House of Uncommons

The Unpredictable British General Election

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron gives a speech at an election rally at The Corsham School in Chippenham, south west England, March 30, 2015. Leon Neal / Reuters

Two weeks ago, a group of election experts met for a seminar at the London School of Economics to forecast the result of the upcoming British general election. No matter which model they used, or how they set about crunching the numbers, they all reached the same conclusion: On May 7, no single party would win enough seats to command a majority in the House of Commons. A similar survey of over 500 academics, journalists, and pollsters in early March came up with the same finding. Corresponding predictions are coming out of the betting markets: The Irish bookmaker Paddy Power currently has odds of 1/7 (or, 87.5 percent) for a hung parliament. A wager of 10 pounds (almost $15) would pay a scant 11.43 pounds (around $17). Both Labour and the Conservative parties are pretending that they are confident that they will win outright—but that is a claim few truly believe.

A hung parliament, of course, would not be without precedent. No single party won a majority of seats in the 2010 election, either. In 2010, however, that outcome came as a surprise to many. The civil service had done some private war-gaming of possible outcomes before the last election, and there was occasional academic discussion of the subject, but the norm of one party government at Westminster was so strong that many people discounted any evidence to the contrary.

Things are different this time around: Most have realized early on that no party is likely to win an outright majority. Since the beginning of 2015, it has been impossible to avoid conversations about various post-election scenarios, and there have been dozens of academic and quasi-academic seminars on the subject. There is noticeably more discussion of the conditions that parties would make in the event that they have to do a deal—what are their red lines, who will deal with whom—and we must at least assume that, despite their public protestations, the political parties are better prepared as well. The most striking thing about the two major parties in 2010

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