For the last few years I have got into the habit of making predictions about the coming year. I do so not because I think that I'm particularly prescient (I'm not, as I showed yesterday) but because I want a record of what my thoughts were at a given point and to see how those assumptions were confounded or met over the year.
The last few years have been trial runs, but 2015 is a big year in British politics. What's going to happen?
Where we are now
The first thing we need to do to find out where we are going is to establish where we are now. At the end of 2014, I summarise the current state of British politics as follows. Labour seem to have a tiny lead over the Conservatives: however, both are languishing at lower polling levels than either is accustomed to or would have hoped at this stage. Labour seem to have gone backwards over the last year, shedding votes to the SNP, the Greens and UKIP, while the Conservatives are flatlining:
From the barrage of constituency polls that we have had this year, it seems that the swing from Labour to the Conservatives in the marginals is of the order of 2 or 3% at present. That raises the question how trustworthy constituency polls are, of course.
The Lib Dems remain nailed to the canvass in the national polls, though they are bearing up a bit better in some of the constituency polls where they are incumbents, at least where the Conservatives are their main opponents. UKIP have had a very good year, picking up two MPs by defections and currently tallying something like 15% in the polls. Meanwhile, the SNP have responded to their defeat in the referendum by gaining a huge wave of support and are currently miles ahead of Labour in the Scottish polls.
The public remain disdainful of politicians. George Osborne is reckoned on balance to be doing a good job but the public don't like him. David Cameron and Nigel Farage have their fans (but more detractors), while Jacques Cousteau would be needed to investigate the popularity ratings for Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg this year. Incredibly for a Labour leader, Ed Miliband has lower popularity ratings in Scotland than David Cameron.
With the public thinking so little of politicians, they're making up their own minds about what they think about things. It's like watching a convoy of rubber ducks floating on the ocean, being carried by currents in different and not immediately predictable directions.
What of the economy? The economy has done pretty decently in 2014, certainly by international standards, and employment rates are at a record high. This has not yet flowed through into wage increases, so the public is not yet getting any benefit from any economic upswing. Meanwhile, the deficit remains obdurately high. Oil prices are coming down, which is starting to flow through to the price at the petrol pumps. But the Eurozone looks set to be plunged into renewed uncertainty with the pending Greek general election, and nothing good looks likely to come out of the confrontation with Russia any time soon.
Public services to date have been bearing up surprisingly well, given the pressures on public finances. The NHS seems to be struggling more this year than last year, however, and there's still plenty of time for a full-blown health service crisis to erupt.
Isaac Asimov set his short story Franchise in 2008, so by now it should be possible for one man to determine the election, right?
1. The next election will produce a hung Parliament
This is a long-standing prediction and I'm sticking to it. Right now, I'm pretty confident about this prediction - I wouldn't bet against it at anything less than 5/1 and even at 5/1 I wouldn't be racing to bet on either party getting an overall majority. The chances for the Conservatives of securing an overall majority look ethereal, while those for Labour look flimsy. In fact, I'm not expecting either to get 300 seats as matters stand now.
The last year has failed to show any upswing in Conservative fortunes at all. Will the coming months of 2015 be any different? I expect they will see some upswing, as voters start focussing on the decision at hand. But I doubt it will be all that much - a very few percentage points that will come primarily from UKIP and Don't Know.
Ed Miliband has had an awful end of the year, with his conference speech proving to be a turkey. Given his success in previous conference speeches and the importance of the last before an election, this was both surprising and devastating for his credibility. He seems to have been recovering his poise for the end of the year, but he is poorly placed to rally the troops.
I currently expect Labour and the Conservatives to be neck and neck for most seats. Right now I'd give Labour the edge. But I'm not very confident about this.
2. It will be neck and neck between the SNP and the Lib Dems as to which is the third party
I expect the SNP now to break through in Scotland. The referendum has produced a decisive realignment in Scottish politics and Labour has not yet caught up with this. It has just over four months to do so, and while I regard Jim Murphy as a capable politician, even the most inspirational player is going to struggle to turn round a three goal deficit with ten minutes to go. I expect that the SNP will get upwards of 30 seats in Scotland.
Conversely, I expect the Lib Dems to be reasonably resilient against Conservative opponents and as a result to get something towards the top end of their expectations in seat tallies - maybe as many as 35.
3. UKIP will get a good poll rating and few seats to show for it
The kippers are not going to go away before the next election. They have successfully kept in the public eye throughout. They have a fervent core that passionately believes in their party a (nd their leader. They haven't got the slightest interest in voting tactically.
In seats which are safe for the main parties now, no one will try to dissuade them. So UKIP will get sizeable vote shares in those seats. Unless, however, they have a further polling advance, they are not going to have seats to show for those sizeable vote shares.
Kippers are going to be put under pressure to vote tactically in marginals where they are not in contention. This will have limited success with soft kippers (kedgerees?), but rather less than the main parties might hope, given the fervour of the UKIP faithful.
What of UKIP's own prospects for seat gains? I expect UKIP will get a handful - if I were forced to guess now, maybe as many as ten. Beyond Clacton, it's hard to predict exactly which seats and I expect some surprises - as much for the seats that they don't take as the seats that they do. And of course, we may yet see one or more defections to UKIP before May.
4. The Greens will take precisely one seat: Brighton Pavilion
They'll put in a good effort in Norwich South and a decent effort in Bristol West, but I don't see them taking either.
5. The debates will take place, basically in the format put forward originally by David Cameron
When David Cameron originally put forward his 2:3:5 format for debates (Lab+Con; Lab+Con+LD; Lab+Con+LD+UKIP+Green), it was suggested by some that it was a spoiler to ensure that the debates wouldn't take place. However, the broadcasters put forward a 2:3:4 format, with the Greens ending on the cutting room floor. With the Greens perking up in some of the polls and the desire to get the debates taking place, I anticipate that the broadcasters will accede to the original idea put forward by David Cameron.
This is rough on the SNP and on Plaid Cymru, and broadcasters will need either to ensure that the debates don't take place in the election campaign period or to ensure that the SNP and Plaid Cymru get their own chance to put their arguments to their publics. But a way will be found.
6. The election campaign won't change very much, but a lot of people will try to persuade you otherwise
Election campaigns rarely change the result too much, except when a party's campaign implodes. That is possible, but unlikely.
Last time round I persuaded myself that the Cleggmania was real, and placed speculative constituency bets accordingly. If I'd simply gone away for a month and placed no bets, I would have made more money than I actually did.
I'm expecting the same to be true this time around as well. My most confident prediction is that a lot of very excitable kippers will be predicting gains in all kinds of seats. These claims will be hard to judge because it is UKIP's first time seriously contesting a general election. Without the most compelling evidence, I shall be treating such claims with a lot of caution.
7. The next government will be a Labour minority government
Yes, I'm talking my own book here, but it does seem to me the single most likely outcome. If you agree with me that the next Parliament will be a hung Parliament, the Conservatives are going to need to be able to secure a majority with the support of the Lib Dems before they are in serious contention to form the next government (with one exception, which I will come back to). That means that they need at least 290 seats, which looks a real stretch right now.
The one exception is the idea, floated this morning in the FT, of a grand coalition:
Numerically, it is likely to be by far the most stable government. In cold logic, it would make short term sense (though Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage would swoon in ecstasy at all their soundbites being made flesh). In reality, both sides are way too tribal to make it work.
So the government looks likely to be Labour-led. Will it have any other component parts? It is my assessment that the Labour leadership don't see the need to get a formal coalition together and have no wish to reward the Lib Dems for their perceived treachery in 2010 or the SNP for having taken substantial numbers of Scottish seats in 2015. So they will go it alone.
8. All change at the top (mostly)
The election result will convulse all the main parties (with the exception of the SNP).
If David Cameron is out of power, he is out of a job: the Conservative party is ruthless that way and anyway too many of his MPs hate him for him to survive. Who will replace him? Much depends on a man whose thoughts are hard to read: George Osborne. In 2005 he declined to stand for the Conservative party leadership, recognising correctly that the public would engage much better with David Cameron. He has established a large client base in the party, and if he stood he would certainly stand a good chance of getting the job. Does he now want to do it?
My guess is that he has not changed his self-assessment and that he would prefer to be a power behind the throne. If he is wise, he will not have changed his self-assessment - he is too disliked on a visceral level by the public and too associated with David Cameron to be able to take the party forward. If he throws his weight behind Sajid Javid, he would immediately become the man to beat. The Conservatives like making unexpected choices and Sajid Javid would tick a lot of boxes that the Conservatives would dearly love to tick. He's also a pretty orthodox Conservative.
If George Osborne jumps the other way, I expect Boris Johnson would get the job. It would be entertaining, at least.
If the Lib Dems are not in government, as I expect, then I expect Nick Clegg to make way in 2015 for someone that the public would listen to. If the Lib Dems were wise, they would choose Steve Webb, who is a minister who has personally achieved much in office, is personally charming, comes from the left of the party but has shown he can work well even with the most Thatcherite of ministers and could articulate a fresh vision of liberalism.
However, I expect that the Lib Dems will choose Tim Farron.
Labour would not be immune from turmoil. While it would be in government, the many in the party who are unimpressed with Ed Miliband would find ways of giving voice to their unimpressedness. So long as Labour get most seats, Ed Miliband is probably safe enough. If, however, Labour fall behind the Conservatives in the seat count, there must be a significant chance that Ed Miliband would face a leadership challenge, even if Labour led the government. I do expect Ed Miliband to stay on if Labour are in power. But I don't see it as a certainty by any means.
Oh, and Nigel Farage better win his seat in Thanet South. It's hard to see how he could remain leader of the party if he was not part of its Parliamentary representation. Though Lord Farage has a certain ring to it, I suppose.