this approach is probably the majority view and few think that variations in political opinion are a ‘random walk’.
**These averages exclude one extraordinary good opposition performance (1992-97) and one extraordinarily bad opposition performance (1997-2001).
Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit and a contributing editor to Progress. He writes the Poll positions column, part of the Campaign for a Labour Majority. He tweets @Lewis_Baston
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