In 2015, only a minority of the 650 constituencies in the UK will elect an MP of a party different from the one they chose in 2010. Most seats are, instead, ‘safe,’ thanks to the first-past-the-post electoral system.
Based on first-hand experience and plenty of travelling, this blog will examine 50 seats that are likely to change the party of their representative at Westminster. It is these seats that will determine the outcome of the general election.
So why 50? And why 15? 2015 is touted to be an extremely close general election, partly due to the nature of coalition governments. Before 2010, the last election in the UK that resulted in no party having a majority of seats took place in February 1974, and that government only lasted until October of the same year. The results of the general election of October 1974 were particularly close, too: Labour won a tiny majority. Moreover, since the Conservatives currently do not hold a majority of seats, there has to be a swing to the party for them to form a majority government. But the last time the party in office increased their number of MPs was in 1983, an election held just after the sword-rattling fervour of the Falklands War.
There is more to the opaqueness of next year’s election, too. The novelty of a peace-time coalition and the continuing decline of support for the Liberal Democrats suggest that effects of incumbency will be unevenly divided. The rise of UKIP support from voters across the political spectrum will also affect the outcomes of certain pivotal races, but the nature of the electoral system means that it is difficult for the party itself to win a seat. Another factor is that polling suggests voters trust Cameron more than Miliband with the management of the economy, which will harm Labour’s campaign. Indeed, the referendum over Scottish Independence later this year even calls into question which MPs will even be sitting in Westminster come 2016. A ‘Yes’ vote will surely harm Labour’s chances of forming majority administrations in the future.
These issues will make for an entangled, unpredictable general election in 2015. With one year to go, there is certainly no clear favourite.
The variety of factors at play in next year’s general election means that our 50 seats have had to be chosen for a variety of reasons.
Some seats have been chosen as marginal because the difference in the number of votes between winner and runner-up at the last election was extremely close. North Warwickshire (54 votes between victor and runner-up); Camborne and Redruth (66 votes); and Bolton West (92 votes) are clearly all seats that could easily change party at the election next year and deserve to be followed closely.
Not only are there two-horse races, however; some seats have three candidates who could plausibly win. In Hampstead and Kilburn the current Labour majority is just 42 votes, and a 0.04% swing to the Conservatives from Labour would see the seat go blue, yet a 1% swing to the Liberal Democrats would see the vote go yellow.
But examining the 50 seats where the majorities in 2010 were smallest is not enough to work out which party, if any, will win a majority next year. The Conservatives will need a swing of almost 2%, and a lead over Labour of 11% to win a clear majority. On current boundaries, if the Conservatives win Gedling in the East Midlands, they will have got their 2% swing. We shall also visit other constituencies where the Conservatives require a 2% swing: Birmingham Edgbaston.
Since Labour picks up more seats for any given share of the vote because turnout is systematically lower in Labour-supporting areas, the party will become the largest in the Commons with a 2% swing away from the Conservatives. In fact, the party could become the largest in Westminster without having the largest share of the popular vote. A majority Labour government requires a 5% swing and a 3% lead in the popular vote. Somerset North East, Dover and Deal, and Great Yarmouth are constituencies that we will visit to explore the possibility of a Labour majority from next May.
In times of minority governments, smaller parties cannot be ignored, especially since strong third party support can derail the larger parties from winning a majority of seats. UKIP won the European elections in May 2014, but success on the scale of those elections will be harder to achieve in the more restrictive first-past-the-post system.
We will follow South Thanet, where Nigel Farage is running, because it is the likeliest seat to be a success-story for UKIP, given the leader’s name recognition and presence in the party. UKIP are also expected have a strong presence in contests in Thurrock and Great Grimsby, and we will see the impact the party has in those races. We will follow Caroline Lucas, the first ever Green MP, to see if she can retain her seat in Brighton Pavilion. We will see if the Greens can increase their number of seats in Bristol West and Norwich South. Nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales may well also deny the larger parties victories. We will be in Arfon to follow a current Plaid Cymru-held seat and Dundee East to explore the role of the SNP. We have chosen not to follow electoral contests in Northern Ireland because the party system is very different there.
It is an exciting and eclectic mixture of constituencies from around the country that will determine the election next year. But now that we’ve decided which constituencies we are going to visit, we better get cracking!