Professor Paul Whiteley at the University of Essex has made a bold prediction regarding the outcome of the general election: he’s said that Labour will be the biggest party in a hung parliament (so far, not that out of the norm), and that the Lib Dems will again hold the balance of power – this time with 48 seats to their name.
This all came out in a Guardian article a few days ago. The headline was built around the idea that with this result, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have 339 seats between them and could form a stable government together (the Guardian rather predictably downplayed the fact that the prediction also saw the Tories on 281 seats, meaning the prospect of another Con-Lib was very much arithmetically possible). Putting aside everything else Whiteley’s prophecy tells us, do I think the Liberal Democrats will get as many as 48 seats in May?
This is a very tough question. My heart very much says yes, the party can dig in and hold its ground for the most part, so that doesn’t sound like an unrealistic number. However, I have to also take the following pieces of information on board: the party polled 5% in a YouGov poll within the last week; the Ashcroft Scotland polls look terrifying, with the SNP apparently up on the Lib Dems by 29% in Inverness.
Taking the national poll ratings first: yes, the numbers look scary. One would have hoped some form of a “bounce” would have taken place already, and that the Lib Dems would be sitting on at least double figures. Given the leaders debates look off the cards, and even if they did happen they would not do so in a format in any way helpful to the party, one wonders what the catalyst for such a bounce will be and when it might happen. On the other hand, the polls are strange at the moment, and one can’t imagine they will stay the way they are once we’re into the short campaign. Expect a lot of movement all of a sudden come April, some of it hopefully the Lib Dems’ way.
In Scotland, there is a bright side: the Lib Dems were mostly looking to have to take on Labour in these seats. Fighting against Labour in Scotland would have been a nightmare messaging-wise. Do you run a pro-austerity, anti-Labour campaign? That would be foolish, but what else do you do? However, the marmite factor of the SNP makes running a campaign against them much more straightforward. You run an anti-SNP ground and air war and hope the unionists line up behind you. It might not work, but it’s a lot better than trying to position yourself against Scottish Labour.
Yes, I realise I’ve dodged the question posed in the title thus far. Do I think the Lib Dems will get 48 seats? Yes. No. Maybe. Let’s see what happens on May 7th. I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that at least it’s given us all a little bit of hope.