Is Nick Harvey right that “Labour is on course to win the next election”?

Nick Harvey MPSir Nick Harvey, Lib Dem MP for North Devon (and former defence minister), has little doubt who’s going to win the next election, as he tells the Huffington Post:

… Harvey has a “clear sense” of what he thinks is going to happen. And even more than that, he is “astonished” that few others within the Westminster Village share his view.

“Stand fast a game changing event, which is always possible in the febrile political era in which we live, Labour is on course to win the next election,” he declares. “This election is Labour’s to lose.”

Is he right? In one sense, the answer is yes. The Conservatives haven’t been in the lead in a single opinion poll since George Osborne’s ‘omnishambles’ budget in March 2012. And though confidence in economic growth is starting to kick in among voters, Labour’s lead has edged up since the conference season – suggesting there isn’t an automatic correlation between a recovery in the economy and a recovery in Conservative fortunes.

Besides, even tying with Labour in the popular vote isn’t good enough for the Tories. After all, David Cameron beat Gordon Brown by a much more comfortable margin than Tony Blair beat Michael Howard – yet Cameron was left without a majority.

History isn’t a consistent guide. Let’s look back at the polls at the equivalent point in the electoral cycle:

  • Nov 2008 – average Conservative lead of 8%. Result: Conservative margin of victory of 8% (May 2010).
  • Nov 2003 – average Labour lead of 3%. Result: Labour margin of victory of 3% (May 2005).
  • That looks good for the predictive potential of the polls (though please note the averages I quote above span a wide range). Go back further, though, and the reliability fades:

  • Dec 1999 – average Labour lead of 24%. Result: Labour margin of victory of 12% (June 2001).
  • Nov 1995 – average Labour lead of 30%. Result: Labour margin of victory of 12% (May 1997).
  • Still, though the margins were a long way out, at least the polls forecast the right result. Which is more than happened in earlier elections…

  • Oct 1990 – average Labour lead of 12%. Result: Conservative margin of victory of 8% (April 1992).
  • Dec 1985 – dead-heat between Labour and Conservatives in polls. Result: Conservative margin of victory of 11% (June 1987).
  • Dec 1981 – SDP/Liberal Alliance leads Labour and Conservatives by over 20%. Result: Conservative margin of victory of 14% (June 1983).
  • Looked at like this, we see polls this far out from the election are sometimes reliable and sometimes not reliable for forecasting the result of the next election.

    There are two political scientists currently making real-time forecasts for the next election based on today’s polls. Each points in a completely opposite direction:

  • Martin Baxter – Current Prediction: Labour majority 84.
  • Stephen Fisher – Current Prediction: Conservatives largest party, but short of a majority by 3.
  • Here’s Nick Harvey’s – I think pretty sound – analysis of the situation:

    “Most people say it would be an absolutely crowning achievement,” he says. “It’s very difficult to see why anyone would vote Tory next time who didn’t last time. There’s not much history of incumbents gaining votes between elections. It would be a superlative accomplishment if the Tories were to achieve 36%.” To gain votes in 2015, Harvey says, must be the “apex of their most wild fantasy of their ambition”.

    As for Labour, Harvey predicts that the lowest Ed Miliband will poll is 34% – having siphoned off around 5% of the Lib Dem vote. “That’s before they make any headway against the Tories in marginals. If 36% is the most the Tories could achieve and 34% is the least Labour is going to achieve, plot that on a seat predictor, Labour has already won. Labour has probably got a 15-seat majority. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote with most going to the Labour Party means that the Tories have probably lost two dozen seats before they even get out of bed.”

    Harvey concedes the Lib Dems will suffer in the popular vote. But he is confident that the parliamentary party will largely survive largely intact. “The smarter Tories will realise the collapse of our popular vote will have a far more devastating impact on them than it will on us. We will be able to concentrate on the seats that matter to us.”

    He adds: “Remember at the 1997 election we got 16% of the vote and 46 MPs. I’d take that now if that was on offer for the next election.”

    On the face of it, that will leave Labour with a smile on their faces. Except, as I’ve pointed out before, such a small majority would be a nightmare scenario for Ed Miliband. John Major’s fate – held to ransom by his extremist backbenchers – still looms large in British politics.

    Update: Ryan Coetzee, Nick Clegg’s director of strategy, replies:

    * Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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    18 Comments

    • This analysis simply restates what has been pretty obvious for many months if not years, as things stand. But a week is still a long time in politics.

    • paul barker 23rd Nov '13 - 1:10pm

      Whoa ! Where to begin?
      First, there is an argument that Voting Intention Polling no longer works because we brought in Fixed-Term Parliaments, everyone knows when the Election will be & its way too soon to start thinking seriously about how to vote.
      Second, Labour have to get to The Election in one piece before they can win or lose. Labour face two interconnected challenges – The Reforms & Money. If The Leadership win at The Special Conference then Labour will have less money to fight The Election with but that would be the extent of the damage, probably. If The Leadership lose then no-one knows what happens next.
      Then theres money, Labour have massive debts but have always been able to rely on The Unions to cough up & The Co-op Bank to extend their overdraft. Both those certainties have vanished in the last few months.

    • Stephen,

      The Conservatives haven’t been in the lead in a single opinion poll since George Osborne’s ‘omnishambles’ budget in March 2012

      It wasn’t just Osborne’s budget, was it? It required approval from the other members of the ‘Quad’, including Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander.

      However, this has had no impact on Lib Dem fortunes, which collapsed a few months after the Coalition was formed and have flatlined since.

      If I were a Lib Dem, I might worry less about the fortunes of the Conservative Party and perhaps consider why being in power made my own party so unpopular.

    • jenny barnes 23rd Nov '13 - 2:35pm

      “The trick in politics is to change the future, not predict it. ”
      Let’s not bother with pesky manifesto commitments and pledges – we’ll only do something different if we get a sniff of power. I agree, the purpose of politics is to change things, but if I’m going to work for the party, I need to believe that the party will at least try to make the changes I would support, not privatise the NHS, secret courts, tuition fees, etc.

    • What are the assumptions behind the seat predictor? Why accept them because they have been coded into a computer rather than question them? The squeeze factors are going to be very different this time round with those people who still support the Lib Dems much less likely to have Labour as their second choice than in past elections. This will be important in Labour / Tory marginals.

    • Tony Dawson 23rd Nov '13 - 6:38pm

      “such a small majority would be a nightmare scenario for Ed Miliband.”

      SLIGHT exaggeration???? Ask even the Nick-loving Mr Cameron whether he would prefer to have scraped an absolute majority or be in minority and I know which he would answer.

      Richard S has got his causes and effects back to front, I fear. The important factor in Lab/Tory marginals is by far those voters who have already abandoned the Lib Dems. The fraction of the 5 to 9 per cent of voters in such seat sticking with Lib Dems who might still turn to Labour is an irrelevance.

    • Paul in Twickenham 23rd Nov '13 - 7:10pm

      Elsewhere on this website there is an outline of the Lib Dem manifesto for next year’s European elections. It’s title is “better in than out” or some such thing. The bottom line is that whatever the manifesto says (which basically appears to be that Europe is wonderful and what could we possibly want to change about it), very few voters will pay the least attention. The Lib Dems will be lucky to hold on to 5th place and I again (as I have now done several times here) predict that the Lib Dems will emerge with no more than 3 MEPs and I will donate £20 to charity for every MEP returned above that number. I’m not expecting to be out of pocket…

      Perhaps Mr. Harvey would care to opine now on the number of MEPs he expects to be returned, and next May we can put his crystal-ball gazing prowess vis-a-vis the general election into some context.

    • If Lib Dems have as few as 3 or less MEPs, it is possible (if not likely) that the SNP could equal that haul. The classic precedent, of course, Simon, would be if the Greens were (again somewhat unlikely) to get their act together as they did in the 1989 Euros, to force Lib Dems into 4th place in almost every (then much smaller) euroconstituency. It gives me no great pleasure to say that I think it is perfectly possible that the Lib Dems will finish with no MEPs at all. But up to three, and those in the big regions, ie London, SE England and NW England would be possible with the more positive pro European campaign that is now talked about. One of the issues about Euro elections is the low turnout, and therefore “capture” by zealous parties and groups with strongly presented agendas – the classic being UKIP, of course, but has included the Greens, and fascists in whatever incarnation. Since lists were brought in in 1999, telling at polling stations has been an unpleasant experience, with many voters who are normally not in evidence coming in, with their contorted faces, aggressive attitude towards any mainstream party, and clearly intolerant views. The lower the turnout, the more likely it is that “capture” will occur.

      It is in that context that I think a strong pro European campaign might thrive, as we could, given a reasonable run, maintain a vote share in low double figures as there will be few competitors for that segment of the vote in May 2014. I would still say 8 – 9% would be more likely, but with our usual “don’t mention the EU, just publicise local council and Westminster candidate” approach, I think 5 – 6% would be probable, accompanied by likely loss of all seats.

      So, in answer to your questions, Simon, an early prediction of party order would be: UKIP, Labour Tory (although any permutation of this could be possible), Lib Dem, Green, SNP (again that could be in any order for those three parties). At present, fascists appear in a factional and unorganised state, and while they remain like that they will not make gains. Noting the success of quite a few Independents in the PCC elections last year in the same boundaries, it is always possible that a small number of these people could come through. As to the 3 MEP prediction made, that could only be the 3 areas I mention above, because of the number of seats, and therefore lower required overall vote share to be elected.

    • Michael Cole 24th Nov '13 - 10:54am

      I personally signed up Nick Harvey to the Party in the late 1970s. It wasn’t difficult; I was constituency chairman and he approached me asking to join. I have the greatest respect for him but he shouldn’t be spreading doom and gloom.

      Labour doesn’t have a clue about running the economy. Ed Balls is a liability. They are self-serving – more so than many Tories. They claim to have a monopoly of compassion but this is useless without competence. Their so-called policies are populist and are made simply for short-term political advantage. This is surely obvious.

      Our job in the next 18 months is to expose self-serving Labour for what it is. It’s all in ‘Animal Farm’. If we accept these pessimistic predictions then we are already beaten.

    • Labour shouldn’t win the next election, if only because it will not do them any good if they do. Nor, I suggest, would it be good for the country. They were in power for thirteen years, and have had only five years in which to re-think their policies and ideology. Nor do they appear to have put that time to very good use: does even Ed Milliband have a clear vision of what a Labour government would try to do between 2015 and 2020? Having said that, I don’t want to see a Tory government either, or, to honest, another five years of what we will have lived through by 2015.

    • Peter Tyzack 24th Nov '13 - 12:03pm

      I agree with Michael. Harvey, of all people, should know about self-fulfilling prophesies. What a depressing lot you are. Lib Dems are on the road to forming a government, it could be the next one, but we shall never get there if we don’t start talking positive and looking at making things happen. A few stupid off-piste comments like this will be swooped on by our ‘friends’ in the media as the ‘evidence’ that we are on the ropes.. careless talk costs seats.

    • Bill le Breton 24th Nov '13 - 5:29pm

      Stephen provides a 1981 December snap shot.

      As I wrote to him a few weeks ago, that ‘moment’ was the nadir of Tory fortunes. Between December 81 and March 82 Conservative support surged. This was well before the Falklands invasion, let alone the period of greatest concern for our forces (HMS Sheffield was sunk in early May, Goose Green late May) or the mood of national elation and the ‘return of the fleet’ much later in the year.

      The economic recovery anticipated by the Bank of England will be accompanied by a shift in those who presently rate the Coalition as handling the economy ‘fairly badly’ into the category who say that the Coalition is handling the economy fairly well. This is a very sizable group. YouGov for instance has it as over 30%.

      The Conservative vote therefore will improve from here. Do not be surprised to see it at 42% at election time. That is the base Tory vote in a mood of economic optimism following a period of recession.

      How then goes it for the Tories’ Coalition partner – what share of the ‘recovery factor’ do we get?

      The Bank of England predicts 2.8 growth in real GDP next year and 2.3% the year following. It calculates there is a 60% chance that unemployment will be still above 7% in December 1914 – a vital time for electoral decision taking.

      Nick in his Huff Post article points to our taking 47 seats with a national vote share of 16.8%. I think he appreciates that there was considerable determination among nearly 60% of the electorate to ‘get the Tories out’ at all costs, providing us with considerable tactical support from Labour voters in Tory/Lib Dem marginals (and Labour with LD support in Tory/Labour marginals.

      How many of these will buy the line that a) the Tories will win and that b) a strong Lib Dem element will be able to restrain the worst of Tory policies?

      “Don’t risk letting the Lib Dems put the Tories in again. Vote Labour (everywhere).” sounds a typical Labour call to action.

      Mr Cortzee wishes to change the future and to achieve this is targeting those who have voted for us in the past and who have said they would consider voting for us. But the great number of these are in families where members have at least one member who is among that 7% who are likely still to be unemployed at the critical decision taking moments or the many more who will even then consider themselves under-employed and poorly paid.

      Such a limited recovery does us no favours. It is a particularly divisive set of conditions, playing to Labour and Conservatives.

      But such a cautious recovery is the result of decisions by the Treasury and the Bank of England that this is all that can be achieved. As the Governor of the Bank of England repeated a number of times last week – the unknown factor is the degree of slack in the economy.

      Lib Dems need a stronger recovery. We need to believe (as good Liberals) that there is greater potential in the people of this country than the Establishment (of Tories and Central bankers) gives the country credit for.

    • Lucy boucherat 9th Jun '17 - 6:16pm

      Dear Nick Harvey
      So so sorry . I so wanted you to win the N Devon seat again. I have met you once but more importantly, you have made such a difference directly for my friends and family by getting involved. I know that preventing the closure of our hospital is dear to your heart as it is to mine—I would be dead now without it.
      Take care Nick
      Lucy Boucherat

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