It?s a mug?s game attempting to predict the result of any election–and I like to think I?m not a mug. But the forthcoming general election in the UK, almost certain to be on May 6, is a particularly tough one to call.
One problem is that the opinion poll numbers appear to be moving–or maybe they aren?t. At the beginning of the year, David Cameron?s Conservatives were 10 points clear of Gordon Brown?s Labour Party and seemingly set for a comfortable majority in the House of Commons. But by the middle of March the gap had narrowed significantly–on average to six or seven points. Because of the vagaries of Britain?s electoral system this gap would probably make Labour the biggest party in a new parliament (though without a majority of seats). In the past week, however, the Tories have reestablished their commanding lead…or is it just a rogue blip?
The second problem is that no one is quite sure how trustworthy the polls are. Opinion polling in the early twenty-first century is a much more sophisticated business than it was even thirty years ago. Pollsters these days routinely adjust their raw data to minimise the danger of sampling errors. And in the UK since 1992, when nearly all pollsters had Labour winning an election that was actually won by the Tories, one of the key adjustments made by every polling organisation has been to compensate for the unwillingness of many Tory supporters to admit their allegiance to the ?nasty party.?
The intriguing question is whether Cameron?s (partial) decontamination of the Tory brand, described here by Paul Thompson, has rendered obsolete the post-1992 consensus about closet Tories. If Conservative supporters no longer feel guilty, the polls are almost certainly exaggerating Tory support.
Maybe I?m just clutching at straws–and I?m not predicting anything, OK?–but we might, just might, be in for a surprise.