Two months to go to the Victorian state election, and Labor appears to be coasting. People grumble about the Brumby Government over lots of things, but there will always be grumbling about any government. The hard evidence all seems to point to a clear Labor win: the last Newspoll, just on a month ago, had it actually increasing its margin slightly, to 55-45 two-party-preferred.

To understand why I’m not entirely comfortable with this conclusion, and why, although the Opposition is clearly behind, I don’t think they should be written off, it’s necessary to look at a bit of history.

A little over 12 years ago, in June 1998, the ALP began a completely unprecedented run of success at state level. It won 20 out of the 21 succeeding state elections, including 17 in a row. Many of them were landslides, including wins of mammoth proportions in New South Wales in 1999, Queensland in 2001 and Victoria in 2002. (The Northern Territory, which behaves like a miniature state, followed the same pattern.)

The beginning of Labor’s run was shaky. Its first victories in Queensland (1998), Victoria (1999) and South Australia (2001) all resulted in minority governments that relied on the support of independents. But after that, Labor never looked back. The states all moved in sync; commentators who said that local factors, contrary to the trend, would prove to be Labor’s undoing in a particular state, were invariably proved wrong.

In the past two years, however, things have changed. Three of the past four state elections have gone badly for Labor; although it lost government only in Western Australia (2008), it also lost the two-party-preferred vote earlier this year in South Australia, and was forced into semi-coalition with the Greens in Tasmania. In addition, it is universally expected to lose next year’s election in New South Wales.

Recent elections have been not only close but also unpredictable. Labor’s loss in Western Australia and near-loss in South Australia came as a surprise to many observers (including me); on the other hand, last year’s Queensland election, where the polls had put the opposition ahead, turned out to be a reasonably clear Labor victory.

Of course, this may all turn out to have no relevance to Victoria. It has been the exception before (in the mid-1920s, for example, it was the only state without a Labor government) and could well be again. But the interstate trend is sufficiently strong to make one pause before embracing that conclusion.

While NSW Labor’s incompetence is sui generis, none of the other states seem to have been any more badly governed or more prey to scandals than has Victoria. And the Victorian opposition, while hardly stellar in its performance, has shown the same sort of steady determination that appears to be paying dividends elsewhere — including a new-found stability in the leadership.

The past few state elections, not to mention the recent federal election, all suggest that this is not the easiest of times for pundits. So while Labor must be favourite to win a fourth term in Victoria, there may be some unexpected excitement to come in the next two months.