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. An enduring theme of the election emerged early on in the campaign, the idea 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.
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.
First, 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.
Second, I would be willing to bet that the Conservatives will emerge as the largest party. 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 easier said than done. But the likelihood of Labour emerging as the biggest party does appear less than the Conservatives coming out as victors.
Third, 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.
Fourth, the Liberal Democrats 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.
Fifth, the Lib Democrats will make way for the Scottish nationalists, and 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 which, lastly, UKIP 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 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 argues. At the very least, the polls tell us the likely parliamentary arithmetic. But needless to say, anything could change between now and polling day. The interesting thing will likely be 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.
Dr Matthew Broad is currently a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Reading, UK, and will from January 2016 be a Marie Curie Individual Fellow at the University of Turku, Finland. His areas of research interests are European integration, Anglo-Nordic relations and post-1945 British politics. He blogs at matthewbroad.comby