Predicting the Polls: the 2015 General Election

By Joshua Townsley

For political scientists, the 2015 UK general election will be one of the most exciting in years. The traditional Labour-Conservative-Lib Dem dominance is being challenged from all sides. On the right, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has surged, winning the European elections in 2014 and gaining its first MPs. On the left, the Green Party is gaining in the polls, at times running neck-and-neck with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. In Scotland, a resurgent Scottish National Party (SNP) looks set to make staggering electoral gains. With the two larger parties, Labour and the Conservatives, virtually tied nationally, the likelihood of either party winning enough seats to form a government alone seems unlikely. In 2010, the three largest parties garnered 88% of the vote. Polling shows that this has fallen to 74% today. Insurgency on all sides of the political spectrum means that the British electorate face an unpredictable election and a variety of potential hung parliament scenarios.

The number of competitive parties and the closeness between Labour and the Conservatives make the 2015 general election tough to predict. However, many are trying to do just that. Using the latest national opinion polling, combined with constituency level polling provided by Lord Ashcroft, various forecasters are predicting the number of seats each party will win in May. The latest predicted seat ranges are shown here, along with the 2010 results.

These forecasts will fluctuate constantly during the campaign, as the latest opinion polls are fed into the models. However, 4 broad predictions will remain relatively constant.

Lab v Con

Firstly, it is expected that the Conservatives will lose a small number of seats. Having secured 36% of the vote in 2010, the party will struggle to make seat gains unless it polls higher than this in May. The party is currently on around 34%, so this seems unlikely given Labour’s recovery in the polls since 2010. Having gained only 29% of the vote in 2010, Labour looks set to gain seats with its current 34% in the polls. Ed Miliband’s party will hope to take seats from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in England and Wales.

SNP Surge

However, Labour’s gains look set to be held back by trouble in Scotland. Following the independence referendum, the Scottish Nationalists (SNP) have captured an anti-Westminster sentiment and seen their popularity and membership soar. Nicola Sturgeon’s party looks set to secure over 40% of the vote in Scotland, which should see them return over 40 seats to make them the third largest party at Westminster. The vast majority of these seats will come from Labour, hampering their chances of becoming the largest party.
Lib Dem Losses

Thirdly, the Liberal Democrats look set to endure substantial losses. The popularity of Nick Clegg’s party has suffered greatly in coalition, and most forecasters expect the party to lose around half of its 56 seats. Lib Dem MPs tend to be relatively popular locally however, and the party could benefit from tactical voting as it often has in the past. These factors could see them return 30+ seats on a good night. Nevertheless, Labour, the SNP, and the Conservatives all expect to make gains at the Lib Dems’ expense on election night.

UKIP Underwhelmed

Finally, while nationally strong, forecasters expect UKIP to struggle to win more than 5 seats. Despite seeing a surge in electoral support since 2010, UKIP still faces the obstacles of a first past the post electoral system that punishes smaller parties. Farage’s party enjoys relatively strong support in coastal constituencies between Kent and Lincolnshire, which represent their best chances of gaining MPs.

All To Play For

Combined, these trends make the composition of the next UK parliament nearly impossible to predict. A scenario wherein the largest and third largest parties cannot form a majority government is likely. Every shift in the opinion polls will cause substantial changes in seat numbers. When it comes to which combination of parties can form a government after May, every seat will be vital. It really is all to play for in British politics today.

A version of this article also features on the Blog here, as part of a wider course on British Politics that Joshua Townsley has recently authored, which can be found here.
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