Monday, May 4, 2015

A Labour of Love, or a Tory'd Affair?

In 72 hours, UK voters will be going to the polls to vote in an election that could prove to be an historic political realignment for their country.  And while the use of the phrase "most important election of our lifetime" has been used by so many here that it has been reduced to cliche, this truly could prove to be the most critical election for the British people in decades.

Depending on what the 650 constituencies of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland decide, the UK could find itself on the final path to Scotland severing itself from the Union, on a path that could break them off from the European community in 2 years time, or maybe even both.  The old 2-party Conservative-Labour system (with the Liberal Democrats at times operating as a quasi-major party) seems to be crumbling apart, with now a second straight election without a party winning a majority of seats seeming to be a certainty.

The impact of this election given the UKs diplomatic and economic power will inevitably reverberate to our shores on some level as well.  So if you're an informed person in the American political sphere, but couldn't tell Nigel Farage from Nicola Sturgeon, then this analysis of what to expect is just what you need.  There are many questions still unanswered that will leave a much wider range of uncertainty in my predictions than prior, conventional election environments produced, and I'll address the 6 biggest questions that will shape what the next UK Parliament looks like. But first, an overview of what my statistical analysis says is the most likely result on Thursday evening...

Most Likely Results
Conservative: 281 (Min. 237, Max 312)
Labour: 268 (Min. 221, Max 296)
Scottish National: 53 (Min. 45, Max 59)
Liberal Democrat: 21 (Min. 13, Max 30)
Democratic Unionist: 9 (Min. 7, Max 10)
Sinn Fein: 4 (Min. 4, Max 5)
Plaid Cymru: 4 (Min. 2, Max 5)
SDLP: 3 (Min. 3, Max 4)
UKIP: 3 (Min. 1, Max 6)
Green: 1 (Min. 0, Max 1)
Other: 3 (Min. 3, Max 5)

As can be plainly seen, each of the four largest parties in the next Parliament has a substantial range of uncertainty. The simple truth is that the rise of some parties (SNP, UKIP, to a lesser extent the Greens), the fall of others (LibDem, Labour in Scotland), questions about the power of incumbency and local party organizations, and the apparent trend of increased tactical voting in key marginal (swing) seats all lend themselves to a skewing of the normal patterns of vote change that happen in UK elections.  These min/max totals represent all possibilities within the 95th confidence percentile in my calculations, so there does remain the very remote possibility of numbers falling outside of these boundaries as well.

6 key questions will impact where and how this estimate of support on May 7th will be altered, and if you're going to be following along as I will Thursday night here's what you need to know about each:

1.) Can the Scottish National Party sweep Scotland?
Last year's Scottish independence referendum was billed by the SNP as a 'once in a generation' kind of event.  But the aftershocks of the referendum's 54%-46% defeat have upturned the political map of the country.  SNP won just 6 of the 59 Scottish constituencies for Parliament in 2010, with Labour well ahead at 41 seats (the Liberal Democrats won 11 and Conservatives 1), and they won just 20% of Scottish votes in a distant 2nd to the 42% of Labour.

After the referendum however, the message that only SNP will stand in support of Scottish independence has come to dominate opinion polls. SNP finds itself at anywhere from 45 to 50 percent nationwide in preference, with Labour taking most of the resulting loss and being stuck around 25 percent.  The result of this nearly 25 point swing is that dozens of once safe Labour seats are as good as lost, and the remaining seats are far from being safe either.  The same is true for the 11 seats the Liberal Democrats held in Scotland, with only the Orkney & Shetland constituency (where the LibDems were 54 percent ahead of SNP in 2010) seeming to be able to withstand the seismic shift.

SNP is further bolstered by the ascension of Nicola Sturgeon to the party's leadership.  An unapologetic far left liberal/socialist in a place where that is welcomed, her naturally charismatic and powerful persona stands in strong contrast to the milquetoast major party leadership of the time.  SNP has categorically ruled out any governing agreement with the Conservatives, and their seats can be seen as quasi-allied seats for Labour leader Ed Miliband's quest to be Prime Minister (no matter how much Labour rejects the idea of governing with the SNP). But the extent to which SNP wins over Scotland will impact Labour's hopes of being the largest party in the next Parliament, and will determine just how much bargaining power Sturgeon will hold on May 8th and beyond.

While there is a scenario where SNP goes 59 for 59 in Scotland Thursday, the odds on this are low.  Even the massive swing they're projected to gain is insufficient for winning 3 of the 59 seats, and some combination of incumbent advantage and tactical stop-SNP voting should preserve a few more.  Right now my most likely result gives SNP 53 seats, with only a very slight decline needed to push them under 50.  But even the worst case for their party at this point will leave them in a position of utter dominance of the Scottish political map.

2.) Can UKIP continue its growth in Parliament?
Winners of a mere 3% of the vote in 2010, UKIP has since undergone an explosion of support in its crusade against active UK involvement in the mainland European community and EU.  Led by another charismatic figure on the outside of the traditional power structure, Nigel Farage, UKIP has tamped down the voices of its more fanatical and borderline (or worse) racist members to package themselves as the small 'c' conservative voter's alternative to the Tories and as a working man's alternative to Labour through their more populist strains.

Last year, two Conservative Members of Parliament left their party to join UKIP, and both won the resulting by-elections their defections triggered to re-enter the House of Commons.  Now UKIP is focused on trying to send reinforcements to their caucus of 2 and show that their party has some staying power, at least for now.

A few months ago, UKIP was polling near 20 percent nationally and looking to gain a couple dozen seats in Parliament.  But their momentum has cooled, and the party's response has been a far more strategic effort to target just the 10 seats they feel best about their chances.  Douglas Carswell, the first defector to UKIP, is a lock to retain his Clacton seat, and while Mark Reckless is in a very tight fight to stay MP for Rochester & Strood I still give him a small advantage there as well.  The question is where, if anywhere, can UKIP gain seats.

Foremost in focus of these opportunities is South Thanet, where Farage himself is the party's candidate.  Farage has staked his political future on the outcome, pledging to step down as party leader if he cannot win this very close race.  For the entertainment value he brings to British politics alone a part of me is rooting for him, but as of now I have him a slight underdog in the race as the Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay seems to be gaining votes from other parties determined to have anyone but Farage win.

UKIPs best chance to add a seat is likely the seat of Thurrock, where a very even divide between Conservatives and Labour seems to be allowing UKIP to pass through the middle and build a lead.  I have UKIP winning Thurrock by about 4 percent in my projections, though it's far from a certainty.  While there are a couple other seats where the party remains within striking distance, it seems highly likely this election will not be a breakthrough of the kind that their members would have hoped late last year.  But even going from 2 seats to 3 will be an indication that the party's recent strength in other levels of elections has been more than a fluke occurrence.

3.) Can Liberal Democrat incumbents hold on?
2010 was supposed to be a breakthrough year for the LibDems.  Nick Clegg dominated the three party debates that year, and for a time it truly looked as though they'd advance to a point where the British political system would truly become a 3-party affair.  But the result that year was disappointing (57 seats), and the subsequent coalition agreement with the Conservatives eviscerated their political support down to the single digit levels it remains at now.  After winning 23 percent of the national vote five years ago, their most common level in national polling is now 8 percent.

Applied normally, such a decline would all but wipe out their benches in Parliament.  But individual constituency polling has shown that their incumbent MPs have, in many spots, been able to retain support despite this national trend.  Indeed, the LibDems are publicly insisting that they will hold on to most of these seats due to the personal popularity of their current members and the strong organizational network their local parties retain.  To use an American reference, it's not unlike the argument a campaign like Kay Hagan's made last fall: yes our party is in trouble nationally, but she's still well liked and we have the ground game in place to win.

Also like Kay Hagan however, I ultimately don't buy it.  Yes they'll hold more seats than they normally should at 8 percent, but I'm far more pessimistic on what that number can be than many seem to be.  I actually have the LibDems as the most likely victor in 25 seats right now, but 9 of those percentages are extremely narrow and I view the odds that they can run the table in all of them quite slim.  It would certainly not shock me to see their numbers dip below 20, especially if the Conservatives are over-performing their current poll numbers in England on Thursday (the Tories were the 2nd largest party in nearly 2/3 of the seats the LibDems won in 2010).  The real question is whether their party will be able to repair their extremely damaged public profile after this election, or if they'll sink into irrelevance.

Of note as well is LibDem leader/Deputy Prime Minister Clegg's struggles to retain his own seat in Sheffield Hallam.  Most polling has shown him trailing Labour slightly in a seat he won by 29 percent just five years ago, although a poll out today indicates what I had expected for some time is happening now: Conservative voters are switching to Clegg to keep their coalition partner in office and Labour out.  But it will be perhaps the most interesting individual result to observe Thursday.

4.) Will Northern Ireland decide the fate of the UK?
Normally, the 18 seats of Northern Ireland are little more than a footnote when assessing who will govern.  Their parties are entirely separate from those found in the three countries of Great Britain, and one of the major parties usually locks down enough seats that no arrangements with Northern Irish parties are needed.  But neither party is on pace for anything close to a majority, and this provides the Democratic Unionist Party (N Ireland's largest) a chance to be influential.

DUP holds 8 seats currently, but has a chance to climb to as many as 10 in Thursday's results.  A center-right party, DUP would be a natural ally for a possible Conservative coalition after May 7th.  On the other end of the spectrum is the Social Democratic and Labour party, Northern Ireland's main center-left party.  While they're only on pace for about half as many seats as DUP, the SDLP could find itself courted by Ed Miliband and Labour should the latter find itself needing to cobble together a grand coalition of left wing parties to survive as a government.  

With the margin for success or failure so narrow for both major parties right now, Northern Ireland may find itself poised to dramatically impact the entire nation's politics for the first time in modern history.

5.) Can Labour's Ground Game Advantage Send Miliband to Number 10?
Truly this is the 661,503 Pound question with three days left.  Labour goes into this election 46 seats behind the Conservatives (257 to 303 when Parliament adjourned for the last time).  Factoring in 30-41 seats lost in Scotland to SNP and around a dozen LibDem seats going to the Conservatives, Labour will be 90-100 seats down before their key marginal battlegrounds with the Tories are factored in.

The money and air wave battle has as expected been won by the Conservatives' superior fundraising (though by perhaps not as much as one would've thought), which pins Labour's hopes of being the largest party in Parliament or at least close enough in 2nd to form a government on their campaign's superior ground game.  That it has exceeded the Conservatives' efforts is basically unquestioned: almost every national and constituency level opinion poll has shown more voters saying they've been contacted by Labour efforts.  But will it be enough? Labour will need to net around 30 seats currently held by the Conservatives to reasonably expect to be in government for the next Parliament, and something in the 40-50 range to be the largest party.

It is certainly possible that Labour will do enough to end up as the largest party ahead of the Conservatives, but as of now I think the odds of that goal are fading slightly.  Right now I see them most likely to win a net of 34 Conservative seats Thursday, enough to give Ed Miliband the job as Prime Minister but insufficient to overtake the final count for the Tories.  But there are dozens of seats in varying degrees of play right now between the two parties, and if their efforts on the streets have been as strong as they claim it may prove to be the vital difference.

6.) Can tactical voting save David Cameron?
Based solely on opinion polling, Cameron is three days from being handed a pink slip as PM by the British people (and a similar pink slip as party leader shortly thereafter).  Indeed, Cameron has not campaigned with the same kind of urgency that John Major did in 1992 that (in part) helped his party defy the odds and win a 4th straight general election.

But one thing Cameron has done very, very right in the last couple days has been a not so subtle appeal to UKIP voters' primary concern.  As part of the Conservative party manifesto (the UK equivalent of a party platform), Cameron has pledged to have a referendum on Britain's involvement in the European Union by 2017.  It's an aim shared by UKIP voters, but many defectors to UKIP from the Conservatives have done so precisely because they don't believe that Cameron will follow through on this pledge.  On the final pre-election BBC Question Time last Thursday, Cameron declared for the first time that the in or out referendum on the EU would be a non-negotiable, red line condition for any kind of coalition government.

In many of the closest Labour-Conservative battlegrounds, one can see the UKIP share of the vote hovering around 10 percent.  But if the Conservatives can bring that average down to around 7 percent instead, they could retain perhaps 20 or more seats that they'd narrowly lose if the status quo holds.  And Cameron is aided in this appeal by Miliband's repeated public refusal to consider any kind of national referendum on the question of the EU.

UKIP is likely to be at about 14 percent of the national vote Thursday, their party having stronger showings in safe Labour/Conservative seats than the 10 percent they hover around in competitive seats.  This may be an indication whatever tactical/crossover appeal the Conservatives had is already being factored in.  But if the BBCs exit poll Thursday night shows UKIP closer to 10 than 15 percent nationally, it may be the difference the Conservatives need to stay at or near the number of seats they'll need to form a government again (290-295).

There remains so much still unknown just a couple days out.  But the UK election Thursday is going to be a can't miss event for all you political junkies of various ilks out there, with shockwaves that follow likely to shake up the once stable political system of the United Kingdom for a generation to come.  Polls close at 10pm in the UK (5pm Eastern Standard Time), and sometime between 8 and 10 pm announced decisions in a variety of key constituencies will provide enough of a picture that we should just how this wild ride of a 6 week campaign has played out.

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