Is Nick Harvey right that “Labour is on course to win the next election”?

by Stephen Tall on November 23, 2013

Nick Harvey MPSir Nick Harvey, Lib Dem MP for North Devon (and former defence minister), has little doubt who’s going to win the next election, as he tells the Huffington Post:

… Harvey has a “clear sense” of what he thinks is going to happen. And even more than that, he is “astonished” that few others within the Westminster Village share his view.

“Stand fast a game changing event, which is always possible in the febrile political era in which we live, Labour is on course to win the next election,” he declares. “This election is Labour’s to lose.”

Is he right? In one sense, the answer is yes. The Conservatives haven’t been in the lead in a single opinion poll since George Osborne’s ‘omnishambles’ budget in March 2012. And though confidence in economic growth is starting to kick in among voters, Labour’s lead has edged up since the conference season – suggesting there isn’t an automatic correlation between a recovery in the economy and a recovery in Conservative fortunes.

Besides, even tying with Labour in the popular vote isn’t good enough for the Tories. After all, David Cameron beat Gordon Brown by a much more comfortable margin than Tony Blair beat Michael Howard – yet Cameron was left without a majority.

History isn’t a consistent guide. Let’s look back at the polls at the equivalent point in the electoral cycle:

  • Nov 2008 – average Conservative lead of 8%. Result: Conservative margin of victory of 8% (May 2010).
  • Nov 2003 – average Labour lead of 3%. Result: Labour margin of victory of 3% (May 2005).
  • That looks good for the predictive potential of the polls (though please note the averages I quote above span a wide range). Go back further, though, and the reliability fades:

  • Dec 1999 – average Labour lead of 24%. Result: Labour margin of victory of 12% (June 2001).
  • Nov 1995 – average Labour lead of 30%. Result: Labour margin of victory of 12% (May 1997).
  • Still, though the margins were a long way out, at least the polls forecast the right result. Which is more than happened in earlier elections…

  • Oct 1990 – average Labour lead of 12%. Result: Conservative margin of victory of 8% (April 1992).
  • Dec 1985 – dead-heat between Labour and Conservatives in polls. Result: Conservative margin of victory of 11% (June 1987).
  • Dec 1981 – SDP/Liberal Alliance leads Labour and Conservatives by over 20%. Result: Conservative margin of victory of 14% (June 1983).
  • Looked at like this, we see polls this far out from the election are sometimes reliable and sometimes not reliable for forecasting the result of the next election.

    There are two political scientists currently making real-time forecasts for the next election based on today’s polls. Each points in a completely opposite direction:

  • Martin Baxter – Current Prediction: Labour majority 84.
  • Stephen Fisher – Current Prediction: Conservatives largest party, but short of a majority by 3.
  • Here’s Nick Harvey’s – I think pretty sound – analysis of the situation:

    “Most people say it would be an absolutely crowning achievement,” he says. “It’s very difficult to see why anyone would vote Tory next time who didn’t last time. There’s not much history of incumbents gaining votes between elections. It would be a superlative accomplishment if the Tories were to achieve 36%.” To gain votes in 2015, Harvey says, must be the “apex of their most wild fantasy of their ambition”.

    As for Labour, Harvey predicts that the lowest Ed Miliband will poll is 34% – having siphoned off around 5% of the Lib Dem vote. “That’s before they make any headway against the Tories in marginals. If 36% is the most the Tories could achieve and 34% is the least Labour is going to achieve, plot that on a seat predictor, Labour has already won. Labour has probably got a 15-seat majority. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote with most going to the Labour Party means that the Tories have probably lost two dozen seats before they even get out of bed.”

    Harvey concedes the Lib Dems will suffer in the popular vote. But he is confident that the parliamentary party will largely survive largely intact. “The smarter Tories will realise the collapse of our popular vote will have a far more devastating impact on them than it will on us. We will be able to concentrate on the seats that matter to us.”

    He adds: “Remember at the 1997 election we got 16% of the vote and 46 MPs. I’d take that now if that was on offer for the next election.”

    On the face of it, that will leave Labour with a smile on their faces. Except, as I’ve pointed out before, such a small majority would be a nightmare scenario for Ed Miliband. John Major’s fate – held to ransom by his extremist backbenchers – still looms large in British politics.

    Update: Ryan Coetzee, Nick Clegg’s director of strategy, replies:

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.