Since all 18-year-olds were given the vote in 1969, there have been eleven general elections.
Technical point (skip this if you don’t like statistics). If we asked a representative sample of eleven British people how they intended to vote in May 2015, the margin of error on the results would be +/- 30 percentage points. That means that if 50% of them said they would vote Labour, the actual figure for Labour support across the population could be as low as 20% or as high as 80% – i.e. not a very accurate estimate at all.
So when people put forward general rules for rare events like elections, World Cups, and earthquakes, be sceptical.
One thing we know for certain is that not only will the 2015 General Election break long set precedents, but it will also be very difficult to predict – causing us pollsters plenty of headaches!
At an LSE seminar on Wednesday pollsters, academics and forecasters had their say about the state of polling in advance of next year. The forecasters presented their models and explanations, and historical precedent plays an important role in many of those predictive models. But do these precedents apply in 2015?
- There have not been two successive hung Parliaments in the UK since 1910, while recent history in Canada, where they recently experienced three in a row, suggests that once you’ve had one, it makes another more likely. Many predictions and estimates point towards another Hung Parliament here next year.
- The Conservatives are aiming to be only the third Party since 1900 to increase their vote share after more than two years in office, the last time being 1955.
- Labour too are trying to make their own bit of history and become the first Party since 1931 to win a majority after just one term in Opposition.
This all tells us then that whatever the result, it will be something we have not seen in a while. What makes it even more difficult to predict are the number of “known unknowns”.
While Simon Cowell claims to look for the indescribable “X Factor”, it is exactly that surprise package that pollsters want to avoid, because it makes accurately measuring it more challenging.
In 2010 we experienced “Cleggmania” where it appears that the Liberal Democrat leader’s first TV debate performance attracted a number of “bandwagon supporters” seemingly pushing the then third party of British politics into contention for the second spot. Of course, this never materialised and much like many of the X Factor’s winners, the fortunes of the Lib Dems have spiralled downwards after a brief appearance near the top of the charts.
In previous elections the Liberal Democrats have benefited from increased, equal coverage during election campaigns and have tended to increase their position in the polls compared with “peace time” when they were often overlooked. It would be difficult to argue that they have been starved of the oxygen of publicity in this parliament. Instead they are suffering from the reality of being a party of government. They have had to make hard decisions all governing parties have to make, but have not received any of the benefits as they are still not sufficiently regarded as a credible party of government.
With the Liberal Democrats being in the inconvenient position of being in government, the Conservatives following in the tracks of all governments before it and becoming ever more unpopular, and Labour’s 14 years in power all too memorable, it is little wonder that we now have a fourth dimension in British electoral politics.
UKIP, having passed the audition stages of the local elections last year and the European bootcamp stage in May 2014 where they showed their mettle by winning a national election, are now on their way to the live finals of a General Election campaign. They have everything Simon Cowell looks for: the plucky underdog, denied fame for years, and appealing to the masses with a strong narrative. And they do no harm at all to viewer ratings.
It is the new prominence of UKIP, a Party which registered just over 3% of the vote in 2010 but now consistently outpolls the Liberal Democrats, which is perhaps the biggest imponderable of General Election 2015. It is fruitless looking to the past for clues to how well UKIP will do in the future.
The disruptive effect of UKIP on the result is probably the biggest unknown of 2015. Although there are political conditions which are particular to Britain, this is part of a wider European trend of division among the Right. However, UKIP, as evidenced at their conference this week, are now shifting their battlefield beyond just ex-Tories and are hoping to appeal to disgruntled Labour supporters too. UKIP have capitalised on voter frustration with the status quo. ComRes’s polling finds immigration to be the public’s top priority and yet Westminster often struggles to talk about it in a way which voters find appealing. It follows then, that UKIP are the Party the British public most trust on the issues of immigration. UKIP have certainly added a certain amount of “X factor” into the 2015 General Election.
Many have predicted prematurely the decline of UKIP – after all, history tells us that they have previously done well at European elections and then disappeared. What we have learnt is that perhaps history won’t be much help in looking at 2015.