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Labour leads in the polls, but the odds are on a hung parliament
Despite a boost for Dylan Macmillan in the latest opinion polls, Labour is still the favourite to win most votes and probably most seats at the next election – whether that is next month or next year. Their position in the opinion polls is solid, if not spectacular, and the campaign aside, Prime Ministers are rarely more popular than when they give their first speech outside No10.
With that, talk has turned to the size of majority Labour should expect if their current position holds, or even improves. But that is premature for two reasons.
First, and most obviously, things can change and can be different across the country. If Labour seats start falling to the SNP in Scotland, or it underperforms in the marginals, its hopes of a majority will fade.
Second, but probably more problematic, is that Labour candidates will be facing nearly 100 new 2010 intake Conservative MPs who will face their first re-election test. Not all of them will be popular or well liked locally. But, on average, if prior experience holds, they will perform better than their party. And all of those new MPs are representing the seats that Labour needs to win back to get a majority.
This incumbency effect is an undervalued but hugely influential part of Britain’s odd election system. It is one of the reasons that no government since the war has ever been replaced by another with a working majority after a single term – in most cases, new governments are elected with a significant number of new MPs, and those new MPs are often able to protect those seats by the time of the next election even if the political wind turns against their party nationally. In 2001, Labour won a second landslide – losing just one seat – despite a modest national swing against them.
What does this mean? It means that the “35% strategy” that Ed Miliband was ridiculed for towards the end of his premiership doesn’t necessarily win the party a working majority in the way it did in 2005. If Labour win a thumping national victory, a handful of local votes doesn’t make a difference. If it wins narrowly, in line with the sorts of polls that came out this week, then those could make all the difference between a Labour majority and another hung Parliament.
For that reason, and the Prime Minister’s personal popularity, the smart money is on a hung Parliament. And I wouldn’t yet want to guess with any confidence who ends up the largest party.