As the results of the Local elections began to trickle in on Thursday night it soon became clear that the Labour Party had done well, gaining 824 councillors. The Conservatives, meanwhile, lost 403 and the Liberal Democrats lost 329. From this, the BBC reported an estimate of national vote share of 31% for the Conservatives, 38% for Labour and 16% for the Liberal Democrats, meaning that if these results were replicated at the next general election, Labour would win an 83 seat majority.
But is there any reason to think that these results will be repeated at the next election? As I discussed in my last post, there are very good reasons to think that they won’t. But opinion in the media is mixed. Channel 4 picked up on my research to argue that Labour hasn’t done enough to win the next election, whilst the BBC’s Nick Robinson wondered whether this election might be more than a case of the usual ‘mid-term blues’ and a signal to an increasingly unpopular government that they will be kicked out at the next election.
Is Nick Robinson correct in this speculation? Does the fact that Labour won the most votes in this election mean the coalition government is heading for certain doom? Using the BBC’s estimates in my model predicts a vote share as follows: Conservatives, 36.6 (±1.3); Labour, 34.05 (±1.4); and Liberal Democrats, 23.3 (±2.3). This points to an increase of about 5% for Labour, with hardly any change for the other two parties.
My secondary model also predicts a very high probability that the Conservatives will win the largest share of the vote at the next election (76.24%) whilst Labour only has a 15.35% chance. Are these predictions valid? The fact that this government is a coalition means that it is unlike any other post-war British government and we should be cautious when making any claims based on previous elections. There is good reason to take the Lib Dem predicted result in particular with a grain of salt: they have not been in government before and so the model assumes the effect of incumbency is the same as the other two parties. We have no way of knowing whether this assumption is valid.
Putting the Liberal Democrats to one side for the moment, the election results for Labour and the Conservatives are not at all unusual, and in no way indicate a certain Labour victory at the next election. During the Thatcher years, for example, Labour outpolled the Conservatives in 7 out of 10 local elections; yet they failed to win the 1983, 1987 or 1992 general elections. In 1985 the Labour-Conservative local election lead was almost the same as this year’s results (39-32), but the Conservatives won the 1987 general election 38-32. An even more dramatic example, though, is the 1990 local elections when Labour outpolled the Conservatives 44 to 33 but went on to lose the 1992 general election 46-30.
Additionally, if we use the results of the local elections in 2011, when the Conservatives received 35% of the vote, Labour 37% and the Liberal Democrats 15%, the results of the predictions are very similar. My model predicts 38.7% (±1.2) for the Conservatives, 33.5% (±1.4) for Labour, and 22.7 (±2.3) for the Lib Dems. Of course using different local election results produces different predictions, but note that for all three parties the confidence intervals of both predictions overlap. Statistically at least the results are basically the same.
Assuming that these predictions give us at least a general idea of what might happen at the next election, what might the next Parliament look like? Alas, predicting seat share from vote share is incredibly difficult. The British electoral system produces very disproportionate vote share to seat share outcomes and trying to account for local factors adequately is nigh on impossible. Adding to this difficulty, the next election will be conducted with fewer constituencies and with revised boundaries. Nonetheless, several different ways of predicting seat share have been developed. To make my predictions here I have used Electoral Calculus, probably the leading vote/seat predictor on the internet and one that has performed with reasonable accuracy in the past. Using my base predictions, Electoral Calculus predicts 268 seats for the Conservatives, 265 for Labour, and 43 for the Liberal Democrats. These results would leave both the Conservatives and Labour short of a majority but either party could form a majority coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This would certainly produce an intriguing moment of party diplomacy once again.
Even using the ‘best’ predicted outcome for Labour, using the upper end of the confidence interval of the predicted Labour vote (35.45) and the lower end for the Conservatives (35.3) and Liberal Democrats (21), leaves Labour 18 seats short of a majority. But similarly the ‘best’ prediction for the Conservatives leaves them 5 seats short of a majority. In each case only one party has enough seats to form a majority coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Even if we ignore the precise numbers, which are almost certainly going to be at least slightly different on election day, the results do give one fairly clear indication: the most probable outcome of the next general election is that neither Labour nor the Conservatives win a majority of seats and the Lib Dems will remain political kingmakers.
Chris Prosser is a DPhil student in Politics at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.