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Paul of polls

Feeling good ahead of the election? Because we’re heading for another

Take a seat and curb your enthusiasm: we’re in it for the long haul. Richard Kelly, CC BY

The feelgood factor plays an important role in explaining voting – both in the UK and abroad. This is what a great deal of academic research conducted over the years shows.

There are actually two versions of the feelgood factor. One relates to how voters perceive the state of the national economy, and the other to how they view their and their family’s personal financial circumstances.

The data in this chart, which comes from the Essex Continuous Monitoring Survey, shows the percentages of respondents who thought that things had got better both for the national economy and for themselves and their families over the previous twelve months.

Feeling good. Paul Whiteley, Author provided

Respondents were asked how they thought the general economic situation had changed over that period and how their own household’s financial situation had changed.

Personal and national economic evaluations used to be fairly closely related to each other. If people felt positive about the national economy they were quite likely to feel positive about their own financial circumstances as well.

But the two began to diverge rather dramatically from the start of 2013. National economic optimism rapidly improved during that year but then stalled in 2014. In contrast, personal economic optimism increased only very modestly in 2013 and again stalled during the following year.

The chart also tracks Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in voting intentions over the same period. It shows a classic pattern: the lead rises during the mid-term period and then gradually falls.

At the moment, the parties are in a statistical dead heat as far as voting intentions are concerned. In 2013 the Labour lead did not react to rapidly rising national economic optimism and this was largely because personal economic optimism hardly shifted at that time. This suggests that the personal feelgood factor is more important than the national feelgood factor when it comes to influencing the vote.

On the other hand, the large increase in the former and modest increase in the latter has clearly contributed to the erosion of the Labour lead over the Conservatives in 2014. But the fact that both national and personal evaluations have now stalled suggests that there is unlikely to be much further movement in voting intentions from this source before polling day.

Suppose the dead heat in voting intentions between the two major parties continues until the general election – what then? The answer is that Labour is likely to emerge as the largest party after the election because there is a clear bias in the electoral system in its favour.

Labour constituencies tend to be smaller than Conservative constituencies – in 2010 the average electorate in Labour seats was just over 69,000 people, whereas in Conservative seats it was nearly 73,000. So Labour gets more MPs per voter from this source. Turnouts in Labour seats also tend to be lower than turnouts in Conservative seats. In 2010 the average turnout in Labour seats was 63% but in Conservative seats it was 70%. So Labour gets more representation than the Conservatives per voter.

Then comes the fact that the Liberal Democrats were stronger challengers to the Conservatives in 2010 than they were to Labour. The party was in second place in 166 of the seats won by the Conservatives in that year but was second place in only 100 seats held by Labour. Less third-party competition makes it easier to win. For all these reasons a dead heat in the voting will produce a Labour majority, other things being equal.

Of course other things are unlikely to be equal this time because of increased support for the SNP in Scotland. This has the potential to push Labour into second place in the seat totals.

The seats-vote forecasting model, shows that Labour is likely to win 281 seats and the Conservatives 271 seats in the election. It also shows that the Liberal Democrats are likely to win 36 seats. In any event, the model points to a hung parliament in which neither a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition or a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition will have an overall majority.

And this, in turn, means we are likely to see an early second election following the general election in May, much as happened in 1974.

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