For quite a while now the media has been doing a good job of convincing us all that the Tories are on their way back to power. Be it in The Guardian or The Daily Mail, David Cameron has for the past year or so been consistently portrayed as the next PM, and the assumption that the Conservatives will win the next election is now firmly embedded in political journalism.
It’s easy to understand why political commentators are taking a ‘Tories-will-win’ line: Brown is a jaded, unpopular prime minister who presides over an uninspiring administration – an administration which has been finding it hard to appeal to Labour supporters, never mind floating voters. And the Tories have been ahead in the polls for ages.
In strictly democratic terms, the Tories will not win the next election. They will get around 36% to 42% of the vote, with the majority of the country voting the way it always does – for centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems). But under the UK’s antiquated and grossly unfair electoral system, first-past-the-post – which rewards parties that win a minority of the vote with a majority of seats in parliament – a 40% chunk of the vote could still result in the Tories getting back into power.
However, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the Tories may not win a majority in parliament. Instead, I think that a lot of indicators are increasingly pointing to a hung parliament (where no party has overall control).
There are four main reasons why I think the Tories are unlikely to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons at the next election:
1) The Tories have a seriously big hill to climb to reach a majority
The Conservatives need to win 117 seats in the next election to gain an overall majority of one, and 140 seats to win a 'working majority'. This will require at least a swing of 6.9% to the Tories – the biggest swing in 60 years, according to BBC journalist Michael Crick. And I’m not sure that Cameron (a multi-millionaire ex-member of the Bullingdon Club) has sufficient populist appeal to pull that kind of swing off.
2) It’s harder than ever before to secure an overall majority in the House of Commons
As Michael Crick also points out, the number of MPs elected who are not Tory or Labour but “others” (Lib Dems, Democratic Unionists, Respect etc.) has grown massively over the years – from 7 MPs in 1959 to 100 MPs in 2005. The main effect of this has been to create a ‘balance of power’ block in parliament and make it harder for any party (and particularly for the Tories) to win an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons.
3) Constituency boundaries favour Labour over the Tories
According to the UK Polling Report, the way that constituency boundaries are currently defined means that there is an “in-built bias” for Labour in the electoral system that will frustrate the Tories’ attempts to secure a majority in the House of Commons. A combination of out-of-date boundaries, over-representation of Wales and other oddities means that Labour will automatically win “more seats per votes cast” than the Conservatives.
4) The polls are narrowing, and the economy may be improving
Largely because of the above factors, in order to win an overall majority, the Tories need to poll significantly higher than Labour in an election – 12% more, according to Professor Michael Thrasher from Plymouth University. Six months ago, opinion polls suggested that this was not an implausible scenario – many polls had Labour 20% behind the Tories. But today’s Observer poll has Labour on 31% and the Tories only 6 points ahead at 37%. And Labour’s decent bye-election win in Glasgow North East also points to a possible shoring up of their support.
This improvement in Labour's electoral fortunes and its standing in the polls may be to do with perceived improvements in economic circumstances; and if the state of the economy does improve significantly before the election (as many are now suggesting will happen), it may give Brown a boost which further narrows the Tories' lead to a point where they cannot achieve an overall majority.
The next election could be the most fascinating in years. But what happens after it could be even more interesting: a hung parliament might finally lead to the introduction of a fair voting system - Proportional Representation - if the Lib Dems end up being kingmakers and demand it as part of a deal for propping up Labour or the Tories.
My betting career only goes as far as putting £2 on a horse that didn't win the Grand National - but next May or June I might throw a few bob after a hung parliament. And I'll definitely be staying up all night to watch the election.
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