After every by-election I write pretty much the same blog post. By elections tell us almost nothing about the state of public opinion, but are nevertheless extremely important in setting the political weather. This one is no different.

First, why they don’t tell us much. By elections are not little mini general elections. They take place in but a single constituency, which is not necessarily representative of the country as a whole. Richmond Park is an extremely affluent slice of South West London – it is not like other places. In a by election that it appears the Lib Dems successfully steered onto the issue of Brexit it is wildly unrepresentative – on Chris Hanretty’s estimates it voted 72% to remain, making it one of the thirty most remainy constituencies in Britain (and the fourth most remainy out of the 330 Tory constituencies). Secondly, by elections don’t change the government. In a real election the public are heavily influenced by issues like who they trust to run the country, who will the best PM. By elections don’t change that, so there are different dynamics. Thirdly, the intensity of campaigning is different, so larger swings are common. Campaigning was a particularly unusual issue here because Goldsmith was running as an independent – while some conservative MPs came to help him out, he did not have the might of the Conservative party machine behind him, while the Lib Dems appear to have thrown the kitchen sink, worktop, cooker, etc at it.

So it’s an unusual event in an unusual area that, in isolation, tells us little. It does, however, serve as an illustration of a wider pattern we’ve been seeing in local government by elections, where the Lib Dems have been doing very well. Lib Dems always out perform in local by-elections (and simplistic analyses of them has long been a straw for their supporters to grasp in dark times) but even by their own high standards they’ve been pulling out very positive results that have not been reflected in national polling. My best guess is that the explanation for this is something along the lines of people having stopped wanting to punish the Lib Dems. Having seen them humiliated and almost wiped out of parliament, they think they’ve had their medicine and now when a nice Lib Dem candidate comes along in a by-election people are again willing to give them a hearing. They aren’t doing well at a national level because people don’t hear them – they are the fourth party in votes and seats and struggle to get much coverage.

The impact of this victory will, therefore, be important. It will get the Lib Dems a hearing, remind people they are there and can win. Expect to see a Lib Dem boost in the national opinion polls, like they enjoyed after by-election victories years ago. The Lib Dems have a long history of using by election victories to show they are a viable party and to get themselves noticed. This could be another.

There’s another important impact too, that on the crude Parliamentary maths. Theresa May had a majority of 12, now it’s 10. As that is whittled away defeats become more likely…and an early election becomes more likely. The by election tells us little about what would happen in such an early election. Richmond Park is an extremely pro-EU seat, while a general election would be fought in a country that voted for Brexit. More than three-quarters of Conservative seats voted to Leave (and most those those that didn’t were far closer than Richmond Park). Don’t imagine that the swathe of Lib Dems seats the Conservatives won in 2015 are all itching to go back to the Lib Dems purely on the issue of Brexit – looking at Hanretty’s estimates, 20 of the 27 Lib Dem seats that the Conservatives gained in 2015 voted to Leave the EU.

Previous polling has suggested that the Lib Dems could indeed do very well in an early election fought around the issue of Brexit, and I think that is the case (especially if they are the only explicitly pro-membership party and can win pro-European support from Labour). Nevertheless, those same polls also suggested a very solid overall win for the Conservative party. Britain is NOT just a bigger version of Richmond Park.


YouGov have a new Scottish poll in yesterday and today’s Times. Topline voting intention figures for Holyrood are CON 25%, LAB 15%, LDEM 6%, SNP 48% for the constituency vote; CON 24%, LAB 14%, LDEM 6%, SNP 39%, GRN 11% for the regional vote. The SNP obviously remain dominant, but the Conservatives are now in a very clear second place. Since the referendum Scottish voting behaviour appears to have been increasingly based on independence vs unionism – the SNP have recieved the overwhelming support of those who voted Yes back in 2014 (85% of them would give their constituency vote to the SNP in an election tomorrow). The Conservatives – the most unabashedly unionist of the Scottish parties – increasingly seem to get the largest share of those who voted NO. They are probably also helped by Ruth Davidson’s continuing popularity and that fact that they are the largest opposition party in Holyrood, so are in some sense the natural home for those opposed to the SNP government.

What it is probably isn’t is a continuation of Theresa May’s honeymoon. While May’s ratings are still very high in GB polling they’ve started to turn in this Scottish poll. 40% now think May is doing badly as PM (up from 22%), only 35% well (unchanged).

On the other leaders, Nicola Sturgeon’s ratings are down from the Summer, but still positive. 50% think she is doing well, 39% badly, a net rating of plus 11 compared to plus 20 in August. Ruth Davidson’s ratings continue to far outstrip her party – 49% think she is doing well, 24% badly. Looking at the crossbreaks it’s clear that there are some SNP supporters and a majority of Labour supporters who can think that Davidson is doing a good job without being tempted to actually vote for her party.

Moving onto Scottish independence there is still no sign of any post-EU Ref movement in favour of independence. Asked how they’d vote in a referendum tomorrow 44% would vote YES to Scottish independence, 56% would vote NO. While the change since the summer is not in itself significant, for the record it’s the first time since the IndyRef that YouGov have shown a larger lead for NO than at the referendum itself. I think we can now be confident that the EU referendum result in itself has not lead to any increase in support for Scottish Independence. When the details of Brexit start to become clear that may change of course, but only time can tell us that – the mere threat of Brexit has not been enough to make Scotland want out.

On the subject of Brexit, Scots are evenly split over whether they would support Scotland seeking to remain within the European Union if Britain as a whole leaves – 42% would support attempting to do so, 41% of people would be opposed. The majority think any such attempt would be unlikely to succeed anyway (or at least, would be unlikely to work unless Scottish independence has been achieved). 62% think it would probably not be possible, only 22% think it would be.

Full tabs are here.


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An update on the boundary review. Back in September I published notional figures for the proposed boundaries in England & Wales. I’ve now updated those to include Scotland as well (this is partly because the Scottish boundary Commission published later, but it also took much longer to do – the Scottish Commission are much happier to split wards between constituencies, which probably leads to constituencies that better follow communities… but it makes it trickier to work out notional figures.)

Notional figures for new boundaries for England, Wales and Scotland

The partisan effects in Scotland are no great surprise. The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in 2015, so it was inevitable that most of the losses will be SNP. That aside, on the new boundaries they will be even more dominant. Orkney & Shetland is a protected seat so the sole Liberal Democrat constituency is retained, but Labour and the Conservatives will both see their single Scottish constituency disappear on the new boundaries.

Edinburgh South, the lone Labour seat in Scotland, is split between the new Edinburgh East and Edinburgh South West & Central seats. Both will notionally have an SNP majority of over 4000 – Edinburgh East will be a SNP-Lab marginal, with a SNP majority of 7.9%, Edinburgh SW&C will be a three-way marginal with the SNP in first place, the Conservatives in second place and Labour close behind them.

Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale, the lone Tory seat in Scotland, mostly goes into Clydesdale & Eskdale, with the rest of the seat split into several much smaller parts. The new Clydesdale & Eskdale seat will have a notional SNP majority of about 5000. On paper the best seat for the Tories will be the new Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk seat, with a notional SNP majority of only 1.3% (though that’s an increase from 2015).

Now we have notional figures for the whole of Great Britain we can work out national totals and what sort of swings would be needed for parties to win a general election on these boundaries.

The 2015 general election had results of CON 330, LAB 232, LDEM 8, SNP 56, Others 24.
On the proposed boundaries the 2015 general election would have been CON 319, LAB 203, LD 4, SNP 52, Others 22. The Conservatives lose 11 seats, Labour lose 29, the Lib Dems 4 and the SNP 4.
Note that on the boundaries proposed for the abandoned review in the last Parliament the results would have been Con 322, Lab 204, LD 4 and SNP 50 – so this new boundary review is actually marginally worse for the Tories than the one that was blocked before the election.

I should add my normal caveat that these notionals are an accounting exercise – projecting how people voted in each ward, moving them into their new seats and totting up the votes. It does not take into account that some people might have voted differently in 2015 if they’d lived in different seats, for that reason I suspect it may slightly underestimate the Liberal Democrats (and it’s possible that the Greens might actually have saved their seat).

We can also look at what difference the boundaries would make to the leads each party needs to win an election.

  • Currently the Conservatives need to have a lead of 5.7% to get an overall majority (hence the 6.5% lead they actually got translating into only a tiny majority). On the proposed boundaries the Tories would get an overall majority with a lead of only 1.9%.
  • In contrast Labour currently need a towering lead of 12.6% to win an overall majority, and the boundary changes would move that target even further away, requiring a lead of 13.5%. To even be the largest party Labour would need a lead over the Conservatives of 4.7% (up from 3.9% on the current boundaries).

(One might reasonably wonder why, if the review makes nearly all the seats the same size, it still leaves the Conservatives in a better position than Labour. This is because different seat sizes is only one part of how votes translate unevenly into seats. The crucial part in explaining the present Conservative advantage is the distribution of the vote and the impact of third parties. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the growth of the SNP and UKIP means the system now favours the Conservatives. The Lib Dems are primarily strong in areas that would otherwise be Tory… but now win very few seats, UKIP have largely taken votes from the Tories, but this has not translated into many seats. In contrast the SNP are now utterly dominant in an area that previously returned a large number of Labour MPs. What this means if that if there is a Lib Dem revival or a Labour revival in Scotland the skew towards the Conservatives will unwind.)

These are only provisional recommendations – the boundary commissions will revise them based on the consultation period, so much of the detail will be tweaked before the final recommendations. It’s also far from a certainty that they will actually be implemented when they are complete. Earlier this month Pat Glass MP had a Private Members Bill which if passed would tweak some of the rules of the review, requiring the Commissions to start the process again from scratch and therefore probably delaying it beyond the election. I doubt the Bill will go far – it is nigh on impossible to pass a Private Members Bill in the face of government opposition. However, second reading did highlight some opposition to the boundary changes. Firstly, the DUP spoke against the boundary changes – there had been some speculation around conference season that there had been some sort of deal and the DUP were onside. They are apparently not. Secondly two Conservative MPs (Peter Bone and Steve Double) voted in favour of the Bill. It doesn’t take many rebels to stop the boundary changes progressing…


We’ve had three new voting intention polls in the last four days. ICM‘s regular poll for the Guardian came out earlier today, with topline figures of CON 42%(-1), LAN 28%(+1), LDEM 9%(+1), UKIP 11%(-1), GRN 3%(-2). Full tabs are here.

Opinium had a new poll in the Observer at the weekend. Their topline voting intention figures with changes from a fortnight ago are CON 41%(+1), LAB 29%(-3), LDEM 7%(+1), UKIP 12%(-1). Full tabs are here.

Finally YouGov at the tail end of last week had topline figures of CON 42%(+1), LAB 28%(+1), LDEM 8%(-2), UKIP 11%(nc). Full tabs are here.

All three polls show the Conservative lead still up around 12-14 points, suggesting that the narrowing in the Ipsos MORI poll last week was indeed just a reversion to the mean and that the polls are settling into a consistent position of the Tories up around 40% and Labour marooned around 30%.

Ahead of the Autumn statement both Opinium and ICM asked economic trust questions – Opinium found May & Hammond with a 26 point lead over Corbyn & McDonnell on who they’d trust to run the economy (44% to 18%), ICM gives tham a 33 point lead on which team would be better able to run the economy (48% to 15%).


Earlier this week NatCen released new polling on what people want from Brexit. The vast majority (90%) of people would like to keep free trade with the European Union. By 70% to 22% people would also like to limit the amount of EU immigration into Britain. Getting these two things together does not, of course, seem particularly likely. Asked if Britain should agree to keep free movement in exchange for keeping free trade, people are much more evenly split – 49% think we should, 51% think we should not (the full report is here).

Personally, I still think the best way of judging public opinion on Brexit is probably not to ask about individual policies, but to test some plausible scenarios – when it comes to it, people will judge the deal as a whole, not as the sum of its parts. YouGov released some updated polling on Brexit today that repeated that experiment, and again found that a Canadian type deal is likely to get the widest support from the public (that is, no freedom of movement and a more limited trade deal). The problem with a Norway type deal – retaining full free-trade with the EU in exchange for keeping freedom of movement and a financial contribution is that most of the public would see it as not respecting the result of the referendum.

I’ve written a much longer piece about the YouGov polling over on the YouGov site here, so I won’t repeat it all. One interesting bit though is looking at the possible outcomes of an early election, fought on the issue of Brexit. Now, I should start with some important caveats – hypothetical election questions are very crude tools. While I’m sure an early election would be dominated by the issue of Brexit, there would be other issues at play too, so a question like this will over emphasise the impact of Brexit policy. Nevertheless, it suggests some interesting patterns. YouGov asked how people would vote if Brexit could not pass a Parliamentary vote and instead an early election happened. In the scenarios the Conservatives and UKIP back Brexit (as they undoubtedly would) and the Lib Dems back a second referendum (as they’ve said they would). YouGov offered three different scenarios for Labour – one, where Labour back Brexit, two where Labour back only a “soft Brexit”, three where Labour also offer a second referendum. In all three cases the Conservatives would win easily – even the closest scenario gives them a twelve point lead. The interesting finding is the Lib Dems – in the two scenarios where they are the only party offering a second referendum their support goes up to 19% or 22% (if Labour also offer a referendum the Lib Dems don’t gain nearly so much). So, while these are hypothetical questions that need to be taken with a pinch of salt, it does suggest that appealing to those voters who really are set against Brexit could be a route back for the Lib Dems, especially if they are the lone “anti-Brexit” party. The full results for the YouGov polling are here.

Meanwhile Ipsos MORI released their monthly political monitor. In terms of voting intention the Conservative lead is halved from last month, but that is likely something of a reversion to the mean after a towering eighteen point lead last month. Topline figures are CON 42%, LAB 33%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 7%, GRN 3%. As ever, wait until you see the change echoed in other polls before concluding that the Conservative lead is waning.

Theresa May still enjoys a positive approval rating – 54% are satisfied with the job she is doing, 30% disatisfied. The new government also have a net positive rating at their handling of the economy so far – 51% think they’ve done a good job, 30% a bad job. Where the public are not convinced is on how the government are handling the biggest issue – only 37% think the government are doing a good job at handling Brexit, 48% think they are doing a bad job. Full details of the MORI poll are here.