Jim Hancock

NW 2015: Prepare to play political fruit machine

In 2011 we decided not to change the voting system, so stand by for the lottery next year, says political commentator Jim Hancock.

The first-past-the-post method was fine in the 1950s 1950s when nearly everyone was Conservative or Labour. Next year we'll have Scots Nats, UKIP and even the Greens on the rise whilst the struggling Liberal Democrats will complicate the picture, particularly in the North West. It will introduce an element of randomness into the result as people get MPs they didn't vote for.

Conservatives in the region are already warning that a vote for UKIP will split the right wing vote and let in Labour. Tories are right to be afraid. Lancashire County Council was lost two years ago because UKIP, without electing a single councillor, drained enough Conservative support to allow in a Labour minority administration. The North West is not a promising region for UKIP to pick up seats, but their impact on the two main parties will be important. Labour can't be complacent either as they remember the tight result in the Heywood and Middleton by-election.

David Cameron's failure to gain an overall majority in 2010 was down to the Conservatives' under-performance in seats like Bolton West. They failed to overturn a 2,000 Labour majority despite having an excellent candidate in the former leader of Trafford Council, Susan Williams. Presuming the tide will be running (albeit slowly) in Labour's direction next May, that party's focus will be on four Tory-held seats with majorities of under 1,000. These are Lancaster & Fleetwood, Carlisle, Morecambe & Lunesdale and Weaver Vale in Cheshire.

The question is whether Labour can go beyond that to make the big gains to win a majority. I think it unlikely for two main reasons.

Firstly, we have become used to governments lasting two or three terms. The Tories have successfully associated their opponents with economic failure. This could be unfair but people's memories of the 2008 crisis may be too fresh for a change of government. History is certainly against Labour. Since 1931 they have only regained power once at the first time of asking. That was in February 1974 as a minority government.

The other problem is the leader, Ed Miliband. So far he has failed to close the deal with voters. Whether that's because of his awkward manner or because people think he betrayed his brother by standing against him or due to the rather shapeless offer Labour is making up to now, Ed Miliband will do well to win the tougher Tory seats in this region. These include Warrington South, Bury North, Chester and the constituency of rising ministerial star Esther McVey in Wirral West.

The Lib Dems could be left with just one MP in the North West. Potential leader Tim Farron looks safe in Westmorland but with their urban councillor base largely wiped out in recent years Manchester Withington is almost certain to fall. The Conservatives might take advantage of the retirement of Andrew Stunell to capture Hazel Grove. The Lib Dems are relying on a "siege strategy" to hold on to seats where they hope good work by the local MP might help them buck the national trend. Will Gordon Birtwistle in Burnley and Mark Hunter in Cheadle defy the cannon balls?

It's likely the Conservatives will be the largest party once again but then we can pull the fruit machine lever once again to see who will cooperate with them in government.

Jim Hancock was political editor of Granada TV and BBC North West. He now blogs on politics, hosts conferences and does media training.

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