Friday, 29 May 2015

2020: Plaid Cymru, waiting for the great leap forward

Plaid Cymru had an election to forget on 7 May 2015.  They marginally improved their vote share across Wales, but found themselves overtaken by UKIP on that measure, with the Lib Dem collapse largely bypassing them.  Their seat tally was unchanged, missing out on Ynys Mon by a whisker and failing by a larger margin to wrest Ceredigion out of Lib Dem hands.  Indeed, in their top ten targets, they lost vote share in all bar three constituencies: Ynys Mon, Rhondda and Cardiff West. 
Considering that Plaid Cymru had more election coverage than ever before and featured in the national televised debates, this failure to make any significant advance must be seen as a serious disappointment.  The contrast with the triumph of their fellow nationalists in Scotland in the same election could not be starker.

Plaid Cymru's prospects

What are Plaid Cymru's prospects for 2020? Well, first of all it must be noted that there are likely to be boundary changes, so these lists should not be taken as precise seat targets but as a general indication of where Plaid Cymru may prosper or flounder.  This is particularly important in Wales where any boundary changes are likely to be particularly far-reaching, given the current over-representation in Parliament that Wales enjoys.  A reduction in seat counts is usually more harmful for smaller parties but in the case of Plaid Cymru that may not in fact be the case because its vote is concentrated geographically, being particularly strong in north west Wales.  (It would, however, make UKIP's chances of taking a seat in Wales harder - their support is very evenly spread, not exceeding 20% in any existing constituency.)

Here are the Welsh constituencies organised by diminishing Plaid Cymru vote share:

This table was prepared by AndyJS.

Alternatively, here are the Welsh constituencies organised by the swings that Plaid Cymru would require to take each seat:

As you can see, Plaid Cymru's prospects differ considerably between the two lists given above.  Which is more useful? 

To determine the answer, we first need to look at a different election in a different part of the UK.

The Scottish great leap forward

In 2010, the SNP made only modest progress in vote share and won no new Westminster seats.  This was their target list in the run-up to this year's election, arranged by swing:

The SNP required some pretty heroic swings, and by and large it got them.  There does not seem to have been a particularly strong relationship between the seats which it did not win and the swings required to take them.  Edinburgh South and Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale would require relatively small swings to the SNP while Orkney & Shetland would have required the second largest swing.

However, there is a strong correlation between SNP performance in 2015 and its absolute vote share in 2010, at least at the bottom end of that table.  The ten lowest SNP vote shares in 2010 were (from the bottom up):

Edinburgh South
East Renfrewshire
Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk
Edinburgh North & Leith
East Dunbartonshire
Dunfermline & West Fife
Orkney & Shetland
Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale
Aberdeen South
Glasgow North

This list includes all three of the seats that the SNP did not take in 2015 and four of the five most marginal SNP seats for 2020.  It seems that if the mould is broken by a party that soars in the polls, prior vote share is a more reliable guide than swing required as to where the mould will break least.

Revenons a nos moutons

That is all well and good, but Plaid Cymru in 2015 are far behind where the SNP were in 2010.   Their vote share in 2015 across Wales is only just over half what the SNP had across Scotland in 2010.  The SNP was second in vote share in Scotland in 2010 while Plaid Cymru remains fourth in vote share in Wales in 2015.  The SNP was in power in Holyrood and was able to engineer a lengthy and all-consuming debate about national identity between 2010 and 2015.  Plaid Cymru is in opposition in the Welsh Assembly and there is no particular reason to expect that to change next year.  Mould-breaking (and Mold-taking) looks like a distant prospect.

I would pretty much completely discount the chances of Plaid Cymru in any seat where they had not already got at least 15%, even allowing for the fact that the four or five party nature of Welsh politics means that seats can be taken on relatively low vote shares.  On current boundaries, that means that they have a vague interest in just nine seats.  A uniform 5% swing to Plaid Cymru would deliver them just two extra seats on these boundaries.  A uniform 10% swing to Plaid Cymru would deliver them just one more.

But if Plaid Cymru are to make any progress at all, they need to start gaining vote share.  They can't profit by being bystanders while other parties rise and fall.  They need to look at what the SNP has achieved in Scotland, consider how that may be applied to their circumstances in Wales and act accordingly.  Otherwise, they could be waiting for the great leap forward for a very long time indeed.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

2020 and the Greens: renewing the energy

What to make of the Greens' performance on 7 May? Despite far more publicity than in previous election campaigns, they took no new seats. They strengthened their hold on Brighton Pavilion and came a clear second in Bristol West, but went backwards in Norwich South.  On the surface, they did not do much better than standing still - a disappointing result for a party that had attracted so much coverage in the election campaign.

Look a little deeper and the Greens have made some progress. Thanks to AndyJS, whose masterly work in processing election data is criminally overlooked all too often, we can look more closely at this progress.

Here are the Greens' results from 2010, ranked in order of vote share:

And here are the Greens' results from 2015, again ranked in order of vote share:

(Both of these tables are AndyJS's.)

In 2010 they contested 335 seats and won an average of 1.81% of the vote in those seats.  In 2015 they contested 573 seats and won 3.77% of the vote (even including the constituencies they did not stand in).  They saved their deposits in 131 seats, up from seven seats in 2010.  The Greens exceeded 10% in only two seats in 2010, but 18 in 2015.  They now have an estimated membership of 66,500.  This is a very substantial number and gives the Greens the ability to undertake a proper ground game.  This is all positive for them.

But let's not get carried away.  UKIP also took only one seat.  But they got more than 10% in 451 seats.  As yet the Greens have nothing like the breadth of support that even UKIP have.

Green strengths

Where are the Greens taking votes?  They are largely an English phenomenon.  They buddied up before the election with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and the price of doing so seems to have been to ruin their chances in Scotland and Wales.  They saved their deposits in just three seats in each of Scotland and Wales.

If you look at the seats that the Greens did best in, three trends stand out. First, the Greens did well in London.  Ten of their 30 best vote shares are in the capital.  All ten of these are rock solid Labour seats in inner city London.

Next, the Greens have built up significant regional strength in the south west.  Seven of their top 30 vote shares are found in this region.  You should also note that the Greens did not contest Devon East, where a Green-friendly independent scored an impressive 24% of the vote.  With the Lib Dems having lost much of the progressive vote and Labour organisationally weak in this region, the Greens have opportunities to advance further here.

The third trend, which overlaps with the other two, is for the Greens to have done well in areas with high student populations.  This report lists at the end the English constituencies with high student populations (using the 2011 census):

It does so in a not particularly helpful way, so I have reorganised this into a more useful table:

Ten of the Greens' top 30 seats by vote share had a student population of 20% or more.  Many of the others also had a substantial student population.  The Greens lost their deposit in only three of the constituencies with a student population of 20% or more: Coventry South, Birmingham Ladywood and Loughborough.

One drawback about being popular with students is that they don't usually hang around the same constituency for two elections running.  But if the Greens can embed themselves more firmly in student politics, the meme of students voting Green could transmit itself from student generation to generation.

So the Greens have three possible strands to pursue in the coming years: inner city London, the south west and student-heavy constituencies.

Green targets

Given the Greens' low vote shares, it does not make sense to prepare a list of targets created exclusively by swing required - as we have already seen with the Lib Dems and UKIP, such lists will be dominated by constituencies where the winner had a low share of the vote, regardless of whether there is any base level of support for the minority party.  Having seen that effect with both the Lib Dems and UKIP, I have decided to create a 30 seat target list based on the 30 seats where the Greens had the highest share of the vote.  (There is no right way of drawing up such lists.  By confining myself in this way, Green prospects in seats like Cambridge, Plymouth Sutton & Devonport and Portsmouth South are excluded, though the swings that they require are considerably lower than the swings in most of the seats on this list.)  Anyway, here's the table:

This is a daunting prospect for the Greens.  A uniform 15% swing would bring them just five seats from this target list.  A uniform 5% swing (which in itself is a fairly chunky swing) would get them just one seat.

Once again, it needs to be noted that we may well get boundary changes in this Parliament, so this list should not be taken too seriously.  We should be looking at this list as a general indication of where and how the Greens should be focussing in 2020, not as a precise list of named target constituencies.

The south west

The list is illuminating, however.  Three of the top four are Bristol West, Bristol South and Bath. Bristol East, while having a lower Green vote share than the top 30 targets (it's the constituency with the 32nd highest Green vote share), also requires more a modest swing than most on the top 30 list.  A Green focus on this area is automatic.

While most of these seats are currently Labour-held, organising them by reference to swing rather than Green vote share results in the six Conservative-held seats all rising to the top half of the table.  This reflects the fact that these seats have more parties contesting them;  for example, the Greens are in fifth in Truro & Falmouth but it is their seventh most promising seat in their top 30 vote shares as measured by swing required.  The south west is shaping up for a big battle on the progressive side to see who can establish themselves as the primary challenger to the Conservatives.  The Greens are reasonably well placed for this battle if they focus on it.  Will they?

Inner city London

The bottom end of the table is dominated by those inner city London seats.  If the Greens are to make progress here, they need to pull off the same trick that the SNP managed in Scotland - persuading the traditional Labour vote to defect en masse.  Right now that doesn't look remotely likely.  But those London activists will want something to do, so it's more likely than not that the Greens will pour their energies into what looks like a futile endeavour because it's more popular with a large part of its membership.

If the Greens are to try hard to break through in inner city London, they need to consider carefully what their pitch is to the typical Labour supporter in such seats.  It will not be enough to win over right-on urban professionals: the Greens will need a persuasive pitch to the urban poor as well.  They haven't managed that so far, but if the Greens can take the mantle of the anti-austerity party, they may have opportunities.  Much may depend on the Labour party leadership election and the fall-out from that.

Student constituencies

The decisions for the Greens in student constituencies are more straightforward.  They need to embed themselves into student life and make themselves the default progressive choice.  With the implosion of the Lib Dems and the vagueness of Labour's anti-austerity credentials to date, the Greens have made headway.  Labour look set to head further rightwards following their leadership election, so the opportunities for the Greens may well improve further this Parliament.


It would be surprising if the Greens were able to make a big breakthrough in 2020.  They have too much ground to cover and they can hope to make sizeable gains only if Labour donates them its left wing.  That is unlikely.

But the Greens do have opportunities to progress further.  In the south west they should be fighting hard to become the single biggest progressive party and right now that battle looks well worth fighting.  More widely, they can appeal to the anti-austerity left to pick up support on university campuses.

With its army of members, the Greens could step forward in 2020 - but only if they focus on the task at hand.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

2020: the geography of Labour's next campaign

I've looked at the broad sweep of the next election from the viewpoint of each party in turn.  What of the geography of the next election?  In particular, how does the geography affect Labour's chances of electoral success?

A boundary review is due and it is likely that many constituencies will change considerably, so there is no point in looking at the 2020 marginals yet - we don't know where they are yet.  But we can look in broad terms at how the election is likely to be fought.
The starting point has to be the current map of the constituencies.

Every picture tells a story and the story this picture tells is on the surface fairly clear.  Northern Ireland is its own special patchwork.  Scotland is an SNP fiefdom.  England and Wales are dominated by the Conservatives except in some very specific areas.  
The effect is exacerbated by the different sizes of the constituencies.  I give below the same constituency map but this time presented with each constituency represented by an equal-sized hexagon:

Scotland has shrivelled.   Meanwhile, the Conservative dominance in England and Wales is now not quite so overwhelming as the Labour-held areas have dramatically expanded in size.

Both of these maps have important things to tell us.  The second map shows that the Conservatives are not so far out of sight of Labour as some of the commentary since the election would have you believe.  And the first map shows that Labour are nevertheless barricaded in a few heartlands that take them nowhere near a majority.  Labour need to break down those barricades.
Where do Labour retain strength?  A glance at the first map will tell you the answer: London, the English Core Cities, Hull, Leicester, Coventry, Stoke, south Wales, the north east as a whole and the wider north west surrounding Liverpool, including north east Wales.  Or, to put it more briefly, by and large, big cities.  With worryingly few exceptions, Labour have become an almost exclusively metropolitan party.  They have lost Scotland and they have lost smaller town England.

(For those that haven't come across the term before, the Core Cities are a grouping of the largest cities outside London.  I wrote about Labour's deep support in these last year:
At that time the grouping was only of English cities.  Since then, it has been expanded to include Cardiff and Glasgow, but not, oddly, Edinburgh.)
Labour made ten gains from the Conservatives.  Only two of these seats fell clearly outside the Labour fiefdoms listed above: Hove and Lancaster & Fleetwood.  Meanwhile, the Conservatives took Plymouth Moor View, Telford, Southampton Itchen, Derby North, Vale of Clwyd and Gower.  Labour are getting close to maxing out in the metropolitan areas, but all the time are being edged out of smaller towns and cities - and Southampton, Derby and Plymouth are not really that small.
Many of the exceptions to the general picture - Norwich South, Cambridge, Oxford East, Exeter, Lancaster & Fleetwood - are constituencies with a large university presence. They may be smaller places, but they have much in common with the metropolitan areas. They are places where the words "urban professional" would not produce a curl of the lip.

The Labour leadership campaign has spent much of the time so far discussing "aspiration" at great length.  But the language is very misleading.  Labour have no problems talking to the residents of the places with the highest aspirations.  Their problem is rather how to talk with those who live in places where the average resident has ambitions that are real but more limited, the strivers and battlers.
This is not a new idea.  Here's a New Statesman article on the subject from 2011:

As the article acknowledges, it wasn't a new idea then either.
This seems to be why Labour have been more harmed by the rise of UKIP than the Conservatives.  It seems that the Conservatives eventually found a message that addressed the hopes and fears of a fair-sized section of the strivers and battlers.  Labour did not.  

If Labour want to win - by any definition of "win" - next time, they will need to reverse this trend.  They need to find a way to reach the unglamorous medium sized towns and cities of England.  
Let's look again at the Labour target list on existing boundaries:

It is stuffed full of such constituencies: Thurrock, Bedford, Lincoln, Corby and Carlisle are very different places, but none of them are world centres of anything and all of them have lots of people who quietly want a slightly better life for themselves - or at least, for life not to get any worse.  However the constituency boundaries are drawn up for 2020, there will be similar such constituencies that Labour will need to win over.
Indeed, Labour are not secure in all of the seats that they currently hold:

If the Conservatives can broaden their appeal, they will be circling around seats like Barrow & Furness, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Derbyshire North East and Wrexham.  In all of these seats the Conservatives closed the gap on Labour from 2010.  There are others on the Labour defence list that are becoming increasingly marginal.  However the boundaries are drawn for 2020, there will be constituencies like these that are trending away from Labour.  Unless Labour changes course significantly.
More generally, if Labour does not start to broaden its appeal, it may even find that other apparent heartlands that are outside its current metropolitan focus are vulnerable to attack if other parties get their acts together. South Wales and the north east, for example, don't fit particularly well with the rest of Labour's current heartlands.  Fortunately for Labour, its opponents in those areas are UKIP and Plaid Cymru, and neither has so far demonstrated much seat-winning prowess.  But things can change.  Labour needs to recognise the danger fast.

Friday, 22 May 2015

2020: UKIP's choices

I come now to the most interesting of my surveys for 2020.  Labour and the Conservatives will be locked in their usual battle with each other.  The SNP sit at the top of a mountain of votes and if Scotland is still in the UK in 2020, their job will be to hoard them.  The Lib Dems need to pick themselves off the canvas, if they can.  But UKIP have important choices ahead of them, choices that will determine not just their own future but have a big impact on the future of the other parties as well.

Taking only one seat, UKIP underperformed their expectations.  Indeed, even in Clacton, their 7.8% majority over the Conservatives does not look completely secure for 2020.  If UKIP's support subsides, the Conservatives might wipe even Douglas Carswell off the electoral map.  UKIP's place in the peloton of British politics is insecure and that is not helped by the factional fighting that UKIP have descended into since the election.  The first choice that UKIP have to take is to remain focussed on the electorate. 

Let us assume that UKIP manage to overcome their current round of blood-letting. Where should they aim for next?  Here are their targets for 2020:

I hope that this table is largely self-explanatory.  I have highlighted the seat and the majority in the colour of the party of the incumbent.  I have also asterisked the majority if UKIP are in third, with an additional asterisk for each position that UKIP dropped below third.  Note that the boundaries may well change in this Parliament, so this list should not be taken too seriously and should be seen more as indicative than anything final.

Two things are immediately apparent.  First, UKIP has a long way to go if it is going to get significant numbers of seats in 2020.  And secondly, the bulk of its most tempting targets are in Labour-held seats.

A long long way to run

Yesterday I looked at the position of the Lib Dems and noted that a uniform 5% swing to them would yield the Lib Dems just 16 seats.  A uniform 5% swing to UKIP would yield them just four seats.  UKIP don't have the disadvantage that the Lib Dems have that they are losing an incumbency bonus in many of their target seats, which will make future gains for the Lib Dems harder. But a 5% swing is still a chunky swing.  This would be nearly a 50% increase in UKIP's vote on 2015.  UKIP should not underestimate the task that they have ahead. 

If UKIP got a uniform 5% swing towards them in 2020, they would be on just under 18% of the vote and would win just five seats.  On a smaller vote share in 1997, the Lib Dems managed 46 seats.  UKIP need to make sure that any increase in their vote is concentrated, not uniform.  So they are going to have to choose where to focus their efforts.  If they are to pick up more than a handful of seats, they are going to need to focus on a subset of seats relentlessly. 

Worse than that, UKIP will need to make progress in a congested field.  Note the number of asterisks on the table (yes, UKIP really are in seventh place in their 23rd target seat).  They're in third place even in their top target.  They are in fourth place as early as their eighth target seat.  They're going to have to muscle past other parties in most of their target seats if they are to increase their parliamentary representation. 

But what of all their second places?  There has been much mention of UKIP coming second in 120 constituencies.  And so they did: I lost a private bet as a result.  Here they are (the map was prepared by Kieran Healy of Crooked Timber and first featured here

Click on the map to enlarge it. 

But UKIP got their swathe of second places largely in very safe Conservative and Labour seats, where their vote wasn't squeezed and where the other main party was very weak.  It might conceivably be easier to get bigger swings in such seats than in seats where UKIP are third.  But they're hardly going to be particularly easy to win.

So UKIP is going to have to choose whether to prioritise getting the smallest swings or winning the most promising two horse races - or by some other means, perhaps by a geographical focus.  Its decision will lead to very different seats being targeted.

Who to go after next?

Look again at that list of targets by swing.  Five of the top ten targets are Labour-held, as are 13 of the top 20 targets and 25 of the top 40 targets.  (But three of the four seats vulnerable to a uniform 5% swing are currently Conservative-held).

This is not what was expected before the election.  Here is my last post before the election looking at UKIP's prospects:

Look at the list of UKIP targets organised by odds.  15 of what the bookies rated to be the top 20 UKIP targets were Conservative-held seats and only four were Labour-held seats.  Contrary to all expectations, UKIP did relatively far better in Labour seats than in Conservative-held seats.

This gives UKIP a dilemma.  They started life as a Thatcherite offshoot of the Conservative party, predominantly in southern England and their sole MP has characterised himself as a Gladstonian liberal.  Their initial boost in support came from the type of southern working class Conservative voters who voted for Margaret Thatcher's Conservative party and who were alienated by the smoother posher men who followed her.  But the type of policies that would appeal most in Labour-held seats would be much more economically leftwing in political outlook and much more northern.  Are UKIP's leadership prepared or even able to go in that direction to build up their newfound voter base?  Electoral logic pushes them in that direction.  But will they be guided by a different principle?

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."  UKIP have spent all the time since the election discussing people when they should really be discussing ideas.  This is not just unedifying, it is a dangerous missed opportunity for UKIP.

UKIP have some big choices ahead of them.  They need to start thinking about them soon.  They will get nowhere without focus.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

2020: the Lib Dems, sifting through the wreckage

7 May 2015 was a disastrous day for the Lib Dems.  Overnight, they lost 49 of their 57 MPs.  This result was worse than their worst nightmares.  Will they be able to recover in 2020?

This is what remains of the Lib Dems' representation in the House of Commons:

It's a short list.

What should they be targeting next?  Here are the list of their best target seats on the current boundaries:

Note that the boundaries may well change in this Parliament, so this list should not be taken too seriously and should be seen more as indicative than anything final.  However, there are some points relating to a boundary review that are particularly relevant to the Lib Dems, as I shall note later.

I hope that both of these tables are largely self-explanatory.  On the first list I have highlighted the majority in the colour of the party of the nearest challenger (I have used grey for the SNP simply on the ground of legibility).  On the second list I have highlighted the seat and the majority in the colour of the party of the incumbent.  On the second list I have also asterisked the majority if the Lib Dems are in third, with an additional asterisk for each position the Lib Dems dropped below third.  As you go down the table, the asterisks thicken on the ground.

So where to start?  The Lib Dems will want to think about possible gains.  But the second table does not give them much to give them great hopes of a quick revival. Beyond the top 50 targets, their vote has turned to dust. The Lib Dems held Chesterfield ("target" 82) until 2010 and are now fourth. Meanwhile, target 81 is Hartlepool, in which they finished seventh.  I encourage you to take a look at the epic swings that the Lib Dems need from third, fourth or lower in the second half of this table so that you can appreciate just how few opportunities for outside gains the Lib Dems will have next time.

So the Lib Dems are going to have very few constituencies to focus on.  Just how few in practice?

A uniform 5% swing to them gets them just 16 seats.  And their chances of getting such a swing in those seats are dramatically reduced because in most cases (Bath and Fife North East being the exceptions) these are seats where the Lib Dems were incumbents with large incumbency votes. Most or all of these former incumbents will not be standing in 2020, meaning that any new candidate will be starting from a much lower base.  Of the top five Lib Dem targets, former incumbents Vince Cable, Norman Baker and Stephen Lloyd have already said that they are retiring from politics.  They are typical of the ousted Lib Dem MPs, and their successors as candidates will not have a residue of loyalty to draw on. 

It gets worse for the Lib Dems.  As I have noted, the Lib Dems trade heavily on local loyalties and incumbency.  If the boundary changes go through, that remaining loyalty and incumbency will be weakened further.  Meanwhile, each of the 49 seats that the Lib Dems have just lost now have 49 incumbents, all of whom will be seeking to entrench themselves using the type of tactics that the Lib Dems pioneered so successfully. 

We can probably add at least 10% to the size of the majority that the Lib Dems would need to overcome in most cases (that assessment of 10% may be being charitable to them).  If so, the Lib Dems are going to struggle to make any gains at all without a dramatic revival in their fortunes. 

 Meanwhile, the Lib Dems cannot be confident of holding all of their current seats next time.  As the first table shows, they don't have large majorities anywhere other than Westminster & Lonsdale.  The value of their incumbency in many seats looks set to be weakened by boundary changes (though I expect the boundaries of Orkney & Shetland to remain unaltered).  And some of their current MPs will probably retire in 2020.  What are the chances that Nick Clegg will be standing again?  Or John Pugh (who by then will be 72)?

7 May 2015 was a disastrous day for the Lib Dems.  But it seems to me that the extent of the disaster has yet to be fully understood.  It is entirely possible that it was the day that ended the Lib Dems as a significant force in British politics.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

2020: where next for the SNP, Britain's third party?

The SNP lost the war in September on the referendum but won the battle in May at the general election.  In the end, it was a crushing victory for the SNP in Scotland on 7 May, exceeding all bar the most optimistic predictions. 
It is possible that Scotland will be independent by 2020, which would render speculation about how they would do in a general election in that year redundant.  But for the moment I want to think about how the 2020 election will shape up if Scotland hasn't thrown off the English yoke by that date.
As was noted in the comments yesterday and as I have flagged previously, we are due a boundary change, perhaps with fewer seats, so comments based on existing boundaries should not be taken too seriously.  But they should give us a general idea of the lay of the land in general terms.  Fewer larger constituencies favour parties with greater proportionate support in general, so if the number of constituencies is reduced we can expect the SNP's position to be entrenched still further (though I would expect Orkney & Shetland to remain on its present boundaries for reasons of geography).
For once, I only need to attach a link to one table.  Here are the seats that the SNP currently hold:

With 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats, the SNP lion is rampant.

Could they complete a whitewash next time?  It's certainly conceivable.  The three remaining seats are:

1. Dumfriesshire Clydesdale & Tweeddale (Conservative majority 1.5%)
2. Orkney & Shetland (Lib Dem majority 3.6%)
3. Edinburgh South (Labour majority of 5.3%)

A uniform swing to the SNP of under 3% would see them clear the board.  Bearing in mind that they managed swings to them of on average just under 24% from Labour on 7 May, such a swing will seem like a small step to them.  If the SNP are performing well in the polls in five years' time, they will fancy their chances of completing the set.

If we now turn to the seats that the SNP now hold, we can see that the SNP are in a commanding position not just in seat count but in terms of their resilience against adverse swing.  If the SNP suffered a uniform adverse swing against them of 5%, they would lose just six seats.  A uniform 10% adverse swing would cost them exactly half their seats.  But a 10% swing is of the order achieved by Labour across the UK as a whole in 1945 and 1997 and so would represent a landslide.

It gets better for the SNP.  There was apparently quite a bit of tactical voting among unionists on 7 May, and the Lib Dems appear to have benefited particularly from this.  Many of the smallest majorities were former Lib Dem-held seats (including three of those six seats vulnerable to a 5% swing against the SNP).  With the unionist incumbents having been turfed out, the tactical voting against the SNP is likely to dissipate to some extent at least.  This will make even small swings that bit harder for the SNP's challengers to obtain.

Who are the SNP's chief enemy?  Two weeks ago the answer was obviously Labour.  But look at this table and now it's not so clear.  Such is the scale of the SNP's obliteration of Scottish Labour, they don't even rank as the main challenger in the majority of the most marginal Scottish constituencies.  Labour are second in only nine of the 20 most marginal Scottish constituencies, as compared with the Lib Dems' seven and the Conservatives' four.  Even if Labour can get the landslide 10% swing against the SNP referred to above, they would still only take 15 seats back - the other 13 would fall to the Lib Dems (eight) and the Conservatives (five).

Moreover, in at least four or five of what are now the most marginal Scottish seats, Labour's support seems to have been sustained in significant part by tactical unionist votes.  It must be questionable whether these tactical votes can be kept.  Labour seem to have done best - or rather, least badly - in pro-unionist areas which had sitting MPs who were able to reach out across party boundaries.  With those sitting MPs presumably unlikely to stand again in 2020, any personal vote will be lost.  And with Scottish Labour currently looking likely to turn leftwards, they don't look particularly likely to be replaced by candidates who will even try to reach out across party boundaries.

The Conservatives will be hoping to make some progress in 2020, with an unwinding of tactical voting for other unionist parties following the loss of incumbency.  But Scottish Conservatives' idea of progress would be to take a handful of seats and to come second in a handful more.

So all in all, the SNP look set very fair to dominate in 2020 just as they do in 2015, assuming always that Scotland is still in the union.  For that domination to be put under threat, Scottish politics would need as much of an upheaval as it got in the last Parliament.  Is that possible?  Sure, it has already happened once and very recently.  Is it particularly likely?  No.  We look to be living in a new electoral landscape in Scotland.  We all need to get used to it.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

2020: where might the Conservatives go from here?

Yesterday I looked at Labour's position following the last election.  Today I look at the Conservatives' opportunities and challenges.
The Conservatives have been understandably euphoric about their unexpected overall majority.  This euphoria has strayed close to hubris at times.  Is it justified?
Here are the seats that they currently hold (ranked from most marginal to safest):
And here are their target seats, ranked in order of swing that the Conservatives require to take them:
I hope that these lists are fairly self-explanatory.  On the first list I have highlighted the majority in the colour of the party of the nearest challenger (I have used grey for the SNP because bright yellow is hard to read).  On the second list I have highlighted the seat and the majority in the colour of the party of the incumbent.  On the second list I have also asterisked the majority if the Conservatives are in third.
But remember, there may well be boundary changes which may or may not result in a reduction in the number of seats in the House of Commons.  In general these are likely, but not certain, to be to the benefit of the Conservatives.  These lists should therefore not be taken too seriously but do show how the next election will shape up in the broadest terms.

Let's look at the second list first.  The Conservatives' chances of substantial further gains look limited.  It is unusual enough for a party of government to get a swing to it after serving in power, and the swings required start to get quite large quite quickly.  The first 17 targets would fall to a relatively modest swing of 1.6% (that would give them a majority of 46) but double this swing would be required to take even 29 seats (and a majority of 70) on a uniform basis.  A historically unprecedented 5% swing to an incumbent government would yield 48 seats (and a majority of 108) on a uniform swing.  Even if the Conservatives stay in power after 2020, a landslide looks unlikely.

If the Conservatives are aiming to make further progress, they will need to improve their performance in London in particular, the location of seven of their top 20 targets.  And they would need to train their fire on Labour: only five of their top 50 targets are not held by Labour.

But it is much more likely that we will be spending the current years thinking about how vulnerable the Conservative-held seats are.  And there too, the main battle is with Labour, who are the main challengers in exactly three quarters of the top 100 seats.

With a majority of only 12, the Conservatives could lose their majority very easily.  A uniform swing of just 0.5% would wipe it out.  That's a hair's breadth. They should be able to remember that they are mortal without anyone whispering in their ears. 

Beyond that point, however, the Conservatives have built up decent majorities in their seats.  A 3% uniform swing against them would deliver only 29 seats to their opponents (and only 21 would transfer directly to Labour).  It would take a 4.7% uniform swing against them for the Conservatives to lose 50 seats, of which only 38 would fall to Labour.  The experience in 2015 was that the Lib Dems did not come close to retaking any seats where the Conservatives had broken their incumbency.  Ten of the Conservatives' 50 most vulnerable seats are Lib Dem held.  The Lib Dems may find it harder than Labour to get the swings required against the Conservatives to take target seats, given their particular past emphasis on incumbency.  Whether the Conservatives can keep these former Lib Dem seats may determine whether the Conservatives have most seats and whether the Conservatives remain in power in 2020.

But what is likely to be the critical seat count?  With the Lib Dems so diminished in numbers and in any case likely to be less well-disposed towards the Conservatives in future, the Conservatives have few potential supportive partners after the 2020 election.  If they get 305 seats or more, they will probably scramble home with support from the DUP, UKIP and/or the Lib Dems.  Fewer than that and the progressive parties are likely to be just too strong.

So the Conservatives probably need to restrict any swing to Labour to roughly 3% or less, and to hold onto their gains this time round from the Lib Dems.  Far from being invincible, Conservatives should have no particular expectations of retaining power in 2020.  It's going to be a hard fought battle.

Monday, 18 May 2015

2020: Labour's challenge

Since the election we have been treated to a lot of angst from senior Labour politicians.  Liz Kendall claimed: "One more parliament like the last means we might be unable to form a majority government again."  Jon Cruddas, going further, said: "this could be the greatest crisis the Labour party has faced since it was created. It is epic in its scale.”  Are they right?
I do not propose looking directly at the direction that Labour should go in.  But I have taken a look at the electoral landscape that they now face.  Here are the seats that they currently hold (ranked from most marginal to safest):
And here are their target seats, ranked in order of swing that Labour require to take them:
I hope that these lists are fairly self-explanatory.  On the first list I have highlighted the majority in the colour of the party of the nearest challenger (I have used grey for the SNP simply on the ground of legibility).  On the second list I have highlighted the seat and the majority in the colour of the party of the incumbent.  On the second list I have also asterisked the majority if Labour is in third, with an additional asterisk for each position Labour has dropped below third.
Now it must be noted at once that we will probably have boundary changes before the next election (these may well make Labour's position weaker, though this is not certain).  So these lists should not be used unthinkingly.  The sands are expected to shift.
From these lists, however, quite a few conclusions can be drawn.
Know your enemy
One thing stands out from both of these lists: Labour should be focussed pretty much exclusively on the Conservatives.  Of their top 100 targets, all bar 14 are Conservative-held seats.  Of their top 100 most vulnerable seats, all bar 16 have a Conservative as nearest challenger.  The lesson is simple: Labour has to turn all its efforts towards its traditional battle with the Conservatives.
The point should not need making, but apparently it does.  Already Labour supporters are considering how to get back "their" Scottish seats from the SNP.  But only seven SNP-held seats feature in the top 100 targets.  When it comes to forming a majority in Westminster, Scotland is a sideshow.  Nothing that has happened since the election suggests that the tribulations of Scottish Labour have ended or even that it has yet reached its nadir.
Similarly, there has been much talk about how UKIP are now second-placed in a plethora of Labour-held seats.  And so they are.  But chiefly this is a feature of very safe Labour seats.  UKIP are second in only five of Labour's 100 most vulnerable seats.  If UKIP start getting swings the size that the SNP achieved in Scotland this time, then they will take lots of Labour seats.  But if that happens, Labour will have many other problems than just the challenge of UKIP.  And it's not as though the post-election period has been particularly happy for UKIP either.
Labour should not be distracted.  Everything it does needs to be geared towards undermining the Conservatives.  Everything else is of secondary importance.
The scale of the challenge
It has been noticed quite widely that Labour will need a very large swing if they are to win an overall majority: just under 10% on a uniform basis.  This is true.  Indeed, Labour need something like a 5% swing if they are even to get most seats.  To put this in context, a swing of the level required for an overall majority has been achieved since the Second World War only in the 1945 and the 1997 elections.  A 5% swing has been achieved in only three more elections in that period.  Clearly Labour have a major challenge ahead of them.
But Labour is demonstrating a goldfish-like ability to forget all the discussions before the election about what happens in the case of a hung Parliament.  Because most of the other Parliamentary parties dress to the left, Labour does not even need most seats to be best-placed to form a government.  It just has to gain something approaching 40 seats from the Conservatives and to be ready to play nicely with others.  This is rather less of a challenge.
Going back to my earlier point, Labour taking seats off the SNP in 2020 doesn't do all that much to improve Labour's prospects of leading a government: the SNP's supporters expect it to back a Labour government, so the seat count for a hypothetical coalition or minority government is left unaltered by transferring a seat from the SNP column to the Labour column. If Labour plus SNP totalled 326, all the huffing and puffing in the world from the Conservatives won't stop a Labour-led government from being formed.
Labour taking SNP seats would help, of course, in addressing scare stories put forward by the Conservatives about the malign influence of the SNP over policy and it would help in giving Labour legitimacy for forming a government if it got it closer to being the largest party.  But these are secondary rather than primary benefits.
Implications for the Labour leadership election
When selecting their new leader, Labour members need to be aware that they do not have very good prospects for an outright majority in 2020 in the absence of something big happening and that even getting most seats looks quite tough from where they start now.  There is much that is uncertain in the coming five years, but Labour would do well to plan on the basis that these uncertainties won't necessarily work in its favour. 
So if Labour prioritises power over ideological purity and if it wants to aim for an overall majority or most seats, it should avoid "no change" candidates.  It should look for the candidate that would most undermine the Conservatives' prospectus to the country.  And it should consider the quite likely possibility that its leader will need to work in concert with other progressive parties, so it should look for a good negotiator and someone comfortable with the idea of working on a cross-party basis.
The last time that Labour had such a leader, he managed to achieve a sufficiently large national swing to make the idea of a coalition entirely unnecessary.  By contemplating a broad coalition in 1997, Tony Blair was able to create one under the banner of his own party.  Are Labour party members ready to select a leader that offers a similar approach?  And do any of the current candidates actually do so?

Thursday, 14 May 2015

I'd rather be happy than right: 2015 personal election review

Well that didn't go as expected.  With the luminous exception of Scotland, I was completely wrongfooted by how the election result turned out.  I could argue that so was everyone else but that would be a bit of a cop out.  It's my turn to eat some humble pie.

So what did I get right and what did I royally mess up?  The best place to start must be my end of year predictions:

These were, in order:

1. There would be a hung Parliament
2. It will be neck and neck between the Lib Dems and the SNP which would be the third party.
3. UKIP would get a good poll rating and few seats to show for it.
4. The Greens would take precisely one seat: Brighton Pavilion.
5. The debates would take place, basically in the format put forward by David Cameron.
6. The election campaign wouldn't change very much.
7. There would be a Labour minority government.
8. All of the leaders (except Nicola Sturgeon) would be in peril of losing their jobs.

Not good, are they?  I was right about UKIP and the Greens, half right about the debates (the format changed considerably) and right about the pressure on the leaders apart from David Cameron - though Nigel Farage's bouncing resignation was an innovation in British politics that I hadn't expected.  But for the rest, I was hopelessly wrong. 

There's no point sugaring the pill, this was a terrible set of predictions.  What went wrong?

Despite being very aware that polling was an unreliable friend and likely to be particularly unreliable this time with the rise of UKIP and the SNP and the crash of the Lib Dems, I still relied heavily on the opinion polls.  I think I acted correctly when I put together these predictions - you have to make use of the evidence that you have got in the absence of concrete reasons to doubt that evidence.  At the turn of the year, I had no such concrete reasons.

In fact, my year-end predictions were largely what I expected right up to 10pm on 7 May 2015 (but by that stage I expected the SNP to far outstrip the Lib Dems, though even then not by as much as in fact happened).  The polls had remained static, even though the mood music from both main parties and the campaign itineraries of the two main party leaders suggested something different from the polls.  That failure to revise my expectations was less forgivable.  Ed Miliband would not have been campaigning in North Warwickshire and David Cameron would not have been campaigning in Twickenham and Bath if they didn't believe that the election was far adrift of where the polls suggested.  One of them might have been wrong.  Both of them were most unlikely to be.  I should have taken more notice.

So I wasn't right.  But I am still happy.  Why?  Because my betting produced the returns I was looking for from them.  How did I turn a profit when I had been such a poor prophet?  I need to break this down into asset allocation, stock selection and timing.

As of 10pm on Thursday night, my portfolio of fixed price bets was comprised in the following categories:

1. Scottish constituency bets, almost all on the SNP
2. English constituency bets, the great majority on the Conservatives, but not exclusively if I saw bets that I thought offered disproportionate value on other parties
3. Hung parliament (I'll come back to this)
4. Labour most seats
5. Labour minority government
6. Laying David Cameron as Prime Minister after the election and backing Ed Miliband as Prime Minister after the next election
7. Miscellaneous others

I had placed some spread bets, but this time I didn't put huge sums at stake that way.  My focus was elsewhere.

You can see from the bets that I placed that these were partly indirectly hedging.  Relative longshot Conservative constituency bets were inconsistent with bets in categories 4, 5 and 6 in particular.  By selecting constituency bets that I felt were likely to outperform each party's run-of-the-mill seats for the same odds, I hoped to maximise returns.

I did so well on my Scottish constituency bets that everything else pales into insignificance.  They comprised roughly 80% of my winnings.  This was a triumph of asset allocation - all those hours I spent poring over the likeliest SNP wins proved entirely superfluous in the end (indeed, at an early stage I had managed to back the SNP to win Edinburgh South, the one seat that they did not take, though having obtained odds of 25/1 on that possibility I can scarcely be too upset).

But I did OK elsewhere also.  On Thursday morning, I thought that most of my English constituency bets on the Conservatives were heading for the virtual ashtray.  But on Friday morning, they largely came up trumps.  My strategy of seeking out value on both sides of the fence left me ahead.  Here, stock selection was more important.  And I did OK, particularly as regards the battle between Labour and the Conservatives.  

Labour took ten seats from the Conservatives.  Of these, I had placed losing bets on the Conservatives holding City of Chester, Hove and Ilford North.  But conversely I did bet on Labour taking Brentford & Isleworth and Ealing Central & Acton.  I avoided betting on the other five either way.  Meanwhile, I successfully backed the Conservatives (at fairly long odds) to keep many of their other most marginal seats, and while I'd backed Labour to take some other seats, I am not embarrassed by my choices there either.  Taken as a whole, I think I did a pretty fair job of identifying which Conservative seats might underperform and where Labour might outperform against the Conservatives.

In other battlefields, the story was much closer to neutral overall (I did conspicuously badly with UKIP).  But I did best where I'd bet most.  

I made one other critical decision early on Friday morning which was worth a four figure sum to me.  After seeing the exit poll, I was aware that it was in doubt whether the Conservatives would merely be the largest party or whether they might get an overall majority.  Following the results in Nuneaton and Swindon North, where the Conservatives had outperformed the exit poll in each case, I reversed my previous position on no overall majority and backed the Conservatives getting an overall majority at fairly long odds.  Timing was everything on this. 

If this all sounds too smug, please return to the top and reread my serving of humble pie.  I will.  Overall, I made a complete hash of my predictions.  Fortunately, I got away with it.  This time.