The polls and (all but one of) the forecasts WERE wrong. Ed Miliband was nowhere near becoming Prime Minister

Thursday May 7, 2015. Britain goes to the polls at what is universally – entirely wrongly – believed to be the closest General Election in fully two generations. The opinion polls are deadlocked, and have been for months. The choice facing the country is by far the most stark since 1992: this wasn’t, contrary to what 99.99% of people assumed, a close election – but it was certainly a watershed.

On Tuesday morning, I set out why I believed that almost all forecasts and predictions were wrong: Ed Miliband’s strategy had been hopelessly flawed; his party would find itself squeezed from all sides; and above all, that the methodology employed by every single opinion polling company was wrong. Alarmingly wrong. Disastrously wrong. Inexcusably wrong.

At this point though, I want to highlight that, in no small part, I was wrong too. While I foresaw an enormously disappointing night for Labour, I did not anticipate such an apocalyptic one. Whereas I expected that the Scottish National Party (SNP) surge would hold, and count horribly against Labour not only in Scotland, but even more in England, where it had become the central plank of Conservative strategy to frighten voters into giving David Cameron a proper mandate, I did not foresee the almost complete wipe-out which resulted. And contrary to my belief that the Liberal Democrats’ positioning themselves as a sensible coalition partner would enable their support to hold up to some extent, it instead entirely melted down: Nick Clegg’s party squeezed even more horrendously than Labour amid the strange, Byzantine beast of First Past The Post (FPTP).

True, despite all that, I still did considerably better than any of the forecasting websites, any of the polling companies: I got the big picture right, you might say. But even I stopped short of stating the Tories would win a majority; I thought a further Tory-Lib Dem arrangement was likely, and never foresaw that half of this equation would all but vanish from the electoral landscape altogether.

A little later, I’ll be introducing readers to the man who did get it right: the only man prior to the formidable exit pollsters who got it extraordinarily, almost impossibly right. But if you’ll forgive me, on this awful morning for progressive politics across England and Wales (if certainly not Scotland), I want to indulge in a spot of something so often beloved of those on the left: self-flagellation.

You see, what happened at this election – this supposedly cataclysmic shock – was supposed to happen all along. The government, while embarking on a series of horribly divisive, almost entirely unnecessary economic policies, had experienced no disasters. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings remained good; at times, remarkably good. Those of the opposition leader were, thanks to his palpable lack of gravitas and the toxic reputation of his party (blamed both for Iraq, entirely justifiably; and the 2008 financial crash, rather less justifiably) poor: at times, extraordinarily so given dramatically rising food bank use, rising inequality, and a prolonged fall in living standards unparalleled since the Second World War. Most of this directly affected those who would, surely, represent Miliband’s core constituency – yet any sense of cut-through remained elusive.

Then consider that, for reasons I set out last month, the nature of Britain’s electoral system has made it impossible for any party standing on anything resembling a truly radical, progressive agenda to get anywhere near winning an election since 1979 (in fact, since 1974): with the early 1980s split on the left meaning that, in effect, the entire voting system was dragged ever further to the right, a self-perpetuating process which is still ongoing and shows no signs of slowing down. And above all, on by far the most important indicator of any party’s readiness for government – economic competence – the Tories had remained well ahead of Labour ever since the crash; considerably because of the latter’s extraordinary failure to challenge a narrative about ‘austerity’ which isn’t only misleading – but is fallacious and increasingly dangerous to Britain’s medium and long term future.

This narrative, parroted relentlessly by the increasingly hysterical Tory press, the BBC, and both the Tories and Lib Dems, meant that when Miliband said perfectly reasonably that no, Labour had not over-spent before the crash, most viewers were horrified. How could they trust someone so irresponsible, not even prepared to apologise; who’d been part of a government which, so everyone insisted, had ‘run out of money’?

Never mind that no country in charge of its own money supply can ever run out of money (it simply prints more); never mind that Britain wasn’t even remotely imperilled in the manner of southern European countries trapped in the euro zone and crucially, without control of their money supply or economic policy; never mind that the effect of coalition-imposed austerity was simply to remove huge amounts of liquidity from the system, grind the economy to a dead halt, and it only began to recover when those policies were significantly ameliorated; never mind that almost all macro-economists around the world (notably the Nobel Prize Winner, Paul Krugman; the Merton College, Oxford Professor, Simon Wren-Lewis; and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) itself) had rejected austerity as a busted flush; never mind that not Labour, but the coalition, had doubled the national debt, and left it massively more exposed to an increasingly possible second crash; never mind that the economy had been growing rapidly when Gordon Brown was forced out of office; never mind that borrowing costs are historically low, and inflation is at zero; never mind that the welfare state itself had been built by the postwar Labour government at a time the country was technically bankrupt (so it simply borrowed instead, investing in infrastructure and setting a course for the Keynesian consensus); never mind that the now immortalised Liam Byrne note was a playful aside to his successor in the manner of long established Treasury traditions; never mind that, mindbogglingly, the Tories were proposing a more extreme version of the very policy which had failed so completely in the first place… none of this mattered.

 

Liam Byrne’s note was immortalised at this election – by a coalition playing cheap, low, dirty politics

If a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes the truth. Thus both coalition partners asserted that Labour’s much more balanced approach to deficit reduction would “pass our debts on to our children and grandchildren”, even when Tory policy will, by preventing growth or re-balancing, actually do that very thing; both continued to espouse the risible nonsense that Britain’s debt (which remember, they had doubled) was somehow comparable to a credit card debt, or that running a country is akin to running a household budget.

The press, run by barons who benefit enormously from the continuous upward funneling of wealth to the super-rich, and who would be personally impacted by a mansion tax, the return of the 50p tax rate, and especially the removal of the absurd protection of non-doms, hammered the message home again and again: Labour would endanger everything. A shockingly economically illiterate public (so illiterate that this itself poses an increasing threat to public policy, and certainly to the UK’s fiscal health) would inevitably acquiesce: despite policies which do most of them ongoing financial and social harm. And once the ‘danger’ posed by a party with the brass neck to have huge numbers of MPs democratically elected by Scottish voters was thrown into a wholly disingenuous, toxic mix, the die was cast: with public minds panicked into nonsensical comparisons with the 1970s, told that Nicola Sturgeon would ‘drag’ Miliband to the left… despite the SNP actually standing for slower, more drawn out austerity than Labour.

But throughout the last five years, Labour themselves have been horribly culpable: for failing to challenge a false narrative, or set out their own plans in any convincing way. When Miliband defended the Brown government’s record during the televised debates, he needed to assert why it hadn’t over-spent – but in keeping with serious communication issues which dogged him throughout his leadership, he couldn’t. Instead, like a rabbit in the headlights, hoist by the petard of his own foolish commitment to austerity, he froze – and his failure to ‘take responsibility’ will undoubtedly have hung particularly heavy in undecided voters’ hearts in the polling booths yesterday.

 

The rabbit in the headlights look comes naturally to Ed Miliband

That the public have continued to blame Labour for hardship caused by the coalition is a huge part of the reason why Miliband’s results at local, European and by-elections were so poor; and those results, as we shall see, represented an enormous, critical warning: not only to Miliband, but the pollsters. Both ignored them (in the latter case, incomprehensibly so); both will have plenty of time to reflect and repent on this now.

To recap: miles behind Cameron on approval ratings, public credibility, and especially economic competence; lacking in authority or leadership skills; leading a party with a toxic image (and with a Shadow Chancellor who embodied this in public minds more than anyone else); standing on a progressive platform the like of which hadn’t succeeded at any general election in 40 years; overseeing continually poor electoral fortunes despite mid-term ballots almost always providing a huge boost to any modern day opposition (and for that matter, failing to pull into anything like the kind of mid-term lead which any opposition needs in order to win the big one); and up against a government regarded by most as perfectly competent, how could anyone possibly have believed that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party stood the remotest chance of being returned yesterday?

Every single key electoral indicator was against it and in favour of the Tories. The apocalyptic, beyond seismic fall-out from the Scottish referendum – incorporating a Scottish left feeling completely betrayed by the last-minute announcement of The Vow and Cameron’s apparent shifting of the goalposts the moment a NO vote was confirmed; furiously mobilised against a Scottish Labour Party who had stood alongside the hated Tories and therefore confirmed itself once and for all as ‘Red Tories’, who neither represented their interests nor had delivered anything resembling social justice despite 13 years of government – which, true to form, wasn’t so much ignored as entirely missed by Labour’s laughably oblivious London headquarters until it was already far too late – was only the latest of many factors which, combined, could only lead to one conclusion. Miliband would lose; and he would lose big.

Thus, a week after the referendum, a time when most commentators were incomprehensibly expecting a Labour majority, and had not picked up on what was happening in Scotland in any way, I stated that he would inevitably lose in this post on The Guardian. When challenged, I even forecast the share of the vote: 37 or 38% for the Conservatives; 31 or 32% for Labour – and posited:

I think we’ll start the general election campaign, ie. a month before polling day, with everyone anticipating a hung Parliament. We’ll finish it, as a minimum, with the Tories as the largest party – and probably with a majority.

To me, this was the only logical outcome. As we moved towards the election, I treated any Tory lead as a sign of the inevitable; but was bewildered as Miliband appeared (according to the fatally, catastrophically flawed polls) to overtake Cameron during the campaign, then as things remained level pegging all the way to polling day. I simply grew more and more suspicious: what was wrong with the polls? Why were they all saying something which I could scarcely even conceive of being true?

Then, as May 2015 noted the difference between telephone and internet polls, things began to make a little more sense. The Guardian/ICM poll revealing a huge difference in Sheffield Hallam when voters were quizzed on their nationwide choice (Lord Ashcroft’s technique in constituency polls, which plainly formed the bedrock of all forecasting models), but were then asked to factor in the local candidates (as they would on election day) confirmed to me categorically that I was right: the polls WERE wrong, and were both understating the incumbency vote and overstating the progressive one.

Yet even then, I didn’t follow this through to its logical outcome. In my article on Tuesday, everything I highlighted should have left me forecasting a Tory majority: not merely that Miliband could not possibly become PM. I should also have better appreciated that, given a hitherto merged party encompassing both the Liberals and Social Democrats had effectively cut its latter half away by joining the Tories, but would be facing those very same Tories (who the polls were under-stating) in most of its key seats – who basked in public approbation for economic competence, while the Lib Dems played the Aunt Sally role of being blamed for any of the coalition’s more pernicious policies – Clegg’s party wouldn’t just lose half its support. It would inevitably haemorrhage a whole lot more: and be lambs to the slaughter when up against the Conservatives.

Instead, naturally enough I suppose, I asked myself, “in 2015, with all their sophisticated techniques and given all the lessons of the past, could ALL the pollsters – even including Nate Silver, for goodness’ sake – really be THAT wrong?” So I restricted myself to predicting another Tory-led coalition, rather than extrapolating in conclusion the very thing which all my arguments should have led me to. My forecast remained much more favourable to Cameron than almost any other anywhere; but still, mea culpa. A lesson learned.

 

Even Nate Silver’s number was up at this election

Then on Wednesday night, as the nation slept before crunch time, and the likes of May 2015 asserted preposterous levels of hubris about the likely outcome, everything suddenly became clear. I had chanced upon the one and only forecasting hero of this long campaign: whose services will surely be in the highest demand in the years ahead, who had conducted comprehensive, demonstrably proven psephological research, and whose findings drove an absolute coach and horses through every single professional forecaster and polling organisation… as well as sending an unforgettably cold chill down my Labour-supporting spine. For the Conservatives, his work spelt Nirvana; for the opinion polls, it spelt Nemesis.

In an extraordinary tour de force, the best, most counter-intuitive piece of electoral research I believe has ever been conducted in the modern day (better even than Silver’s in 2008 and 2012), the website Number Cruncher Politics (NCP) explained that, according to all possible indicators and variables, the polls were telling a wildly different story to that accepted by just about everyone.

As I had done, NCP strongly suspected a repeat of 1992-style Shy Tory Syndrome; but unlike me, as the man behind it is possessed of the scientific expertise necessary to trawl through exhaustive amounts of data going back some 50 years and model it in various ways, he had the ability to conclusively prove it. By examining electoral data covering the previous 35 years, toplines from the last half century, and opinion polls from this Parliament, he identified a very clear statistical pattern, which repeated itself through three separate models. His main findings were as follows:

1. As I had noted in my article, opinion polls at British General Elections are usually biased against the Tories and in favour of Labour. The exception, when both the Conservatives and Labour were a little understated in 2010, while the Lib Dems were wildly overstated, was in all likelihood, a one-off (and to me, easily explicable by how vulnerable the soft progressive vote invariably is under FPTP. The same demographic of voters inflating the Lib Dem position 5 years ago were, I intuited, having an identical effect on Labour this year).

2. The unusual fluidity of the electorate during this last Parliament (so many Lib Dem voters abandoning the party; Tory and Labour voters heading over to Ukip) had almost certainly undermined – perhaps even entirely negated – the adjustments made by pollsters after the debacle of 1992. Especially when it came to the usual method of reallocating ‘don’t knows’ – because far fewer of these would vote for their traditional party, but amid a new, multi-party landscape, how could pollsters possibly determine who would, and who would not?

 

The rise of Ukip was one of many factors giving pollsters all sorts of extra difficulties

3. Every single one of 16 opinion polls ahead of an election over the last 2 years had fallen prey to a pro-Labour bias, at the same time as late swing to the Tories was occurring: unnoticed until the election itself. At the 2014 European elections, Labour’s lead had been overstated by 3.3 points; while all by-elections since early 2014 had displayed a huge shy Tory factor, averaging 5.5 points.

4. Conflicting internal polling – reports of which I noted in my article, and clearly precipitated a dramatic change in strategy over the last week as a panicking Labour campaign desperately courted the notoriously unreliable young vote (again, the same voters who failed to turn out for the Lib Dems in 2010, despite so many of them having promised their support) – bore uncanny resemblances to 1992.

5. Since 1992, the overstatement of Labour and Lib Dems had been almost uniform: ranging between 2.3 and 2.9 points.

6. Serious problems in weighting data from online panels; other problems in reallocating undecided voters in phone polls, not to mention poor response rates to the latter.

7. Polling error averaging 5 points net over all General Elections between 1983 and 2010.

8. Relative to the Tories, Labour’s local election performances in non-General Election years under Miliband had been the second worst by any opposition over the last 35 years.

9. All three models – based on adjusted topline numbers; polling internals; and actual votes – were telling an extraordinarily similar, unbelievably alarming story about this year’s election; and combined, when tested against the polls at every General Election since 1983, outperformed them on all but one occasion (2010, when the difference was a mere 0.2 points).

10. What was that story? Namely, that the Tories were heading for a victory by between 6, and more likely around 8 points – despite the opinion polls all suggesting things were dead level.

The sheer, overwhelming exhaustiveness of the research left no room for doubt. I was awestruck by what I had just read, and given my habitual sense that the polls were very, very wrong, knew it could only mean one thing. The Tories were heading either right to the cusp of an overall majority; or their first majority since, you guessed it, 1992.

Three final opinion polls were now due to be published before 7am. Inexplicably, none were; all appeared several hours later instead, along with a fourth too. Had the polling companies seen the NCP research, appreciated the catastrophe it foretold for them, and reappraised their data? I have no idea, but can only suspect not. I tweeted it to May 2015, but got no response: instead, the New Statesman’s forecast site happily updated the news that the final polls still suggested a tied race, and Miliband premiership.

Section 66A of the Representation of the People Act, 1983 states the following:

(1)No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed—

(a)any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or

(b)any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.

Above, point 1(a) refers to exit polls: which of course, are never released until 10pm. But 1(b), while not explicitly doing so, appears at all elections in the past to have been taken to cover opinion polls released after voting has begun. This was the sixth General Election I’ve experienced – and never before have opinion polls been published after 7am on polling day. Why were they on this occasion?

In fairness to the pollsters in question, the Act was hardly designed for an internet age dominated by social media and, at this election, by forecasting websites: all of which continued to apply the latest data despite point 1(b); while on Twitter and Facebook, various candidates re-tweeted endorsements from voters and voters declared who they had voted for. As The Telegraph notes today, some form of mild campaigning still seems to have been going on beyond that.

A mess, then, which the Electoral Commission would do well to resolve ahead of future ballots – but there are two vastly more serious points here. First, for the duration of the campaign (and, for that matter, a good 2 years prior to that, according to NCP), all polling companies and forecasting sites have been publishing wildly, at times ludicrously inaccurate information which inevitably influenced the race, and the outcome. When parties are assumed to be tied, their strategy changes; media treatment of them substantially changes (never more so than in Labour’s case this year); public responses change too. In the latter case, how many more voters are likely to vote a certain way out of fear that those they’re opposed to are in touching distance of victory? And under FPTP, how many vote tactically who would otherwise not have done – and vice versa?

In practice, as the NCP model conclusively demonstrates, Labour were never ahead, and have probably been several points behind throughout the campaign. Yet that’s not what the polling companies were saying. Should organisations with such disastrously flawed methodology and a consistent record of inaccuracy which, as exposed by NCP, dates back at least 32 years, be allowed to dominate the agenda in such a way; and above all, to have such heavy influence on debate and public discourse?

Remember: huge amounts of the Tory campaign were dedicated to frightening English voters into stopping a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP – but in practice, this was never the prospect it appeared, because Labour were doing much worse than was believed. Enormous amounts of discussion were put over not to policy, not to manifestos, but the electoral and Parliamentary arithmetic – but this bore no resemblance to the reality.

Tory scaremongering about Nicola Sturgeon was based on a false prospectus

Is it any wonder the British public have such little understanding of macro-economics when whole election campaigns – leading to a decision hugely determining the futures of them, their families, their loved ones – are given over to constant reactions to never-ending opinion polls: even when these polls are completely wrong? Other countries (most notably, France) do not allow polling firms to play such a huge role during the final week of election campaigns; why on Earth does the UK?

To make matters worse, the thesis I set out on Tuesday focused heavily on the role of Lord Ashcroft: whose constituency polling has been a huge feature of this campaign, and clearly became central to most forecast sites: most notably, May 2015 and Election Forecast. My piece concluded that his data was almost certainly awry; and in that, we now know that he was in very good company with all other polling firms.

At The Telegraph, virtually ever since Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader, Labour-supporting Dan Hodges has consistently (and we now know, quite brilliantly) forecasted Miliband’s demise. He must be experiencing very conflicting emotions this morning; as a fellow Labour traveller, I know I am. In February, he asked a question which the British polling world should have already been asking: “What does Lord Ashcroft want?”

As Hodges set out, over the last 5 years, Ashcroft has morphed in public persona from hugely controversial non-dom to friend of the political process: opening up the business of polling to the public in a manner never seen before. But Ashcroft, contrary to what so many must assume, is not a pollster: he buys in polling from other companies, publishes the results, but won’t reveal who these companies are. He himself is not a member of the British Polling Council either.

Not only that, but he’s an extremely wealthy Tory peer, and former Deputy Chairman of the Party. During tbis campaign, he’s tweeted his admiration of Sturgeon – whose ‘danger to England’ just so happened, by purest coincidence, to constitute the central plank of the successful Conservative strategy. I have never known a Tory give such regular praise to a nationalist in the way Ashcroft has.

His final ‘snapshot’, released well after 7am yesterday, had Conservative and Labour tied, and only added to the bigger picture that the two parties were deadlocked. But ask yourself, purely hypothetically: if you were a Tory who naturally desired your party to win as convincingly as possible, would you want the final poll to have them well ahead… or locked in a race too close to call, which would encourage maximum possible turnout? More to the point: purely hypothetically, if you were a Tory who wanted maximum possible negative exposure of Labour throughout an election campaign, scaring the public into voting heavily against them, would you want them to be well behind… or seemingly on the verge of victory?

How far the obvious flaws in Ashcroft (sorry, I mean the companies which he buys his polling in from)’s data help explain the almost identical flaws in every other firm’s data, I couldn’t possibly begin to imagine. But how has such an obviously self-interested individual become the most influential figure in opinion polling? Why were at least two very well-publicised forecasting sites so dependent on deeply flawed data? Why haven’t more questions been asked about his motivations?

 

What does Lord Ashcroft want?

One man who has asked such questions – many, many such questions – has been the Labour peer, Lord Foulkes. He conducted his own online pursuit of his Tory contemporary throughout the campaign: leading to frequently entertaining exchanges, but never leaving observers in much doubt as to what he thought. Foulkes has hinted for many days that the polls were wrong; and in February, went a great deal further. Opinion polls, he fulminated, were increasingly:

“Being manipulated at the behest of people with money, whether they be the media or individuals, as part of the political process… What is clear now is the media in particular, but others as well, are demanding instant polling, determining when it should be done and how it should be done. The academic rigour that ought to be carried out isn’t being carried out.”

And to be sure, given what this article has set out, who could possibly argue true academic rigour had been carried out on a whole series of polls which haven’t just been a little wrong – but a lot wrong? Very wrong. Astoundingly wrong.

Similarly astounding, when you stop and think about it for a moment, is how, after half a century’s dominance of Scotland, the Labour Party have been swept away just like that via a speeding yellow flash; meltdown triggered, as noted above, by The Vow and its ongoing fall-out. But what’s so often forgotten about the referendum campaign – the democratic event that changed Scotland irrevocably forever – is that between August 2013 and polling day itself, just two opinion polls (and only one with a sample size of over 1000) put YES ahead. That latter poll, by YouGov and the Sunday Times, was publicised with unusual relish by Rupert Murdoch on Twitter, and sent shockwaves through the British establishment.

Its response to one solitary rogue poll? The Vow. As soon as it had been made, Labour were in no position to control what resulted; and when that involved Cameron cutting the rug away from Gordon Brown’s feet on the steps of Downing Street, suddenly, a party which for so long had dominated Scottish politics was faced by an oncoming train it (because it was in government in neither England nor Scotland) could do nothing about – which yesterday, flattened it completely, destroying its broader electoral hopes in the process.

Opinion polls, then, can be remarkable things with yet more remarkable consequences. Especially when they’re conducted for a newspaper de facto owned by someone with a surprisingly good relationship with the then First Minister of Scotland; even more when they help trigger the collapse of a party which had taken that someone on in a manner of no other British political party in my lifetime. What did that someone’s lead redtop do during the election campaign? Simultaneously support the SNP (against Labour) in Scotland; the Tories (against Labour, while banging home the message of dangerous, rebellious, left wing Scots coming to rule over the English) in England.

Rupert Murdoch, of course, was humiliated by the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking; deemed “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company” by the British government, and has been investigated by both British and American authorities for bribery and corruption. This perhaps helps explain The Scottish Sun’s enthusiastic support for the SNP; The Sun’s vituperative opposition to Ed Miliband, whose ideas threatened to end any remaining influence of Murdoch over the UK media, and its voicing of a narrative which would inexorably pull England and Scotland apart, threatening the imminent break-up of a 308-year-old Union.

Through his actions, Murdoch has left no doubt regarding his open hostility to the UK and British establishment. Hell hath no fury like a global press baron scorned. At the same time as Murdoch has fallen from grace in Britain, Ashcroft’s star has dramatically risen. Which is, presumably, entirely unremarkable – but the examples of both provide a heavy reminder of what can happen when vested interests collide with the democratic process.

As Foulkes has noted, extraordinarily, the ever more influential polling business is entirely unregulated. In such a world, despite their consistent inaccuracy, all polls are effectively taken on trust: a remarkable state of affairs. Foulkes has therefore introduced a Parliamentary Bill intending to establish an independent regulator; which will also place restrictions on polls being published in the three weeks leading up to an election. In light of all that’s happened in this campaign, one can only wish his Bill speedy and safe passage.

To return, though, to yesterday. I now knew conclusively that the polls were hopelessly askew – but the dear old British public did not. Neither did the BBC presenters: who in tandem with the entire watching world (but not, at least, maybe two or three of us) greeted the exit poll with incredulity. The moment I saw that poll, I was entirely sure it was either (a) absolutely accurate; or (b) still underestimated the Tories’ position. The latter was how it proved. While frantic Labour supporters initially clutched at the straw of an exit poll that wasn’t – a YouGov re-contact survey confirming the previous day’s numbers, which had been arrived at via all the same mistakes as all the other polls – I simply told my friends that it was over. And it was.

We’ll never know whether those in charge of the exit poll had been alerted to NCP’s work. Either way, though, they at least did a magnificent job in hellishly demanding circumstances; they at least emerge from this complete fiasco with their heads held high.

As I type, David Cameron is now back in Downing Street, gleefully clutching a 12-seat majority. He and the Tories, though, will soon discover that in politics, as in life, we should be careful what we wish for; for with an EU referendum now certain, Cameron is likely to be even more boxed in by his lunatic fringe than John Major was after 1992. The chaos of that period destroyed the Tories’ public image, opening a chasm in the party which even the staunchly Euro-sceptic Cameron has been unable to close. With the economy now likely to be sent straight back into recession by even heavier austerity than before, I would be moderately surprised if the Prime Minister makes it as far as the referendum; and in the event of a vote to stay in, even more so if the Conservatives don’t do what they’ve been threatening to do for over a generation, and split completely and irrecovably.

For the other big winners of the night, the SNP, the path to independence is clear. How can a country with one Tory MP and 56 nationalist MPs possibly be governed from London by a majority Tory administration? Answer: short of immediate full federalism and an immediate change to proportional representation – preventing such a scenario ever occurring again – it cannot. The Union’s days are numbered.

And Labour? With Miliband having resigned with typically good grace, now the party must put right its awful, tragic error (for both men) in choosing the wrong brother in 2010; and resolve its ongoing internal debate between the kind of quasi-social democratic agenda offered by the now departed Ed, and something closer to the Blairism necessary to win under FPTP. Chuka Umunna would plainly represent the latter; but in truth, if Labour are ever to regain a foothold as a natural party of government (especially once what we know now as Britain becomes merely England and Wales), it desperately needs to reach out to and reconnect with the many millions of working class voters it has shed since 1997.

Tony Blair knew how to win; but did not know how to create something truly long lasting and self-sustaining. Only by shunning both Blairism and Milibandism can Labour hope to do that: it needs to forge a new non-statist, localist, communitarian approach, in which the ties of family, friendship and community are reborn; power is devolved downwards to localities and through federalism, and offers real remedies for Britain’s increasingly divided, fragmented, discordant, atomised society.

That huge bloc of traditional support (the latest chunk of which voted SNP and Ukip last night) must be won back; the sense of alienation they feel must be listened to and engaged with. Their aspirations – as well as those of small business or bigger business – must be met: a much larger, much more coherent coalition of Labour support than is ever generally appreciated is out there, but has been almost entirely neglected for a whole generation.

As the country discovered yet again last night, British politics only works for a few. As it regathers its energies from this latest devastating blow, it is Labour’s task and will always be Labour’s cause to ensure that, by offering new solutions to both new and old problems, it finally begins to deliver for the many.

 

No, not New Labour. Blue Labour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The polls and (most of) the forecasts are wrong. Ed Miliband will not be the next Prime Minister

In the annals of modern British political history, the 1992 General Election was the ultimate watershed. Defeat at a fourth consecutive election represented – under First Past The Post (FPTP), at least – the final repudiation of socialism in the UK: from whence, the Labour Party’s transformation into something almost unrecognisable was triggered. As the Conservatives fell apart over Europe, the Blairite consensus would, following John Smith’s tragic death, go on to hold sway; storing up huge future trouble for Labour amongst its traditional support: especially, as is now abundantly plain, in Scotland.

Meanwhile, much as the US Republicans have only won one Presidential share of the vote since 1988, the Tories – once the most successful electoral force in the Western world – have not won a single Parliamentary majority since 1992: when John Major’s victory came as a huge surprise. Not only to his party, but to the pollsters.

Throughout the campaign, Labour were believed by almost everyone to be ahead: on course for a small majority, and with a worst case scenario of being the largest party in a hung Parliament. Britain was in recession; memories of the poll tax were still fresh; Neil Kinnock, Labour leader, had done a huge amount to drag his party towards the centre, away from the unelectability of the militant tendency. But something about Kinnock never convinced; somehow, despite continual boom and bust under the Tories, more than enough of the public remained fearful of a return to the Union-dominated ungovernability of the 1970s. Smith’s Budget plans, announced early in the election campaign, were leapt upon by his opponents and only exacerbated public fears of heavy tax rises and economic meltdown.

History records that meltdown occurred only 5 months after the election: Black/White Wednesday, 16 September 1992, when Britain was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), and the Tories’ reputation for economic competence was shredded for a generation. Given that Labour had become considerably more pro-European than the Tories, it’s actually a very good job for them that the 1992 election was lost: to have suffered such a humiliation less than six months after regaining power for the first time since 1979 would have been ruinous for the party. Perhaps even, fatal. But why had it been lost?

Famously, the pollsters had failed to take account for possible ‘shy Tories’: those embarrassed or unprepared to admit they were intending to vote for Major’s party, whose brand had already become toxic across huge swathes of the UK thanks to Margaret Thatcher. Pollsters did at least detect something of a narrowing in the race – some sort of movement towards the incumbency – to the point whereby exit polls on election day predicted a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives (just) as the largest party. But ultimately, this was well out: as the night wore on, and especially after David Amess held on in the bellwether marginal of Basildon, it became clear that not only would the Tories remain the largest party, but had actually won a majority: via the greatest amount of votes ever cast for any political party in Britain. Their lead over Labour was almost eight per cent.

John Major: the last Conservative leader to win an overall majority

1992, then, was both Labour and the opinion pollsters’ Goetterdaemmerung. Both would change their approach hugely in the years ahead: the latter resolving never to make such a mistake again, and building all sorts of adjustments into their methodology to ensure they did not. By and large, these have worked – Labour’s majority of 66 was being correctly predicted even as the 2005 campaign got underway; exit polls on election night in 2010, dismissed by many because of how much they were assumed to understate Liberal Democrat support, actually proved practically bang on the money.

But 2015 poses entirely new challenges: multi-party politics conducted within an outmoded electoral system which cannot cope; post-referendum transformation in Scotland which threatens Labour’s complete destruction; Ukip peeling off support from both major parties; and in England, a series of desperately tight Tory-Labour marginals which are almost impossible to call, and will decide the outcome.

Hot off the heels of Nate Silver’s extraordinary accuracy in predicting the 2012 and 2008 US election, a series of forecasting and ‘nowcasting’ websites have sprung up: Election Forecast, with which Silver and fivethirtyeight.com have a tie-in; Elections Etc, run by Steve Fisher of Trinity College, Oxford; the New Statesman‘s May 2015; even one hosted by The Guardian. The latter two are ‘nowcasting’ sites: extrapolating the outcome from the polls as they stand now. The former two are forecasts, with built-in swings back to the incumbency: in this case, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

For several weeks, all but one have been predicting that combined, Labour, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and smaller parties such as Plaid Cymru, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Greens, would hold an anti-Tory majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, until only the last few days, May 2015 thought merely the combined Labour-SNP seat total would be enough; The Guardian still does now (Tuesday morning, May 5).

May 2015 was confident enough to splash a detailed, convincing (at the time) piece explaining why Ed Miliband held many more routes to 10 Downing Street than David Cameron – but yesterday, suddenly began to have second thoughts. Now, it highlighted the possibility of a late movement back towards the Tories, very much in the style of the unexpected swing to Likud in the final hours of the Israeli elections in March. It noted the mounting prospect of any Labour-led minority administration being deemed illegitimate by public (if certainly not constitutional) opinion should Labour finish second on votes and seats, and especially should it be dependent on SNP MPs to carry legislation… and also pointed towards something else. One of two things which must be giving polling companies and forecasting websites sleepless, cold-sweated nights.

Throughout the last fortnight, the share of the vote has appeared deadlocked: perhaps with the Tories a fraction ahead, but no more than that. But most polls conducted over the last two weeks have been internet-based; and given how the Scottish referendum polls over-estimated support for the YES campaign, and their tendency to attract responses via one click from some who don’t carry through their opinion on polling day, these internet polls may very well be wrong. In fact, I strongly believe they are.

Conversely, in telephone polls, the Tories have held a consistent three-point lead. This fits in with the idea that older voters are less likely to be part of internet-based surveys; younger voters are less likely to have landlines; and over the phone, questioned one-to-one, voters are more likely to be honest. But at general elections, older people vote far more than their younger counterparts. Simplistic though this must sound, while internet polls should be expected to lean towards leftist, progressive parties, phone-based ones are likely to do the opposite: but the latter are considerably more likely to represent the true picture.

As May 2015 noted, a slightly more than three-point lead for Cameron on Thursday will put him in a strong, though not impregnable position: with a combined Tory-Liberal Democrat-Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) bloc close to the de facto winning line of 323 seats. But the problem is this still underestimates the likely outcome.

Despite all their changes to make allowances for shy Tories and late moves towards the incumbency, the polling companies continued to underestimate Tory and Lib Dem support in 2001, 2005 and 2010; and overstate Labour support. This went largely unnoticed because the Labour landslide in 2001, heavily reduced majority in 2005, and – after the first televised debate and accompanying ‘Clegg bounce’ changed the picture completely – hung Parliament in 2010 were all so predictable. The pollsters got the bigger picture right; but the detail was still awry in very consistent areas.

But the real bombshell for psephologists – and just as much, for Miliband – landed yesterday: when a Guardian/ICM poll found a huge difference in Sheffield Hallam when electors were asked first, to put the local context and candidates to one side, and name their nationwide preference; but second, the candidates’ names were included as part of the question. Names, of course, which include that of Nick Clegg, Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister.

Nick Clegg’s seat is THE most critical at this election

On the nationwide question, Labour emerged with a 34-32 lead: in line with the recent constituency polling of Lord Ashcroft, who we’ll come to in a moment. But on the second question, Clegg shot seven points ahead of Labour challenger, Oliver Coppard, thanks to huge tactical voting from Conservatives determined to help ensure a continuation of the coalition.

Sheffield Hallam is, without question, by far the most important single seat at this election. With the Lib Dems likely to have their vote cut in half and see their number of MPs haemorrhage, it is extraordinarily difficult to envisage how they can possibly support a second coalition if Clegg falls. But as yesterday’s poll confirms, he is unlikely to. David Laws has already expressed a preference to work with the Tories in a hung Parliament; and with all forecasts already agreeing that Cameron’s party will remain the largest, Clegg has spoken of a Labour-led, anti-Tory administration amounting to a ‘coalition of the losers’.

His first discussions will, he appears to have confirmed, be conducted with the party with most votes and most seats: just as in 2010. And the only real stumbling block in terms of policy will be over cuts: which Cameron will need to give way on for Clegg to agree to an in/out referendum on the EU (the latter, for which his party will surely receive at least some public approbation). With the Tory right and Lib Dem left likely to complicate and delay matters, full-blown coalition is probably unlikely – but some sort of agreement short of that is not, locking out both Labour and the SNP.

The Sheffield Hallam poll, though, has far broader implications. With the concept of uniform swings (from which Amess’ victory in Basildon translated remarkably seamlessly into a Tory majority in 1992) very much a thing of a past, and British politics in uncharted, multi-party territory, Ashcroft has conducted a whole series of individual constituency polls throughout the run-up to and during this election campaign. His work constitutes a hugely valuable resource; his contribution has been fascinating, opening up the business of polling to a much wider audience, and greatly appreciated by forecasters and psephologists. But is it flawed? Even, fundamentally so?

The problem is this. When asking electors their voting intentions, Ashcroft does not name the candidates – but on polling day, of course, all are listed. And with no other local data to go on, both May 2015 and Election Forecast have used Ashcroft’s findings to help predict the outcome. Are these reliable enough?

Even against that backdrop, last week, Ashcroft found the Tories had opened a surprising, almost inexplicable lead in Croydon Central: where according to his snapshots, an eight-point swing had occurred over a single month, despite Labour having been assumed by almost all observers to have had the better national campaign, despite them having closed up and tied the national opinion polls. He also found that in Wirral West, a seat long considered highly likely to fall to Labour, and currently held by the divisive figure of Esther McVey, Minister for Employment (and before that, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Work and Pensions), the gap had been reduced from five to three points.

Might Esther McVey be 2015’s answer to David Amess in 1992?

Just as Clegg’s seat is pivotal, so is McVey’s. Were she, rather like Amess in 1992, to unexpectedly hold on, the Tories will certainly head the next government. Of course, had the candidates been named in Ashcroft’s polling, her responsibility for the coalition’s cuts and sanctions may well have counted against her: name recognition can be double-edged. But even in its absence, May 2015 began to backtrack slightly from their earlier confident prognosis for Miliband – and Ashcroft’s data may well not tell the whole story, or even close to it.

In their updated position, May 2015 highlighted 27 seats in which, according to Ashcroft, Labour are at least four points ahead. Should this be confirmed on Thursday, Miliband will only need another six seats for a Labour-led bloc to hit the magic figure of 323. By their estimation, he will have 16 realistic opportunities to make these further precious gains.

But while a four-point lead sounds comfortable, it’s actually within the margin of error – and based on data which does not name individual candidates. Were McVey to hold on in a seat which, according to Election Forecast (also dependent on Ashcroft’s data), has an 85% chance of falling to Labour, all that data could be wrong. Very wrong. It surely already was in Sheffield Hallam: May 2015 is so dependent on Ashcroft that until yesterday’s opinion poll, the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituency remarkably sat in the Labour column.

To put that 85% probability in Wirral West into perspective, it coexists alongside Election Forecast putting McVey’s opponent, Margaret Greenwood, just four points up. Huge numbers of similarly high probabilities are given by the website for seats so close, they’re practically on a knife-edge – and based on data which (a) may well be flawed; and b) was collected before the late incumbency swing which happens at so many elections all over the world. Election Forecast say they’ve accounted for this: but given their reliance on Ashcroft’s information, and on national opinion polls which tell a different picture depending on whether they’re conducted over the internet or telephone, are their numbers right to begin with?

Again, remember that polling companies have a long, consistent recent record of underestimating Tory and Lib Dem support, and overestimating that of Labour. Remember too that in Israel this year, at the Scottish referendum, even at last year’s Uruguayan elections, the status quo out-performed forecasts. In the latter case, the race was believed to be extremely close throughout much of the year: for substantial chunks of which, it seemed that Luis Lacalle Pou’s centre-right Partido Nacional and Pedro Bordaberry’s further right Partido Colorado would combine in a second round run-off to defeat the governing leftist Frente Amplio (FA) (Broad Front).

Yet in the event, remarkably, despite the hype surrounding Lacalle Pou’s campaign, and his positive, inclusive message (for him then, read Miliband and Labour now: neither attacked the government in the way they might have done, both chose to focus on optimism and a ‘better plan’ instead), the FA actually increased their support on the previous election, held in 2009. Polling organisations were embarrassed: but later concluded they had failed to properly reach Uruguay’s more distant, rural regions, a number of which lack regular internet access; some of which lack telephone lines. Even in Britain’s fully developed society, are its internet pollsters failing to reach certain sections of older voters too?

There are, beyond that, a good number of more general reasons why Miliband is heading for defeat. Above all, strategy. He has presided over Labour’s most progressive platform since 1992 at a time when the coalition are, rightly or wrongly, broadly considered to have done a solid job, and the Prime Minister’s ratings remain good (thereby offering too great a change at a time things appear stable), but for whatever reason, failed to appeal to enough young voters; or traditional Labour supporters now heavily courted by Ukip; or especially those in Scotland. In the latter case, while Labour’s message in England has been admirably positive and upbeat, in Scotland, it’s been the reverse: talking at, even condescending its traditional vote; scaremongering about pensions and the SNP “letting in the Tories’ instead of offering any positive reasons to vote Labour.

Letters like these are all too typical of Scottish Labour’s campaign

Much the same mistake was made during the referendum campaign: immediately following which, it was abundantly clear that UK Labour had no conception of the seismic shift which had just occurred. At least three critical months were lost as Labour’s leaders in London contemplated their navels, while the SNP made colossal political capital out of The Vow, and especially Cameron tying this to English Votes for English Laws the morning after the Union had been saved. The SNP mobilised furiously against the ‘Red Tories’; Labour sat on their hands.

The remarkable failure to offer a referendum on EU membership also means that those tempted by Ukip have no obvious reason to return to the fold. Given the colossal democratic deficit of the EU, and its mounting unpopularity across much of the UK, and especially amongst the working classes in regions like the West and East Midlands, this is a huge blunder. The Tories are now wooing Kippers back into the fold by promising a referendum; Labour fails to counter this in any meaningful way.

Beyond this, given Labour’s complete failure to reverse a wildly inaccurate, often absurd narrative regarding their ‘responsibility’ for a worldwide crash: before which both the debt and deficit were lower as a share of GDP than in 1997; which itself was caused by the banks; and following which, the coalition – despite inheriting a rapidly growing economy – have failed to rebalance it in any way, almost doubled the debt, and are now presiding over alarming levels of slowdown amid a global outlook of increasing concern, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the public still regards the Tories as far more economically competent.

Cameron has made particular hay of waving around Liam Byrne’s infamous Treasury note wherever he goes. Strangely, he fails to mention that such notes are merely a tradition from an outgoing minister to his successor, or that no country (least of all a growing one) can ‘run out of money’ when controlling its own money supply – but again, Labour lost control of the narrative, and only has itself to blame for failing to properly articulate an altogether different reality. With regard to which, offering Ed Balls, who the public blame for the crash almost as much as Gordon Brown, as prospective Chancellor hardly helps either.

And then, of course, is the SNP. At a loss as to what to do regarding the extraordinary rise of Nicola Sturgeon’s party in Scotland, Labour has been squeezed, horribly, by English fears of a government ‘being held to ransom’ by those who want to break the UK up. Whatever Miliband did here, he could only lose. Joining Sturgeon in an anti-Tory alliance would result in floods of English votes in those key marginals disappearing to either Ukip (a little) or the Tories (a lot); having nothing to do with it could only further alienate Scottish voters sick of being taken for granted for so long.

The SNP have exploited the latter to such an extent that they’ve certainly left me suspecting that actually, their secret wish is indeed for a Tory or Tory-led government: in which they can avoid any responsibility, and continue to build up support for independence ahead of a second referendum. There is no doubt that Sturgeon, Alex Salmond et al will know how their sabre-rattling plays in English marginals: but then again, as a Scottish party increasingly winning the argument that, as a political construct, the UK is bust, why should this concern them?

Miliband’s 35% strategy was doomed the moment Labour campaigned alongside the Tories at the referendum. However difficult this was to avoid in a binary contest, far more thought should’ve been given to what this would look like; a far more distinctive approach,  conducted as far away from Cameron as possible, needed to be offered. It wasn’t: so the tectonic plates shifted decisively and historically.

Of course, just as the concerns over Ashcroft’s data spell very bad news for Labour in English marginals against the Tories (where, according to a piece on Labour Uncut from last weekend, the party are performing so badly that this prompted Miliband’s courting of Russell Brand and the youth vote), they bring happier tidings in Scotland. Name recognition of certain candidates may – in fact, probably will – enable Labour to out-perform the bleakest predictions, and prevent the SNP sweeping the board. But the failures I strongly anticipate against the Conservatives will render this redundant; and with similar name recognition factors likely to help the Lib Dems’ seat tally hold up somewhat, this will only point the UK back towards a second coalition, or something close to it.

Speaking of the Lib Dems: to have run the party’s Facebook page throughout the last 5 years must have been an exercise in purest masochism. Post after post resulted in abuse, often very personal, from those who felt so let down and betrayed by the coalition – yet all of a sudden, its posts are being greeted with praise; even, gratitude. Why? English voters have looked at the choice between Labour propped up by the SNP or the Tories working in tandem with the Lib Dems, and find the devil they do know vastly preferable to that which they don’t. Clegg’s strategy of presenting his party as a sane, moderating influence, and guarantors of future stability, is bearing dividends, and isolating Miliband’s party from post-election negotiations.

Finally, there is the leader himself. Ed Miliband has had an unexpectedly good campaign: neutralising most of the media’s attacks, rising to the occasion, even becoming one of politics’ least likely sex symbols ever.

But ever since his election as Labour leader, he has never truly convinced: both because his approach has been too left wing (which under FPTP, has failed to succeed at any election since 1974), and because, despite his many achievements, he lacks gravitas. That magical, you’ve-either-got-it-or-you’ve-not sense of being authoritative and above all, Prime Ministerial. Cameron has always possessed this: which was why Labour knew they were in danger the moment he became Tory leader. Miliband simply hasn’t. In modern politics, style does matter every bit as much as substance, if not more; Miliband, cruelly, is damned by what the electorate have come to expect in leaders such as Thatcher, Tony Blair or Cameron, and has been unable to advance his wholly different approach convincingly enough.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve spoken with close friends and family members who, were Miliband genuinely about to enter Downing Street, would all almost certainly be voting Labour. But none of them are. My mother voted SDP during the 1980s; loathes what this government has done to the most vulnerable with all her soul… yet has voted Lib Dem by post. My best friend, disgusted by Blair’s war in Iraq and Cameron’s intervention in Libya, is very far removed from ever voting Tory… but will be choosing either Green or Respect.

Another close friend, again all too conscious of this government’s war on the poor, says she’d certainly be voting Labour if its leader’s name began with ‘David’… but as it doesn’t, is too alarmed by the prospect of Ed representing the UK internationally to do anything other than vote Conservative. My father is no right winger – but is horrified at the idea of Balls back in the Treasury, and will unhesitatingly vote Tory to prevent this. And almost no-one amongst those I know in Scotland – most of whom routinely voted Labour until 2010 – will be doing anything other than throw their weight behind the SNP.

These are all mere anecdotes, but they speak to a much wider story. Whether through English fears of runaway SNP influence, concerns over Miliband’s lack of modern leadership skills, his failure even now to distance his party far enough from New Labour (whose reputation, thanks to both Iraq and the financial crash, is toxic), or Scottish fury at the ‘Red Tories’, he simply hasn’t done enough. Not to mention the broader, time honoured point that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them; and in the absence of anything resembling a disaster under its watch, this government is still considered competent by enough of the electorate to be heading, again in hybrid form, for a second term.

As I noted earlier, defeat in 1992 was ultimately a blessing in disguise for Labour. As it was then, so I strongly suspect it will be again: because with the economy slowing down quarter by quarter, still entirely dependent on services, and many key international markets in trouble, I fully expect the UK to head back into recession within the next year. Perish the thought, so many global fundamentals remain horribly unsound that there may even be a second global crash looming in the next two or three years. For Labour to be anywhere near government at such a time would surely destroy it forever; and for it to form a minority government dependent on the SNP would allow the latter to take credit for any of its successes, the former to be blamed furiously in England for any economic woes.

That, I believe, is why a number of Labour MPs have already suggested that a ‘coalition of the losers’ should not be formed: it simply wouldn’t be in the party’s strategic interests to do so. That is also why Miliband has made such a point of the need to win a majority, and Scottish Labour have repeatedly stated that “the largest party forms a government”. Constitutionally inaccurate, this may be; but in a bitterly divided Union, to huge swathes of the English public, it is the reality. Indeed, it’s the very thing that’s pushing more and more worried voters into Cameron’s grateful embrace.

This piece, incidentally, should not be construed as an attack on the pollsters, or the forecasters. They do a thankless, manful job, opening up the intricacies of democracy and elections to us all. It is most certainly not an attack on Ashcroft either: his work has been unique, even revolutionary where pollsters are concerned. But I strongly believe that his data (and hence, that of all forecasting websites except Elections Etc, who have consistently had the Conservatives doing better in votes and seats, and will I’m quite sure be vindicated on Thursday; and to a lesser extent, YouGov, whose sudden shift on Sunday night based on one poll suggests Peter Kellner, doyen of British pollsters, knows something is up) does not tell the full story; and that come Friday morning, contrary to what so many are suggesting, Britain won’t be set for weeks or even months of paralysis.

Internet-based polls are almost certainly inaccurate. Ashcroft’s methodology is suspect. A late shift to the status quo almost always occurs, is probably already ongoing, yet is never properly picked up until the results come in. Tory scare stories regarding SNP influence are having an impact. Miliband hasn’t done enough. His party doesn’t want an illegitimate coalition or deal.

What does all this mean? Contrary to what so, so many believe, the outcome of the 2015 General Election – which I expect the Conservatives to win by around four points, leaving them with over 290 seats – will point very simply to a continuation, in whatever form, of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (perhaps not even needing the DUP’s help); and to renewed, painful soul-searching within Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

Close, Ed – but not close enough

 

Why are the Conservatives and Labour the same? It’s the electoral system, stoopid

Imagine a country where the views of well over half of the electorate are discounted and treated as an irrelevance. Imagine somewhere that well over half of its MPs are locked into place for life, depending entirely on where their constituency happens to be. Imagine a political system in which alternative parties have no chance of making any serious impact or achieving any serious change: despite gaining the support of more and more people, and the two major parties being in ever-deepening decline. And imagine a so-called democracy where, despite a demonstrable majority against right wing neo-liberalism having been in place for decades, that very thing has been implemented by both its major parties: with disastrous consequences for the country and public policy. That so-called democracy is in Britain.

Over the next few weeks, the Conservative and Labour parties will focus all their resources, all their policies, all their energy, on no more than 100,000 voters out of an electorate of approximately 43 million. In both cases, the aim will be to eke out not a majority – nowhere near a majority – but around 35% of the vote. Electors will be told that if they vote for their first choice, they might well end up with the option they least want; so they should vote for their second choice instead. Even, in many parts of the UK, their third choice. They should vote not for what they want, but against what they don’t want – despite the latter option having failed to protect the interests of the majority for almost four decades.

After the election, platitudes will be uttered by politicians about how they must “re-engage the electorate with the political process”; they must “regain trust in politics”. Then they will go straight back to doing the same old wilfully self-interested thing; and continue to uphold a medieval system designed to lock in the status quo forever. A system which does far more than anything else to disenfranchise the public from its so-called representatives: with consequences far, far beyond the ballot box. Yet which incomprehensibly, almost no-one ever talks about.

Democracy is supposed to protect the interests of the people. In Britain, it does the exact opposite: routinely working against the many, in favour of the few. First Past The Post doesn’t merely lock the public out of their democracy; it even results in policy after policy from both major parties which do the country enormous harm, and divide it not so much down the middle, as between the wealthiest and the rest.

Consider this. Since 1979, the Thatcherite neo-liberal consensus has been implemented, consolidated, and is now accepted by all three of Britain’s traditional parties – despite there being no evidence that the majority of the British public actually supports it. Over the same time frame, all economic discourse and analysis in the UK has favoured Tory trickle-down economics and monetarism – despite inequality having increased massively; despite social mobility having remained so static, it is now the worst in the Western world; despite MPs being drawn from ever narrower socioeconomic backgrounds; despite a whole generation now being increasingly unlikely to own their own homes: the first generation in modern history who’ll be less well-off than their parents; despite even the Union itself now being in clear and present danger.

How has this happened? It’s not that the British public has shifted dramatically to the right. It’s that, in effect, the electoral system has. In any genuine democracy, not only would the split on the left of the early 1980s have been of no major consequence; it’d have been a demonstrably good thing, allowing electors more real choice. But under FPTP, its consequences were a disaster.

With two parties competing on the left, and only one on the right, the Tories were rewarded with massive majorities: despite never securing more than 44% of the vote. Not only that, but the iniquities of the voting system forced Labour to move ever further rightwards to have any hope of winning, meaning it morphed into something almost unrecognisable. So many protest with enormous justice that “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me” – but what they don’t understand is why.

FPTP is so disproportionate, so wildly unrepresentative, general election after general election come down to no more than 100 marginal seats. Swing voters in these constituencies aren’t in the centre; they’re not the median of the entire electorate. By and large, they’re on the centre-right or further right: middle-aged or older home-owners with concerns over healthcare, pensions and immigration. So what do the Tories and Labour do? Design almost their entire agenda around the wishes of this small group.

That’s why the Conservatives, for all their top-down re-organisation, have yet to destroy the National Health Service. That’s why Labour proclaim the need for “fiscal responsibility” (seeking swing voters from the Tories) and “controlled immigration” (seeking to win back former voters who’ve been lost to Ukip). And that’s why neither party will even touch pensioners, the most influential voting demographic in the UK by a distance; and not even Labour dares to broach the appalling impact of this government on those least able to sustain it. Benefit sanctions are vote-winners in swing constituencies; so benefit sanctions there must be, even when the consequences for the poor, the sick, the disabled and mentally ill should shame any so-called civilised society.

The poor? They don’t count in Britain’s electoral system; they’re an irrelevance. Instead, both parties wax lyrical about “Britain’s hard-working families”: both need to be seen as on the side of these middle or higher income workers. Those who can’t find work or are too ill to do so? Nobody speaks or cares about them. They don’t make the difference under FPTP – so they may as well not exist as far as public policy and discourse are concerned.

The obsession with keeping home-owners – a critical demographic in these seats – happy is what leads to Conservative pledges on inheritance tax (which panicked Gordon Brown into failing to call an early general election in 2007, and were repeated only at the weekend); and grotesquely, to the extraordinary, ongoing failure to build desperately needed housing over the last 30 years, or take any action whatever on maximum rents, buy-to-let landlords, or a land value tax.

Why? If demand overwhelms supply, the demographic which decide British general elections benefit, while the majority are impoverished by extortionate, ludicrous rent and house prices. In any democracy, the interests of that majority would be protected. Under FPTP, those of profiteers are instead: which is precisely why today, the Tories will unbelievably announce not a desperately needed mass build of new homes – but the forced sale of social housing. This kills two birds with one stone: it inflates the property bubble even further, while reaching out to younger, aspirational swing voters. The ‘right to buy’ sounds wonderful – until you realise that under a mountain of mortgage-related debt, what goes up must inevitably come crashing down; not to mention the crisis levels of housing shortages which David Cameron’s party are actively encouraging.

Quite what the government is going to do when, 30 or 40 years from now, it is faced with a whole generation of pensioners who need housing benefit just to live, heaven only knows. But that’s what happens when the common good is ignored; and FPTP forces it to be so. Just as, with affluent swing voters desirous of high quality public services, but wholly unwilling to see their taxes rise and in favour of light touch regulation, the last Labour government embarked on a long term programme of expenditure without the structural means to pay for it. The economy grew bloated on house prices and consumer debt; Labour failed to save money for a rainy day or regulate the banks; and the crash (or at least, an inability to protect Britain from its consequences) was the result.

This wasn’t because Gordon Brown didn’t understand economics. It was because, had New Labour supplied a tougher approach to regulation and much more honest one to tax, most of those swing voters wouldn’t have voted for it. Thus were the interests of the minority protected at the expense of the country: as they have once more under the current government. 64% of voters (and close to 80% of the entire electorate) did not vote Conservative in 2010; yet a nine-tenths Tory government, waging disproportionate war on the poor with consequences of the most grievous kind for social structures, communities and the alleged safety net, was the outcome.

Here, of course, proponents of FPTP would interject with: “But we’ve had a coalition since 2010! And in proportional systems, coalitions formed through backroom deals would be the norm!” Except that:

(1) In countries with proportional voting sytems, alliances are formed before, not after elections: the illegitimacy of this coalition lies in so many Liberal Democrat voters having done so to keep the Tories out, not let them in;

(2) The Lib Dems, too used for their own good to Britain’s endemically tribal, adversarial system, committed the fundamental, fatal error of not appreciating that for a coalition to be formed, they – not the Tories – held all the cards; so if the Tories did not make large concessions in their direction, they should not have joined with them, and left Cameron to hold together a minority government requiring cross-party agreement at vote after vote: a result not of any problem with democracy, but because a genuine democracy prevents policy being railroaded through against the will of the majority (in this case, 64% of the electorate);

(3) Vastly more proportional systems already exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the result of which has been a vastly more consensual, grown-up approach to politics. If Northern Ireland – with all its ancient sectarian enmity – can do this, why on Earth can’t the rest of the UK?

Power sharing at Stormont

At Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday, two baying mobs hurl abuse at each other and behave like a pack of hyenas. The Labour MP, Stella Creasy, refers to Westminster as “Hogwarts gone wrong”; of a legislature entirely disconnected from the general public. Parliaments in other countries are open and accessible to the people; and at Holyrood, First Minister’s Questions takes place in an atmosphere unrecognisable from that of the House of Commons, despite all the competing passions which the Scottish referendum and, just as much, its aftermath, have generated.

Scottish politics are now more representative of the people than ever before; whereas Westminster’s adversarial nature (where MPs shout at one another while competing for a smaller and smaller space in the political spectrum: because that small space is inhabited by those 100,000 swing voters) turns millions off, and is increasingly filled by career politicians whose families supported them through university degrees and unpaid internships, went on to work for think tanks, NGOs or MPs, and who – raised as they’ve been under the Thatcherite consensus forced by FPTP – have little or no conception of the reality of life for tens of millions of Britons.

Not only that, but if someone from outside that privileged, professional politician’s background wants to stand for election, it almost solely depends not on what they stand for, but where they live. Marginal constituencies are the exception, nor the rule; the bulk of MPs beneficiaries of lifelong sinecures if they happen to hold not so much safe seats as rotten boroughs, where it doesn’t matter how little or how much campaigning they do, how little or how much work they perform for those they are supposed to represent. The expenses scandal, hardly surprisingly, was the result of this; the almost total failure to do much about it, likewise.

Goodness knows how many talented people are lost entirely to political life as a result of such an antiquated system; but if you don’t agree with Labour’s centre-right platform, or the Tories’ much further right agenda, there’s no point in seeking election. You have no chance of ever changing anything; for without first achieving power, how can reform ever happen?

In the late 1990s, Tony Blair had the chance to implement the findings of the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform. He ignored them completely. Labour’s narrow party political interest was vastly more important to it than the public interest: than something which actually represented the will of the people. As it was then, so it remains now: only a handful of Labour politicians speak openly about the need for reform, and even then, the focus – bizarrely – is only on local government elections. Not, perish the thought, despite unparalleled levels of public disenchantment with their representatives, on Westminster.

In 2011, even the Lib Dems, the only major party which had long stood for constitutional and electoral reform, entirely sold out. Disgracefully, despite having continually rejected the Alternative Vote as a “miserable little compromise” (in fact, it’s even worse: it’s the only electoral system anywhere which is frequently more unrepresentative than FPTP, and produces bizarre outcomes in Australia and even in the Labour leadership election, which Ed Miliband ‘won’ despite David Miliband receiving more first-preference votes), they attempted to inflict it on the country. Even now, extraordinary numbers of people believe Britain rejected ‘proportional representation’ at the referendum; yet AV is about as far removed from PR as it’s possible to conceive.

In committing this appalling volte-face on his party’s most cherished aspiration – a desire to turn Britain into a representative democracy at last – Nick Clegg set the cause of electoral reform back decades. Now, no party wants anything to do with it – yet what could be more important than democracy? Especially when FPTP has resulted not in ‘strong, stable government’, but in bad, divisive, unpopular, unrepresentative government, set against the backdrop of an angry, anti-political, even apolitical climate, in which the will of the majority is ignored, and anyone left of centre has no major party even to vote for?

Consider: at every election since 1979, had PR been in place, every single share of the vote would’ve been significantly different. It’s obvious that the Lib Dems (or their forerunners, the Alliance) would’ve received much higher support had there been any point in voting for them: had their seat share actually reflected their vote share. And without tactical voting – without electors throughout the country forced into voting against something, rather than for something – again, the results would’ve changed dramatically. The 30-35% of support which both major parties lay claim to now probably isn’t even close to what would occur under a proportional system; both enjoy only small amounts of enthusiastic public backing, yet both continue to dominate the political landscape because of a wholly iniquitous system.

More than that: just as in 1987, when despite 58% of voters, and almost 70% of the total electorate, failing to vote Tory, the poll tax was the result, had PR been in place in 2001, Blair would have been prevented from taking Britain to war in Iraq. No decision has done more to damage Britain’s reputation abroad, or disenchant the public at home; but under PR, the strength of the Lib Dems would’ve meant that the split in the Labour party would’ve proven decisive. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Blair would’ve even considered war had the Parliamentary arithmetic been against him.

That’s what proportional systems do. They protect against bad, unrepresentative public policy, and ensure that the wishes of all voters – not just those in marginal constituencies – are taken into account. In Germany, whose electoral system was actually designed by the British in the late 1940s, which has built a sustainable economy for the long term while Britain, focused on keeping those swing voters happy, has had a wholly unbalanced, Home Counties-centric one for almost four decades, even if the constitution didn’t prevent it from going to war, the presence of the Greens in coalition with Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats would certainly have done. So non-tribal, mature and focused on the common good are German politics, Angela Merkel even formed a Grand Coalition with the SDP in 2005: unthinkable in Britain, yet which succeeded and got things done for the benefit of the whole country.

And in Uruguay, where the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) have been in place in 2004, slashed poverty and inequality and maintained constant, at times dramatic economic growth, again, its proportional system protects against bad policy. The essentially social democratic FA have only remained in power by pursuing a centrist economic approach, encouraging foreign investment and controlling inflation. If it moved too far to the left, its two rivals on the centre and centre-right would combine at Presidential run-offs to keep it out of office. All parties of government in all genuine democracies need to focus on the centre ground; but in the UK, it isn’t in the middle of the whole electorate, but on the centre-right, where those precious 100,000 voters reside.

So appalling is this state of affairs, it’s even done more to precipitate increasingly likely Scottish independence than anything else. Scotland voted heavily Labour at every election between 1979 and 2010; the Tories were wiped out after 1997. Yet because of FPTP, it was rewarded with the Tories at five of those elections; Tory lite at the other three. Entirely correctly, as the three Westminster parties clearly don’t represent Scotland’s interests in any way, and obsess over southern, centre-right voters instead because of FPTP, the Scottish electorate has simply had enough. The looming SNP landslide will inevitably force matters to a head only 8 months after the independence referendum.

Not only that, but with Labour forced by FPTP to focus on England, not Scotland, and it having grown disgracefully complacent over many decades regarding its support north of the border, it is now palpably under-resourced in Scotland; and even what we might term, under-messaged. Twice over the last week and a bit, Scottish Labour leader, Jim Murphy, has simply lied to the public: first over First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘support for the Tories’ which never was; then even telling the electorate that Labour wouldn’t make cuts in Scotland, when its own UK manifesto says it will.

Like all his predecessors as Scottish Labour leader since the late, much lamented Donald Dewar, Murphy is out of his depth and inadequate: wholly unable to understand a rapidly changing political landscape all around him. But Labour’s leaders in Scotland have continually been so awful at a time that not one, but two SNP leaders have been hugely popular because the party focuses all its energies on the south: again as a result of FPTP.

Chuka Umunna, sometimes hailed as Britain’s future answer to Barack Obama, plays well in suburban, metropolitan seats – yet not only did he have no compunction in throwing Murphy under a bus and publicly humiliating him on the BBC yesterday (with shattering consequences for any remaining Labour hopes in Scotland), but in September, the very day after the referendum, he could only name two Labour MSPs.

Under FPTP, Scotland has been of no consequence to Labour; so naturally, it’s stopped caring about or even attempting to understand it. Even its rallying call of “vote SNP, get Tories” only draws loud attention to the very thing which has done so much to break the UK apart. Labour hasn’t protected Scotland from the ravages of neo-liberalism over the last 35 years; it can’t and won’t do so now (as its manifesto, launched yesterday, confirms); and in a so-called democracy, it publicly warns the electorate against voting for who they want! There could scarcely be a better advertisement for PR – and in the event of independence, PR, real self-determination, real choice, and real representation, is what Scottish voters will at long last be granted.

Elsewhere in the UK, the rest of the electorate, just as disenfranchised by FPTP but without a force remotely as powerful as the SNP to get behind, flail around helplessly in all directions, searching for someone or something to blame; and are deflected by deeply cynical politicians and a compliant media (whose owners and employees are beneficiaries of the Greed Is Good politics of the last two generations) towards Europe or immigration – which has become a problem only because of the continued prioritisation of rentier classes in south-east England as a result of FPTP – while attacking almost all MPs for being “out of touch”. Remarkably, their focus is never on the very thing which rigs the entire process in the first place: the voting system.

So as you watch the media provide wall-to-wall coverage of the next three and a half weeks; Labour and the Conservatives trade announcement after announcement, rebuttal after rebuttal, remember: this isn’t for your benefit. It’s for the benefit of around 100,000 people in no more than 100 marginal constituencies. Nobody else counts; the views of a massive majority are ignored, even when the consequences for the whole country are so fractious and so appalling. When is a democracy not a democracy? When it’s in Britain.