Today is the Rochester and Strood by-election. After every by-election I see the same questions and I write essentially the same post. Given that, I thought I might as well write it before the result: whatever happens in the Rochester and Strood by-election it won’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about public opinion.

By-elections are very unusual beasts. They are fought with huge intensity and media attention, but with very little direct consequence – the government will still be the government the next day, it’s only one single seat that can change hands. They also often have unusual local circumstances – in this case a defecting member of Parliament. When a by-election behaves in line with the national polls, it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. When it behaves differently to the national polls, it’s probably because of the unique factors of by-election.

Assuming that the by-election polls from Ashcroft, ComRes and Survation are all correct and Mark Reckless wins tonight’s by-election we’ll probably see lots of comments tomorrow about UKIP doing well and being a threat to the Conservatives. I’d also expect lots of comments about how Labour didn’t win when they should have. Plus perhaps some comments about the derisory vote the Lib Dems will almost certainly get. Perhaps they’ll finish behind the Greens or even the Loonies or random independents.

To take those one at a time, UKIP are not likely to do as well nationwide in a general election as in a by-election where they have an incumbent MP, so this won’t tell us anything about their likely level of support come the general election – nor will it help answer the question of how concentrated their vote will be, and how well it will translate into returning MPs to Westminster. In terms of Labour, this is the sort of seat that an opposition doing really well in the polls and headed for a landslide win could reasonably expect to win… but we don’t need a by-election to tell us that Labour are not soaring ahead in the polls, and are not currently in a position that would translate to a landslide win. We already know that they are struggling to maintain first place in the polls and are seeing the anti-government vote split between them and other parties. As for the Liberal Democrats, the embarrassment of finishing lower than 4th place and losing their deposit is no longer anything new for them and doesn’t tell us anything new about the dire straights they find themselves in.

The other thing I invariably say after explaining how by-elections tell us virtually nothing about wider public opinion is that it doesn’t make the result any less important. A lot of politics is about the press narrative, about Westminster personalities and morale and in all those senses tonight’s result really does matter – if UKIP do really well it should keep UKIP’s momentum rolling, help them persuade voters they are a viable choice at the election. Perhaps we’ll see them get a boost in the polls from the publicity. Perhaps it will give the Conservative party’s morale a knock, perhaps encourage another defection(s) and turn the media pressure back onto David Cameron after an unpleasant few weeks for Ed Miliband. By-elections are very important – but because of their effect on the narrative, not because they really tell us much about wider public opinion.


884 Responses to “Today’s Rochester and Strood by-election”

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  1. Richard

    Perhaps it was an aftershock. The earthquake was Carswell defecting, with Reckless defecting the first aftershock. The Clacton BE was the second aftershock (not very shocking as it was what everyone expected) and R&S the third (actually a touch less intense than expected).
    It’s possible that the tectonic plates are gradually shifting back nearer their previous position, with the Reckless result widely expected to be reversed next May.
    Farage is hoping for a tsunami to follow, delivering further refugees, bot Blue and Red, to his shores but the signs are that the breakwaters may be holding.

  2. @Richard

    I notice that, the Huffington Post confirmed that journalists were trawling through Lab MP’s tweets and Facebook, but the results appear to be zilch

    Daily Mail is about the SAS, The Telegraph is an anti government story about ambulances and the Sunday Times has Dave C attacking EU immigrants.

    I didn’t know what to expect from the polls this weekend – all sorts of opinions on the effects. Nothing at the moment, maybe later in the week.

    IMO, Lab’s deserting voters have nothing to do with the Con and LD press – I can’t believe voters drifting away in the last month of Younger voters, Red Dems and 2010 Lab voters have been influenced in anyway by what the Daily Mail, Times and Guardian, think

  3. Latest YouGov / Sunday Times results 21st November – Con 33%, Lab 33%, LD 7%, UKIP 16%, Greens 6%, SNP/PCY 5%, Others 1%

    APP -22

    Although the economic question about the general economy have dropped quite sharply this week the question

    How do you think the financial situation of your
    household will change over the next 12 months? -16% (better 17% worse 33%) remains in the usual range .

    Cons +17, Lab -37, UKIP -36%, LD -15

    The young are hopeful +15%, working age av -18%, older voters -21% pessimistic

    It is quite remarkable, despite the general positive economic news, how little change there is in this score over the last 10 months

    Finally 2% of voters want a Conservative and SNP coalition, although half of that total are planning to vote LD

  4. Ugh…

    Cameron attacking immigrants bugs me on some level, but it’s more because he comes off as horridly, horridly fake on the issue. Not the usual “politician fake”, but something a bit worse…he’s being forced into the position by UKIP, granted, but…imagine the idea of Michael Caine trying to rap and you’ll get the idea of how this feels: He’s just not the right messenger for the Tories to carry that message, like that would be the wrong sort of performance for Caine to try and pull off.

  5. I’ve just been looking at the rise of the SDP in 1980s to see what can be learned about UKIP, and in particular whether they will fall back.

    The SDP did hurt the VI of Labour and the Conservatives, but the Conservatives recovered their position a full 12 months prior to the GE itself. In the end the SDP harmed only Labour at the GE.

    UKIP have hurt them, but no party has shown any recovery in VI. The Conservatives are polling just as they did 11 months ago (no improvement), and Labour have declined sharply. UKIP are still harming them both.

    Does this point to rise of UKIP being substantially more solid and permanent, and continuing to harm the established parties?

    I think it does point some what in this direction, given available evidence.

  6. @catmanjeff:
    Well, I think the key difference is that the SDP, when you get down to it, wasn’t fundamentally different from the Liberals…so it basically helped the Liberals fill in that gap (at least, once the euphoria from the SDP defections died down) while Labour went off the bloody deep end. The SDP’s separate policies notwithstanding they got rolled in with the Liberals as 1981 slowly slid into 1983. If I’m not mistaken (it’s been about six years since I did a paper on this), the SDP’s core voters were generally a mix of middle-class Labourite types who didn’t have the stomach for what Labour was peddling in the early 80s. UKIP’s voters are almost the polar opposite of that…after all, Essex Man was not voting Alliance, was he? IIRC, those voters were breaking for Thatcher.

    The other key, though, is that Thatcher was able to get a ‘home run’ in the Falklands War…which led to a highly toxic combination for Labour (their “softer” voters going to the SDP while Thatcher was riding high and hoovering up everything else since she had a nice chance to wave the flag and get any of those Essex Man types back who had defected).

    Absent the Falklands War, Thatcher probably would’ve been stuck in the mid-30s while the Alliance would’ve remained credible. Somehow, the Alliance took the bigger hit (Labour got a lump as well) and just never recovered.

  7. Gray,

    Intersesting stuff re SDP.

    I always felt, but we will never know of course, that of course the Tories were the main beneficiaries of the Falklands Conflict but after that Labour.
    I reckon without it the Alliance would have polled more votes than Labour and whilst still behind them on seats gained (held) many more.
    This would have changed the dynamics of the 83-87 period significantly and the re-alignment of the left may have ended up coalescing around the Alliance rather than ending up with new Labour – who knows more solidarity Lab MPs may have jumped to the SDP?
    Also as an aside tthe SDP would have been better placed within the Alliance after 1983 streghtening that tradition within the centre political force.

    Lessons re the UKIP not sure, too early to say I think.

  8. @Gray

    Thanks for that.

    I am fully aware of the political circumstances of the time (me being old enough to remember it, and it was the time my political awareness really developed).

    You actually support my initial point I think. Cameron and Miliband are really flagging, and unless some thing really surprising happens, I can see no ‘Falkland’s Factor’ for Dave appearing.

    As I type I am listening to the Week in Westminster, and it quoted an MP basically saying the electorate seem keen to damage the established parties, regardless of the consequences.

    I understand this entirely, as I support a minor party myself and think our system needs serious reform. While I would not support UKIP nor support their policies, I can see that they are doing great job of kicking the door to the citadel in. It’s certain to make an initial mess, but a better system can only come from knocking the creaky old mansion down first.

  9. Does anyone have any idea who ‘YouGov’ are surveying each week. At a party last night there were three of us who are ‘members’, yet none of us have been questioned about our politics for months, and one of us never!

  10. @catmanjeff

    The system needs PR because there are now so many parties with a significant vote share – and the Cons should split in two and so should Lab

    Also UK is too centralised- local authorities should have much more power ,in fact much more tax raising powers and Westminster should give up the powers it has over health education, social security and lots of other things Local authorities should have those powers

    IMO

  11. “It’s fairly obvious that the press are far more influential than posters on here give them credit for, they are the opinion formers,…..”

    I have to say I agree with @Ken here.

    I was mildly amazed (not really, but that’s the point) to see the BBC still running with the Thornberry tweet story yesterday lunchtime on BBC24. Not a single mention of the carnage to Tory prospects that their leader promised to kick Reckless’ ‘fat arse’ of the benches when he spoke to his backbenchers and the huge weight of the entire Tory election machine failed to win a seat that 5 weeks ago they were confident of taking.

    This somewhat distorted news agenda is entirely driven by the print media, with broadcast journalists largely following the pack. This is the real influence of the papers.

  12. Good Morning All.
    CATMANUEFF:
    Did you hear the Radio 4 interview with Tom MacNally? It brought back many memories of those days of 1980-83.

    There was mention on that programme of possible ‘defectors’ from the Tories being offered inducements not to ‘desert the regiment’ quoting Harold MacMillan.

  13. ALEC

    I agree but it WAS the news item of the bye-election.

    The actual result had been assumed for so long that it was not really news. As it happens, the fact that the majority was smaller than expected and the odds on expectation that the Tories would recapture it at the GE made the election result even less newsworthy.

  14. The latest YouGov seems in the main another good poll for the Tories (relatively and IMO of course).

  15. @CL

    Sorry, I did not hear the Tom MacNally interview. It would be good to listen the wise words of someone who went through the 1980-83 process.

    @TOH

    How is the poll good for the Tories?

    They haven’t moved in a year basically. If that is good, we live in mediocre times!

  16. CATMANJEFF

    Look at the way the Labour vote has fallen from clear lead to parity or worse recently.

    However in terms of both the major parties we do indeed live in mediocre times.

  17. TOH

    I think Alec was perhaps anticipating headlines full of new Tory defections-which would of course have been legitimate & newsworthy stories .

    As far as I can see, the political news is dominated by Miliband’s perceived failures . And since most of the sources appear to be Labour insiders & MPs I really can’t see why it is considered “distorted”.

    I was struck by that remark by Jason Cowley on Sky TV news after his NS piece which started the whole thing off. He said that “we wouldn’t be writing this stuff” if his own MPs weren’t briefing against him.

    Cowley wrote another critical article the other day-in the DM.

    Cowley is Editor of the New Statesman -a newspaper closely connected with the Fabian Society.

  18. The two Davids-Lammy & Davis both sounding wise warnings for their parties this morning.

    Polls=Polldrums v 2 – or is it v 3 ?

  19. CATMANJEFFF……….Correct. We do live in mediocre times, politicians jump at their own shadows and live in fear of the slightest indiscretion. What happened to all those committed, honest, people, with a genuine interest in making things better for everyone ? Conversation has to be sanitised by some spin doctor fresh out of the University of Political Correctness and Party before People, and how about being selected as a candidate because your profile fits the latest paradigm, all female / gay / lgbt / bme / Jedi / Villa supporters ? I prefer a locally connected, community active, individual, with at least 10 yrs of proper work experience, ie. a job outside politics, to call on, and who is prepared to speak from both mind and heart, and bear the consequences.
    Spartacus springs to mind, and look what happened to him, one might say. :-)!

  20. KEN:
    Modern day Aristotle.

    Must fly now.

    Have a good day, everyone;

    I heard a politician this morning that Politics is Show Business for ugly people.

  21. And, by the way, the cloudy weather down here in Andalucia means that I can spout me drivel on UKPR, instead of basking in the sunshine. :-)

  22. There is some interesting historical stuff being referred to as the Polls chug on to some unstable & temporary minority government.

    Sandbrook in DM hearking back to the 1920’s and holding Baldwin up as an example for Cameron to follow.

    PB have a thread about a play -This House-which dealt with the bizarre efforts needed to keek a government afloat in the period 74 to 79.

    In that thread a contributor makes this fascinating observation :-

    “Look at the arithmetic using the latest Sporting Index seat numbers.
    This has Labour on 286 and Conservative on 283. They need 323 (excl SF and Speaker) for a majority. So Labour need 37 extra and Conservatives need 40 extra.
    Where are they going to get them? Sporting Index have LibDem on 29, SNP on 20 and UKIP on 11. Assume Green plus PC plus SDLP get say 8 and are inclined to support Labour. Assume DUP get 9 and are inclined to support Conservative.
    Cameron has first crack. He needs 40 for a coalition or confidence and supply. He might get UKIP and DUP support. That is 20. He will also need LibDem support. UKIP plus DUP plus LibDem for confidence and supply would collapse at the first hurdle.
    Miliband then has a crack at it. He needs 37. He could get it from SNP plus LibDem. He could also just get it theoretically from LibDem plus Green plus PC plus SLDP but it would be too unstable. He needs the SNP. But I believe he could get a temporary supply and confidence for the Queens Speech from a subset of SNP+LibDem+Green+PC+SDLP (57 in total) while a coalition is thrashed out between them all over the summer.

    This analysis depends on the current Sporting Index numbers”

    Can either DC or EM break the deadlock we are currently headed for?

    Next up-My Solution to the Immigration Problem-by David Cameron.

    If it falls as flat as Yvette Cooper’s effort, he will have wasted his time.

  23. @Alec:
    The Tories were huffing and puffing on that win and I think we all knew it. The numbers always favored UKIP winning both by-elections, but nobody says they’re not expecting to win an election in so many words. If anything, I would have been shocked if, in the run-up to the by-election, a bunch of Tory talking heads had said “Yeah, we expect him to be back in by five points or so…it’s a by-election, the voters are in an off mood, and he’s not exactly unpopular there. We’ll get the seat back in May, though.”

  24. CHRISLANE1945…… :-)

  25. @CB11

    “Throwing in these two weekend polls, I make that 11 polls in the last seven or eight days, 4 giving narrow Tory leads, 1 a dead heat and 6 showing Labour leads ranging between 1 and 4%. Interestingly, or not as the case may be, the three most recent polls have one dead heat (YouGov) and two (Populus and Opinium) showing 3% Labour leads. Labour death certificate still to be signed off it would appear!”

    Nice cherries, would you pick some for me? :))

    Seven or eight days back to ascertain a situation of Labour having more poll leads? Three most recent polls from several companies to ascertain a favourable Labour situation?

    Or we could just do the 5-poll average from YouGov and see that Con is leading Lab by 0.2%

    You could have said ‘YG ten poll average’ giving Lab a 0.5% lead. :))

  26. @Statgeek

    OK how about this. All recent polls have shown Labour as the largest party. And that is even allowing for Electoral Calculus’s estimate of seat totals in Scotland and Ukip’s rise in England and Wales.

    Labour only needs to end of polling around 2-3% above the Tories to achieve an overall majority. I’m not saying it will happen. However, the Tory VI is really stuck
    It’s been stuck all year. In addition, and quite remarkably the Tories have struggled to poll above 35% for practically the whole Parliament.

    What this suggests to me is that the Tories can only end up as the largest party if their vote holds at 33% and Labour poll at or around Gordon Brown’s level of 30%.

  27. Thinking back to the 1983 election, SDP only got 6 seats and the Liberals only added 6 more seats to their 1979 tally. That’s pretty poor on a 25% vote share (and no wonder they were keen on PR). I think UKIP will do about the same as that, their lower VI being compensated by somewhat better vote concentration. But in both cases the effect on the larger parties was/is profound, especially as this time votes are not being drained from (almost) one party only.

    The LD’s then depended heavily on the Conservative decline in the 1990’s in order to pick off some seats and improve their seat count relative to their vote share.

    I think Labour still have a minute lead in the polls, but the direct of travel now seems a slow and steady decline. If it carries on like this, they will be definately behind around Christmas, and about 2% come the election. That would not be a huge problem for them, but would be relying heavily on the LD’s for a coalition.

    The Scottish problem looks like at least an even split in seat totals – Labour being deprived of 15-20 seats lets say. Could there be a swingback there? I’d be surprised given the situation and the time available. It’s going to be an interesting election, far more so than the “static landslide” of 2001.

  28. Colin

    Morning Colin, re your:-

    “Can either DC or EM break the deadlock we are currently headed for?”

    I think the answer is yes and unless they are really stupid it will be Tories, I still think “who is best at running the economy” will be the dominant question in peoples minds when they vote in 2015.

    I agree with your earlier post following Alec’s comments.

  29. David Wooding, journalist for the Sun, confirmed last night that they had a YouGov poll for the Sun.

    @DavidWooding: Labour has one point lead, according to YouGov poll in The Sun on Sunday. Lab 34, Con 33, Ukip 15, Lib Dems 8.

    This is obviously a different poll to the Sunday Times one yet it still isn’t showing on the yougov website.

  30. TOH

    I read that the economy will be the focus after DC’s immigration offer.

  31. STATGEEK

    :-)

    The rule there seems to be -the more that MOE in a group of Polls becomes significant, the more it should be ignored”

  32. Cameron’s biggest problem is that he’s coming across as reactive. I can’t say that Miliband comes across much better (even though some of that is, of course, from being Opposition Leader and not PM). I’m trying to think of somewhere Cameron has really been leading…he came off as reactive on Scotland and he’s come off as reacting to UKIP on immigration and Europe (witness my remarks that even if folks think he’d give them a referendum, how many think he’d actually abide by it and how many think he’d try some form of the all-too-common ‘Vote until you get it right’ EU efforts if he loses).

    I don’t know that Cameron /could/ come off as a leader in some respects…he just doesn’t seem to have the sort of force of personality that Thatcher, for example, had. Then again, his main problem is that he’ll show his leadership ability only when he’s in danger of getting destroyed but not before the situation is dire (witness Scotland). To paraphrase Churchill, David Cameron will rise to the occasion once he has exhausted all other options.

    Possibly the grandest irony of all this is that Cameron’s situation is almost the perfect opposite of Thatcher in the early 80s.

  33. Floating Voter

    “It is quite remarkable, despite the general positive economic news, how little change there is in this score over the last 10 months”

    It’s not remarkable at all because on its *own* GDP doesn’t measure anything that will effect voting. If you add a million extra people then GDP goes up. If the Chinese decide to slowly dump their dollar mountain by buying up real assets in USUK then GDP goes up etc.

    In particular if you have a political class who’ve been turning a middle class economy into a plantation economy for sixteen years leading to a dramatic shift in income distribution then for an increase in GDP to positively effect voting it would need to take into account most people’s declining share of that GDP i.e. if GDP goes up by 5% but an individual’s personal share of that has gone down by 10% then why would you expect them to be pleased about it?

    GDP fetishization is one of the root causes of the problem.

  34. Why all the debate about which party the Observer supported in May 2010?

    Why rely upon the doubtful record provided by Wikipedia?

    The May 2nd Observer Leader is still readily accessible in the Guardian archives.

    Anyone can read the full piece, but the final paragraph is unequivocal:

    “There is only one party on the ballot paper that, by its record in the old parliament, its manifesto for the new odne and its leader’s performance in the campaign, can claim to represent an agenda for radical, positive change in politics. That party is the Liberal Democrats. There is only one way clearly to endorse that message and this is to voteLiberal Democrat.”

    Ok?

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