How Michael Howard could be a winner on votes but a big loser on seats
The main way of trying to work out what specific vote shares will mean in terms of Commons seats is to use the calculator created and maintained by the ex-Cambridge, and now City mathematician, Martin Baxter. His approach, available to all online, is to take projected vote shares and to apply them in terms of a uniform national swing to each constituency in Great Britain. Itâ€™s a great tool but will it work on May 5th?
At the 2001 General Election Tony Blairâ€™s Labour party beat Baxter big time. For although its margin over the Tories was nearly a quarter down on 1997, this did not translate into many seats changing hands because Tony Blair’s party piled on the votes in the only seats that mattered – the marginals it was defending. In traditional Labour seats, those where Labour had been elected in 1992, the drop in the partyâ€™s share of the vote was 4%. Yet in the seats that it had won in the 1997 landslide Labourâ€™s vote share dropped by a tenth of that â€“ just 0.4%. ?
The outcome was that while Labourâ€™s winning vote margin was just over 9% the seats it got were the equivalent of having a 12% lead.
The big question for 2005 is can the Labour machine repeat the magic again?
With the opinion poll leads much smaller than four years ago this is going to be the dominating feature of this election. For whereas last time the result always seemed a foregone conclusion this time things could be closer and how the seat distribution works could be critical. There are three possibilities:-
This is a hard call to make and for a long time we have taken the view that Labour will be doing very well just to hold onto what it got from the disproportionate swings in 2001. Issues like â€œtactical unwindâ€ where Lib Dem voters return to their normal allegiance rather than Labour could put some seats at risk.
We are now not so sure. The polarising nature of the Conservative campaign could easily energise the marginals and once again Labour could do substantially better in terms of seats than its national vote share.
Thus one outcome that we think might happen is for Labour to win seats as though it had, say, a 3% margin in the national popular vote but because of poor turnout in the constituencies where it does not matter, its strongholds, Michael Howardâ€™s Tories, sorry Conservatives, come out as vote winner.