in Politics

Majorities, polls and the election

For those that like symbolism today is just 164 days until the (or a) likely date of the general election.

While Brown could wait until 3 June next year – and there have been rumours that 25 March might be the date – for a long time the main betting seems to have been on a combined poll with the local elections on 6 May 2010.

So why do I think the 164 days are significant?

Well, here in Battersea Labour’s Martin Linton has a majority of just 163 votes. In the incredibly unlikely event that the electorate in Battersea remained the same between 2005 and 2010 the Conservatives would need to find just one vote per day between now and the election to gain the seat from Labour. An easy task? I don’t know. It’s certainly not one that is taken for granted, and the weekend’s poll showing Labour “slashing” the Conservative lead shows exactly why the election isn’t a foregone conclusion.

The poll has certainly created jubilation among Labour supporters who now feel there is still a chance they can win next year. And in response a degree of denial from Conservatives. Personally, I’m sitting on the fence. I remember being one of the underdogs in 1997, 2001 and 2005. And I remember how tempting it is to jump on any poll that gives you hope.

I also remember how depressing it is when the next lot of polls all show that it was just a rogue.

But what the poll does show, however, is exactly how hard the battle will be for the Conservatives. If you pop over to the Electoral Calculus website you can play with percentages and see how they would play out. In this case the 6% lead to the Conservatives makes them the bigger party (with no overall majority) by just 18 seats with 296 MPs to Labour’s 278.

If we look at previous elections you can see that the electoral system is skewed in Labour’s favour. In the 2005 election Labour won just a 3% bigger share of the vote than the Conservatives, but this netted them 158 more MPs. In 2001 a 9% lead gained them 227 more MPs. And both elections produced substantial Labour majorities.

However if you go back to the last election the Conservatives won, in 1992, their 7.5% lead represented the most votes ever cast for a single party in the UK but garnered them just 65 more MPs than Labour and an overall majority of just 21 that had eroded to nothing by the time of the 1997 election.

I should be clear this isn’t a complaint about the electoral system, which I like and greatly prefer to any system of ‘proportional’ voting – but an observation current distribution of constituency boundaries means, overall, the electoral system heavily favours the Labour Party. And that means the Conservatives have an almighty task ahead of them. They need to lead by around 8% before they have an overall majority.

But while the overall figures may suggest a there’s a huge mountain to climb, that’s not the case in individual seats. In Battersea it might ‘only’ be 164 votes needed, but they will only be won with hard work on the ground. Exactly the same as all the other majorities that will be over-turned next year when each seat will makes its contribution to an historic election.

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