A recent poll clarified the depth of the confusion over what the likely outcome of this year's general election will look like.
I wrote this time last year that Labour would probably win the election, giving some of the reasons why. In the present circumstances, Labour look like they will either win outright, with a small majority (e.g. of less than twenty), or come out as the largest party in a hung parliament (e.g. with somewhere in the region of 280-320 seats). The latter scenario is still quite possible, though (more on why in a moment).
On the polling figures the Tories have had more-or-less consistently for the past year or more, they may well lose around fifty or so of their MPs; possibly more given their lack of appeal in the North of England, where UKIP looks likely to supplant them as the opposition to Labour in many areas.
The LibDems look like a spent force. Charitable estimates are that they will lose something like twenty of their MPs (currently on 57 in this parliament); more apocalyptic scenarios - which are still very feasible given their dire poll ratings - are that they could lose more than half their MPs, including some current ministers. In the event of a hung parliament, the LibDems are likely to have too few MPs remaining to make a viable "tandem" coalition with the biggest party (e.g. Labour); at best, if a coalition involving the LibDems were formed, it would have to involve a third party to make the numbers work in parliament.
A war on three fronts
While Labour look set to be the biggest party in parliament, barring some unforeseen circumstances, being a few points ahead of the Conservatives in the polls is no guarantee that they would still have enough MPs to govern alone.
The poll mentioned at the start of the article shows how strong the three "minor" parties are - UKIP on 20%, with the Greens biting at the heels of the LibDems for national share of the vote...and with the SNP on 5%.
The last figure is the most stunning, because the SNP are not a "national" party. They only have candidates standing in Scotland. In many ways, the "5%" figure is meaningless, if they only have candidates in on part of the UK. But if their support is 5% on average nationally, that tells you the level of support they have in Scotland must be many times higher than that; proportionally, the SNP are by far the most popular party in Scotland. Recent polls put their support on something twenty points ahead of Labour, the next biggest party, which is why analysts are estimating that, at a conservative estimate, the SNP could take at least twenty seats away from Labour.
Indeed, due the the FPTP system for Westminster, the SNP could take the majority of all of Scotland's seats to Westminster, leaving them with anything as high as forty or more MPs in parliament (most of those representing former Labour strongholds).
This scenario would be nothing less than an apocalypse for Scottish Labour. And, obviously, causes massive problems for Labour getting a majority in parliament.
The UKIP factor is a second front that Labour knows it cannot be complacent about. While most analysts think that UKIP would struggle to get into double figures in terms of winning seats in Westminster (having more than, say, six MPs in parliament, would be considered a phenomenal result for UKIP under the circumstances). That doesn't mean that they wouldn't cause problems in the election itself regardless.
Because UKIP's voter base is spread widely across the country, their demographic impacts on both the Tories as well as Labour.
As said earlier, UKIP look to have supplanted the Tories in large parts of the north as Labour's main opposition. This is may be a blessing in disguise for Labour as, although some Labour supporters may switch to UKIP, many "natural" Tory voters could well tactically vote purple as well. It's uncertain if this will seriously challenge Labour in its heartlands, but it would certainly do more damage to the Tories than to Labour.
The problem Labour has with UKIP is more in the south and the Midlands. While the Tories will shed support to UKIP, Labour could equally shed support to UKIP in the same way (and in some of the same constituencies, due to the demographics). Clacton-on-Sea, and Rochester and Strood are good examples of this: seats that have, at one time or another, swung either to Labour or the Tories (but historically more Tory than Labour). So we know that with UKIP polling 20%, this will damage Labour almost as much as it will the Tories. There are seats in the south that Labour would normally expect to win in order to become the biggest party, but where UKIP are strong due to the demographics. This will cause some problems, possibly resulting in failing to win those seats, and thus presenting further problems in what should, ordinarily, be "winnable" seats.
The question is in what way, and that is the problem that analysts are having: with UKIP being such a new political player, it is difficult to compute exactly how they will affect the results in many constituencies. We will only know the truth in May. And this is why Labour should not be complacent about thinking that having an outright majority is "in the bag" even if they are ahead of the Tories in the national vote. In Scotland, Labour are facing a potential nightmare; in England, the UKIP factor is the great unknown. And then there is the fast-growing threat of the Greens...
The Green Party now have more members than UKIP, according to recent figures, and their popularity has soared in the last twelve months. I talked about the threat of the "minor parties" a few months ago, but since then the Greens have gone from strength to strength. With their polling figures being almost comparable to the LibDems, and even the Prime Minister (as often seen, an amoral man of no principle) is using their popularity as a convenient excuse to get out of the TV debates.
But more seriously, the rise of the Greens is mostly at the expense of the LibDems; it's unclear how much of the "Green surge" is due to lost Labour voters. The Greens themselves are optimistic about increasing their number of MPs, by concentrating their efforts on constituencies with favourable demographics.
Although even the most optimistic Green campaigner wouldn't expect the Greens to win more than a few seats in Westminster, again, like UKIP, they may "split the vote" in some seats, eroding the support for Labour or the LibDems, possibly resulting in some surprising results (e.g. the Tories winning in a place they wouldn't expect).
So while the Conservatives have UKIP to worry about, Labour have a fight on three other fronts as well. A hung parliament is still more than possible, even if Labour finished ahead of the Tories in the polls in May. It all depends on how things play out with the so-called "minor parties".
But they may not be "minor" for long - the SNP, for instance, may well have a lot to say come May...