Friday, 17 April 2015

The Lib Dem battleground in April 2015

This week is my pre-election round-up of the seat markets, and I'm ploughing through the parties one by one (metaphorically speaking).  On Wednesday I looked at the constituency betting markets as they currently stand from a Labour perspective.  Yesterday I looked at the Conservatives.  Today it's the Lib Dems' turn.

So here's the table of all the seats where the Lib Dems' chances are ranked by the bookies as 16/1 or better, ranked in ascending order of implied probability:

These figures are up to date as at 13 April 2015.

To recap, this table is compiled on the basis that in aggregate the constituency odds are our best estimate of what's going on, while noting that there may be individual anomalies (otherwise known as betting opportunities).  The constituency odds factor those matters in to the best judgement of bookies and punters. By arranging constituencies by order of odds rather than majority, we can see how many seats gamblers expect the parties to take - or what the odds are that each party will take a given number of seats.
The overarching picture for the Lib Dems has deteriorated decisively since November, the last time I took a comprehensive look at the seat markets.  They are longer than 5/6 in 31 constituencies that they currently hold (up from 24 in November), 5/6 being the price that the bookies use for a 50:50 shot (they have their margins to make).  

In June, the Lib Dems were priced at odds of greater than 2/1 in ten of the constituencies that they hold.  By November, that had risen to 14.  Now, there are 21 such seats.

Despite the Lib Dems facing many more Conservative challengers than Labour challengers, the favourites in these 21 seats is exactly evenly divided between Labour, the Conservatives and the SNP.  This represents a strengthening in both the SNP's and (to a lesser extent) the Conservatives' position since November, while Labour have stood still.  

The position is getting worse for the Lib Dems at the other end of the spectrum too.  In June, the Lib Dems are rated at shorter odds than 1/2 in 22 seats.  By November, this had fallen to 19.  Now, there are only 14 seats where the Lib Dems are thought to be a better than 1/2 shot.

So why are the Lib Dems doing so much worse on the seat markets now?  In part, as with Labour, it's a consequence of the SNP's surge in Scotland.  But in the main, it reflects the failure of the Lib Dems to recover in the polls in the run-up to the election.  A recovery had been priced in and it hasn't happened.

For those that want to look at my previous outings on the Lib Dems, here's my review in October:

And here's my June review:
One of the central questions of the next election is: how far will the Lib Dems fall from the 23% they recorded in 2010 and where will those losses be felt most?  

The Lib Dems seem to be doing particularly poorly in Scotland, if the Scottish only polls are to be believed.  They also seem to be set to be obliterated in seats where they are not in contention.

What of seats where the Lib Dems are in contention?  We have conflicting polling.  The constituency polls for Lord Ashcroft tell a reasonably hopeful story for the Lib Dems, showing their local effort potentially leading to them to hang on in many redoubts.  But a recent ComRes poll of the Lib Dem-held seats in the south west with Conservative challengers tells a very different story, showing a swing of 13%, which would lead to them losing every single seat in the region on a uniform swing.  At the other extreme, we have details of some Lib Dem private polling showing many of their incumbents doing phenomenally well.  They cannot all be right (though they can all be wrong).  Which should we believe?

Lord Ashcroft derives his headline constituency poll numbers from the second of a two part question, where voters have been guided to concentrate on who is standing in their constituency.   His standard questions are as follows:

"1. If there were a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for? Would it be Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP or another party.  If 'another party': Would that be, the Green Party, the British National Party (BNP) or some other party - or do you not know how you would vote?

2. And thinking specifically about your own constituency and the candidates who are likely to stand there, which party's candidate do you think you will vote for in your own constituency at the next general election? [Prompts as at Q1]"

ComRes's question did seek to elicit a local response. It read: "Please now think specifically about your own constituency, the issues it faces, the local MP and the different candidates. At the General Election coming up in May, would you vote Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, UKIP or for some other party?"  It did not, however, explicitly lead voters through the same process as Lord Ashcroft.

Lord Ashcroft's approach relies on voters going through the same two stage process that he prompts them to.  If the Lib Dems' electoral machine is running smoothly, that may be a safe assumption.  In seats where the Lib Dems are not so fluent, perhaps it isn't.

So my expectation is that the Lib Dems may overperform in seats where they have the organisation to get out the vote and underperform elsewhere.  Past performance is not always a guide to the future, but it is at least a guide to where the Lib Dems have the organisational skills.

The methodology behind the Lib Dems' private polling is here:

As you can see, it asks the respondents to consider the merits or otherwise of the Lib Dem incumbent and her chief opponent before asking the voting question.  I shall be charitable about the Lib Dems' private polling and say that it may provide a useful guide to them as to how to frame the election to maximise their vote, and releasing such polling may well be useful to them for obtaining tactical votes.  It may also be a hint to the seats where the Lib Dems are well organised: we have seen leaked polls from some constituencies but not from others.  I draw a fairly good inference in the most threatened constituencies where we haven't seen leaked polls that the Lib Dems may well be up against it.

So, what individual seats do I recommend?  Generally, I'm cautious where the Lib Dems are heavily involved because of the general murk about how their local performance.  I don't believe that there are many home bankers unless you have very firm views about which constituency polling methodology is correct.  I don't.

That said, I pay closer attention to individual constituency polls from Lord Ashcroft than usual, because they should pick up the performance of the local MP, which is going to be exceptionally important in Lib Dem held seats.
Given the Lib Dem decline in vote share, any bets on short priced Lib Dem seats is a bet on the quality of that constituency's party machine.  I've put some money on the Lib Dems in Thornbury & Yate at 2/7 because I reckon that Steve Webb's personal vote will see him through comfortably, but I don't regard this bet as being as safe as some of the short priced bets on Labour and the Conservatives yesterday.
It may be better to identify misfiring challenges.  The Conservatives in Southport seem to have been no better organised than in 2010, so the 1/2 on the Lib Dems is worth a bet.
Alternatively, the murk may mean that you get better value in the 1/2 to 2/1 band than in supposedly safer bets.  I've put bets on the Lib Dems in Cheadle at 4/5 and Eastleigh at 4/7.  The latter price in particular looks too long, with the Conservatives failing at the by-election and UKIP apparently fading outside their top targets at present.

All bets on the Lib Dems are very much AYOR.  These are inherently riskier bets than bets in straight Conservative/Labour fights, because local considerations may (or may not) weigh much more heavily than in other contests and much is not visible from the outside.
What of the seats where the Lib Dems are the challengers?  For quite some time, I have regarded many of these prices as way too short.  If voters in these seats weren't going to vote Lib Dem at the height of enthusiasm for Nick Clegg, you need an exceptional reason to think that they're a worthwhile bet to make a gain.  The value for me is almost always all on the other side of the bet.  In the last two posts, I've already mentioned Ashfield and Maidstone & The Weald as seats where the incumbents are good value.  You might well form the same view of Oxford West & Abingdon, Truro & Falmouth and Newton Abbot.

Tomorrow I'll turn to the SNP.

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