One week to go: by-election analysis

One week to go: by-election analysis

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. There are two parliamentary by-elections next Thursday. The vacancy in Clacton is caused by Douglas Carswell resigning from the Conservatives, joining the United Kingdom Independence party and now seeking ratification of his defection from the electorate. The Heywood and Middleton vacancy has arisen because of the death of Labour member of parliament Jim Dobbin. Clacton 2005 GE % 2010 GE % 2013 County % 2014 Euro % (Tendring total) Con 44.5 53.0 32 25 Lab 36.0 25.0 15 13 LD 13.5 12.9 4 2 UKIP 4.6 – 29 48   Clacton, the main town of the constituency, is a Victorian seaside resort, still popular with retirees from across London and Essex. Matthew Parris, famously, did not think much of it, but when I visited on a warm late summer day this year it was a pleasant enough place to stroll along the beach, and seemed less down at heel than when I went in 1992. The constituency also includes the little port town of Brightlingsea. Ukip scholars Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin rated Clacton the most fertile territory in the country for the anti-European Union party – it has a high proportion of older voters and people who have been ‘left behind’ by economic change, and few members of the worst groups for Ukip (ethnic minorities, young people and the well-off). Unlike other constituencies that come out high on the demographic analysis (such as Knowsley), Clacton has a history of Ukip activity at a local level. Way back in 1997 the predecessor seat, Harwich, had the best result in the country for the anti-EU Referendum party (9.2 per cent), which probably threw the seat to Labour (although active Labour member of parliament Ivan Henderson held on well in his own right in 2001). Local politics in the last 25 years have seen Liberal Democrats, Labour, Tories and local parties have boom and bust cycles. With the personal profile of Douglas Carswell – who can genuinely claim to have been repulsed and radicalised by seeing Westminster from the inside – Clacton should be an easy win for Ukip. There are probably enough loyal Tories to keep their party in second place, but the Labour vote seems to have continued falling since 2010. Douglas Carswell looks like being the anti-Europe mirror image of Dick Taverne, who was triumphantly re-elected member of parliament for Lincoln as an independent social democrat in 1973 after leaving the Labour party.   Heywood and Middleton 2005 GE % 2010 GE % 2012 Locals % 2014 Locals % Con 21.7 27.2 26.9 21.4 Lab 48.3 40.1 54.0 39.9 LD 20.2 22.7 13.6 9.8 UKIP 1.9 2.6 1.4 24.4 BNP 4.8...

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Your guide to interpreting tonight’s results. 

Your guide to interpreting tonight’s results. 

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Nobody is venturing an exit poll for the Scottish referendum. We will have to find out the result the old-fashioned way. The reason for this requires some explanation. British pollsters have, over time, fine-tuned their skills in exit poll predictions in general elections. The painstakingly thorough (and expensive) poll in 2010 was extraordinarily accurate, and did a lot better than the assembled pundits at predicting the deflation of the Cleggmania bubble. But, methodologically, how to do it was relatively clear – take large samples in the marginal seats, enough to be able to make some general conclusions about the national swing, regional variation, the effect of incumbency, tactical voting and the Liberal Democrat vote, and then apply the results. Voting intention polling between elections has also become highly sophisticated: although different companies have different approaches they try to adjust the raw figures to get a representative sample, using findings like past voting behaviour and assessing the likelihood to turn out. The Scottish referendum, by contrast, is a one-off; there is no comparable last vote to base the sample upon, and the results of the Westminster election in 2010 and the Holyrood election in 2011 were so radically different that commentators have got confused about terms like ‘Labour voters’ (42 per cent in 2010, 26 per cent and 31 per cent in the two ballots in 2011). There is also no recent experience of an electoral event with an 80 per cent plus turnout. The best poll guidance one can offer is to look at the last polls of voting intention, and then assume that most of the remaining ‘don’t knows’ will end up voting ‘No’, but even this is speculation based on past patterns in referendums. The count will take place overnight, starting from close of poll at 10pm. Each of Scotland’s 32 local authorities will count the votes in its own area. The first stage is verification of all the ballot papers, which may take some time if there is the expected heavy poll. If there is a clear win for one side, rumours should start to seep out of the counts at this point. These things are never certain, but it is expected that some of the smaller authorities will declare first, although the big South Lanarkshire council often manages rapid general election counts, so may come ahead of the pack. We have no real way of knowing how referendum results will vary between local areas – the high turnout and the intensity of the campaign will no doubt shift some of the geography. The Welsh referendum of 1997 looked lost for devolution until Carmarthenshire came in, last, with a...

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Is it worth campaigning in the Summer?

Is it worth campaigning in the Summer?

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. The ‘dog days’ or ‘silly season’ are nearly upon us. The prime minister has had his reshuffle, restoring the sensible pattern of John Major’s premiership that new ministers should be given the summer to read themselves into the new job and know what they are talking about by the time full-scale politics resumes, and that the team presented at conference is the one that will be in office afterwards. The Commons broke up on 23 July, and the Lords did so yesterday. The political year ends with public opinion looking rather like it has done for months on end – Labour consistently but rather narrowly ahead of the Conservatives, Ukip doing very well and the Liberal Democrats embarrassingly badly. The government is modestly unpopular, and people think Labour’s heart is in the right place, but the Conservatives still have their strengths in key issue areas like leadership and the economy. What can we expect to happen to public opinion during the summer lull? The conventional wisdom is that governments tend to improve their opinion poll ratings during the summer. Warm weather and holidays are supposed to make people feel better about life in general, and the government’s performance benefits from a more indulgent and rosy perspective. More concretely and cynically, politics is often about mishaps and it is easier to look competent when there is nothing much going on and the usual scrutiny mechanisms are disarmed, with parliament in recess and much of the media class camped out in Tuscany along with the politicians. While plausible in theory, there is no decent evidence that governments actually do improve their fortunes during the summer. Your correspondent, with the invaluable assistance of Mark Pack’s spreadsheet of opinion poll results, has trawled through 50 years of voting intention polls to prove this point. The table shows the net swing to the main government party from the main opposition party over the summer, based on the differences between their mean voting intention measured in July and September (i.e. approximately covering the mid July to mid September lull). The mean pro-government swing between the average poll in July and the average poll in September is a measly 0.2 per cent, which given that polling figures are imprecise anyway effectively means that there is no summer effect whatsoever. Looking only at poll figures from the first 15 years of this series (1964-79) it looks as if there might once have been something in the theory, possibly, but the most recent years show small movements with no consistent pattern. Summers, as anyone of my generation will recall, were more idyllic back then, anyway. The apparent end of the pattern...

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The benefits of disreputable psephological habits

The benefits of disreputable psephological habits

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. It is time to confess one of my disreputable habits. Every time local elections come round, I cannot resist sitting down by my computer and adding up the ward-by-ward results by constituency and working out who ‘won’, at least in the marginal seats that make the difference. The Fabian Society has published this, for the Labour target seats, in 2013 and 2014. The overall picture was quite similar in both elections – Labour making enough progress to put the party just short of an overall majority, but with the United Kingdom Independence party making strong gains in votes (and, more rarely, in seats) in areas where Labour depends on a white working-class and lower middle-class vote. The sceptical reader may ask how relevant local election results are to what might happen in a general election, and the sceptical reader would have a point. Not all elections are truly comparable with each other, and I would be very wary of using European parliament election results to say anything about other elections. But electors, and the parties, seem to treat local elections a bit more seriously, and with careful handling they are a useful indicator. But how, one may ask, can one read from a local election with 30-35 per cent turnout to a general election with 60-65 per cent turnout? The pragmatic answer is that it seems to work. The overall picture is, like a big opinion poll, a snapshot rather than a prediction. In both 2013 and 2014, the message was that Labour had a small overall lead in public opinion, while in 2012 the Labour lead was larger and in 2011 the two main parties were basically tied with each other. In each case, this confirms the broad message of national opinion polls, suggesting that general election voting intention and observed behaviour in local elections are not very different. However, the turnout factor can be very important. In the May 1992 elections, when Labour supporters were demoralised by the loss of the general election the previous month, the Conservatives did extremely well because of differential turnout. Under Labour governments, it seems consistently harder to get Labour supporters to turn out in local elections, even in good years like 1966 and 1998. Local election voters are older and whiter than the average. Smaller parties do better in low-turnout elections because their supporters are usually more motivated to turn out than the more apathetic habitual voters of the main parties. The general election turnout in 2010, for instance, caused a number of Labour gains from the Greens in the local elections through higher turnout. Higher turnout will probably also mean that the Ukip...

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After the deluge

After the deluge

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. The local and European elections were shocking and in many ways demoralising for Labour supporters. They were not a clear victory like the 2012 local elections were, and Labour’s vote slumped alarmingly in many areas that have been strongholds of the party for generations. Failing to win the popular vote in the European parliament election, and the narrow margin by which Labour led the Conservatives, were disappointments. Against this, there were some very good individual results in the local elections, and not just in London. What are the main features of the electoral landscape as the parties now face it? The United Kingdom Independence party’s vote was very high across a swath of working-class England as well as its more traditional coastal and rural stamping grounds. As well as inheriting most of the votes of the British National party, it has whittled away at the Conservative minority in Labour heartland areas and taken a huge bite out of the Labour vote. The Ukip vote was high enough to start winning seats that had hitherto been reliably Labour, and also to come through the middle in more marginal wards. Rotherham was the most eye-catching case, and there are particular local problems there, but it was an extreme example of a general pattern. We had been warned, in the 2008 local elections and the 2010 general election, but now we have suffered a severe punch in the gut from areas that have stuck with Labour even in our darkest periods like the 1980s and 1930s. Fortunately, the shadow cabinet will be under no illusions about quite how strong the Ukip vote was in white working-class areas of England. In Ed Miliband’s seat of Doncaster North it reached 34 per cent; it was not much lower in Yvette Cooper’s Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (25 per cent), Rachel Reeves’ Leeds West (28 per cent) and Ed Balls’ Morley and Outwood (23 per cent). The problem is not just on the Yorkshire side of the Pennines, as Ukip reached 27 per cent in Bolton South-east (12 per cent in its mostly Asian ward, around 30 per cent in the rest), and 26 per cent in Wigan. Ukip picked off some wards in other authorities that have in the past been reliable Labour strongholds – its two wards in Derby were Labour at the recent nadir of 2008, and this is repeated in many councils. It is tempting, with less than a year until the general election, to prioritise the marginals rather than winning ‘safe’ seats by larger margins over Ukip. In the short term, this may be inevitable – we do not have the time or resources...

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Farage to the test

Farage to the test

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. The 2014 European parliament elections have been among the most eagerly anticipated sets of European elections to take place in Britain – if one can use such superlatives about an election for which we can expect turnout to be 30-35 per cent. In 2009, barely one-third of people turned out to vote, down from 38 per cent in 2004. The results will be interesting in several ways: how firm is Labour’s vote? Will the Liberal Democrats be wiped out? Will a good Scottish National party result be a springboard to referendum success in September? But the biggest question is quite how well the United Kingdom Independence party is going to do. So, what can we expect? It reflects considerable credit on the British polling industry that it managed to get the 2009 European election results pretty much right, given that they took place in a particularly volatile environment, turnout was low, the voters were restless and alienated and the Labour vote plunged well below 20 per cent, something which had previously looked impossible. The 2014 polls are, of course, not guaranteed to be accurate, but it is a reasonable assumption that they will be. Most of them show Labour in the lead with support somewhere around the 30 per cent mark, Ukip second with support somewhere in the high 20s, and the Conservatives third in the low-to-mid-20s. A result like this is ‘priced in’ to expectations and would probably cause only the gentlest ripples in the general political environment. It is not impossible that differential turnout might lead to Ukip coming first, ahead of Labour. Two opinion polls published at the very end of April showed a clear Ukip lead, with around 36 per cent, and with Labour in the high 20s, but only if the figures were calculated using just the respondents who said they were absolutely certain to vote. The Conservatives have managed their expectations downwards so well that a ‘decent third’ on around 23 per cent would be seen as passable, and if they manage to come second they would be ecstatic. A share below 20 per cent would be much more worrying. If Labour’s share is above 30 per cent, that probably counts as ‘better than expected’ – no party has won more than 30 per cent since William Hague’s Tories in 1999, and Labour has not won a European election since 1994. The likely poor Liberal Democrat result will be another severe blow to the party. It has had its representation on other elected bodies sliced in half since 2010 – it has lost members of the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and swaths of local councillors. The...

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