As we head towards what has been billed as the most significant and unpredictable election in 100 years, a lot of people are asking the question: “How many seats can UKIP win?”

For the moment, we’ll put aside arguments about the voting system – there has been a referendum, on whether to switch to AV Plus or not, and the British public rejected that system, so another referendum on this could be a long time coming. For 2015, we have to accept the reality of ‘First Past the Post’.

We certainly have a fair indication of how many votes we can win, from the opinion polls, now ranging from as low as 13% with Populus (but their weighting system is perhaps a bit dubious) through 17-19% with YouGov (a high for them) and 25% with Survation, the new kid on the block that prompts for UKIP and doesn’t weight unfairly (against UKIP).

So, how would a number of votes in that range (or higher if we allow ourselves to imagine UKIP support growing between now and the election) translate into seats? To do that, let’s take a look at the outcome of general elections since 1979, in terms of the relationship between number of votes and number of seats. Here’s a little something I prepared earlier:

FirstPastThePost

 

The Colours are hopefully obvious, and the years of the election are irrelevant, it is the pattern that is crucial. Note the seat numbers on the right – they are for the present parliament of 650, but it has varied from 635 to 657. The grey line attempts to construct an idealised “first past the post curve” that should be the norm for the way results pan out, but the real world does not follow perfection. Let’s look at the more obvious discrepancies:

  • Labour consistently do better in terms of seats than the Tories, by around 7% of seats: about 45. Why? The Boundary Review is always lagging behind Tory areas growing population-wise, and Labour ones shrinking. The Tory line is closer to the idealised grey line, showing Labour’s unfair advantage.
  • The bottom end of the Tory and Labour lines do not look like they’ll join up with the Liberal Democrat line. Why? Because they are nationwide parties, but with large regions of strength, whereas the Liberal Democrats have tended to be a localised party.
  • However, look at the Liberal line. There is a clear divide of above and below the line – those above are more recent results when they have attracted a wider protest vote (to win a lot more seats: 46 to 62 to be precise), while the lower ones are from their earlier era of when they were very localised (in range 11 to 23 seats). The upper half of their line tends to join up better with the lower half of the Tory line when it comes to comparison with the idealised grey line.

So, the challenge of interpretation now is to consider how UKIP might fare in such an environment. What the graph illustrates, mainly through the Liberal Democrat element of it, is that there are two alternate ways of looking at UKIP:

  • As a localized party with “hotspots” in a few isolated constituencies. In this case, on the best opinion poll result of 25%, UKIP would get less than 25 seats.
  • As a party with large swathes of support across a large proportion of the country (plus some local “hotspots” too, as with the Liberal Democrats. This approach would indicate well over 65 seats (10%) at 25% of the popular vote: an independent expert said the recent Survation poll pointed to 128 seats!

Frankly, I don’t know the answer, only the election will tell us.

The election will also tell us how many seats the Liberal Democrats are left with – I have to say that with 8% in the polls, they are down to their localized strongholds, and at that level, they  will probably get less than 10 seats – some coalition partner. If the Greens poll close to them as well, they could win nearly as many seats.

Then there’s the SNP – polling 40-45% in Scotland, they could slaughter Labour there, and take 15-25 seats from them, to add to their existing six.

So, with SNP on around 25, the Ulster and Welsh parties (plus Speaker) on 23, the Liberal Democrats and Greens on a maximum of 20 between them, that leaves 582 for Conservatives, Labour and UKIP. Assuming Labour will get more seats than the Conservatives, even if their vote shares are the same, it is still highly unlikely they will win a majority, and the bookies are heading that way too.

The big question is how many seats can UKIP win? How high can the party push the opinion polls? Will our vote be just local hotspots or the beginnings of a national presence? Will we win enough seats to be the kingmaker, and be in government? I don’t know, you don’t know, even Nigel doesn’t know. All we can do is to work our nuts off in every constituency to try and become the strongest party we can with both local and nationwide support.

Photo by Gypsy Cob

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