Ever since the dawn of civilisation, man has sought to see patterns in apparent randomness. When he looked up to the skies, he linked the stars together to form constellations. (Woman, of course, is much more sensible). The same danger applies when discussing disparate constituencies. With that note of caution, I'm going to talk about seven apparently-unconnected constituencies with a surprising amount in common: Hampstead & Kilburn; Watford, St Albans, Bedford, Northampton North, Derby North and Leeds North West.
So what do these seven have in common? All are three-way marginals. All are seats which the Conservatives either hold or would be taken with a swing of the size needed to get the Tories a working majority (taking all seats up to Derby North would give the Tories a majority of 38). The Tories are runaway favourites in none of them. I attach a table with the best odds on all of these seats and details of the last election results:
All seven lie on or near to the M1. So, showing my customary imagination, I'm calling them the M1 truels. What's a truel? It's a three-sided duel, popular in game theory. In classical examples, each competitor takes turns to shoot at an opponent. Politics isn't as gentlemanly as game theory and all competitors are coming out guns blazing all the time. This makes determining tactics for the competitors and the ultimate outcome rather more difficult.
To revert to my star-studded metaphor at the start of this piece, some star clusters are genuinely linked, and some that appear close are not. My group of seven includes five constituencies that have genuine important similarities and two that are quite different. The interlopers are Hampstead & Kilburn and Leeds North West - traditional Lib Dem areas of focus with a high student/graduate populations in relatively wealthy suburbs of large urban areas. I do not propose to look at them in more detail. (For what it's worth, I think the Lib Dems are a lock in Leeds North West and that the value in Hampstead & Kilburn is with the Tories, but there are whole other articles there).
The other five constituencies are much more interesting, because I believe that they represent something new in English politics. Watford, St Albans, Bedford, Northampton and Derby have much in common. All of them, as I originally pointed out, are close to the M1. None are noted intellectual or academic centres. All are prosperous enough. None are particularly posh or glamorous. All of them, in fact, look like typical towns which swing back and forth between the Tories and Labour. None of them look like the types of seats where the Lib Dems usually get a look in. So why do we suddenly have this string of three-way marginals?
I suggest that the answer lies in two successive political failures: one by the Conservatives and one by Labour. The first failure is a Conservative failure. In 2005, many English voters south of the Mersey and the Wash were turning their backs on Labour. But they did not feel ready to endorse the Conservatives. The second failure is a Labour failure. In 2010, many of Labour's 2005 voters remain repelled by the Conservatives. But they no longer feel that they can vote for Labour. As a result, the Lib Dems in two steps have managed to get themselves into serious contention in these seats.
It is startling that this has had so little comment. Watford has been much talked-about as a constituency, but only because of its exceptional tightness. Yet St Albans - a seat the Tories already hold, remember - is available at a best price of 2/5 - only slightly shorter than the price that you can get on a Tory overall majority. The Tories should be miles ahead in a seat like this. The Tories, second to Labour in both Northampton North and Bedford and needing both on a uniform national swing to be the largest party, are at a best price of 2/5 and 2/1 respectively. Typically, the Tories are quoted at 1/12 to be the largest party.
I suggest that in those seats where the Tories are in second to Labour, they really should take these this time around. The Lib Dems will need to do an exceptional job persuading disaffected Labour voters that only the Lib Dems can stop the Tories - while it may be true, most loyal Labour voters will find it hard to credit when the seat is held by a Labour MP. The possible exception is Bedford, where the example of a Lib Dem mayor may do the trick. The Tories seem complacent in both Bedford and Northampton North. This is playing with fire.
Where the Tories are third - in Watford and Derby North - the job is easier for the Lib Dems. It is probably an easier message for the Lib Dems to get across in Watford than in Derby North. The Tory 5/4 shot in Derby North may be more likely to come home than the 10/11 shot in Watford. Personally, I don't intend betting on either.
Perhaps the most interesting seat is St Albans. On the face of it, the Tories should win this one easily. And yet. With an MP caught up in the expenses scandal but not retiring and an easy task for the Lib Dems persuading Labour supporters to back them instead, this one could be tight. I'm tempted to back the Lib Dems here.
I'm not putting any money on Labour in any of these seats. The odds are long for a reason. I anticipate that Labour will come out of the general election in third place in most or all of these seats. Once the Lib Dems are entrenched as the opposition to the Tories in these seats, they will be hard to shift. And if they can manage it in traditional Labour/Tory marginals like these, can they repeat the trick in other areas? If they can, the long battle on the left of centre may be about to enter a new phase.