Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 16 April 2010

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in nearly 30 years of writing about politics, it’s that it’s very easy to make a fool of yourself by predicting what’s going to happen next.

I haven’t done it – I think – since 1989, when I rashly announced in these pages that we were unlikely to see German unification in our lifetimes, or something like that (the embarrassing article is missing from my file of cuts for some strange reason, and I don’t have the time or the inclination to look it up in the Tribune archive). I’m certainly not going to risk whatever residual reputation I might have by forecasting the result of next month’s general election.

Actually, I twigged the danger of predicting general elections some time before that faux pas, because I’d already managed to get all three elections of my adult life – 1979, 1983 and 1987 – quite spectacularly wrong.

In 1979, I’d expected a close result: what actually happened was a thumping Tory victory. In 1983, I thought that Labour would recover lost ground and that the SDP-Liberal Alliance might be in a position to act as kingmakers in a hung parliament: the Tories won by an even bigger margin. And in 1987, I really believed that Labour had a good chance of winning or at least becoming the largest party in the Commons: it didn’t turn out that way, as the Tories were returned with a safe majority.

OK, there’s not much on the record that shows how wrong I was – a piece in Solidarity, a small libertarian socialist magazine in 1981 (pre-Falklands, all right?) suggesting that the unpopularity of Margaret Thatcher’s government was such that some sort of Labour-Alliance coalition and a return to Keynesian corporatism was pretty much in the bag; and one for New Socialist in 1986 (when the polls showed a slender Labour lead, believe me) chewing over the possibilities for centre-left collaboration when Labour became the largest party, as it surely would.

Still, by the end of election night 1987 I had resolved never again to go public with my incisive predictions of general election results – and I never have. Which is just as well, really, because I got 1992 wrong (I really thought Labour would scrape in, even after the awful Sheffield rally) and I misjudged 1997 (the scale of the Labour victory was much greater than I expected). I was right to think that 2001 would be a big Labour victory, but in 2005 I fretted until the very last about the Tories making sufficient gains to deny Labour an overall majority.

Does all this make me a particularly inept political journalist? You can be the judge of that, but I don’t think so. There were plenty of other people who were surprised by the scale of Thatcher’s victory in 1979, and in 1983 and 1987 there was real uncertainty right up to the last minute about what would happen on election day because the opinion polls were erratic and no one knew how well the Alliance would perform. In 1992, there was the inglorious farce of the BBC’s exit poll suggesting a Labour victory, which prompted premature champagne-cork popping among Labour supporters throughout the country – which was followed as the results came in by the gradual half-cut realisation that the poll had got it wrong.

Since then, Labour has had three victories in a row, with the pollsters getting the victor right each time. But don’t forget that in 1997 nearly all the polls had Labour down for an even bigger victory than the one that transpired, and that 2005 looked likely for much of the campaign to be a much closer-run thing than it turned out to be. Had the Tories not been led by Michael Howard it might have been very different.

So what about May 6 2010? I’m sticking to my policy: no predictions. The polls suggest a Tory lead of between four and 10 percentage points, probably enough to make them the biggest party but possibly not enough to give them a majority. But you can’t trust the polls. No one has a clue whether the pollsters’ sampling techniques are sound, how the parties are getting on in the key marginal seats or what the impact will be of the MPs’ expenses scandal. No one knows how the small parties will fare or what turnout will be. There are three weeks to go before we actually vote, and at the time of writing we’ve witnessed only the preliminary skirmishes of the campaign. The Tories looked slick at the start, but last weekend Labour started punching its weight, and the Labour campaign launch on Monday was impressive. There is everything still to play for.

Get out there on the stump to support your Labour candidate. Keep the Tories out. We can win this. Ooops! I did it again!

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