Saturday, April 17, 2010

A barking mad result to complement a deeply flawed campaign?

For many in the political world, much of Friday seemed to be taken up with pondering whether we were about to see a big Liberal Democrat surge on the back of Nick Clegg's strong performance in last night's (closed shop, London parties only) debate, and if so, whether that would harm the Tories or Labour more. Iain Dale was this afternoon desperately trying to convince both himself and anyone else who would listen that it might well be the latter, praying in aid the 1983 election (oddly topical given the storyline of Ashes to Ashes tonight!) when a high watermark for the Liberal Democrats' predecessor parties allowed the Tories to sweep to a landslide victory.

But you only have to think of two numbers to understand why Dale was always barking up the wrong tree - 42 and 23. 42 because that was the Tories' percentage share of the vote in 1983, and not even the outlying polls in this campaign have had them that high. 23 because that was the paltry number of seats the SDP-Liberal Alliance won in 1983 on the back of their 25% of the vote. You don't need a psephologist to tell you that a 25% share this year would be yielding the Liberal Democrats considerably more than 23 seats - and that most of those extra seats are ones that would otherwise be won by the Tories.

In truth, the circumstances of 1983 were unique. Normally when a third party surges the extra support is drawn relatively evenly from the two larger parties, but that was not the case in 1983 due to the fact that one half of the Alliance was to all intents and purposes a segment of the Labour party that had only very recently detached itself. In spite of the huge centrist appeal of the Alliance, the Conservatives lost just 1.5% of their 1979 support, compared to a stonking 9.3% drop for Labour.

Tonight's YouGov poll confirming the anticipated Lib Dem surge shows a much more conventional pattern, with both Labour and the Tories taking a hit - indeed with the Tories being the ones to suffer slightly more. Despite Labour slipping to third place, the UNS seat projections show them still emerging as the largest single party. And, crazy though it might seem, that might just be the best result possible from this deeply unsatisfactory electoral process. If such a barking mad outcome didn't finally lead to a clamour for proper electoral reform, I don't know what would.

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