THE CAMPAIGN BEGINS: Elinor Goodman's guide to the multi-party General Election - with kitchen scales

Written by Elinor Goodman on .

Elinor Goodman began her journalistic career reporting on politics for the Financial Times.  She joined Channel 4 News when it began in 1982 as their Political Correspondent.  She was the programme's Political Editor from 1988 to 2005.  She lives near Marlborough - has retired and still makes political programmes for BBC Radio 4 and is an active supporter of Riding for the Disabled.

I went to a seminar in Oxford recently to discuss the election, and the only thing we all agreed on was that old two party swingometer which has been the mainstay of election night television coverage since the 50s, will not be much use in the world of multi party politics.  

My suggestion was that we would all need rubik cubes to predict the result.  On reflection, I decided that an old fashioned pair of kitchen scales might be more useful with each constituency weighing the same amount in the seat count.

On one side are the Tories and on the other Labour, with the scale tipped in favour of the Conservatives who at the last election won 307 seats to Labour’s 258.  What will - to a large extent - tip the balance this time is whether Labour loses more seats to the SNP than Ukip costs the Conservatives.

Of course Labour also needs to win some seats back from the Tories, but those gains could be negated by the performance of the SNP north of the border. It’s difficult to imagine the Conservatives picking up many seats from Labour, so its hope in the south will be that the LibDem vote collapses and former LibDems return to the Tory fold.

But in the north Labour is hoping to pick up seats from the LibDems, thus making it harder for the Conservatives to get enough seats for their side of the scales.  

But each constituency is a complicated battleground – and that’s where you need the rubik cube – or some such multi-dimensional device.

Take a seat like Chippenham, where the LibDems had a majority of 2,470 over the Conservatives in 2010.  Even if some former Liberal Democrats voters switch back to the Conservatives, some former Tory voters may well switch to Ukip, while others might vote Labour. In this swirling pool of votes, it is extremely difficult to predict the result.

Elsewhere, the danger to the Conservatives is not so strong that it will lose many seats to Ukip – though each one reduces the number Labour needs to win to become the largest party.  

The real danger is in marginal Conservative/Labour seats, like Swindon South.  There the Tories had a majority of just over 3,500 in 2010.  But there were 8,500 LibDem voters  for Labour to squeeze and some former Conservative voters will switch to Ukip.  That would it make easier for Labour to win by just hanging onto its existing share of the vote – hence the party’s focus on getting out its 'core' vote.  

In Swindon North, the Conservatives had a larger majority, but they cannot afford much of a haemorrhage to Ukip because Labour has another sizeable LibDem vote to squeeze.  

So the war cry of the Tories in England will be “Vote Ukip and let Labour in”, while north of the border, Scottish Labour will be saying “Vote SNP and get a Conservative government at Westminster”.  

That’s not because anyone expects the Conservatives to win any seats in Scotland, but because if Labour loses anything like as many seats to the SNP as some polls are suggesting, it will greatly reduce the number of seats the Tories need to hold onto in England (they haven’t got many in Wales), tipping the scales in favour of a Conservative government.

A further complication is the Green party. Their leader may not be strong on policy, but they may pick up disenchanted younger voters from both the LibDems and Labour. The argument that a vote for a minority party is wasted is much less powerful when everything is so unpredictable.  

There are fewer rock solid safe seats where your vote ”doesn’t count”, though its difficult to see Devizes changing hands given the size of Claire Perry’s majority over the LibDems.

If you don’t like uncertainty, the bad news is that we could well be heading for a situation where no party has an overall majority. In those circumstances, it’s quite likely we won’t get another formal coalition.   Rather, there will be some much loser arrangement – possibly between Labour and the SNP.

That would probably lead to another election quite soon because even though notionally Britain now has fixed term Parliaments, a government can still be brought down on a vote in Parliament – and then we would have to get the kitchen scales out again.