Cameron must do better than Churchill, Heath and Thatcher to win

David Cameron will need to win more than 80 more seats than Labour to win the election, more than the 70-seat lead in 1979 and the 26-seat lead in October 1951.

David Cameron will need to win more than 80 more seats than Labour to win the next election – more than Mrs Thatcher’s 70-seat lead in 1979 and more than three times Winston Churchill’s 26-seat lead over Labour in October 1951, according to new research in this month’s Prospect.

Another headache for Cameron, says Prospect, is that when the Tories last won an election, under John Major in 1992, the Liberal Democrats won 20 seats – a number they have more than now trebled to 62.

Nearly all these additional seats are in natural Tory territory, with only a slim chance of turning blue.

The research was carried out by Peter Kellner, president of YouGov and one of the foremost authorities on polling, who explains that:

“Cameron’s task is made much harder by Britain’s unusually large block of third and minor party MPs. In 1979 there were just 28 such MPs, meaning Thatcher was able to govern comfortably having won just 71 more Tory than Labour MPs.

“But by 2005, that 28 had more than trebled to become 92. So this year, if the Tories manage to lead Labour by 71 — on the face of it a good result, given Labour’s lead of 158 after 2005 — Cameron will almost certainly not secure an overall majority.

“More significantly, as long as at least 70 MPs belong to a mix of Lib Dems and minor parties, future elections could throw up hung parliaments too.”

In his article, Kellner unveils his “seven pillars of electoral wisdom” for the election; these are:

1. To win, the Tories must carry the north, not just the south

Using the new boundaries, the Tories need 24 seats to wipe out Labour’s majority. If they are to become the largest party, they must take 40 more seats, many of which are in the Midlands. And to win an overall majority they must prevail in a third batch of seats, mostly in the north.

2. The election won’t be decided by a few thousand votes in a handful of seats

Most MPs are safe. The real battleground comprises at most a third of the 650 seats, but this still means many millions of votes “really” matter. If an MP loses by, say, 97 votes, crying over not managing to gain an extra 49 voters makes no sense. To win a seat, a candidate needs around 20,000 votes; to single out the tiny number that comprises half-the-majority-plus-one is absurd.

3. Essex man and Worcester woman don’t decide elections

It is hard for journalists to resist finding “typical” voters in a marginal seat, and asking their views, but in general, it is rare for particular demographic groups to move very differently from the electorate as a whole.

4. The Lib Dems could deny David Cameron victory

Of the 17 seats won by Margaret Thatcher where the Tories have fallen into third place, nine were were won off them by Labour, but have in turn been taken by the Lib Dems. Almost all are out of reach for the Tories this time round. All in all, it will be surprising if net Tory gains from the Lib Dems climb above single digits.

5. Issues don’t win elections; valence does

Experts and political nerds hold strong positional views about many aspects of public policy. But most voters — and a large majority of floating voters — don’t, and are valence voters. They care mostly whether politicians are decent, honest, capable and on their side.

6. Polls have improved, but aren’t perfect

Pollsters were traumatised by their failure to predict the Conservative victory in 1992. All have since changed their methods, albeit in different ways; and new companies, like Kellner’s YouGov, have sprung up. Even so, the polls might not be right this time either. Things may be different, but it will not be possible to tell until afterwards.

7. Campaigns don’t win elections, but stuff happens

In general, election campaigns produce more noise than electoral movement. Most voters make up their mind before the campaigns start; and those who wait tend to divide fairly evenly between the main contestants. It is perfectly possible, however, that some major event could alter the course of this election, and so do enough to produce either a Tory landslide or a fourth Labour victory. If any of the leaders make an almighty gaffe in the tv debates, for example, he will suffer.

• The latest issue of Prospect Magazine is out today, and also contains a feature on the “Thameslink Tories”, the swing voters on the Bedford to Brighton mainline who could decide the election.

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