General election 2015: an electoral shock?

So that’s it. The election is over. The votes have been cast. The final results are in. And who would have thought it? Commentators – me included – widely expected that today we would be telling a different story. We thought that the debate would quickly move on from one about which party had won, or had failed to win, to one about which party would and should go on to govern. But it ended up being an outcome that few of us had foreseen.

Or was it? As the results filtered through, commentators were indeed quick to clam that we had all been deceived by the polls. But in all fairness, and not to sound a sore loser, many of my own predictions – and those of the opinion pollsters themselves – proved correct: that the Conservatives would be the largest party; that the SNP would win big in Scotland (they in fact returned the largest number of MPs for a ‘third’ party since 1929); that the Liberal Democrats would lose big everywhere; that neither UKIP nor the Greens would make the inroads that some had been claiming they would; and that the turnout would be higher than in 2010.

But what caught me, and others, by surprise was the size of the Conservative victory, or perhaps more accurately the degree of the Labour loss. 331 seats is impressive for a party that just five years ago couldn’t land a decisive victory over the much-maligned Gordon Brown. The success is all the more remarkable when you consider that David Cameron is the first prime minister to increase the number of their seats since 1987, and the first to increase the share of their vote since 1966.

And look at the scalps that fell on Thursday: key Liberal Democrat politicians such as Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable and Ed Davey, along with the likes of Labour’s shadow chancellor Ed Balls, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, and Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy. This is not to mention the three party leaders – Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage – that have since fallen on their swords.

In many ways, the result echoes that of 1992. Then, pundits had expected the result to be close with a hung parliament thought likely. But as it turned out, the Conservatives emerged victorious, the government confounding commentators and winning an overall, albeit wafer-thin, majority.

But this might come to provide an uncomfortable analogy for David Cameron. John Major did slightly better in 1992 than the Conservatives did this week – he won a 21 seat majority to Cameron’s 12. But it wasn’t long before the party was riven by debates over British EU membership. What was a working majority soon whittled away. By the time of the next election in May 1997, the Conservative government was a minority. This was itself a re-run of events two decades earlier. Soon after the October 1974 election, when Labour’s Harold Wilson secured a majority of just three seats, he saw his party split apart over British European membership. Like the Conservatives in 1992-95, Labour was also quickly forced to make concessions to minor parties in order to survive as it saw its majority ebb away.

I would therefore conclude on two points.

The first is that the polls were not as wrong as some have since claimed. They correctly identified the larger trends. Perhaps we all of us should have been more conscious of the fact that opinion polls have long tended to underestimate the Conservative vote and overestimate the Labour one. And we perhaps overlooked how likely the Conservatives were to hold off the Labour challenge while simultaneously picking up the Lib Dem vote. But much of the opinion poll data was within the margin of error.

The second point is that while Cameron has won the war he may end up losing the peace. There are a huge number of issues that the government now needs to confront: the EU referendum, the Scottish question, Heathrow, HS2, cuts and defence to name but a few. These would test any government, all the more so one with such a precarious majority. And yet, history tells us not only that parties with narrow victories rarely have an easy ride, but also that they often crumble with devastating effect. Cameron should take this as a warning. For the shock is likely not to be this election but what is still to come.


General election 2015: manifestos – good politics or whistling in the wind?

Elections are strange affairs. For all the uncertainty inherent in a campaign the party machine is a highly structured operation. Coverage in the media, the political message adopted, the line of attack on the opposition, the visits undertaken by key party figures – all of these aspects are agonised over and planned meticulously well ahead of the event.

 The last seven days were no exception. The third week of the 2015 election campaign was manifesto week, an especially strange phenomenon where political parties all scramble for airtime trying to convince voters that the ideas outlined in their programme deserve to become legislation.

Manifestos are both an irrelevance and a vital part of the campaign calendar. It is a truism that most of the electorate ignore party manifestos. Despite the considerable amount of money, time and effort that goes into producing the documents few voters will ever read them. Indeed, at the last election just over a quarter of the electorate admitted to reading one. People will at best be aware of the noise that surrounds manifesto launches, and even then they tend to absorb messages not from politicians themselves but from a media that translates political rhetoric into accessible anecdotes. On the other hand, however, manifestos are key to the political process. They encapsulate in one document how a party will act in power, the basis of the mandate on which a party will rule. They also play an important constitutional role. Manifestos allow the civil service to study the likely platform the next government will adopt, especially useful when planning a transition of power. And in an age of hung parliaments it is the manifesto that allows other parties to identify areas of commonality with potential coalition partners.

Historically, manifestos have been rather short. At first, they weren’t even documents in their own right. Often they were simply a printed copy of a speech delivered by an important member of a party. Take, for instance, the 1900 Conservative manifesto. The ‘manifesto’ was actually a transcript of a speech delivered shortly after the dissolution of Parliament by Lord Robert Cecil, then better known as the Marquess of Salisbury. Salisbury outlined just four issues – what he called ‘the gravest questions’ of state – and, unsurprisingly given his proven expertise in foreign policy, three of the four were related to external affairs: the problem of voter turnout; the question of South Africa, coming as the election did during the Second Boer War; the need to reform Britain’s military; and Britain’s continued influence in China. But it was short of specific proposals: the prime minister was keen to highlight the problems the next government would likely face but resisted the urge to outline solutions to them.

Brevity hence characterised the 1900 Conservative manifesto. But this was not particularly unusual. In fact, the majority of the manifestos produced before the 1945 election consisted of fewer than five pages. Ever since then manifestos have steadily grown in size and importance. At the 1979 election the Conservative manifesto contained about 80 pledges, many of which would come to form the central tenets of Thatcherism. By contrast, the most recent Conservative manifesto, launched by David Cameron at an event in Swindon, has over 600 pledges. Tony Blair might have managed to whittle his priorities down to five points that fitted neatly on the back of Labour’s credit card-sized pledge card, but today the party’s manifesto runs to 84 pages.

While few people today may end up reading a manifesto, watching the televised leaders’ debates is another matter. Thursday’s opposition contest, hosted by the BBC, attracted over 4 million viewers. The seven-way leaders’ debate, shown on ITV at the beginning of April, drew in around 7 million. Those who tuned in last night were, according to the Conservatives at least, treated to a glimpse of how messy the post-election coalition talks will likely be should Labour find itself in a position to negotiate a centre-left coalition. For Ed Miliband, the event was a chance to criticise Cameron for failing to turn up and defend his record in office. Miliband doubtless embarked on a high-risk strategy by taking part in the debate, but it probably paid off. The Conservatives had hoped that the SNP, Plaid and the Greens would attack the Labour leader from the left, while UKIP leader Nigel Farage would do so from the right. As it turned out, Miliband was serious, sincere and statesmanlike. A snap poll conducted on the night also declared Miliband the ‘winner’.

Like manifestos, however, last night’s debate is unlikely to make much difference to the outcome of the election. It is worth restating what I’ve said before: the debates will probably decide the nature and framework of the campaign but not the final result. Political parties pour plenty of cash, resources and manpower into preparing their manifestos, as they do with the leaders’ debates, but chances are they are whistling in the wind. And it is perhaps this more than anything else that explains both the still considerable voter disenchantment in politics and also the political stalemate that the polls suggest will emerge from the 7 May vote.

General election 2015: where is the foreign policy?

UKIP defections, Labour surge, leaked memos, non-doms, nuclear bombs, paid volunteering, police numbers, fiscal autonomy, fruit pickers and Joey Essex (again) – this week the election campaign has had it all.


But perhaps the most significant intervention this week came on Tuesday when Tony Blair, the three-time election winning Labour leader still very much reviled and revered in equal measure, delivered a speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union (EU). Blair was unequivocal in his condemnation of David Cameron’s policy of holding a referendum on continued British membership should the Conservatives win a majority on 7 May. In what he called a ‘momentous decision’, Blair explained:

I believe passionately that leaving Europe would leave Britain diminished in the world, do significant damage to our economy and, less obviously but just as important to our future, would go against the very qualities that mark us out still as a great global nation.

Unsurprisingly, then, Blair went on to suggest that there is neither a sound economic nor business case for British secession. A referendum would, as he put it, merely ‘take precedence’ over other, arguably more vital issues facing Britain today, not least the health of the health service. It might even irk a Scottish electorate still less than convinced of its commitment to the United Kingdom to vote for independence. Nor, Blair insisted, are the Conservatives on firm ground when they assert that a referendum is a necessary and welcome exercise in democracy:

I am aghast at some of the arguments used as to why having such a vote is ‘a great idea for democracy’. Apparently we should have a referendum because its 40 years since we last had a vote. That is seriously an argument for doing something of this magnitude and risk? A sort of ‘keeping us on our toes’ thing? So should we do the same for NATO? Or have periodic referendums not just in Scotland but all over the UK just to check popular feeling?

Of course, Blair here conveniently forgot his own party’s track record on referenda. It was, after all, the Labour party of the 1970s that committed Britain to its first ever national plebiscite – over the issue of British membership of the then European Community. And Blair himself agreed eleven years ago, almost to the day, to hold a referendum on the new constitution proposed for the EU. To be fair, as prime minister did so reluctantly and only in the face of strong opposition from within the party hierarchy – his trusted Health Secretary, John Reid, his deputy, John Prescott, and the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw all argued that a referendum was necessary if Labour had any hope of performing well in either the 2004 European Parliament elections or the next general election. Weakened by the backlash to the war in Iraq, Blair had little choice but to submit the constitution to a vote. In the event, it was only a twist of fate – Blair’s commitment to a referendum compelled his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, to hold one, effectively sealing the fate of the constitution – that saved Blair the embarrassment of having to go through with it.

Even so, the speech was doubtless Blair at his best, sharp in his analysis, cutting in his critique. It was also Blair on familiar territory. He developed a line of argument that he has preached many times before, even if he failed to practice it when he was in office. As he put it in his speech on Tuesday:

[E]ven as Britain declined in relative importance to the USA as a global power, we were able to maintain a position as one of the world’s leading nations. We kept our alliance with America strong. We entered the European Union partly to ensure our position. These are the two well-founded pillars of British foreign policy. And they’re mutually reinforcing. Through these alliances we exercise a power greater than our relative size would otherwise bring us. As one of the world’s traditional powers, this is a sensible strategy for us to pursue in order to be able to hold our position.

For Blair, EU membership has always been a pragmatic decision; a way of harnessing much greater influence than Britain can muster on its own in order to guide politics on a global scale. But Blair’s vision of twenty-first century foreign policy-making has also always used, and clearly continues to use, twentieth-century language: the notion of Britain leading Europe, exercising power and influence as a major actor in the international system and carrying weight in the likes of Beijing and Washington greater than it really should simply by virtue of geography and history. Blair’s Europeanism, like his foreign policy more generally, is conservative by its very nature.

Like him or loathe him, however, Blair’s speech was undoubtedly a landmark in the election campaign. That Blair is still espousing a global role for Britain is not in itself either noteworthy or new. But what is significant is the fact that a Labour politician today, or for that matter a politician of any political party, dared to mention foreign policy at all. For what has really marked this election campaign out has been the complete dearth of discussion about Britain’s role in the world, the degree and veracity of Britain’s international ambitions and the country’s place in an ever-changing and increasingly uncertain global environment.

Admittedly, foreign policy is rarely an election winner. Most recent works on the 1983 general election tend for instance to argue that, while the ‘Falklands factor’ did the Conservatives no harm, the war did not of itself propel Margaret Thatcher to a second election victory. It is also the case that discussions over certain aspects of British foreign policy have formed key moments in this election campaign. Take this week for instance, where the renewal of Trident was a major part of the Conservatives’ campaign. And, moreover, the EU itself has been part of the electoral battle, as it was most prominently in last week’s leaders’ debate.

But this is not to say that foreign policy does not matter. In fact, an Ipsos MORI poll conducted late last year placed foreign affairs as the sixth most important electoral issue for voters, ahead of unemployment, taxation, care for the elderly, pensions and housing. If you combine foreign affairs and the EU, the stances taken by political parties were shown to be as important as education and schools in helping voters decide which party to vote for. And yet, where we have seen foreign policy mentioned in this campaign the discussion has been simplistic at best. Trident wasn’t about defence but about Miliband’s perceived character flaws. And issue of the EU has really been conflated with that of immigration and used by UKIP as a stick to beat the other parties. This is politics at its most crass.

This is a little surprising. For Labour, foreign policy is an obvious area on which to attack Cameron’s performance as prime minister. Since he entered Downing Street in 2010, Britain has fallen from being the fourth largest defence spender in the world to the sixth. Saudi Arabia now spends more on its military than the UK. While reduce expenditure reflects reduced ambition – an understandable position in a post-Iraq setting – the collapse in defence spending has reflected a more general decline in what Britain pays for its diplomatic service. And with fewer diplomats comes less diplomacy. Commentators have pointed to the failure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to anticipate the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is perhaps a little unfair – the FCO did not anticipate the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, a time when the Cold War was still being fought and Britain’s diplomatic service was at its strategic apogee – but it is the case that whether over Russia, Syria or Libya, Britain’s influence has waned. This is not to mention the measurable drop in Britain’s standing in Washington, let alone in the capitals of Europe and the institutions of the EU.

For the Conservatives, meanwhile, foreign policy is one area where Ed Miliband is truly untested. The Labour leader’s foreign policy is essentially an anti-policy – he, apparently, opposed the Iraq War ­– but it is hard to fathom where the post-Blair Labour party stands on matters all things foreign. Iraq, moreover, remains toxic for the Labour party. The legacy of Blair’s decision to commit British armed forces to the conflict still has the potential to rip the Labour movement apart. This is one reason why Labour today is wary of foreign policy becoming an election issue. But if the Conservatives were to make it one, it would be very uncomfortable for Miliband.

Both sides, then, are ‘weak’ on foreign policy. But this is not a sufficient reason for the issue to be excluded from the campaign. Blair made the point that close relations with the United States and the EU are two of the central pillars of British foreign policy. Both, it seems, are now crumbling. It is only right that we debate what will replace them.

General election 2015: a case of déjà vu?

Politics is a fickle business. Labour started the week under fire for selling a mug that declared its support for controlling immigration, only for Ed Miliband to see his personal poll numbers improve for the first time in months. The Conservatives, for their part, seemed at the beginning of the week to be on the back foot, with commentators’ pronouncements claiming that the party’s entire campaign had lost its wayFast forward twenty-four hours and Chancellor George Osborne had cause to delight, hailing aso-called economic ‘hat-trick’ of revised upward growth figures, increased real household disposable income and burgeoning consumer confidence.


Of course, the mug is just a mug, the opinion poll just an opinion poll. And economic figures only ever tell part of the story. But this is a general election. And the first week of the campaign proper has certainly been a dramatic one.


The highlight of the week was the leaders’ debate. After months of quibbling with the broadcasters, David Cameron finally took to the stage in a head-to-head contestIn contrast to 2010, however, the ITV special marked the onlybrawl of its kind in this election, the sole opportunity forCameron and Miliband to debate each other directly. Andthe Labour and Conservative leaders were far from alone.The prime ministerial hopefuls shared a platform with fiveother leadersGreen leader Nicola Bennett, the current deputy prime minister and Lib Dem chief Nick Clegg, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, the SNP leader and current Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the leader of the Welsh nationalists, Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood.  


Each agreed that the debate would consist of four main themes: the economy, immigration, the health service and the future of the UK. The discussion itself was wide-ranging in scope, if not in depth. The biggest losers were probably the viewers. The format seemed messy, a reminder that too many cooks really can spoil the political broth. The highlight for me was when, fifteen minutes from the end, a member of the audience – social worker Victoria Posser –went off cue and began heckling from the stalls.


By contrast, the biggest winners were almost certainly the nationalists: Wood scored the first audience applause; Sturgeon once again showed herself to be a relaxed, skilled speaker. Farage, meanwhile, seemed a little off his game, the point about AIDS patients being treated by the NHS unlikely to go down with well with most voters. Cameron was quiet. Miliband was resolute. And Clegg stood his ground where he had the opportunity to do so. If anyone struggled it was Bennett, still reeling from her ‘mind blank’ LBC radio interview a few weeks ago.


After the ordeal, the results of four snap polls conducted to decide who emerged as the ‘winner’ were announced – andeach delivered a different response. The truth is that these debates still mean little in British politics. At best theydecide the nature of the campaign, not the result.  


Beyond the debatethe economy and British membership of the EU really defined the political narrative this week.Launching its business manifesto in the heart of the City of London, the Labour leadership was at pains to stress that, as it saw things, the biggest threat to the economic recovery was not a Labour-led government but a Conservative onetaking Britain out of the EU. The party quickly reiterated the point by placing an advert in the Financial Times, quotingvarious business leaders to emphasise their point. The reaction was not quite as expected and both Siemens and Kellogg’s expressed concern about being drawn into a political debate, although the managers of CM Direct and the investment group Redbus were more supportive of Labour’s sympathetic stance on the EU. Responding to Labour claims, Grant Shappsthe Conservative chaironce again reiterated the line that if the British people want a referendum on the EU, they should have one – ignoring the fact that, when asked, the public tend to support holding a plebiscite on any area of government policy.


But what struck me more than anything about this week was the very real sense of déjà vu.


Picture the scene. The British economy staggering out of recession. The prime minister struggling to unite a fissiparous party divided once again by the issue of ‘Europe’. The electoral landscape politically splintered, withminor parties hoping to make major political gains. The opinion polls equivocal as to which party will enter office, instead pointing towards a messy election result with a hung parliament the likely outcome.


Such a summary neatly surmises the situation today. But is also aptly describes the political environment in February 1974, when Edward Heath and Harold Wilson fought over the keys to Downing Street. It even captures the scene in 1992, when John Major faced his first election as Conservative leader against the revitalised Labour party then led by Neil Kinnock.


Needless to saythe February 1974 vote – the first of two that year – was fought in very different circumstances, theperiod characterised by the 1973 oil crisis and the on-going three-day week. And the 1992 election was the first electoral test for the Conservatives following Margaret Thatcher’s departure just two years earlier. But there are clearly anumber of lessons that we can draw from both elections.


For a start, in both 1974 and 1992 the opinion polls were extremely close – and ultimately wrong. Talk about a hung parliament in the lead up to both votes was, it is certainly true, widespread. In 1974, however, most expected the Conservatives to edge ahead in the days leading to the February vote, whereas in the event Labour emerged as the single biggest party but with fewer seats. In 1992, by contrast, Labour was marginally ahead in most polls, only for the Conservatives to secure a majority of twenty-one seats. It is a reminder that we should take any opinion poll with a hefty dose of salt.


Second, in both elections the SNP played an important role. In 1974, the party emerged as the fourth largest party in the Commons. In 1992, it increased its vote tally by 50 per cent.Today much is made of the SNP and the power that the party might wield after the forthcoming election. But history tells us that the SNP’s influence in Westminster politics is nothing new. It is the ability for the SNP to sustain this pressure on the larger parties that will be of longer-term significance.


Third, both elections were a portent of things to come with regard to party divisions over ‘Europe’. The 1992 vote for instance did little to soothe discussions within the Conservatives over the Maastricht Treaty. But the 1974 vote is perhaps more pertinent to today’s debate. Soon after the February election the Labour party set about renegotiating Britain’s membership of the then European Community. The reworked package, which in reality was nothing more than a window dressing exercise to placate a vociferous section of Labour MPs, did little to change the terms of British membership. But it was an ‘agreement to differ’, whereby Cabinet ministers were able to dispense with collective responsibility and disagree openly with one another and vote as they saw fitthat in the long-term caused problems for the Labour movement. Anti-Community ministers immediatelyrefused to accept the positive referendum result, an approach that really set the scene for the battles that would seal the party’s electoral fate in 1979. The whole process of agreeing a new settlement with Britain’s Community partners was, then, a palliative, mitigating rather than solving Labour’s deep ideological and political wounds. It is in this sense thatDavid Cameron should take note: in the long-run renegotiations and referendums do not solve deep-seated party political problems.


Overall, while the recent leadership debate was very excitingand the quality of political discussion in this election impressive, many of the issues that are under discussion now are by no means new. Politicians today would certainly do well to study those of yesteryear. Politics, much like fashion,is not invented but reinvented. History provides the perfect opportunity to understand the significance of these issuesand to learn from them.

General election 2015: the most unpredictable in history?

On Thursday, 7 May the people of Britain go to the polls in what promises to be one of the most exhilarating and tense elections in recent memory. With 41 days to go, over the next few weeks we will chart the highs and lows, the pitfalls, the gaffes and goings-on during the campaign. From the inevitable pictures of party leaders hugging unsuspecting children through to the point where one leader will, hopefully, be invited by the Queen to form a government and drive into Downing Street to announce as much, each week we will explore the issues that have dominated the campaign and, perhaps more crucially, provide analysis so as to place events in their wider historical context.

Officially, the campaign period does not begin until Monday. Yet in reality it has been underway for some time. Take, for instance, this past week, where we had two dramatic developments that each in their own way will come to set the scene for the rest of the contest. The first was the surprise announcement by David Cameron during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions that the Conservatives will not raise VAT if re-elected. The announcement was notably curt for a politician, even more so for a prime minister. And Cameron’s admission was all the more remarkable because it seemed to catch the incredulous looking Labour leader, Ed Miliband, completely off guard. The Chancellor, George Osborne, had after all just the day before refused to completely rule out a rise. Unwilling himself to dismiss rumours of a similar hike in National Insurance during the exchange, Miliband’s Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, was then forced to do a round of media to do exactly that. Having now dismissed the principal revenue-raising measures available to government – which, along with income tax account for early two-thirds of all government tax revenue – both leaders will be under even greater pressure to explain quite how they will deal with Britain’s still considerable structural deficit.

The second significant development this week was the appearance of Cameron and Miliband in the first of a series of TV broadcasts. I say ‘broadcasts’ because this was not a debate – the Conservatives had long made clear that the prime minister would not share a stage with Ed Miliband and debate him head-to-head. Instead, each faced individual questioning by Jeremy Paxman, interjected with audience question and answer sessions chaired by Sky’s Kay Burley. Like opinion polls more generally, the view of who ‘won’ on the night was pretty evenly split. A ComRes poll announced immediately after the broadcast gave Cameron a slight edge, but it was by no means convincing. And some opined whether the whole process was balanced against the ‘gloomy’ Labour leader. Like everything, it is a matter of personal taste – for me, Cameron seemed to perform better in the Q&A segment, Miliband remarkably better in the interview with Paxman. Either way, the remaining debates promise to become key moments in the campaign.

And yet, although Parliament has only just formally been dissolved, an enduring theme of this election has seemingly already emerged: that this is a highly unpredictable election, and that the result is more uncertain than any vote in recent times. Unlike previously, so the story goes, simply no one knows what the state of British politics will be on 8 May. This, it is doubtless true, is not 1997. For at least a year before the New Labour landslide Tony Blair managed consistently to poll impressive double-digit leads over his rival, Conservative leader and prime minister John Major. Nor indeed is this 2001, when a New Labour victory was so widely expected that the popular vote fell below 60 per cent for the first time. In fact, this is not really a repeat of 2010, when Gordon Brown’s unpopularity made a Conservative victory of some kind more likely, even if the end result was by no means an overwhelming vindication of ‘Cameronism’.

All that said, I take some issue with this notion of unpredictability. To be clear, I am a historian – I am in the business of examining the past, not predicting the future. But the opinion polls do give us a glimpse of what will likely happen in early May.

  • The ‘big two’ will once again reign supreme. A hung parliament is all but inevitable. But despite the rise of the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the fight over who will become prime minister will remain a two-way one between Cameron and Miliband.
  • I would be willing to bet that the Conservatives will be the largest party on 8 May. The vote, it is certainly true, will be extremely close. But as Lynton Crosby, Cameron’s election ‘guru’, recently said in a briefing to Conservative MPs, in England the party is in fact in a fairly healthy state. According to Crosby, it only needs to gain around 11,200 votes in fewer than 70 seats to win the election outright. This of course is rather easier said that done. But the likelihood of Labour emerging as the biggest party does appear less than the Conservatives coming out as victors.
  • Labour will lose big in Scotland – but Miliband may still become prime minister. In one of the quirks of the British electoral system, the largest party, in either seats or number of votes, does not automatically become the party of government. It is the party that can command the confidence of the House of Commons that the monarch invites to establish a government. Take the February 1974 election. Harold Wilson’s Labour party actually won fewer votes than the Conservatives under Edward Heath – some 200,000 votes in all – but gained four more seats and, with it, the ability to create a minority government. And based on the current polls, a centre-left coalition, or a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement – where there is no formal coalition between parties but a case-by-case arrangement to support key pieces of legislation, such as the government’s budget – may well prove easier for Labour to arrange than the Conservatives.
  • The Lib Dems will lose big everywhere. If the 2010 election was the one where everybody agreed with Nick Clegg, the 2015 election will almost certainly be his last as Lib Dem leader. The party is on course to lose around half of its seats and some reports suggest that the tussle over who will replace him is already well underway.
  • The SNP will become the ‘third party’ of British politics. Ever since the September 2014 independence referendum the polls have consistently shown that the SNP will probably gain anywhere between 40 and 50 seats in this election, mostly at the expense of Labour. A lot of talk over the last year has been about the rise of UKIP in England, but it is politics north of the border that will decide the fate of parties in Westminster.
  • Talking of UKIP, Nigel Farage will not make the breakthrough that some might think. It will almost certainly be the case that the party will increase its current number of MPs. And compared to the last election they will massively improve their returns. But the polls suggest that UKIP’s vote – much like the Green party – is getting squeezed. A recent ComRes poll found the fall to be a remarkable 9 per cent. Of course, the usual advice applies here: it is the trend that is important, not an individual poll. Yet even the trend seems to be against Nigel Farage. The average monthly support for UKIP of nine main pollsters had UKIP support falling three percentage points. For a small party this is huge.

There is, then, a good deal more certainty than many argue. At the very least, the polls tell us the likely parliamentary arithmetic come 8 May. But needless to say, anything could change between now and polling day. The interesting thing for me is not so much who will emerge as king but rather who the king makers will be, the concessions they demand for their acquiescence and the type of system that they employ to support the new monarch. And the polls are unable to show this. It is, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, therefore more a matter of known unknowns than complete unpredictability. Whatever the result, it promises to be an interesting one. And we hope you will join us for the ride.