26 April 2010

Are we getting too outraged too soon?

There is one thing that troubles me in the discussions of hung parliaments, and the opinion polls putting Labour third, yet having the most Commons seats. It's not the fact that we're putting too much emphasis on the opinion polls.

It's the fact that we're reading too much into the polls, that we assume that a poll has put Labour on, say 270 seats to the Tories' 260. It hasn't. It's just put Labour's vote share at 28%, to the Tories' 34%.

Now, no one likes a good extrapolation more than I do, but we have to be careful. After all, despite the emphasis on the debates and the party leaders, the truth is that only the voters of Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath, Witney and Sheffield Hallam will be able to cast a vote for or against the men on their television screens. And even they will only be able to vote for or against one of them!

Because the reality is that this isn't one election. It's 650 elections held on the same day. Well, 649 elections held on the same day, and then Thirsk & Malton a few weeks later as a result of the death of the UKIP candidate there.

Despite that, reports of this one single election that doesn't exist tell us that we're facing three main parties, then a small, grey amorphous blob known as 'Others'.

But in 59 of those seats, there's a fourth major party, the SNP, and in one of those 59, Glasgow North East, any extrapolation is damaged by the fact that three of the major parties didn't stand in 2005 (with 'Mister Speaker Seeking Re-Election' topping the poll).

And in a further 40, there's also a fourth major party, Plaid. And again, one of those 40, Blaenau Gwent, an independent candidate, the late Peter Law (succeeded by his election agent Dai Davies) blew the party structure out of the water.

Then there are another 18 where the party landscape couldn't be more different from the one painted by the UK press. Only one of those 'UK major parties' is standing in Northern Ireland, and that's through an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionists, who supply 15 of the 17 UCU candidates. This pact has then agreed another pact with the DUP in the 18th seat, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, to have an Independent Unionist stand on behalf of both parties (well, all three parties, really). So you have the SDLP standing in 18 seats, Sinn Fein in 17 (all except Belfast South), the Conservatives and Unionists standing in 17 together, the DUP standing in 16, Rodney Connor standing as the Independent Unionist in Fermanagh and Sylvia Hermon standing against her former UUP colleagues (well, actually, he's one of the two Tories) in North Down. Then chuck in the Alliance Party and Traditional Unionist Voice and you realise that frankly, everything you've read about this election doesn't apply in Northern Ireland.

And even in the remaining 532 seats, there are quirks: the seats where the Greens or Respect (and even the BNP) are challenging the three established parties; Buckingham, a battle between Speaker Bercow and UKIP's Nigel Farage; Wyre Forest, home of the Independent Richard Taylor.

The point I'm making is this: common sense dictates that the election won't pan out the same way in all 650 seats. All sorts of local factors - including the presence and personalities of the candidates - cloud the picture. Yet despite that, we're treating the poll extrapolations as gospel. They're not: they're guesses. Educated ones, but guesses nonetheless.

Of course, that's not to say the extrapolations can't be right: of course it's possible that Labour might come third in votes but first in seats. But it's no use getting outraged now, when all that's happened is we've spotted an opinion poll in the papers and then gone on to play about with the BBC seat calculator.

We can't protest a hypothetical outcome based on an opinion poll. It makes no sense to protest against something that is little more than a guess.

Nevertheless, this might be a good time to get the placards ready for 7 May. We don't need them yet, but we might need them then. The truth is, we just don't yet know.

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