This article is not one that I had originally intended to write. I'm away this week in my holiday home in rural Hungary, just near Lake Balaton. My intention had been to spend the week in my swimming pool. However, a flood in the room housing the pump and the filter has put paid to that idea and stjohn neatly filled the gap by suggesting that I might wish to investigate the Lib Dem target seats. His wish is my command.
My starting point with the Lib Dems is simple: no one really has a clue how they are going to do. How can I be so sure of this? Well, look at these two links:
This list gives the Lib Dem target seats and the seats that in turn on the list of the Lib Dem seats that are targets for the Tories and Labour. At the end of the first link, I include four other Lib Dem seats that for various reasons are thought to be in play. These tables are ranked by size of swing needed.
This second list ranks the same seats in order of the best bookies' odds on the Lib Dems, with the shortest odds first.
As you can see, there are 69 seats where the Lib Dems' best price is somewhere between 1/3 and 3/1. Out of the 142 seats on this list, that's a very high tally - the more so when you realise that they are at 10/1 or above in a further 49 seats, so the bookies are essentially discounting their chances more or less completely in those seats. Contrast this with the London seats that I looked at a couple of weeks ago. Out of 73 seats, only 19 had any party between 1/3 and 3/1. In other words, the bookies and punters are very uncertain whether the Lib Dems are going to soar or crash (or simply stand still).
Let's put that into a political context. If the Lib Dems fail to win any seat where their odds of winning the seat are 1/3 or worse, they will lose 39 seats. Martin Day's minibus would beckon. If on the other hand the Lib Dems win every seat where their odds of winning the seat were 3/1 or better, they will gain 30 seats. The Lib Dems would be a political force to be reckoned with.
Now this makes the Lib Dems a high risk play. Much could be lost by misunderstanding these markets, but equally much could be gained by getting this right. So, what is driving the odds?
It is about the opponents
The markets clearly think that the Conservatives are going to do better against the Lib Dems than Labour are, which presumably reflects the fact that there will probably be a swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories and a swing from Labour to the Lib Dems. The first Conservative seat to appear on the list is Somerton & Frome, which is only notionally Tory, being held by the excellent David Heath for the Lib Dems. In fact, the only seats actually held by the Conservatives that are priced at 3/1 or less are Eastbourne, St Albans, Totnes, Guildford and Wells.
It's not just swing
Some Lib Dem seats that are nominally vulnerable to a small swing are seen as safe - Rochdale and Westmorland & Lonsdale, Eastleigh and Bristol West. This transcends challenging party lines, though all four seats are held by first timers, so perhaps punters are setting great store on a first time incumbency bonus (which does make sense to me).
Equally, the target seats that are seen as vulnerable to a Lib Dem charge are only loosely correlated with swing. Burnley is seen as a shoo-in for the Lib Dems at 4/7, despite them needing a 7.4% swing. Swansea West is an evens shot despite the Lib Dems needing a 6.45% swing and Brent Central is a miserly 6/5, despite the Lib Dems needing a 9% swing. By contrast, Aberdeen South is a 9/4 shot for the Lib Dems, despite them only needing a 1.6% swing.
Location makes a big difference
The Lib Dems are seen as having relatively poor prospects in Scotland. Why else would Gordon be priced at only 2/7 for the Lib Dems, when they would only lose it on a 12.4% swing and the seat is held by a prominent Lib Dem? They are odds against in Argyll & Bute and only 4/6 favourites in Aberdeenshire West & Kincardineshire, where the Tories would need a swing of 8.95%. Their Scottish targets are similarly priced - they are 6/4 to take Edinburgh South and 9/4 as noted above to take Aberdeen South.
Northern Labour targets are seen as more promising. The Lib Dems are tightly priced not just in Burnley, but for example in Durham, where they are 5/6 to achieve a 3.7% swing, Liverpool Wavertree, where they are the same price for a 4.35% swing, Oldham East & Saddleworth and Newcastle upon Tyne North, in each of which they are 5/4 to get swings of 5% and 8.45% respectively and Sheffield Central, where they are a mere 11/8 to get an 8% swing.
The Lib Dems' chances of holding on against the Conservatives in the south west are viewed with considerable doubt. Only Thornbury & Yate (not listed) and Yeovil are shorter than a 1/3 shot. Devon North is the next most secure Lib Dem seat where the Tories are second, with odds of 4/6.
Individual MPs count
MPs who are perceived to be strong are given much shorter odds than MPs who are perceived to be weak. Tim Farron in Westmorland & Lonsdale, majority 836, is quoted at exactly the same odds as Lembit Opik in Montgomeryshire (long term Liberal bastion, majority 7,020) - 2/5. David Heath, sitting on a notional Conservative majority of 39 in Somerton & Frome, is given 6/5 chances of keeping his seat, while Sandra Gidley's majority of 455 in Romsey & Southampton North is priced at a much more forlorn 9/4.
The same is true on the other side of the fence. Nigel Waterson has received a fair deal of criticism as an MP, and faces a Lib Dem opponent whose best price is 5/4. The notional majority in Guildford is much smaller, but the Lib Dems are 3/1 to take that seat. Wiltshire North is Lib Dem target 81, but the local Conservative MP's much publicised personal life means that the Lib Dems are as short as 7/2 to take the seat. Lib Dem target 80, Hertfordshire South West, is also a Conservative held seat and the Lib Dems are 20/1 to take that seat.
I do have some general principles that I have been applying in my betting on the Lib Dems. I am expecting that there will be a swing to the Tories from the Lib Dems and from Labour to the Lib Dems. Coldstone has repeatedly predicted a result of 38:28:22 and that seems a fair place to start right now. That would mean a 2.5% swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories and a 4% swing from Labour to the Lib Dems. This could be higher, this could be lower.
My starting point is how the Lib Dem vote might change from the last election. There are four critical considerations, two of which I regard as positive for the Lib Dems, two of which I regard as negative. These are:
The Lib Dem MPs are generally regarded higher locally than most MPs of the major parties. Many of them have sought and kept their seats almost by not being politicians but by being local spokesmen and women and fixers.
Where an MP has done well in his first term, he or she can expect a substantial uplift in his or her personal vote at the next election. That dissipates at subsequent elections (because it's already factored in). However, if the Lib Dems can persuade the electorate that it's a local campaign for local people, this will make the Lib Dem MPs stickier than might otherwise be expected.
One of the big stories of this Parliament has been the expenses scandal. The Lib Dems have in general come out of this well (indeed, they may find their incumbency in their own seats reinforced as a result) but some of the MPs in their target seats have not. If the Lib Dems can capitalise on the "kick out the bums" atmosphere, they may claim some surprising scalps.
3. It's a two horse race
There has been a lot of talk about this being a change election. I'm not convinced that it necessarily is, but if the two main parties can make this election a battle between "the devil you know" and "change", the Lib Dems are going to struggle. In such battles, those seeking to follow a third path are going to be regarded with suspicion on both sides. It is my judgement that the Lib Dems' equidistance will not serve them well this time. Voters who regard the direction of the country are vital may well not vote for Lib Dem MPs who they otherwise regard as good if they are unclear that they will ally themselves with the major party that they want to see hold the reins. It may well neutralise much of the incumbency advantage that would otherwise accrue. Set against that, the Lib Dems may benefit from more tactical voting in constituencies where one of the main parties has no real chance.
4. Iraq is a long time ago
In 2005, the Lib Dems had a clear USP relating to Iraq. It won them lots of votes in constituencies with a lot of Muslims, Guardianistas and or the generally bien pensant. With a recent ComRes poll suggesting that 57% of Muslims will vote for Labour, it appears that much of the Muslim support will be doubtful. Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that Guardianistas see it as particularly important to keep out the great Satan that is David Cameron. Building on the 2005 election results against Labour may prove more challenging than it might superficially appear.
Mr Smithson noted this morning that the Lib Dems got differential results referable to the swings against Labour and the Tories in 2005, largely underperforming. This to a large extent reflects the untactical voting that took place (the more conventional name is protest voting). If the protest voters decide that this time is too serious to protest, the Lib Dems are in trouble.
Applying my observations
The big tension, I think, is between disillusionment over expenses and the polarisation between Labour and the Conservatives. Ultimately, I expect the second to be more important to more voters, but different voters will react differently in different seats. There will be some hard-to-predict results.
Starting with Labour/Lib Dem marginals, my expectation is that the Lib Dems will do surprisingly poorly, especially in those seats that were particularly influenced by Iraq in 2005. I'm backing Labour at 11/8 (with Stan James or Coral) in Islington South & Finsbury and in Rochdale at 11/4 (with Paddy Power or Victor Chandler). The Lib Dems may win both of these seats, but I think they're a lot harder for them than they look.
Local knowledge is very important (and which I by and large lack). Even with the expenses difficulties that Kitty Ussher faced, the odds on the Lib Dems in Burnley are unfathomably short. They still need a large swing, and 4/7 is mean indeed.
I am no brighter for the Lib Dems in the south west. They will find many of their voters peeling off in a blue direction. They may be able to recoup voters from Labour, but in many of these seats they are already squeezed to the bone. Truro & Falmouth has a large Labour vote to squeeze, so the 8/11 with Paddy Power looks good. Before betting on any of these seats, check the size of the Labour third place vote. Generally, I'm in the blue corner in the south west.
I get more positive about the Lib Dems when their majorities are higher. The Lib Dems can't ignore the impact of swing (much though some pb Lib Dem supporters occasionally suggest otherwise), but there is no particular reason to assume that they aren't going to be able to put up a decent fight. The Lib Dems look nailed on in Colchester (4/9 widely available) and given the Tory troubles in Southport, the 4/5 available on them with Coral is a steal. The Tories will do well to take either Cornwall North or Cornwall South East on the type of swing I currently anticipate and the odds on the Lib Dems in each are worth taking.
Incumbency is important, but I do think it's overstated. I have drawn attention to the odds on Montgomery and Westmorland & Lonsdale. I don't think that a good MP is clearly worth 6,000 votes more than a problematic MP. Westmorland & Lonsdale has offered good odds in the past (and I have backed the Lib Dems heavily here over the last year), but I would now prefer to put my money on the Lib Dems in Montgomery. Even Lembit Opik is surely going to avoid suffering a 12% swing.
Are the Lib Dems worth backing for any gains? This is where I have to get really controversial. All party supporters like to back their party in exciting contests. For most, that means in possible gains. The Lib Dems have relatively few prospects. That means that a wall of money has flooded to back the Lib Dems in these seats. I see practically no value in any of them in the absence of inside information.
The Lib Dems are likely to get flattened by the two main parties in most three way marginals. The most promising seats are those with seriously compromised opponents with not too great a swing required. In general, though, I would rather back their opponents. I don't see them getting an 8% swing in Sheffield Central, I am sceptical that they will get a 9% swing in Brent Central (even with a hopeless Labour incumbent) or an 8% swing in Manchester Gorton. Yet the Lib Dems are priced at under 2/1 in all three of these. I prefer the look of the 12/5 on the Lib Dems in St Albans, where the Conservative opponent is mired in sleaze and Labour are likely to collapse in support. The 3/1 on the Lib Dems in Wells is also worth thinking about, given David Heathcote-Amory's problems. Maybe the 5/2 in Bradford East is worth thinking about, but I doubt it.
I shall conclude with three value Lib Dem bets in a surprising area: Scotland. In my view, the gloom on the Lib Dems in Scotland is overdone. Their vote is likely to be down, but not necessarily by that much and they have built strongholds that are quite resistant to swing. The 2/7 odds on Gordon are absurdly short and the Tories will have to put in an epic performance to take Aberdeenshire West & Kincardineshire, making the 4/6 on the Lib Dems attractive. Finally, the 5/4 on the Lib Dems in Argyll & Bute looks solid value. With the two nearest challengers the Conservatives (who are unlikely to gain a major swing in Scotland) and Labour (who are likely to tread water at best), this looks a fairly clear hold.
One final point. I'm very aware that many will disagree vehemently with my observations. As I said at the outset, nobody knows what's going on (though lots of people like to guess). That includes me.