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UK Election Update: A True Toss Up

05/05/2015 16:25 BST | Updated 04/05/2016 10:12 BST

Last month Keiran Pedley and Zac McCrary outlined 10 things you should know about the 2015 UK election. In this piece, they update you on what has changed in the past month, what has stayed the same, what we know and what we don't as voters head to the polls on Thursday.

As voters head to the polls in a few days' time, UK politics is in a state of uncertainty. For the first time in a generation, it is genuinely unclear what type of government will emerge from the General Election and who will lead it. After a grueling five-week campaign, we are none the wiser as each of the two main parties have failed to deliver a decisive breakthrough in the polls.

For those arriving late to this campaign it is worth briefly recapping how the UK election system works. The main point to understand is that this is not a Presidential election. The UK Parliament is made up of several parties and the Prime Minister is the Party Leader that can command the support of the majority of the UK's 650 MPs.

Currently Conservative Leader David Cameron is Prime Minister and governs in a formal coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem Leader, is the Deputy Prime Minister. The leader of the Labour Party is Ed Miliband, who replaced outgoing Labour Leader (and former Prime Minister) Gordon Brown after Labour's election defeat in 2010.

Miliband ratings improve

So what has changed since our original article? Those that read the original piece will recall that Ed Miliband has endured a difficult time as Labour Leader. Polling has demonstrated that the public has been unconvinced that he is ready for the role of Prime Minister and he has consistently trailed David Cameron when polls ask voters which of which man would make the better leader.

However, there is some evidence that this has started to change. As the campaign has developed and the public has seen more of Ed Miliband in various interviews, campaign events and Leader Debates, perceptions of Miliband have improved. His net approval rating is still negative (-18) but this has improved significantly from his rating of (-56) in November last year. He still convincingly trails David Cameron when the public are asked who would make the best Prime Minister but there are signs that the voters are warming to the Labour Leader as they get to know him better.

No Conservative breakthrough and SNP remain strong

Given that David Cameron's personal popularity is generally superior to that of Ed Miliband, many commentators and pundits assumed that the Conservatives would pull ahead in the polls as Election Day approached. The theory went that, presented with the prospect of Ed Miliband as Prime Minister, public opinion would shift towards supporting the Conservatives. This has happened to an extent, with some polls showing the Conservatives ahead, but not as decisively as expected and in many cases the polls are still very much neck and neck.

Meanwhile in Scotland the fortunes of the SNP (Scottish National Party) continue to look very rosy. In our previous article, we outlined how the SNP had enjoyed a surge in the polls following their (unsuccessful) attempt to secure Scottish Independence in the referendum of last September. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP Leader, has shown strong campaign skills, even 'winning' some post Leader Debate national polls despite her party's presence in Scotland only.

This performance is reflected in the opinion polls. A recent poll showed the SNP some 34 points ahead of Labour in Scotland and some analysts have suggested that the the SNP could sweep all 59 seats in Scotland. Though unlikely, this would be some feat considering they only have 6 at present. As we might expect, this surge is crucial to the eventual election result. Labour currently have 41 seats in Scotland and substantial erosion to the SNP will significantly hurt Ed Miliband's chances of becoming Prime Minister.

No one is going to 'win'

So what do we know? Looking at a recent 'poll of polls,' calculated by the excellent May2015.com, we can see that both main parties remain deadlocked.

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This 'poll of polls' masks an interesting debate among UK pollsters. Polling in the UK is usually conducted either by telephone or online. There is some evidence that telephone polls are showing small Conservative leads whereas online polls are showing the two main parties neck and neck. The reason for this appears to be the different figures given for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in online polls compared to those conducted by telephone.

UKIP is an anti-EU Party that tend to hold more controversial views on issues such as immigration or marriage equality (see previous article for more detail). Some argue that UKIP partisans are less likely to tell a phone interviewer that they will vote UKIP and therefore telephone polls are understating their support. Others argue that online polls overstate UKIP support due to the composition of online survey panels. We don't know the answer to this question yet but as UKIP support tends to come disproportionately from former Conservative voters, their performance matters a great deal to the eventual outcome. This is more than a mere academic methodological debate. Indeed,the implications are significant.

Regardless of which is right, what seems clear is that neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party are likely to be in a position to command a majority of seats in the House of Commons alone. Significant popular vote advantages are traditionally necessary for outright majorities - and such margins do not exist at present in the public polling.

Who will govern Britain?

Whichever Party governs will have to do so with the support of others. It is here where things get interesting. Some current seat projections can be found below. These could be wrong but give a good idea of the expected outcome based on current polling.

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Source: May2015.com (data accurate as of 4/5/15)

The general consensus is that Ed Miliband is the slight favourite to become the next Prime Minister as he is likely to have more members from other (mostly left-of-center) parties that will be prepared to strike a deal than David Cameron does right-of-center allies. In fact, it is even possible that the Labour Party will govern despite winning fewer seats than the Conservatives. This is because support from the SNP and other left-wing parties could mean that Miliband leads a 'coalition of the left' that outnumbers parliamentary support for the Conservatives. Labour could conceivably work with the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and some other minor parties whereas the Conservatives only really have the Lib Dems, UKIP and DUP with whom to ally. Labour's 'bloc' is bigger, so if Labour and the Conservatives win a similar number of seats then Labour is likely to govern.

However, the issue of coalition and 'back room deals' is growing in importance in this campaign as voting day approaches and is generally quite contentious. Despite the SNP pledging to 'lock David Cameron out of Downing Street' Labour are keen to avoid any sense of a 'deal' between Labour and the SNP. The SNP are Labour's biggest electoral threat in Scotland plus there is some evidence that voters in England are worried about the potential influence the party could exert on a future Labour Government. With this in mind, Ed Miliband said in a recent election program that there would be no deals with the SNP after the election of any kind.

Trouble in paradise: Don't forget the Lib Dems

Meanwhile, on the other side of the aisle, all is not well with the existing coalition partners. The Lib Dems are often overlooked. The junior coalition partner has been heavily punished politically for being part of a coalition with the Conservatives. The Lib Dems currently poll around the single digits despite winning 23% of the vote in 2010 and stand to lose around half of their 57 parliamentary seats in this election. Yet, given the potential for a deadlocked parliament, they could still be crucial swing votes in determining who forms the next government.

Much of the focus of commentators and election analysts has been on potential deals between Labour and the SNP with the assumption being that the Lib Dems will go with the Conservatives post-election. This is possible, indeed may be the preferred option for Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg, but it should not be taken for granted. The Lib Dem membership would need to endorse any such deal with the Conservatives and they are not certain to do so. Many Lib Dem members feel ideologically closer to Labour and would prefer Miliband as Prime Minister to Cameron. Furthermore, if the parliamentary math only allows a stable government formed by Labour with the support of the SNP and Lib Dems, the party will be under pressure to fall in line.

Perhaps then the key seat to watch on election night is that of Sheffield Hallam. This is the seat of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and some polls suggest that he is struggling to hold it. If he loses his seat, it is very difficult to see how the Lib Dems strike a deal with the Conservatives. Ironically, in a very complicated race with millions of voters going to the polls, the eventual makeup of the next UK government could come down to a few thousand votes in Sheffield.

A True Toss-up

The projected outcome of this election remains unclear. The relationship between votes cast and seats won is as complicated as ever. How parties will react in post-election negotiations is yet to be seen. It looks as though another formal coalition is unlikely. Too many parties would need to be involved (and agree) and there does not seem to be much appetite for this among the respective parties both big and small. Therefore, if there is one thing we can reasonably predict it is that the next government, whoever leads it, will be weak and unstable. With UK politics divided, it will be difficult for the the UK government, whoever leads it, to play a leading role in world affairs. Getting a budget through parliament will be more of a priority than international affairs.

On most UK election nights, it is immediately clear which party will form the next government. To the extent there is drama, the situation usually becomes clear in a matter of hours or days after the polls close. However, there is a distinct possibility that Britain is in store for the most chaotic and tumultuous post-election period in more than a generation.