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Sunday, January 23, 2005


Calm down, calm down

Did you read Andrew Rawnsley's column in today's Observer? I can well imagine how it would have made thousands of Liberal Democrats ecstatic over their corn flakes, but we must not get carried away.

I agree with Rawnsley (and with
Peter Black) that, in the forthcoming general election, turnout will be the joker in the pack. Rawnsley points out the risk to Labour of complacency among its own supporters.

"Of the factors that threaten the government's election prospects, the most menacing may be the near universal assumption that Labour is cruising to a comfortable victory."
However, Rawnsley is a little over-optimistic about Liberal Democrat prospects. He repeats the mantra of the 'iron law' of a 6% gain:

"The extra exposure enjoyed by the Lib Dems during elections has, in the past, given them a campaign boost of as much as six points."
It is doubtful this assumption remains valid. The reason the party could expect to gain 6% in previous general election campaigns was that it had had little or no media coverage in the preceding four years. The extra percentage points were due to punters being reminded that the party existed. This time round, the party has been getting better media coverage so that the 'jolt to the memory' factor can be largely discounted. If this factor still exists, it is unlikely to be worth more than 2%. Or to put it another way, if the Liberal Democrats do gain 6% during the campaign, it will not be because of this statistical determinism.

The second reason not to get over-excited is that, unlike in previous elections, the Liberal Democrats will face serious attacks by their opponents and by the tabloids (even if, as Rawnsley states, no-one is yet sure how to do it). Whatever form these attacks take, they will be ruthless, targeted and well-funded.

If the turnout falls again at the forthcoming general election to the extent it did in 2001, then all bets are off. But, assuming the decline in turnout has bottomed out and there is no drastic change, here is my prediction of the number of seats. (Bear in mind that, because of boundary changes in Scotland, there will be 13 fewer seats; Labour will lose the equivalent of ten seats; the Tories, SNP and Lib Dems will each lose one. The +/- change figures are comparisons with 2001 and ignore subsequent by-elections and defections).

Labour 363 (-50)
Conservative 194 (+28)
Liberal Democrats 61 (+9)
SNP 5 (no change)
Plaid Cymru 5 (+1)
Others 0 (-1)
Northern Ireland various 18

Labour majority 80
In other words, all shall have prizes. The combined smugness of the party spokespeople on the TV election night specials will be unbearable.

Following the election on 5th May, it turns out that my prediction was very close to the result:

Labour 363 (-50) - actual result 356 (-47)
Conservative 194 (+28) - actual result 197 (+ 1 to come in South Staffs) (+33)
Liberal Democrats 61 (+9) - actual result 62 (+11)
SNP 5 (no change) - actual result 6 (+1)
Plaid Cymru 5 (+1) - actual result 3 (-2)
Others 0 (-1) - actual result 3 (+2)
Northern Ireland various 18 - spot on!

Labour majority 80 - actual result 67 (reducing to 66 after South Staffs by-election)
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