This morning the Communication Workers’ Union released a Survation constituency poll of Hartlepool, the first one we’ve seen (earlier in the campaign figures were released from a Focaldata MRP of the North, but you can’t really use MRP for a by-election – it doesn’t pick up the unique circumstances). Topline figures with changes from the last election were are CON 49%(+20), LAB 42%(+4), NIP 2%(+2), GRN 1%(+1), LD 1%(-3), ReformUK 1%(-25).

I should start by saying that constituency polling is difficult. It is mostly done by telephone and often has small sample sizes (in this case, the sample was 500, but the actual voting figures are based only 302 who gave a response). Its track record has sometimes been patchy. Nevertheless, it’s the best evidence of where the race stands that we are going to get. What can we tell?

The Conservatives are ahead (though the two main parties are within the margin of error for a sample of 302). Compared to the general election the poll suggests an 8 point lead from Lab to Con, significantly better than how the Conservatives are doing in national polls.

It would be extremely unusual for a governing party to gain a seat in a by-election. There have been only two instances in the last fifty years (Copeland in 2017 and Mitcham & Morden in 1982). Few governments poll ahead of their last election performance mid-term anyway, and if anything they do worse than that in by-elections.

The reason the Tories are doing better in Hartlepool than nationwide appears fairly straightforward, and doesn’t offer any obviously transferrable lessons. In Britain as a whole the Brexit party got 2% at the 2019 election. In Hartlepool they got a very healthy 26%. That vote has almost completely vanished, presumably to the benefit of the Conservatives.

As ever, by-elections are extremely unusual beasts that do not necessarily tell much about national politics. Maybe if the actual by-election turns out like this it will be a steer on how other seats with a high level of Brexit party support in 2019 may go… but then, come the actual by-election we’ll have a glut of other data from the local, Scottish, Welsh, Mayoral and London elections due to be held on the same day, so hopefully we won’t be trying to desperately read too much into one single by-election.

Also worth noting that – given this poll was commissioned by the CWU – it also asked about some of the issues that they are concerned about like broadband, Royal Mail privatisation, nurses pay. The answers in Hartlepool were as you’d expect from national polling (people like free stuff & nurses. They don’t like privatisations). It doesn’t tell us anything particularly useful about why Labour aren’t doing better. Don’t assume because the CWU chose to ask about those issues that they are necessarily ones that are driving support in Hartlepool. Maybe people in Hartlepool care more about Corona, or crime, or Brexit, or economic regeneration, or taxes…

Finally, before this poll there was also significant social media buzz about the Northern Independence party having an impact, not least because their candidate is Thelma Walker, a former Labour MP who resigned over the party’s refusal to re-admit Jeremy Corbyn. Realistically a party that hasn’t even been registered yet may be very pleased indeed if they manage to get third place, but nevertheless, the poll suggests they are not significant players here.

UPDATE: The tables for the Survation poll have appeared, and worth adding a further caveat. At the last election the Brexit party got 26% of the vote. Among people who took part in the poll, only 3% recalled voting for the Brexit party. This does not *necessarily* mean its a duff sample – there will undoubtedly be issues of false recall, of people re-aligning their past vote to match with present circumstances (especially since the Brexit party has rebranded itself into ReformUK and no longer exists in its old form), but it should be an extra reason for caution.

Scotland

There were two Scottish Parliament voting intention over the weekend, one from Panelbase, one from Survation. Topline figures are that both show the SNP continuing to cruise towards victory and on the edge of winning a majority. Both show a tight race for second place between the Conservatives and Labour.

However, these were also the first two to measure support for Alex Salmond’s new list only party, Alba. The Panelbase poll showed them at 6%, the Survation poll showed them at 3%. To understand the significance of these we need to explore the nuances of the Scottish Parliament electoral system.

The Scottish Parliament elects members using an additional member system. 73 MSPs are elected in constituencies using first past the post, a further 56 are elected on a proportional regional list system. The regional list seats effectively operate as a “top-up” to the constituency seats already won, so that overall the seats won should be proportional to the list vote. For example, if party A won 6 constituency seats, but got 10% of the list vote, they’d be awarded another 7 list seats so they had 10% of the total seats. It’s more complicated than that because it’s done by region, meaning there is an effective threshold to get any seats at all, but we’ll come to that.

Crucially people cast two votes – you don’t have to cast your constituency vote in the same way as your list vote, you can vote for different parties.

The SNP did extremely well at winning constituencies at the last election (59 out of 73). This meant that that despite winning 42% of the list vote, they didn’t receive many list seats, because they had already won almost their fair share through constituency seats. Compare this to the Scottish Greens – they don’t win any constituency seats (they barely stand), so there is nothing to set against their list vote and their list vote of 7% translates into 6 seats.

Therefore, the Alba argument goes, SNP votes on the regional list are “wasted” votes, that are unlikely to return MSPs. If a significant chunk of SNP voters voted Alba instead, it would return more pro-independence MSPs.

So far, so good. However, because the Scottish system uses regional lists, there’s an effective threshold to get any seats at all (about 5-6%). There is also already a second pro-independence party, the Scottish Greens. That means in practice Alba could have a positive or negative impact on the number of pro-Independence MSPs elected. If they get over 5% in a substantial number of regions, and do so by taking SNP second preferences, rather than taking votes who would otherwise back the Greens, they will increase the next number of pro-independence MSPs. If they get under 6% in most regions, they are unlikely to win any MSPs at all. If they get under 6%, but in doing so, take votes from the Scottish Greens, they could even reduce the the number of pro-independence MSPs.

Hence, in judging the impact of Alba, the thing to look at is the level of Alba and the Scottish Greens in the list vote, and whether each is above or below that threshold of around 5-6%. The two polls so far paint contrasting pictures – in the Survation poll, Alba were at 3% and the Scottish Greens were unchanged at 11%. In the Panelbase poll Alba were at 6%, the Scottish Greens at 8%, again comparable to their showing in previous Panelbase polls.

So in neither case was there any evidence that Alba were cannibalising the pro-independence list vote by taking support from the Greens, but the evidence on whether they’ll actually win seats of their own is unclear. On the Panelbase figures they may well do (John Curtice tentatively projects 6 Alba seats, with a total of 79 pro-Independence MSPs). On the Survation figures they probably wouldn’t, but the SNP and Greens would get 77 pro-Independence MSPs between them anyway.

And that, in itself, maybe underlines the extent to which this matters. As things stand most polls show the SNP getting a majority or getting close to one. Taking the SNP & Scottish Greens together, there will very likely be a majority of pro-Independence MSPs anyway. Whether Alba manage to scramble over the threshold to win some seats or not doesn’t look likely to change that given their present level of support.


Post-budget polling

There were three immediate post-budget polls on the day of the budget from Opinium, SavantaComRes and YouGov. They all showed very high levels of approval – YouGov found 46% support, 11% opposed; Opinium found 52% approve, 12% disapprove; SavantaComRes found 60% satisfied and 11% dissatisfied. The following day YouGov also put out new voting intention figures, which showed a Conservative lead of 13 points. While the Conservative lead has been steadily growing over recent weeks anyway, at least part of that looks likely to be a bounce from a positively received budget. Worth remembering that it was conducted immediately after the budget, before the press coverage turned rather less positive…

NHS Salaries

This would not be the first initially popular budget to come unstuck in the following days as people look in more detail at the details. In this case the downside doesn’t appear to be in the details of the budget itself, but in the proposed NHS pay settlement that was announced the following day. The first actual polling on this has come from Opinium in the Observer. This found 24% thought the proposed pay rise was too high or about right, 72% thought it was too low.

While high, this is by no means new, or different, or surprising. All past polling on nurses salaries has always shown the vast majority of people support increases – look, for example, here or here or here or here or here or here. That’s about a minute of googling. The public have very consistently and very widely supported increasing nurses’ pay for many years. It has not led to large rises, or prevented the Conservative party winning elections in their absence. A better question is perhaps to what degree it is a more salient issue given the coronavirus, and whether it actually damages Conservative support. Time will tell if that’s the case.

All past polling has shown that nurses are held in extremely high public regard (look, for example, at the Ipsos MORI veracity index). In terms of public sympathy, this is a fight that is probably unwinnable for the Government. The question is more weather they knuckle down and accept any hit to public support (because something is unpopular it does not necessarily damage support at the ballot box), or whether they U-turn on it.

Scotland

There are two Scottish polls in the Sunday papers, one from SavantaComRes for the Scotsman on Sunday, one from Panelbase for the Sunday Times.

The Scotsman on Sunday one makes great play of No being ahead in their SavantaComRes poll – 46% No, 43% Yes, Don’t know 10%.

This has been rather complicated however by methodological issues. Previous ComRes polls on Scottish Independence have been weighted by likelihood to vote. This one was not, meaning it can’t be easily compared to the previous figures. More to the point, the impact of weighting by likelihood to vote has sometimes been quite large in previous ComRes polls, so it’s quite hard to work out what the impact would have been.

In ComRes’s last Scottish poll, conducted in late February for ITN, applying turnout weighting had minimal effect. However, in their last poll for the Scotsman at the start of Feb 2021 it made a huge impact, transforming a 3 point No lead to a 5 point Yes lead. In other words, it’s quite possible that if the same turnout filter had been used this wouldn’t have shown any change in support for Independence at all.

The Scotsman on Sunday article also reports people claiming that the Salmond Inquiry makes them less likely to support Independence. I’d take that with a bucket of salt. I’ve written before about the perils of “does X make you more or less likely to vote Y” questions. They are tricky to ask, as committed supporters of something tend to pick “more likely” as the most supportive option (even if their opinion is completely unchanged), and the same for committed opponents. This means you get odd results like 16% saying Alex Salmond & Nicola Surgeon calling each other liars makes them support independence more*. Really, it is just committed supporters of independence saying they still support independence, and the claimed percentage saying it makes them less supportive of independence will include a lot of people who were concrete opponents of independence anyway.

The way to see if an event has actually changed the level of support for independence is to ask about support for independence and compare it to a poll conducted before the event. It does require you to ask it in a comparable manner though, rather than buggering about with the turnout filter.

The Panelbase poll does at least do that. They found topline figures of YES 46%(-3), NO 47%(+3). Changes are from their previous poll in January. The No lead is pretty much an artefact of the rounding – according to John Curtice who has written them up in the Sunday Times, without don’t knows it ends up as a 50/50 split. It is, as ever, just one poll, but does suggest some damage from the Salmond-Sturgeon row. One should again consider the context of the polling – just as the YouGov voting intention poll at the top of this post was conducted in the midst of extremely positive coverage about the budget, this poll was conducted in the midst of the SNP having a huge row between its current and former leaders. In both cases one should probably wait for things to calm down before assuming any long term impact.

(*As an aside, the best example of the useless of more/less likely to vote questions I’ve ever come across is this one from the US Alabama Senate election in 2017. The Republican candidate faced several accusations of sexually assaulting underage girls. A question asked in that same “more or less likely to vote” format found 36% of people were less likely to vote for him because of these accusations, and 28% were MORE likely. Either 28% of people were genuinely more likely to vote for a candidate because he’d been accused of molesting schoolgirls… or perhaps questions like that don’t really show what they appear to show.)


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If you are looking at voting intention or best Prime Minister figures to judge how well an opposition leader is doing, the first thing to note is that they are relative. It’s not just about how well the opposition are doing, it’s about how well the government are doing. Indeed, it’s probably mostly how well the government are doing – I am a great believer in the old truism that oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them. A really good opposition leader can pick holes in a government and force them into political errors, but primarily it’s a job of waiting for them to make a mistake, and making sure that when they do, you look like a plausible enough alternative for the public to place their trust in you.

Many of Starmer’s internal Labour party critics start with the absolute assumption that the Government are incredibly unpopular and that Labour should therefore be ahead of them. The reality is the Government’s figures really aren’t that bad and, on corona vaccination – the issue that currently dominates the agenda – are strikingly good. Looking at the Ipsos MORI polling this week, 38% think the government are handling corona well, 46% badly (negative, but not overwhelmingly so). 86% think they are doing well at securing vaccine supplies, 78% that they are doing well in rolling it out. For better or for worse, Boris Johnson has also delivered on his main election promise – getting Brexit done – and his own approval ratings appear to have bottomed out at the end of last year and have improved slightly since then.

As such, we’ve seen the Conservative party creep back ahead in the polls over recent months. At the tail end of last year the polls were broadly neck-and-neck. The Tories now clearly have a small lead again. Opinium and YouGov’s polls this week show a 5 point Tory lead, Survation a 6 point lead, Ipsos MORI earlier this month a 4 point lead. This is likely more a reflection of the Conservative Government’s recovering fortunes than anything Labour have or haven’t done. If we want to get a decent measure of public attitudes towards Keir Starmer, we need to look at figures asking directly about Starmer himself, rather than his relative position to the Government.

If we do that, then on the whole, Starmer’s ratings are at least acceptable. During the early part of his leadership there were very solid indeed, but over the last few months they have declined. His approval ratings are fairly neutral (Opinium’s last poll had 32% approving, 30% disapproving; Ipsos MORI has 40% satisfied, 35% dissatisfied; YouGov 39% good job, 37% bad job). These are significantly better than Boris Johnson’s current ratings, and better than his predecessors Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

Looking at polling on perceptions of Starmer, YouGov gives him positive ratings on being strong, likeable, decisive and – especially – competence (42% see him as competent, 21% incompetent). Ipsos MORI finds strongly positive ratings for him on being decisive, and moderately positive figures on leading opinion and demonstrating a clear vision.

MORI also ask a regular question on if the opposition leader looks ready to be Prime Minister. 33% of people think Starmer does, 37% think he does not. Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband got figures ranging between 17%-31% thinking they looked ready to be Prime Minister, but consistently got in excess of 60% saying they did not. The positive figures may not be that different here, but Starmer’s negatives are far, far less than his predecessors. YouGov have a similar question, and found 33% think Starmer looks like a Prime Minister in waiting.

It is clear from the polling that Keir Starmer is seen by the general public as much more of a competent, plausible Prime Ministerial figure than his two predecessors. Whether that is enough is a different matter. I’ve frequently compared Starmer’s figures in this article to Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. By that yardstick they’re not bad at all. But compare them to Tony Blair, or even to David Cameron, the last two leaders of the opposition to actually go on and become Prime Minister, and they look less positive.

It’s also worth underlining that the direction of movement for Starmer is currently negative. Lots of leaders have positive ratings to begin with (think of how positively rated Theresa May was to begin with, for example). At the moment it looks as if the way that Keir Starmer presents himself has chimed enough with the public for them to give him a serious hearing and to remain open-minded on whether he’d make a good Prime Minister. It looks as if Starmer has managed to win the opportunity to be heard, but having that opportunity doesn’t mean he won’t fluff it.

Obviously Keir Starmer is not yet in a position to win a general election. We won’t know until after the boundary review exactly what sort of lead the Labour party would need to win an election, but to get an overall majority on a uniform swing then without some degree of political realignment they’d need a very substantial lead indeed and at this point, Starmer has no lead at all. I suppose for those within the Labour party, it depends exactly how much one can reasonably expect from leader who inherits a party that has just suffered one of its worst ever general elections, its fourth in row, and has spent the last five years busy in internecine warfare.


Yesterday Channel 4 news and JLPartners released an interesting poll of so-called “red wall” seats. A lot of things get written about “Red Wall seats” that don’t necessarily have much thought behind them. It is the Essex man or Worcester woman of the 2019 election, an easy buzzword that is too often a substitute for proper understanding. They are important, but you need to look careful at the nuances.

Let us start by going back to where the term originated, with James Kanagasooriam. It wasn’t just a generic word for northern marginals or Tory targets – James coined it when talking about as seats that demographically should have been Conservative, but which consistently voted Labour. James actually identified several groups of these seats – some in Wales, some in County Durham, and a big swathe of them across urban Lancashire and Yorkshire that looked like a red wall. Hence the name.

The whole point of James’ argument was that there were seats that in terms of their make up (class, economy, education, age structure and so on) you would expect to vote Conservative, but that they actually voted Labour because of a cultural, historical and social hostility towards the Tories. These weren’t seats full of horny-handed sons of toil, they were seats that were or had become more affluent but yet not become Tory. Sefton, for example, is largely affluent suburbia, with some of the highest home-ownership rates in the country. Yet it votes Labour, because it’s Liverpool’s suburbs, and people in Liverpool are not inclined to go about voting Conservative.

One can debate the reasons for this dislike, but the most obvious explanations are historical: the identity as former mining communities, the legacy and memory of Thatcherism and the dismantling of industry in the North in the 1980s. The point was, this was an obstacle to the Tories – how to appeal to these people who “should” demographically be their target audience, but for whatever reason were not interested.

Skipping ahead, we know that the Conservatives did manage to do this in many areas in 2017 and 2019. In fact in many of these areas there has been an incredible sea-change in voting behavior. Across the two elections the Conservatives have made gains there that would have looked unbelievable ten years ago. In 2015, the Conservatives won the national share of the vote by 7%. In 2019 they won by 12%, that is, a 2.5% swing across those two elections. Compare that to the Lab=>Con swing in some of the “red wall” seats. Sedgefield experienced a 14% swing across the two elections, Blyth Valley 13%, Bolsover 19%, Leigh 18%.

While there are some areas that did not follow this tide (Merseyside in particular is still extremely unforgiving territory for the Conservative party), among other areas in Lancashire, Country Durham, and Derbyshire mining areas the “red wall” decisively crumbled.

There are different explanations one can come up with for what happened. Part of it was probably the disruptive effect Brexit had upon traditional party ties, part of it perhaps a general change to the way the Conservative party has presented itself and its message. Much will simply be to the passage of time – those old mining identities can only sustain for so long once the mines have closed, the miners have passed on, the old sites regenerated and replaced by new build housing estates.

However, the Tory advances of 2017 and 2019 were not just in James’s red wall seats. Here is where it gets complicated, and why one should be cautious about throwing all those 2019 gains in together. The Conservatives gained other seats as well, some of which don’t match this description at all. Lewis Baston has written about this well previously. Some of them were in perennial marginals – places like Darlington, Stockton South, Keighley or Lincoln that have been competitive for decades and just happen to be in the North or the Midlands. If you are looking at opinion in the “red wall seats”, you have to be careful how you define it, and what you are actually looking at.

All that brings me round to the actual JLpartners/Channel 4 polling. This polled 500 people in the seats that the Conservatives won from Labour in the North & Midlands in 2019. The write up and full tables are here (do go and have a read, as there is lots of detail I have not explored below).

Overall the poll shows Labour at 47%, the Conservatives at 41%. In comparison, in the same seats the vote share in 2019 was Conservative 48%, Labour 39%. That translates into a swing of 7.5% from Conservative to Labour. In comparison the national polls conducted over the same period showed on average a Conservative lead of 1 point, a swing of 5.5% from Conservative to Labour.

On the face of it, that suggests the Conservatives are doing marginally worse in these seats than in the country as a whole. If that was to happen at an election it would be unusual – parties actually tend to do a bit better than average in seats they gained at the previous election because they have gained the incumbency advantage (the MP’s “personal vote”), and their opponents have lost it, so this would be a particularly poor performance. However, I should add the caveat that it’s just one poll of 500 people, so there is a margin of error of 4% on there. We should not put too much confidence on whether the Conservatives are doing a couple of percentage points better or worse in an area based on a single poll.

More interesting of course would be to be able to look under the bonnet at the different types of seat within those we’ve lumped together as “red wall” seats. Are there different patterns at work in those traditional marginal seats to those former mining and industrial seats that have been part of the bigger red-wall sea-change. There is no particular reason to think that seats like Lincoln or Blackpool South or Gedling would behave any differently to marginal seats elsewhere – but for seats like Sedgefield, Bassetlaw or Bolsover there’s a question of whether the political re-alignment we’ve seen over the last few elections has come to a halt or is still ongoing.

That’s not to say the JLPartners/Channel 4 poll isn’t good stuff – it is – it’s more than it’s only a starting point.

The question people tend to ask on the back of polls like this is whether the Tories need to worry unduly about keeping these seats in their column, and whether Labour can win them back. In that context, it is probably too simplistic to look at them as a single lump. In one sense, obviously these seats will be part of the battleground – but that’s just a truism. These are marginal seats, elections will be always be won and lost in the marginal seats. The more important question is whether these marginal seats are the ones that are most likely to change at the next election, or whether by looking at the fashionable “red wall” seats we miss looking at potentially more vulnerable seats elsewhere?

It may be that the political re-alignment in the true “red wall” seats is so seismic that they actually become safer Tory seats than some of the more traditional marginals. It may be that the more vulnerable Tory seats next time round are actually some more affluent seats with high proportions of graduates. The pattern of key marginals next time round could be those that are similar to North West Bristol or Canterbury, rather than winning back old mining seats.

Northern Tory gains last time weren’t monolithic – it isn’t one single “red wall” – they mix up some traditional marginals, as well as some sea that have seen truly transformational change. We shouldn’t assume they’ll behave as one block, or in the same way in the future either. Equally, we shouldn’t necessarily assume that all the interesting changes at the next election will happen in the same place as the last one. There are risks and opportunities elsewhere too.


There have been three GB opinion polls published over the last few days –

YouGov/Times (4th/5th Nov) – CON 35%(-3), LAB 40%(+2), LDEM 7%(+1) (tabs)
Opinium/Observer (5th/6th Nov) – CON 38%(nc), LAB 42%(+2), LDEM 7%(+1) (tabs)
Survation (5th/6th Nov) – CON 39%(-2), LAB 37%(nc), LDEM 9%(+2) (tabs)

YouGov and Opinium both have Labour clearly ahead (in Opinium’s case that’s confirming the lead in their previous poll; for YouGov it’s the first Labour lead since the election. They come after a ComRes poll last week showing the parties equal and an Ipsos MORI poll that also had a five point lead. While there will always be some volatility in individual polls, looking at the average across all of the polling companies it now looks as if Labour have moved into a small lead.

Back in the summer the Conservatives had a consistent lead averaging around five or six points – since then Labour have been chipping away at it. The most obvious explanation is the generally negative perception of the government’s handling of Corona and Boris Johnson’s leadership, married to the generally positive public attitude towards Keir Starmer.

Despite the timing I would be cautious about reading too much into the impact of Labour’s internal battle and the expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn – while the polling certainly suggested that it had boosted perceptions of Keir Starmer, that increase was largely among Tory voters. In reality, most of the daily soap opera of politics doesn’t have a noticeable impact on voting intentions (especially if it is so rapidly pushed off the front pages by events across the Atlantic) – my guess is that this is more just the continuation of a trend that has been apparent for months, which happened to reach the crossover point in this past fortnight.

Does it matter? In a predictive sense of course not – there are years until MPs have to face the electorate. In terms of it’s impact on politics? Of course – it strengthens Keir Starmer’s hand in internal party fights if he is the man who put Labour back ahead. Equally, it weakens Boris Johnson if he is no longer seen as a popular election winner, something that was once his main selling point to the Tory party.