Friday 10 October 2014

Comres Pollwatch – By-election Special

By-election Special
Pollwatch – By-election Special

ComRes’s Political & Media Team looks at the by-election results from last night and what they mean moving ahead. In Clacton the story is one of UKIP stealing Conservative votes, in Heywood and Middleton of the party providing a single outlet in the North for the previously split anti-Labour vote. 

UKIP                      59.7% (N/A)
Conservative          24.6% (-28.4)
Labour                   11.2% (-13.8)
Green                    1.9% (+0.7)
Liberal Democrat    1.3% (-11.6)

Clacton very much fits into the by-election mould which tells us more about the current state of the electoral landscape than the wider General Election outcome in just over 200 days. Douglas Carswell had a strong personal vote which willingly went with him to UKIP when he defected from the Conservatives.  Quite how replicable this would be is unclear. Nevertheless it is significant that Mr Carswell secured a higher percentage of the vote under the purple banner than the blue (59.7% to 53%).

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both saw their vote shares collapse, albeit turnout was down on the General Election. It is hard to know at this stage to what extent this is due to their voters switching to UKIP or simply staying at home. An Opposition party hoping to present itself as a government in waiting getting just 11% of the vote, 7 months out from the election, is undoubtedly disappointing for Labour. But few Labour voters (or diehard Conservatives for that matter) will have felt motivated to turn out yesterday.

The Conservatives were resigned to their own defeat, but the real significance is less psephological and more political. The scale of the Conservative defeat may well provide encouragement for more Eurosceptics to jump ship. It also makes it far harder to exclude Nigel Farage from major campaign events such as televised debates – over which negotiations are about to commence.

Heywood and Middleton
Labour                   40.9% (+0.8)
UKIP                      38.7% (+36.1)
Conservative          12.3% (−14.9)
Liberal Democrat    5.1% (−17.6)
Green                    3.1% (N/A)

The Heywood and Middleton by-election is the more significant contest in terms of the General Election because of its less individual circumstances and as it supposedly showed that UKIP threatens not only the Conservatives but Labour too.

While there may be some truth in the view that some of UKIP’s support is drawn from white working class voters concerned about immigration, Nigel Farage doubtless remains more of a threat to the Conservatives than to Labour. The Conservatives’ problem is that UKIP is taking more of both their voters (currently about one in six of them) and their MPs (two and counting). For Labour, the UKIP challenge is not that it is taking their voters, but providing a single outlet for all non-Labour voters to coalesce around.

Much of the focus on Heywood and Middleton has been Labour’s narrow 617 vote victory. But in 2010 the non-Labour vote was 59.9%. Yesterday it was almost identical at 59.1%. Whereas at the last General Election, these voters were split between the Conservatives (27%), the Liberal Democrats (23%), the BNP (7%) and UKIP (3%), yesterday they aggregated mostly around the latter only.

Much of the “threat” to Labour makes the mistake of assuming that all white working class Britons were Labour in the first place. Yet biographers of Benjamin Disraeli point out that following the Second Reform Act and throughout much of the twentieth century, a third of the working class habitually voted Conservative. Similarly, and although the thesis is debated, American pollster Douglas Schoen argued that the Conservatives won the 1970 General Election in part thanks to millions of working class “Powellites” voting for the party on the back of the anti-immigration “Rivers of Blood” speech two years previously.

This is obviously still a large problem for Labour – increasing its share of the vote in Heywood and Middleton last night by only 0.8% since one of its worst election defeats in a century hardly seems like the achievement of a party inexorably destined to be swept to government in seven months’ time. UKIP seems to be putting a ceiling on Labour’s vote share by attracting the voters who switch away from the governing party mid-term and who Labour would at any other time have won.

By making a direct challenge against Labour and shouting about it very loudly, Nigel Farage is doing a very good job of making UKIP a magnet for a range of non-Labour voters in Northern Labour safe-seats. But by May next year, UKIP are likely to cause the Conservatives a lot more trouble than Labour. On last count, 14% of 2010 Conservatives say they would now vote UKIP - compared to 4% of 2010 Labour voters.

Looking further ahead, Labour must find a way to deal with UKIP more effectively or they will find themselves fighting on two fronts: against the Conservatives in the Midlands and South, and UKIP in the North. The problem with its “More Tory than the Tories” attack against UKIP is that it assumes that the purple switchers were previously Conservative-hating Labour supporters. In many cases they were not – they may well have been working-class Conservatives or swing voters. The UKIP challenge for Labour is more how it can win new voters, and less how it can avoid losing old ones.

Perhaps above all though, yesterday’s by-elections showed us just how unpredictable 2015 will be.

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Author:Adam Ludlow
Political & Media Team

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