UK 2015 forecasts

With the UK general election three weeks away, Chris Hanretty of the team offers a comparison of their forecast with those of two other academic teams, and Polling Observatory.

The forecasts must estimate a nationwide vote share for each party, and then devise a means of projecting these figures on to the 650 individual plurality (FPTP) contests that make up a UK House of Commons election. Given these two stages for any forecast, Chris’s comparison includes running their own seat calculator on other projections’ vote shares.

One thing all the projections agree on is that no party will be close to half the seats, although the confidence interval on the ElectionsEtc and ElectionForecast figures for the Tories include the majority mark (barely). All agree that Labour has almost no chance of winning a majority.  Another point of agreement is that the leading party in votes will be the Conservatives, but on only 34%, with Labour just a percentage point or two behind. In each projection, the confidence intervals on vote shares overlap. So, yes, the race remains more or less tied.

For those of us who enjoy anomaly watches, the PollingObservatory forecast (as of 1 April) has Labour ahead in seats, 276-271, despite being just behind in votes. The other two put Conservatives ahead on seats as well as votes, although again with overlapping confidence intervals.

On the eve of the 2010 elections, I ran some numbers from FPTP elections around the world up to that time, asking how uncommon it was for the largest party have less than 36% and the third party have more than 25%. The answer, in my sample of 210 FPTP elections, was one (Nova Scotia 1998). There was at least one other that was missing in my data, Quebec 2007, where all three leading parties were within a range of 33.1 to 28.3. The question arose, because it was the consensus of the final polls that the UK was going to have such an election. However, it did not quite get there. The Conservatives made it just over 36% and the third-place Liberal Democrats slipped to 23.0. In other words, there may have been some last minute tactical (strategic) voting by just enough voters to make the result just a little more “Duvergerian”.

If we think of Duverger’s Law as a baseline expectation for an electoral system like the UK, the projections for this election might be said to conform, if all one cares about is the relative dominance of the top two over the rest. Thanks to the fall of the Liberal Democrats since entering the coalition in 2010, all projections agree that there will be a big gap between second and third. Of course, the top two on around 33% each is not exactly what we normally think of as a Duvergerian outcome, regardless of the gap between second and third. The interesting thing to watch is if there is sufficient late desertion of the UKIP (on 10-13%) and Greens (less consequentially, as they are under 5%) to push the leading party up over 36% again. If that is the Conservatives, there might be an outside chance of a majority government, depending on the constituencies where such tactical voting takes place. UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, recently called on supporters to vote Conservative in seats UKIP can’t win, and there is some evidence of UKIP slippage in recent Ashcroft polls of marginal constituencies.

For now, let’s suppose that the seat projections are about right. Are there any combinations of two (other than Labour-Tory) that would control a majority? The House contains 650 members, but Sinn Fein (of Northern Ireland) does not take the seats they win, which were five in 2010. That makes the majority threshold probably at 323. A combine of Labour and Scottish National Party (SNP) gets there, according to Polling Observatory–barely: 325 (or 324 if using ElectionForecast’s seat model).

How likely is Labour-SNP cooperation? Nicola Sturgeon, SNP leader, has been appealing for it–not for a formal coalition, but for blocking a Tory government. An exchange in the final debate (opposition parties only; video) was telling. Labour leader Ed Miliband forcefully refused, saying he had fundamental disagreements with the SNP, mainly over the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum. He said no to a “coalition”. However, he pointedly did not directly say there could be no cooperation short of a governing coalition, although he shook his head dramatically when Sturgeon appealed for him to join her to block the Tories. He is in a bind, for sure. Sturgeon is probably right when she says left-leaning voters would never forgive him if he refused cooperation and allowed a Tory minority government to form. On the other hand, he certainly has to be careful not to signal intention of working with a party that would break up the UK.

A path to a stable Conservative-led minority or coalition government is hard to see, on these projected numbers. However, two of the projections have Conservatives and Liberal Democrats at 311. I find it hard to believe the Liberal Democrats would enter a coalition again with the Tories, but less hard to believe they could enter a looser arrangement. However, such a combination would still be a around a dozen seats short, and even the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists (not in the projection models, but 8 seats in 2010) would not quite get them there.

Absent a late surge for the Tories, it still looks like a government led by the party with the second largest number of seats, and needing support from Scottish separatists, is the most likely result. Let me close with an understatement: This will be interesting.

31 thoughts on “UK 2015 forecasts

  1. Another reason that I think a minority Labour government is the mostly likely scenario is that Labour will sometimes be able to get votes from the Tories if the SNP is demanding too much.

    That said, the idea of Ed Miliband as a wheeler-dealer PM is pretty hard to fathom.

  2. Another such forecast site is Martin Baxter’s Electoral Calculus:
    It currently has Labour + SNP on 328.

  3. How common is it in a FPTP jurisdiction that the 2nd placed party formed the government? This is common in the Nordic countries, but rarer elsewhere

    For the UK, it is getting to use to the idea that coalitions and/or minority governments are the norm. The two large parties will have to adjust and whether the FPTP result thrown up is extremely perverse to cause electoral reform.

    • What would the result of this election been like if the Alternative Vote referendum had passed? Would the Conservatives have an easier time of forming government under the AV system?

      • Almost certainly yes. While UKIP votes have come from both Labour and the Conservatives, they have mostly come from the Conservatives. It’s also easier to say ‘You can still vote UKIP, but put the Conservatives second to stop Ed Miliband’ than ‘Even though you would prefer UKIP, don’t give them any support: just vote Conservative to stop Miliband’.

      • A further interesting question is what would the Liberal Democrats’ performance be in this election if AV were in place? Are they still sufficiently seen as “second best” so that they would win many more seats than under FPTP (as a simulation at the time, based on 2010 results, suggested)? Or are they now sufficiently reviled that they might do even worse with AV than with FPTP?

        The above-linked simulation suggested that, off 2010 votes and second preferences (estimated from an opinion survey), the LibDems would have won 89 seats under AV: their actual 57, plus 13 seats actually won by a Tory and 19 won by a Labour candidate.

      • Considering the advance of the SNP in Scotland, Labour should be kicking themselves for not backing AV, which might have prevented the loss of at least 5-10 seats by bringing them lower preferences from other unionist voters (as polling indicates, tactical voting is likely to work in their favour too, but AV would have done so much more efficiency, without voter information problems and including votes from people who will not vote tactically under FPTP).

    • Not too uncommon in Canada. The best known example was 1925, when the Progressives supported Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King for eight months. A better example is 1985 in Ontario when the NDP supported the Liberals taking power under an Accord with a two-year term (today we would call it a confidence-and-supply agreement). This is starting to become discussed in Canada, since polls suggest the coming election in October may result in the second place party forming the government, either in a coalition or an accord with the third party. However, the UK may beat us to it.

  4. I continue to suspect the forecasters are underestimating Labour’s seat count, given how well Labour tends to do under current constituency boundaries. I have not seen much analysis in detail of such “bias” in the election coverage so far, though.

    • The models certainly take that factor into account. The biggest problem Labour has right now in converting votes into seats is its Scotland problem.

  5. At the moment, the likeliest result is a coalition of the Conservatives and Labour, which all these commentaries ignore.

    What is different in this election is that there is a prospect both of neither of the two big parties gaining a majority, but the Liberal Democrats taking too few seats to work as a coalition partner, the balance being taken up by the various Scottish/ Welsh/ Northern Irish nationalist and unionist parties, and UKIP and maybe the Greens. But for differing reasons, both Labour and the Conservatives would prefer to deal with each other than with the SNP or UKIP. So that is what they will probably wind up doing.

    • I don’t know about that. Labour is having enough trouble fending off challengers from the left, like the SNP and Greens: ditto the Conservatives and UKIP. A coalition of that sort would only serve to make both leaders look like sellouts, and strengthen UKIP/SNP/Greens even more.

  6. One would need a heart of stone not to laugh at David Cameron’s situation. Four years after the 2011 Alternative Vote referendum resoundingly proved that 62% of Britons with an opinion of the matter hate Nick Clegg because he’s both (a) a squishy crypto-Tory sell-out, hated by his own supporters [] and (b) Eurocratic socialist perpetual kingmaker [], Mr Cameron may yet end up being denied a popular-vote plurality because of ornery UKIP candidates splitting the combined right-wing vote. And after explaining that only first-past-the-post voting guarantees “strong, stable government,” because it throws away votes for “silly” third and fourth parties, the Tories will be faced with up to ten years of hung parliaments because they are so detested in Scotland that they’re the third or fourth party in fifty or more seats. Enjoy that sandwich, chaps, you prepared it.

    • So your saying that David Cameron has miscalculated and perhaps he could have benefited from the AV system? FPTP is producing instability just as much as a PR system would. It is very funny and amusing that they expect to win a majority. Why do parties miscalculated when things change?

      Why are the Tories so detested in Scotland and Wales? What is the history behind that for those that don’t know?

  7. I would add the British Election Study to see how voters are indeed switching parties, and the final allocation of seats forecasted for this election.

    The mean forecast shows:
    Conservatives 287
    Labour 282
    SNP 50
    LibDem 11
    UKIP 1
    Plaid Cymru 1
    Others 1

    If these are the final results, there is still a question out there: Will ever Ed Milliband be able to become (a lasting) PM?
    1. In any (very unlikely) Grand Coalition (Con-Lab), David Cameron would keep the PMship.
    2. If Labour and SNP come up with a creative ‘deal-no-deal’ sort of coalition, as soon as the SNP brings the issue of the referendum (and they cannot avoid that), any coalition-lite would break apart. Question for any who knows: Is a minority government held by the second largest party sustainable in the UK system? I guess not. In that case, the Tories would regain the PMship.
    3. If Labour and SNP do not form a coalition, a minority government led by David Cameron should be in place. Would it last enough? Anyhow, as this nice article in The Guardian indicates (, 10 out of the 20 British governments in the 20th century were either minority (5) or coalition governments (5)…

    Amongst the various possibilities, there is a chance to call new elections. However, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011 would prevent this from happening unless two thirds of the House of Commons agree to call early elections—one third equals 216 seats. (Or of course there is a non-confidence vote in place.)

    • I think 11 seats for the LibDems is by far the lowest projection I have seen, and I doubt it will be that low. They have good local/personal vote in some of their constituencies that will save them from such a massive wipeout (I think).

      Yes, a minority government headed by the second largest party is entirely possible. As long as there is not a majority to vote against it, it could survive. That might be unlikely, and note that the majority voting against would not have to agree on a single alternative framework. So the second party in seats could survive only as long as there is “tolerance”, which might include the party with the most seats not wanting an election just yet (and also, obviously, not being able to win the toleration of a majority itself).

  8. The 2010 result broke new ground, since it was the first time since the 1885 Reform Act*, in that a House of Commons elected with no party holding a majority of the seats was resolved by a coalition. This had previously been a continental style thing. “Hung parliaments” in 1885 itself, 1892, 1910, 1922, 1929, and 1974 were resolved by minority governments. Governments that lost their majorities over the course of parliament, as happened twice, were propped up for a year with confidence and supply arrangements. Coalitions were the results of either portions of the Liberal or Labour (actually Liberal except in one case) defecting to the Tories, with the leading defectors rewarded with places in the Cabinet without formally crossing over and joining the Conservatives, and/or happened during national emergencies. There were people, mainly Labour Party supporters, who compared the Liberal Democrats with the twentieth century Liberal Unionists and National Liberals, but the situation was really quite different.

    *the situation of ideologically cohesive parties, which politicians usually remained in throughout their careers, fighting over single member constituencies roughly equal in population didn’t really gel until 1885)

  9. An entertaining comment from the above mentioned article on coalition.

    “No – none of that is true.

    We have never had any coalitions, because they result in mass death and disease – of all the coalitions formed across the world – there have been reported 12billion deaths instantly – and a further 30billion over the course of the coalition – they reign with chaos and I believe even gravity refuses to function normally in coalition government.

    Coalitions have never worked, just look at some elsewhere when they have been tried, like in some places – the facts show us that they never work – look at the facts, they are obvious.

    Coalitions are evil pure and simple and more so if they involve Ed – your house will fall down and your children will get the plague – so vote Tory, vote for the truth, and vote for a safe future without fear and redemption and more natural disasters.”

    • Sarcasm, and this is so funny that it is beyond the truth. Why do the English hate coalition governments? I guess David Cameron believes that Proportional Representation is only for the Celts.

      • Cameron’s support for PR in Scotland and Wales is purely tactical, and he would almost certainly support FPTP for both assemblies if he thought he could do it without destroying the Scottish/Welsh Conservatives: Labour (and maybe even the SNP) would also do this, if they thought they could get away with it.

        In terms of Northern Ireland, introducing a traditional FPTP system would be a disaster, and not even the most ardent traditionalist Conservative would advocate it, at least at the moment.

        Cameron accepts PR for Europe, because it is required by (I think) the Treaty of Amsterdam, and I don’t think he can be bothered changing the London system.

      • Current CW among English[sic ] conservatives:
        1. Coalition governments are inevitably weak and divided.
        2. Britain should copy Australia’s tough, manly border-security policies.

  10. There’s a paragraph in this Bloomberg article on Ed Milliband’s strategy for forming a minority govt (short version: dare the SNP and/or LibDems to vote against it)

    “Because Cameron, as the incumbent, gets the first opportunity, Miliband will only get a chance [to attempt to form a government] if Cameron has tried and failed, or simply stood aside:”

    Is that actually a convention, or is it one of those instant ancient traditions that a rise when the Conservatives are likely to be the largest single party in the new Commons?

    • It is indeed the convention, see for example 1974(a). Some would argue, however, that this is somehow superseded by the fixed-term parliament act, even though it doesn’t specifically say anything about the subject. The whole ‘who gets to try first’ question is rather ambiguous, anyway – I mean, what does that entail? And what does it mean, substantively, when largest party A ‘gets the first opportunity’ at forming a government, while at the same time parties B, C and D simply ignore it and get together to form a majority government without A?

    • What JD said.

      This is probably the easiest and most certain convention to identify because it is followed universally in Westminster countries. At the last UK election Nick Clegg said the LDP would negotiate with the largest party and that has muddied the waters a bit.

      UK Cabinet Manual

      2.12 Where an election does not result in an overall majority for a single party, the incumbent government remains in office unless and until the Prime Minister tenders his or her resignation and the Government’s resignation to the Sovereign. An incumbent government is entitled to wait until the new Parliament has met to see if it can command the confidence of the House of Commons, but is expected to resign if it becomes clear that it is unlikely to be able to command that confidence and there is a clear alternative.

      There is disagreement about what would happen to a prime minister who declined to resign after their loss of confidence ‘became clear’. In Australia and New Zealand the governor-general would be likely to dismiss. I really have no idea about Britain or Canada.

      Oddly enough Antony Green posted on this yesterday, noting:

      In the United Kingdom there is horror that the Queen might be drawn into politics and forced to make a decision on who should form government. Drawing the Queen into politics is seen as putting the whole future of the monarchy at risk.

      A number of authorities have commented on the the media campaign that drove Gordon Brown to a ‘premature’ resignation which left Britain without a government for a short time.

      The Westminster system once incorporated an investiture vote in the form of the address-in-reply which the parliament votes as an answer to the Queen’s speech. The address-in-reply debate was once a general debate on the content of the Queen’s speech. In theory the government establishes that it has the confidence of the house by moving and passing the address-in-reply but you’d have to invite government and opposition to a history seminar before they could use the procedure.

      It is unfortunate that Westminster parliaments ‘forgot’ the address-in-reply and that the US congress does not debate or pass a reply to the State of the Union address.

      • What do you mean, Alan? Don’t they have a vote of the Queen’s speech? I remember that it was unambiguously considered as a government’s first confidence vote, before the fixed-term act effectively ended that convention, although I still quite often read speculations about what will happen after Thursday’s election and about different leader’s abilities to ‘pass a Queen’s speech’.

      • ‘Passing a Queen’s speech’ is just an expression. British politicians also speak of ‘kissing hands’ when they present themselves to the Queen although no kissing, kneeling or other unlikely activities happen. The palace has specifically denied the content of a certain scene from the film The Queen.

        There is a vote on the address-in-reply but it is a formality. There is no division. The debate has about as much to do with the contents of the speech as an adjournment debate has to do with fixing a date for the parliament to meet. The only speakers are almost invariably newly elected MPs or senators. It is so minor an event now that it is considered in Australia by the Federation Chamber, a committee of the whole house that sits separately to process uncontroversial matters and where any vote against a motion sends it back to the House of Representatives.

        The enthralling content of the current form of the address-in-reply in Australia is:

        May it please Your Excellency:

        We, the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Australia, in Parliament assembled, express our loyalty to the Sovereign, and thank Your Excellency for the speech you have been pleased to address to the Parliament.

        The form of words changes slightly every decade or so.

  11. I suppose, then, that you simply meant the tradition hasn’t carried on to the Commonwealth. I thought I might have missed something, and that perhaps the debate and vote over the Queen’s speech had been ditched at Westminster years ago or something of the sort.

    • The tradition did carry into what was then the Empire, but appears to have died out in both colony and metropole. The expression survives because it reflects a former reality, just as I would think incoming prime ministers did once kiss actual hands at the palace.

      Canada and the UK have general debates after the throne speech, but only in Canada do they take the form of debating motions and amendments for the address-in-reply. Only 2 Canadian addresses-in-reply have ever been amended and none have ever been defeated so it’s not a constant engine of parliamentary contestation even there.

      I would guess that the party system and modern communications killed the idea of the address-in-reply as a test vote or investiture vote because it became very rare for prime ministers to insist on their right to meet the parliament. By the time parliament meets the government is already appointed and the question of confidence is more or less decided.

      Several parliamentary committees in the UK have recommended an investiture vote because the parliament has become so invisible in government formation.

      • No Canadian addresses-in-reply have ever been defeated? Maybe not at the federal level, but one was defeated in Ontario in 1985, in classic style, not long after the election in which the outgoing government lost its majority. I can see the same thing happening in Ottawa this November if Stephen Harper feels a crucial few Blue Liberals will lose their nerve if he dares them to defeat him on the Throne Speech. They chickened out in January 2009. He might try to pull the same trick off again. Why not? Nothing to lose. And you get to appoint a clutch of new cabinet ministers, even if only for a month.

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