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12 Graphs That Show Why No One Knows Who Will Win The Next Election

Predicting who will be in government after the next election is a challenge and a half. Here's why.

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British politics used to be pretty simple: Every few years there would be a general election which ended with either the Conservatives or Labour winning a majority of the seats.

PA Archive/Press Association Images Owen Humphreys

But in 2010 neither of the parties won a majority of seats, so the coalition government happened. Then the Lib Dem vote collapsed, and the surge in UKIP/SNP/Green support began.

Now politicians in Westminster are now starting to consider the possibility that the 2015 election could leave us with a result from which no government can be formed. British politics is in such a state of flux that no one really knows who is going to win. Or very much at all about anything.

Here's why the next election is so hard to predict:

1. Party loyalties are dying. Almost half of the UK electorate have switched party since 2010.

The Times Red Box

This analysis by The Times' Data Team for the Red Box blog shows that 44% of voters say they've changed their voting intention since 2010. That's almost half the electorate in less than five years. It's astonishing.

What's more, polling companies take past voting intention into account when they produce surveys. With so many people switching parties, many of their models and weightings don't work as well any more.

"There's an awful lot of churn that's not really being picked up," explains Laurence Janta-Lipinski, a political pollster at YouGov who says voters are backing unexpected parties and groups that don't necessarily fit with previous expectations.

2. Support for the main two parties is falling.

YouGov

Just two-thirds of the public say they intend to back Labour or the Conservatives. Support for the two parties has declined to the point where it's becoming almost impossible for either to form a majority government.

3. The popularity of the party leaders is out of sync with the popularity of their parties.

cdn.yougov.com

Labour leader Ed Miliband is even less popular than Nick Clegg, and it's weighing on his party's poll ratings. With just over six months to go until the general election, by now the leader of the opposition should have made his mark on the electorate and convinced them he is ready to become prime minister.

At the same time, David Cameron's approval rating is pretty stable, and he's actually more popular than the Conservative party itself. A lot hinges on whether voters ask themselves "Who do I want to be prime minister?" or "Which party do I like the most?"

4. The Lib Dems are confident of keeping quite a lot of seats despite their terrible national poll ratings.

YouGov

This graph shows the difference between how people currently say they will vote (on the right) and how they say they would consider voting (on the left).

In short, there aren't many people who don't currently vote Conservative or Labour who are likely to consider voting Conservative or Labour. But an awful lot of voters who don't currently say they'll vote Lib Dem would "probably" vote for the party in the future.

The Lib Dems are resigned to losing at least half of their 58 seats, but the party isn't expecting a total wipeout, despite terrible headline poll ratings.

Bizarrely, for a party that cares so deeply about proportional representation, first-past-the-post could prove to be the party's saviour, as it retains seats on a very low percentage of the vote.

It's possible that the Lib Dems could poll well under 10% of the national vote (losing the majority of their voters) but still retain half of their constituencies. Working out which seats they'll keep is the real challenge.

5. Labour's vote depends on the party maintaining the support of former Lib Dems.

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As the analysis by Red Box shows, Labour's support base is being propped up by a substantial number of left-wing Lib Dems who quit Clegg's party after it entered government. Labour's strategy relies on retaining as many of its traditional supporters as it can and combining them with disillusioned former Lib Dems to win the election.

But that could be risky because...

6. The Greens are taking votes from the Lib Dems and Labour.

cdn.yougov.com

The Greens are now polling at similar levels to the Lib Dems. But they need to build power bases in a handful of constituencies if they are to have any chance of winning more seats.

Instead they might simply deprive Labour of enough votes to let another party slip into first place.

7. UKIP's vote is concentrated in a small number of seats, so it's hard to predict whether it can convert broad national support into MPs.

pbs.twimg.com

UKIP's support is still relatively low, but is concentrated in a small number of seats, especially on the southeast coast and Lincolnshire, as this Democratic Audit map of local authorities shows.

This substantially boosts the party's chances of taking seats under first-past-the-post but also plays havoc with national predictions.

8. The SNP's poll rating is sky high, and pollsters don't really know how to factor that into their models.

Britain Elects / May 2015

One recent poll had the SNP on 8% of the UK national vote. Which is astonishing, given Scotland only has 8% of the UK's population. Other predictions include this map by Britain Elects, based an STV poll, which sees Labour reduced to just four seats in Scotland.

A different form of politics is being fought in Scotland now that doesn't fit the UK-wide polling models.

9. Northern Ireland's 18 MPs could hold the balance of power and get to choose who forms the next UK government.

Wikipedia

Northern Ireland's MPs are usually left well out of UK-wide politics. But with such a close election, every seat counts.

Which is why the Conservatives have already started trying to charm the unionist DUP, which currently has eight MPs.

10. All this chaos means a lot of traditional polling methodology doesn't work as well as it used to because it's based on projecting national surveys on to local results.

BBC

British politics used to work on the basis of a uniform national swing between parties. Broadly speaking, a party with 40% of the vote should easily have more seats than a party that wins 35% of the vote. The system assumed that most voters in most constituencies would behave in a broadly similar fashion.

But now, YouGov's Janta-Lipinski says, "There is no uniformity. Apart from your classic ultra-safe Labour seat, or the ultra-safe Tory seat, it's anybody's guess."

Voters aren't switching between Labour and Conservative, so the election is set to be a battle to see who can lose the fewest seats.

Instead of trying to take seats off each other, the two main parties are locked in a battle to stop their vote seeping away to UKIP, SNP, and the Greens (for Labour) or UKIP (for Conservatives).

11. The UK's first-past-the-post electoral system isn't well suited to five-party politics.

This graph shows the result of the last election in Norwich South, where the vote split four ways, giving the Lib Dems a narrow win even though they were backed by just 29% of voters.

A few years ago, such a four-way split would have been an unusual result. But the rise of the SNP, UKIP, and the Greens means such narrow victories could start happening all over the place.

Why does this matter? Well, predicting narrow majorities on a constituency-by-constituency basis in a four-way race is very hard without interviewing thousands of people. With lots of four-way races, there could be unexpected results across the country based on local priorities and prejudices.

Or, as Ian Warren, Labour's election data specialist, puts it:

We are not having 1 election in May, we are having 650. Everyone should be in front of that story by now instead of flailing about.

@election_data@election_dataFollow

We are not having 1 election in May, we are having 650. Everyone should be in front of that story by now instead of flailing about.

9:23 AM - 30 Nov 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

12. All this means that a hung parliament, in which neither main party has enough seats to form a government on its own, is looking very likely.

Electionsetc

Steve Fisher, a professor in political sociology at Oxford University, currently rates the likelihood of a hung parliament as over 50%. The odds of a single party winning a majority are looking pretty small.

And there's always the possibility that no one can form a government at all.

Until recently, the received wisdom in Westminster was that either Labour or the Conservatives would come close to gaining a majority of seats. One of the parties would then join with the remaining Lib Dems to form another coalition government.

But now that's starting to look like an optimistic scenario, and we could be looking at a three- or four-party coalition. Which would require a lot of political parties who hate each other to work together.

And that's when the fun really starts.

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Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Jim Waterson at jim.waterson@buzzfeed.com.

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