This piece appears in this week’s issue of the New Statesman.
There isn’t one big election happening in May, there are 650 small ones. That’s how many constituencies there are in the UK. We can be fairly certain how 500 or so of the seats will vote; the election will be decided in the other 150. Here are ten of the most crucial.
Note: for more on the key seats, see our break down of the Tory-Labour marginals that will decide the election.
1. Sheffield Hallam
The battle for Nick Clegg’s seat could be the most important race of this election. Labour is hoping to dethrone the Lib Dem leader, and a couple of polls have suggested it might. But the Lib Dems are pouring money, time and activists into the constituency, one of the wealthiest places outside the south-east, and are confident they can convince Tories to vote tactically for Clegg.
Lib Dem support will be critical in the next parliament. If Clegg retains his seat it is more likely the Lib Dems will stick with the Tories.
2. Thanet South
Thanet South is only one of Ukip’s half-dozen target seats but it is the one by which the party will be measured on election night. Nigel Farage is trying to overturn a 7,600-vote Tory majority in his seventh run for parliament. Labour is hopeful that a split on the right will hand it the seat but few pundits think it will. Polls so far have painted a confused picture: Farage is either slightly behind or a dozen points ahead.
3. Wirral West
If Esther McVey loses her seat in Wirral West, Labour is likely to have won about 40 Tory seats on election night. Over the past three decades Wirral West has become a “bellwether” seat.
Pudsey, Stafford, High Peak and Lincoln are other Labour-Tory marginals to watch.
4. St Ives
St Ives is one of three Tory-Lib Dem marginals in Cornwall, one of this election’s most important battlegrounds. The Lib Dems are confident their popular local MPs can hold off the Tories in not just St Ives, but North Cornwall and St Austell and Newquay.
Andrew George, the Lib Dem MP for St Ives since 1997, is the epitome of a local politician. He is one of the party’s most rebellious MPs and takes his parliamentary oath in Cornish. If the Lib Dems can hold their Cornish seats they could win more than 30 overall – the national target.
5. Paisley and Renfrewshire South
Since the Scottish referendum in September, the SNP has surged in the polls. If it wins here in Paisley – in a seat held by Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary – it is likely it will have won at least 30 of Labour’s 40 Scottish seats. Alexander’s long political life will be over and his party will need SNP support to take power.
6. Belfast East
Northern Ireland is ignored by pollsters, pundits and the British papers but its politicians could act as kingmakers in a few weeks. Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, held Belfast East for 31 years until he was sensationally defeated in 2010. Now his Democratic Unionist Party is targeting the seat relentlessly. Belfast East is still recovering from the Troubles: Naomi Long, the local MP, has faced years of death threats.
7. Southampton Itchen
This is the only Labour-held seat that the Tories might win. John Denham, the former cabinet minister and early Ed Miliband supporter, is standing down; Rowenna Davis, 30 – a former journalist and the author of a book about Blue Labour – is trying to replace him.
As in many other Labour seats, Ukip is set to secure about a fifth of the vote here, after winning just 4 per cent in 2010. That rise is making a Tory victory possible.
8. Berwickshire, Roxburgh And Selkirk
Berwickshire may be the most interesting seat in the UK. It’s one of the safest Lib Dem seats in Scotland, and nowhere in Scotland is Labour less popular. If the Lib Dems lose it to the SNP, as Ashcroft’s polls imply they might, they will also lose almost all of their 11 Scottish seats; and the SNP, for its part, will win around 50.
The Tories, too, are hopeful of winning here. And if they can hold on to the neighbouring constituency of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale they will have two of Scotland’s three border seats.
Most of the seats that Ukip hopes to win are held by Tories but the party is also a threat to Labour. Thurrock is held by a Conservative, Jackie Doyle-Price, but she won the seat by only 92 votes in 2010 and would probably lose it to Labour’s Polly Billington, a former aide to Ed Miliband, if not for Ukip.
The seat is now a three-way marginal; taken together, Ukip and the BNP won 15 per cent of the vote here in 2010.
10. Brighton Pavilion
In 2010 the Greens won fewer than 300,000 votes across the UK – less than 1 per cent of the total. Next month they are likely to win five times as many, which would give them more votes than the SNP.
But they are unlikely to win any new seats. Their focus is on Brighton Pavilion, where Caroline Lucas, their former leader and sole MP, is running as a quasi-independent. If they do unexpectedly well on the night it will be in other affluent seats such as Norwich South and Bristol West.