With polling day nearly here, it’s time to stick my neck out and have a go at predicting the Cambridge General Election result. Here’s how I think the candidates are likely to finish, in reverse order.
I’m expecting Rebooting Democracy candidate Keith Garrett to finish bottom of the poll, in sixth place. He started his campaign relatively late, and while he has put out leaflets across Cambridge, he has struggled to make much impact against the well-organised and much larger campaigns of the political parties. Another factor is that his message is aimed at people disillusioned with politics, one of the groups who are least likely to vote. Given the history of other non-mainstream candidates in Cambridge, I think he’ll finish with less than 1% of the vote, and won’t be getting his £500 deposit back. Still, I hope he’s enjoyed the experience of standing.
I think fifth place will be occupied by UKIP’s candidate Patrick O’Flynn. While he is a significant figure in UKIP nationally, he has put relatively little effort into the Cambridge campaign. He has held a couple of public meetings, and done some canvassing and leafleting, but his non-appearance at most of the hustings events is a fairly good indication that his priorities have been elsewhere. On the other hand, UKIP are of course much higher in the polls nationally than they were five years ago, despite being somewhat squeezed as the election campaign has worn on. On balance, I think Patrick will get 5% of the vote, just enough to retain his deposit.
The Green party’s Rupert Read has fought a passionate and energetic campaign, and appears genuinely to believe he has a chance of winning. However, this was also true of Tony Juniper, who fought a better-financed, if worse organised, campaign for the Green Party in 2010, but ended up coming fourth with 7.6% of the vote. I think it’s going to be fourth place again for the Greens this time, but will they have a higher or lower vote share? There are arguments both ways. On the plus side, the Greens have had more exposure nationally than in 2010, even though the “Green surge” has faded somewhat in the polls; the Green party seems more popular amongst students this time; their local membership has greatly increased, and the campaign certainly seems better organised. On the other hand, Rupert doesn’t have the same national profile as Tony Juniper, clearly hasn’t had the same campaigning budget, hasn’t got nearly as many posters up, and doesn’t have canvass data from regular campaigning in recent years, because the Greens haven’t been doing much. I’m expecting that these factors will more or less balance each other out, and Rupert will end up on about 8% of the vote – though I think the Green party will get substantially more votes in the local elections also taking place on Thursday.
Chamali Fernando has truly had a baptism of fire in her first General Election campaign. She clearly arrived in Cambridge with high hopes, and back in November was described by former Prime Minister John Major as being in a two-horse race for the seat with Labour, which (even though it was manifest nonsense) can only have encouraged her. As the campaign has gone on, however, it must have become apparent to her (as it was apparent to me even before she was selected) that she is going to end up coming third. Indeed I’ve heard it suggested that the strong likelihood of a third place result put off a number of Conservatives from applying for the Cambridge candidacy, because finishing third, following Nick Hillman’s creditable second place in 2010, would not look good on their campaigning CV. Furthermore, all has not been well within the Cambridge Conservative party, as former chair Nick Clarke made clear in a thinly disguised blog post, following his resignation as chair and subsequent defection to UKIP. As if this was not enough, Chamali has been on the receiving end of a torrent of abuse over the wristbands issue, about which I shall say no more given that legal action may be pending. What sort of vote share is she likely to end up with? The latest Ashcroft poll puts her on 17%, which I think is a bit on the low side. It seems to me that the core Conservative vote in Cambridge is somewhere in the low-to-mid 20s, and a key factor in the Cambridge result will be how successful the Huppert campaign is in persuading them to vote tactically to stop Labour winning – hence the variety of blue-ink leaflets featuring issues like tax cuts that the Lib Dem campaign has been producing. Chamali’s vote will certainly be down from Nick Hillman’s 25.6%, but I will be surprised if it’s really as low as 17% – my best guess as things stand is 20%.
That leaves 66% of the vote to be split between Daniel Zeichner and Julian Huppert. Over the last few weeks I have really swung back and forth on how I think this is going to go. For reasons that I’ve gone into in great detail about in previous posts, I don’t think the Ashcroft poll’s 9% lead for Julian is realistic; based on student votes, I’m expecting a much closer result. Similarly, I think the betting markets are overstating the chances of a Lib Dem win, as they are largely based on the Ashcroft poll.
In general – and this is based on my impressions, rather than hard data – I think Labour does better at canvassing in Cambridge, whereas the Lib Dems do better at leafleting. Labour often seem to be getting more door-knocking done, whereas the Lib Dem strength lies in pushing out the paper – both in the numbers of leaflets that they manage to put out, and in how effectively they communicate their message to the voters. However, in this campaign I think Labour have come close to matching the Lib Dems in terms of leaflets, while still being ahead of them on canvassing – and they have certainly got more posterboards up in many parts of the city. Running an effective “get out the vote” operation on polling day will also be vital, but both parties are good at that.
Another factor that makes it difficult to arrive at an objective prediction is my own involvement. I’ve known Julian since he was a student, and I was to some extent responsible for initiating his political career, as I asked him to stand for election to Cambridgeshire County Council in 2001, when I was Lib Dem election agent. Despite quitting the Lib Dems in 2010 over tuition fees, I will definitely be voting for Julian on Thursday – I think he’s done a great job as Cambridge MP. In contrast, I’ve only met Daniel to talk to at any length on one occasion, at the Be The Change Cambridge event in September 2014. I have to say I was quite impressed – I found him thoughtful and well-informed, and while he is certainly a Labour loyalist, he’s far from being the grey party clone that he’s sometimes portrayed as. During the many hustings events in the past weeks, he’s come across as passionate, committed and genuinely keen to make a difference for the people of Cambridge. At one of the final hustings events, City Council Green candidate Kate Honey argued that you might as well vote Green in the Parliamentary election, because whichever of Julian and Daniel wins, you’ll end up with a decent MP. While I won’t be voting Green, there is a lot of truth to what she says.
As well as Cambridge Labour’s local campaigning operation, factors in Daniel’s favour include the “air war” – the national media campaign. Ed Miliband has come across better than many people (including me) expected, and has not turned out to be as much of a liability as he once seemed. Meanwhile the Lib Dems have struggled to make much impact nationally, a far cry from the Cleggmania of 2010. Another important factor locally is the Labour student organisation, CULC, which has proved the most effective – and numerous – of the student political societies. It’s still hard to know where the student vote is going to go, but CULC have worked very hard to push it in Labour’s direction. On the other hand, Julian has several factors in his favour. One is simply incumbency – and first-time incumbency, at that – which is a valuable asset. During the last five years Julian has dealt with a mountain of casework for his constituents, which will certainly help his cause. With his emphasis on science and technology issues, he also appeals particularly strongly to the “geek vote”, of which there is a good deal in Cambridge (Labour have attempted to counter this by featuring Stephen Hawking in some of their leaflets). And then there is the simple fact that last time he got 14.8% more of the vote than Labour.
I think it will be a very close-run thing. But my best guess is that Julian will be re-elected, though by quite a narrow margin – 34% of the vote to 32% for Daniel.
We’ll know soon enough if I’m right.