Monday, 15 March 2010

The South West - the Liberal Democrat enigma

I have continued my virtual tour of the British Isles by compiling the odds on the seats in the South West:

The South West of England is very important for the Tories. It has no fewer than 25 of their top 200 targets. Their success or failure will be strongly influenced by how they do in these. So it is with wilful perverseness that I propose to start by looking at the Lib Dems and their prospects. Here is a table of the seats in which they are in contention, listed in order of lengthening odds:

All required swings are taken from UK Polling Report’s notional figures. For comparison, I’ve linked to the Rallings & Thrasher figures later.

The first thing to note is the uniformity of this picture. All of the Lib Dem seats in the region without exception are at the top of this chart (Somerton & Frome, while notionally Conservative on UK Polling Report’s figures, is currently occupied by the Lib Dems’ David Heath). You would expect the shortest odds in general to be on seats that the party already holds, but as we shall see with both the Conservatives and Labour, you also tend to get a bit of a mixture. The next thing to note is the large number of seats where the Lib Dem odds are clustered around evens. The shortest priced Lib Dem seat is 1/8, and that is a seat held by a hard-working intelligent well-liked MP with an enormous majority. The Conservatives have seats at 1/500 in this area.

Both of these points support my fundamental contention about the Lib Dems at this election, which is that no one really knows how the Lib Dems are going to perform. Never mind the seats that the Lib Dems hold, there are no fewer than 10 Conservative seats where the Lib Dems are given respectably short odds to take them. At an election where there is expected to be a swing from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives, that is quite surprising. If, however, you accept my contention that no one really knows how the Lib Dems are going to do, these longer shot seats probably represent better value than the shorter-priced Lib Dem held seats.

In fact, I am more interested in betting on the Tories in Lib Dem held seats than vice versa, given that there will be a likely swing to the Tories. These are much easier to judge from the outside (the particular risk for outsiders betting on Tory-held seats is that it is unclear how much headway Lib Dem candidates are making against unimpressive, polarising or expenses-tainted Tories). Let us for present purposes assume that there will indeed be a swing from the Lib Dems to the Conservatives, which is less certain than it was a couple of months ago, but still highly likely. Which seats do the Lib Dems have a good chance of holding out in and which ones might be particularly vulnerable?

I suggest that the critical elements to look at are as follows: the extent to which the Lib Dems can replace voters lost to the Tories by squeezing Labour voters; the extent to which they can keep on the right side in a change election; and the extent to which popular incumbents can outperform swing.

Taking these in reverse order, I’m highly sceptical that incumbency is directly going to help that much (it may help in squeezing Labour voters, but I’ll look at that separately). After all, if the MP is popular, in all cases bar those where the MP was new last time, that’s already built into the majority. So with the caveat that you should allow something for first-time MPs to build on their majority, I’d give this element relatively little weight.

The Lib Dems in the South West have a real problem in a change election, caused by temperament and past positioning. They have quite consciously pitched themselves as the progressive party that you can take home to meet the parents. In much of the South West, Labour has been eclipsed and the Lib Dems have assumed their place as the party of the left. The Lib Dems are going to struggle to keep their coalition together and avoid giving the impression that they would favour Labour over the Tories.

But none of that will matter if the Lib Dems can gain tactical votes from Labour supporters. Can they? Have a look at this table of the seats in the region, this time, for some variety, based on Rallings & Thrasher notionals:

I have highlighted each time one of the main three parties polled under 15% in yellow. Where they polled under 10%, I have highlighted that in red. In all bar three Lib Dem seats (Bristol West, where Labour is second, Camborne & Redruth, where Labour is also second, and Truro & Falmouth), Labour support is already under 15%: indeed, you might even use this as a past measure of Lib Dem efficiency in target seats. I suggest that Labour cannot be squeezed much further in these seats, since tactical voting must already be prevalent.

The likely limits of tactical voting are probably shown by Dorset West. In that seat, Billy Bragg has campaigned very actively from the Labour side to get Labour supporters to vote Lib Dem. He has not yet been successful in ousting Oliver Letwin, but the Labour vote is down to 7.75%. In 1997, Labour polled nearly 18% in this seat. I am very doubtful whether Labour can be got much below 10% in any seat without the most fantastically intense onslaught to get their voters to vote tactically and without exactly the right political background. Interestingly, turnout in this region was relatively high. Several seats had turnouts exceeding 70%. Voters here weren’t that alienated. It also means that no party can draw on that much of a reservoir of untapped support.

You may disagree about how low the Lib Dems can squeeze Labour support. However, I strongly suggest that the Lib Dems are much safer in Truro & Falmouth, where they have 19% Labour support to eat into, than in Devon North, where Nick Harvey has already squeezed it down to 8.89%. The Tories need a bigger swing in Truro & Falmouth too. Yet the Lib Dems are 8/11 in each seat to hold on.

With all that in mind, here are the Tory prospects, listed in order of lengthening odds:

I suggest that Newton Abbot, Taunton Deane and Devon North are all worth a bet on the Tories. There’s not much Labour vote left to squeeze in any of them and the Lib Dem incumbents are more vulnerable as a result of their own past efficiency. The Lib Dems don’t even have favourable recent local election results to bolster their morale. For what it’s worth, I see almost all the value in the Lib Dem / Conservative seats in this region as being on the Conservative side of the fence. I do not rule out Lib Dem losses in this region alone getting into double figures.

If you want to bet on the Lib Dem side of the fence, you might want to consider Torbay, where the Lib Dems have a comparatively healthy 14.45% Labour vote to eat into (turnout was only just over 60% though, so you should consider carefully who was staying at home). You might also invest in the Lib Dems in Wells: there’s a healthy Labour vote to attack and a sitting Conservative MP with some expenses problems. Of course, we have no clear idea yet whether we shall see further tactical winding-up – I doubt it myself and actually expect to see some unwinding – but if it’s going to happen, it can only really happen in seats where there’s an existing Labour vote to shift.

I haven’t mentioned Labour much yet: that’s because they aren’t really in contention much here. They’re at 12/1 or less in only 16 of the 55 seats in this area:

You might fancy putting some money on them in Exeter, where partisan enthusiasm for ousting Ben Bradshaw appears to have run ahead of underlying realities (not least a large Lib Dem vote that the Tories would need to convert and which could well contain many Guardianistas ready to return to the mothership). Otherwise, nothing much stands out to me – a cheeky bet on them to regain Bristol West at 5/1 might pay dividends, especially if you managed to back the Lib Dems at the much longer prices that they were available at last year.

One particular constituency should be highlighted as a must-bet constituency: Bristol North West. You can back the Tories at 1/4, Labour at 15/2 and the Lib Dems at 20/1. If you did that in the right proportions, you’d guarantee yourself a 4% return in a couple of months. Alternatively, you can decide for yourself where the value lies and just bet on that. For myself, it’s hard to see past the Tories here.



Peter from Putney said...

Great piece antifrank and thanks for identifying some real value in a number of seats which have been largely overlooked in the constituency betting markets, the obsession having been centred on Lab vs Tory contests mainly in the North and the Midlands.

Anonymous said...


Thanks, Antifrank, keenly interested in this as I live in the Newton Abbot constituency.

Re Exeter & Ben Bradshaw, one point for punters to bear in mind is the unitary authority brouhaha which Bunnco has covered. I've no personal information to share, but from the local papers it's quite a hot topic.

Alastair said...

AnneJGP, since I write with no local knowledge, just inferences drawn from the bookies' odds and publicly available data, it would be great to hear your impressions of the seats local to you.


Peter from Putney said...

I've backed all three of the LD -> Con seats as suggested by antifrank. Newton Abbot looks paticularly attractive at 1.35/1 (net) with Betfair, compared with best odds of 1.1/1 with the bookies(Ladbrokes), although Baxter has the LDs 6% ahead in this seat.

Anonymous said...


Alastair, not very much to offer. The daily Western Morning News has a policy of political neutrality and IMHO achieves it pretty well, which may in itself have an influence!

I've had no contact with our sitting MP (Richard Younger-Ross) and no-one has ever mentioned him to me - but people are more likely to talk if they've reason to complain. He wasn't outrageous with his expenses, either, so there doesn't seem to be any real reason to eject him.

Like RYR, the Conservative PPC (Anne-Marie Morris) has a column in the local weekly to help gather name/face recognition.

In Newton Abbot constituency, therefore, it seems to boil down to whether the electorate just want a change, for whatever reason.

The Exeter unitary council issue is interesting. From what I've read, the unitary councils in Plymouth & Torbay seem to be a bit unpopular at the moment. How these things will play at the GE, however, I've no idea.