Political anoraks are going to love 2015, the most unpredictable election campaign in a generation. It's been at least 23 years since we last had a General Election campaign as difficult to predict as this one.
In 1992, the Conservative Party had deposed Margaret Thatcher as leader. An insipid John Major faced the unelectable Neil Kinnock, but opinion polls suggested that it would be touch and go. Opinion polls in 1992 lacked the sophistication of today's polling, not realising (for example) the fact that Labour voters were more likely to answer the phone than Conservative voters. So the Conservatives outperformed the polls, gained a narrow overall majority and saw their next government racked by scandals that would keep them out of power for 13 years.
1992 was competitive, but lacked the complexity of what is to come in 2015. There are many unknowns, and few of them relate to the Labour and Conservative parties. Neither is riding high in the opinion polls, neither has shown signs of sweeping the nation at Parliamentary by-elections, Council and European elections. Indeed, it is the other parties which could lead to some interesting resuts:
The SNP surge in Scotland
Current polling suggests that the SNP are on course for a big win in Scotland at the General Election. Reading things into subsamples of opinion polls is a bit like reading tea leaves; a parlour trick lacking in meaningful information. In this case they suggest that the SNP are doing better in seats with larger Labour majorities, meaning that there could be an avalanche of seats lost by Labour to the Nationalists rather than a trickle. One analysis suggests that the SNP could win 50 of the 59 Scottish seats. Whilst that may well be over-hyping the SNP, I think it's fairly clear that they will be a big force in May.
Green Party: Surge, mirage or a bit of both?
As I write, Ofcom has decided that for 2015 Ukip will be classified as a major party, whereas the Greens will not. Much has been written in the press about the Green Party's rise in the opinion polls. In some ways it has been exaggerated; their 9% rating with Ipsos-MORI's final poll of the year made big news. But it's hardly newsworthy to point out that the final ComRes poll of the year put the Greens at 2%, or that Survation suggested them being on course to take 3%. It's human nature to remember the nines but not the threes, so maybe it's easy to get the impression that the overall numbers are higher than they really are.
Ten firms (well, nine plus Lord Ashcroft) conduct regular monthly surveys. As the last full month is December, I'm looking at figures for that month. The average of those shows that there is a rise in the Green vote, but not perhaps as big a rise as has been reported. They show that the Lib Dems have recovered from their rock-bottom position, and that Ukip is not quite at the same level as immediately following the Rochester by-elections. Their averages have Ukip 16.3%, Lib Dems 8.7% and Greens 5.3%.
That seems to me to put the Greens in a different category. They are no longer a 'minor party' in the way that they were in 2010. They have come on a long way. But equally they do not, objectively, have the same case as the Lib Dems (who have many MPs and are in government) or Ukip (who have three times their level of support, and much stronger recent election results). They cannot complain about the Ofcom decision from that point of view, but the Greens should be seen in a category of their own: behind the 'big four' but ahead of the 'minor parties'.
The big question, though, is what this means for the Greens. They could double their vote share or more since 2010, yet lose their only MP in Brighton Pavilion. The Green Party is widely criticised on local issues regarding their councillors, and Labour need only a small swing to regain the seat. I suspect that the Greens will hang on to that seat, not least because they can afford to throw the kitchen sink at it whilst Labour can focus on a larger number of seats. Will Conservatives there vote tactically for the Greens, or for Labour? There are many questions but my gut instinct is that the Greens will hold it. The Greens are disproportionately attracting student votes, which could make them competitive in some of those seats (they might have the slightest sniff of a chance in Norwich South) - or at least throw the overall outcome of 'university' seats into the mix. Ironically a high Green vote might save Nick Clegg his seat in Sheffield Hallam, despite student voters being incredibly negative towards Clegg.
The Greens will also suffer from the problem that Ukip faced in 2010: the difficulty of persuading the public that they are more than a protest vote. It's going to be a difficult time for them, but their membership now is higher than Ukip's was five years ago. All in all, the stage is set for the Green Party vote to increase substantially from 2010 - but to what end? Their effect, like that of Ukip in 2010, may be to change the outcome in a large number of constituencies rather than challenge directly themselves.
Ukip progress in England
I'll return to the 16.3% figure from a moment ago; those same polls show a variation from 12% to 21% for Ukip. At the lower end, Ukip will hold Clacton and the Party is odds-on favourite to win in Thanet South, Thurrock, Great Yarmouth and Boston and Skegness. I'd put Rochester & Strood in the same category. At the upper end of expectations, Ukip will win those seats convincingly and be in with a chance in many, many more.
Taking the December 16.3% average for a moment as a benchmark, I'm reminded of the Latin phrase - common in legal circles - 'res ipsa loquitur', meaning 'the thing speaks for itself' or perhaps 'that which must be true'. If Ukip is on 16.3% across the UK, then the Party must be competitive in a lot of seats nationally. Why? Well firstly, Ukip's support in Scotland is less than half that in England (but still massively up on 2010). Ukip's support in central London and the big urban centres is much, much smaller than elsewhere. To see this, look at the European election results in 2014 in London - or look at the Council election results in the centre of Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester or Sheffield. In all of those cities the bright spots for Ukip came on the outskirts of the city. I come from Sheffield originally, and there the difference is stark: Ukip didn't field candidates in a couple of the most central wards, and in another took 7% of the vote. In the more rural Stocksbridge area, Ukip had three councillors elected. On the other side of the city, there was a 38% result in Woodhouse. Next door to Sheffield saw Ukip gain 10 seats in Rotherham. In Manchester, Ukip struggle again in the inner-city areas yet move out to Rochdale, the Heywood & Middleton constituency saw Ukip just 600 votes short of getting an MP elected at the Parliamentary by-election.
So where am I going with this? Well if Ukip is a long, long way below that average in Scotland, inner London and most big urban conurbations, then there must be constituencies which are a long way above average for Ukip to counterbalance that. Simply, it must be true that - if Ukip are doing as well as current polling suggests - there are constituencies which are very much winnable for Ukip. Res ipsa loquitur.
The question though is: which ones? This is a much harder question to answer, because Ukip's best seats aren't necessarily getting polled, and so I think that there will be a few surprises on election night where Ukip comes closer to winning than anyone had imagined. There are a few 'under the radar' seats which I expect Ukip to do very well indeed in, but some things must be kept under my hat: as a Ukip MEP I must be careful not to give away too many secrets!
Lib Dem mini-recovery from rock-bottom low
The Liberal Democrats may at present remain at just half of Ukip's poll ratings, but two things are likely to save them from electoral oblivion. Firstly, they have a very good campaign machine in most of the seats that they currently hold. They can focus resources purely on those seats as no-one expects them to gain any. Secondly, Liberal Democrat MPs may gain some benefit of incumbency: voters in those seats often 'excuse' the performance of the Lib Dems if they feel that their own MP has been good. I look at the Eastleigh by-election for example: under the circumstances at the time, who would have expected them to hold it? And yet they staved off the Ukip challenge.
I fully expect the Liberal Democrat vote share to collapse where it doesn't matter. In seats where they might once have had a chance of winning they will now lose their deposits. Those results will appear cataclysmic for the Lib Dems, but that doesn't mean that they won't hold a substantial number of seats.
So what will happen?
The only thing we can be reasonably sure of about May's General Election is that it is completely unpredictable. Power is where it belongs: in the hands of the voters. Of course I personally hope that they will choose Ukip in large numbers, but everyone will have the same hopes about their own parties. One thing though is for certain: there are fewer 'safe' constituencies than ever before, and (short of introducing a fairer electoral system) that can only be good for democracy.