How low can the Big Three go?

How low can the Big Three go?

We had all sorts of problems uploading the chart so apologies that it’s not the easiest to read. The purple / pink lines are the shares at General Elections. The yellow / peach lines are the shares at European elections.The pink and yellow lines are the shares for all parties outside the Big Three (Con, Lab, LD) The purple and peach lines are the shares for all parties outside the Big Two (Con, Lab).

Will the Expenses Scandal produce a Sea Change in British Politics?

For those who love politics, the last week and a half has been a thoroughly depressing time, with day after day of revelations of behaviour by MP’s and peers which range from at best morally dubious to at worst, allegations which if proven appear to be criminal.

The Telegraph should be commended for an excellent piece of journalism and congratulated for exposing a rottenness at the heart of British democracy. It’s true that the expenses story would have come out in July anyway but it would not have come out in this way.

Because it has been able to control the release of information, The Telegraph has been able to lay bare the true breadth and nature of the misconduct. Had all the expenses been released by the House of Commons authorities at once, the focus would have been on the worst cases; there’s a limit to how many can be kept in focus at once. The lesser instances, of pettiness rather than venality, involving light bulbs, dog food or trouser presses, would have been ‘buried’ under stories of claims for already repaid mortgages, moat repairs or couples mutually registering both their homes as their ‘second’.

Only by giving enough airtime and print space to the lesser cases has the public been able to see that this isn’t a case of a few bad apples but of widespread systemic abuse of the public purse. That has been deeply damaging to public trust in establishment politicians and has been reflected in the polls.

Since the scandal first broke, there have been four polls. Each one has shown an increase in support for minor parties on the previous poll from the same firm. In Thursday’s poll by YouGov for The Sun, the share for parties other than Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems was 18%. This was at the time the highest share ever recorded for ‘Others’. By a more than 3:2 majority, the public believes that “most” MP’s have been deliberately abusing the system and virtually no-one believes that “almost all MP’s are reasonably honest”.  Since then, two more polls released yesterday have reinforced the trend even more dramatically, both putting Others above 20%.

The combined Conservative and Labour share – those who would vote for parties likely to form a government – ranges beween 61% and 63% in the three polls: the three worst Con+Lab totals since a single poll back in April 2006 (in which the Lib Dems took 25%).

Some of that support for Others is likely to be to do with the Euroelection campaign currently underway. One-third of the 18% is for UKIP: much more than they received at the 2005 election. That may be in part indicative of their higher profile at the moment and also perhaps related to corruption and fraud in the EU mixing in the public mind with the sleaze at Westminster. Either way, it is a protest vote against the status quo. That UKIP should benefit from sleaze allegations is something of an irony given their own EP group’s problems with the subject but it will be almost impossible now for the other parties to attack UKIP on it so that ought to be a non-problem.

With local and European elections just around the corner, the public has a much more active way of protesting than at most times. The local elections may not offer too many opportunities: there are fewer options available and the public is likely to think that the result of the elections matter more in terms of the impact on their lives.

By contrast, the European election already offered a bonanza for the minor parties. Not only are they all available to all voters but because of PR, several of them stand a good chance of being elected – something that only the regionally focussed SNP and Plaid could otherwise dream of. (Under FPTP, even the Liberals couldn’t win a EP seat until 1989).

Others have been on the up for decades but the process has been slow.  The 98% won by the Big Three back in the 1950s had only dropped below 90% at a general election for the first time in 2005, and then only just.  A similar story exists for elections to the EP under FPTP.  That, however, changed in 1999.

The effect of the introduction of PR is obvious from the graphic: the share of the vote going outside the Big Two increased from what has been a fairly standard share (since 1981) of about 25-30% to 40% in 1999 and 52% in 2004. There’s now good reason to expect that share to increase still further.

Does that make for betting opportunities? William Hill has various markets on the minor parties but has set the dividing line high in most cases. For the Green Party to win 10 or more seats seems almost impossible to me. To do that means they’ll have to win seats in places like the North-East or Wales, where only a few MEP’s are returned, or win more than one in constituencies like the South-East or London. Either way, they’d need shares on the scale of what they won in 1989 – when there were few other minor parties and the Lib Dems were in meltdown.  Even the 11% they scored in today’s Comres poll for the Sunday Express would return only 5 MEPs, working on a Uniform National Swing.

Morus had a very good article yesterday explaining why the BNP were unlikely to win the 5 seats to return a win at 4/1. The alternative – that they won’t – is only 1/7. The 100/30 that they don’t win any seats at all might be better value but that does rely on the polling being right and I distrust pollsters a little when it comes to the BNP as it’s very difficult to model the shyness effectively.

The other two markets involve UKIP. One is to win 15 seats or more (or 14 or fewer). That again is a very high bar. UKIP won 12 seats in 2004 but there are fewer on offer this time so they need a net gain of four, coming off an election in which they won over 16% and finished ahead of the Lib Dems. That said, 4/7 for No, when UKIP have just polled 19% doesn’t look too attractive either. As Labour and UKIP won 31 seats between them in 2004, there might be better value in who will win more, where UKIP is 7/4 and the tie is 3/1.

However, there is an innate optimism which tends to drive those who go into politics – why bother if you can’t make things better? This week might have been the worst of times but it might also be the best of times; this could be the moment when Westminster politics gets cleaned out. The question is who will do it and who will be left behind? We could be talking individuals (Douglas Hogg and Shahid Malik proved excellent examples of MP’s who still don’t ‘get it’), or we could be talking parties. The stakes are high; the times are interesting.

William Hill political betting markets.

Other political betting markets

David Herdson










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