One of the most difficult things for political types to grasp is how little most people care about politics. I have seen focus groups in which normal voters are unsure who Ed Miliband is. If they are a bit more interested in current affairs than average they will know that he is called David, that he went to Eton and that he is leader of the Conservative Party.
If the focus group is briefed a bit more fully, and is reminded that the Government is a coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, and that Ed Miliband is the Leader of the Opposition, they will generally recall, unprompted, only one thing about him: that he did in his brother to get the job.
That may be why half of the voters interviewed by ComRes for The Independent on Sunday last weekend said that they were not bored with news about the general election. Most of them probably haven’t noticed any.
So, when we say that there are only 100 days to go until the election, remember that many voters won’t know that there is an election on at all until 30 March, when David Cameron goes to the Palace and Parliament is dissolved. Even then, they may not actually think about their choice until the postal ballot arrives, or until it is time to go to the polling station – if they bother to go at all.
That means that a lot of parties’ time and energy is wasted on messages that won’t be noticed or, if they are, won’t be understood. Last week, the Conservatives emailed supporters with some slogans that by now will be up on Facebook and Twitter: “Imagine if you didn’t vote. Imagine if that meant – [photo of Ed Miliband] – Ed Miliband became prime minister.” I guess that this is effective. It is a simple message designed to raise awareness and funds, addressed to people who already know who Miliband is and who don’t like his policies.
Experts' predictions for the general election
Experts' predictions for the general election
1/10 Andrew Hawkins (ComRes)
Just as the polls in 2010 pointed to no overall majority for any party, the overwhelming evidence points to Labour either being the largest party or getting a small majority, probably below 20. The Lib Dems and SNP should each win between 25 and 35 seats, with single-figure wins for both Ukip and the Greens.
2/10 Joe Twyman (YouGov)
I predict it will be close. I predict a few tremors, though earthquakes are unlikely. I predict the eventual winner may not be the direct result of public opinion, but instead the outcome of political negotiations. It’s too early to predict numbers given all the uncertainties surrounding (among other things) Ukip, the SNP and the Lib Dems. It is possible that it will be close between Conservative and Labour in terms of both votes and seats. The Lib Dems might retain 20-30 seats and the balance of power, despite small gains for the SNP, and at most half a dozen Ukip seats. Gun to my head? Labour minority government.
3/10 Ben Page (Ipsos MORI)
A mug’s game for this election months away, but my predictions in order of likelihood: most likely a hung parliament or coalition of some kind, closely followed by either a small Labour majority or an equally small Conservative majority. Given how close the parties are, the unknown performance of Ukip in key marginals, the effect of incumbency on Lib Dem losses, the final size of SNP surge and so on, to be more precise is simply foolish! Professor Tetlock, who found that forecasts by experts were only slightly better than throwing dice, weighs heavily upon me!
4/10 Rick Nye (Populus)
I can see a hung parliament, where Labour is the largest party in terms of seats – though not necessarily in terms of votes, with the Lib Dems having 30 seats or fewer, the SNP having up to 20 seats and Ukip having no more than five seats. In short, it’s going to get messy and stay messy for some time to come.
5/10 Nick Moon (GfK)
I can’t recall there ever being an election more difficult to predict than this one. I’m confident no party will have an overall majority, with the Tories probably the largest party but no single partner for a viable coalition, with the Lib Dems on 25 seats, the SNP 20, Ukip three, and the Greens one.
6/10 Damian Lyons Lowe (Survation)
We might have expected a workable Labour majority, were it not for the wild-card rise of the SNP in Scotland. Survation’s December Scottish polls suggest an almost complete wipeout by the SNP in Scotland and result in 40+ seat gains – mostly at Labour’s expense. My current predictions are: Labour the largest party by 40-50 seats over the Tories, no overall majority; Tories 235-255 seats; Lib Dems 20-30 seats; SNP 30-40 seats – maybe held back from potential support level by opposition incumbency and tactical voting by pro-unionist voters. Finally, Ukip, 5-10 wins from Conservatives, including Rochester and Clacton, and potentially a single Labour-seat surprise.
7/10 Michelle Harrison (TNS)
The battleground over the next three months is at the kitchen table – the difference between what the statistics tell us about the economy, the experience that Britons are having of managing their household budgets, and where – and if – they believe politics can make a difference. In this regard, the disconnect with the major political parties is more interesting than the horse race.
8/10 James Endersby (Opinium Research)
Our first poll for 2015 shows Labour one point ahead [see above], but polls four months out from an election are snapshots, not predictions. It would be extremely unwise for a pollster to make a firm prediction now. At the moment, Opinium’s estimate on polling day would be the Tories slightly ahead on vote share, but Labour slightly ahead on seats. These numbers are based on a uniform swing, with tweaks to Green and Ukip numbers based on local information: Labour 320 seats, Conservatives 271, Lib Dems 20, SNP 16, Plaid Cymru three, Greens two, Ukip four. A hung parliament with Labour potentially closer to a majority coalition than the Conservatives.
9/10 Martin Boon (ICM)
I’ve not recovered from the Scottish referendum campaign yet, and here we go with another wildcard strewn nail-biter. For me, Labour on 30 per cent will only fractionally nudge past their woeful 2010 showing – behind the Tories on 33 per cent – but enough to secure more seats (290 for Labour, 280 for the Tories) on boundary wackiness. The Lib Dems will secure 14 per cent of the vote and 35 seats; Ukip will also get 14 per cent, but that only gets them a couple of seats. As for Scotland, I’m bewildered, but as you asked I’ll say 30 seats for the SNP, which wipes out a breathing-space victory in seats for Labour.
10/10 Lord Ashcroft (Lord Ashcroft Polls)
Declined to take part. His spokeswoman said: “As he has said many times, his polls are snapshots not predictions.” Health warning: when The Independent on Sunday carried out a similar exercise in April 2010, at the start of that year’s election campaign, eight out of eight pollsters predicted a Conservative overall majority.
Contrast it with another message that some Conservative politicians have tried to use: “Vote Ukip, Get Miliband.” I am told by Tories who have been on the doorstep that this message is completely unsuccessful. The idea that, if a voter would prefer Cameron as prime minister to Miliband, a vote for Ukip rather than for the Tories makes it more likely that Miliband would form a government requires a surprising amount of prior knowledge. On the doorstep, the typical Ukip-leaning floating voter replies, “No, I’m voting Ukip to get Ukip.”
An ICM poll, published last week, found that 35 per cent of people who say they will “definitely” vote Ukip expect Nigel Farage to be prime minister after the election; 78 per cent think Ukip is likely to be “part of the government”. Anyone with more information, such as the betting markets’ expectation that Ukip will win five or six seats, would realise that the chances of either event are about the same as those of Farage being reincarnated as a pigeon.
My point is not to bemoan the level of public understanding of politics, although it is worrying how few people know the difference between the debt and the deficit, for example. My point is that many people have not yet really decided how to vote, even if they might give pollsters a reflex answer to the question.
So, although I am obsessively interested in the predictions of how many seats each party is likely to have in the next parliament, and all the weird and wonderful scenarios for a hung parliament, the one thing we can be sure of is that the opinion polls now do not tell us the result on 7 May. Opinion shifted dramatically during the last general election campaign. Thanks partly to Nick Clegg’s performance in the television debates, the Lib Dems gained six percentage points in the last 100 days. The Conservative Party, possibly because it had overdone the austerity message, lost two points, and Labour was unchanged.
How much does opinion usually shift in the final 100 days? Looking back over the last 10 elections, since February 1974, the average change from this point before each election was a one-and-a-half point gain for the Tories and a five-point loss for Labour. Or you can cut the numbers up in a different way and say that the governing party lost an average of one point and the opposition lost an average of two points. (The Lib Dems and their predecessors gained an average of three).
Some of the movements in the final 100 days were large. Not just the six-point Cleggmaniac surge last time, but a five-point Tory gain in 1987 and seven-point drops in Labour support before five different elections: October 1974, 1979, 1992, 1997 and 2001. In each case, these changes were down to politics, politics and politics. Thank goodness, no forecasting algorithm can capture that.
The current bunching of predictions around Labour ending up as – just – the largest party in a hung parliament is almost bound to be wrong. But which way?