Today’s Populus and YouGov polls both have six point leads for Labour. Populus’s topline figures in their twice weekly poll are CON 32%, LAB 38%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 14% (tabs are here). The daily YouGov poll for the Sun this morning has topline figures of CON 33%, LAB 39%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 12% (tabs are here.)

As you’ll probably know, the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election was also last night, and was a comfortable Labour hold. This means today will be full of people saying what it *means* and trying to draw some wider conclusions based upon it. I’ll only repeat my normal warning about not reading too much into by-elections. They are extremely unusual beasts – an election in just one single seat that won’t be representative of the whole country, intensely fought but often with low turnout, and where who wins does not make any difference to who the government is the next day. Essentially, if a by-election performs in line with the national polls it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, if it performs in some way different to the polls it’s probably because of the unusual circumstances implicit in a by-election.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have a big impact on politics of course. If UKIP had done much better it would have given them a big publicity boost and probably set off a narrative about them threatening Labour seats… but they didn’t.


Lord Ashcroft has just released a poll of voting intentions in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by election. Details are here, but essentially it suggests an extremely comfortable Labour hold with UKIP and the Conservatives battling for a distant second place. Voting intentions with changes from the last election are CON 14%(-12), LAB 61%(+17), LDEM 5%(-17), UKIP 15%(+12). A week to go of course, but unless the poll is horribly wrong (and no reason to think it is), this looks done and dusted.


I wrote most of what I had to say about Eastleigh on Tuesday night: by elections are very unusual events and you can’t tell anything about public opinion from them that you couldn’t get a much better handle upon from national polling. It won’t stop acres of press being written about it today! Suffice to say, the result in Eastleigh does not show the Lib Dems retaining their support in their own seats (their drop in support was completely in line with national polling), it does not necessarily show anything about patterns and extent of tactical voting (since this is a by-election and they are extremely unusual in terms of campaign intensity and having no direct impact on who actually governs), it does not necessarily show Labour face problems in the south (it’s perfectly normal for a party with no hope of winning to see its support squeezed in a by-election), it does to some extent confirm growing UKIP support… but we knew about that from national polling anyway.

Equally, as I said yesterday, this doesn’t mean the result is unimportant or irrelevant, quite the opposite. A victory for the Lib Dems is vital good news for Clegg and the Lib Dems will hope it helps them move on from the Rennard crisis. There was speculation prior to the by-election that losing it on top of the Rennard scandal would put Clegg’s leadership in peril… now we shall never know. For the Conservatives it is much worse news in terms of the morale of the Parliamentary party. Fractious already, we now have to see if they hold it together or go into complete panic. For UKIP it is obviously terrific news, building into a narrative of growing support – expect to see another round of good publicity possibly translating into increased support in the polls.

And on the subject of the polls, the final polls by Lord Ashcroft and Populus were pretty accurate in terms of Con, Lab and Lib Dem support… but significantly underestimated UKIP support. As ever it is possible that people simply changed their minds between fieldwork and poling day, especially since momentum did appear to be with UKIP, but as I said when the Populus poll was published I am less than convinced about the utility of reallocating dont knows in by-election polls. There is good evidence that people still saying don’t know on the eve of a general election are disproportionately likely to end up backing the party they did last time, but I’m not certain we can assume that the same applies in by-elections. Certainly in this case the Populus and Ashcroft polls were both more accurate before don’t knows were reallocated.


Eastleigh By-Election

Tomorrow is, as anyone who follows politics can hardly avoid being aware, the Eastleigh by-election. In many ways it is the most interesting and important by-election of the Parliament so far. We’ve had one proper Conservative-Labour marginal in the form of Corby, but given Labour’s strong lead in the national polls a Labour gain was almost a foregone conclusion. The most interesting sort of by-election in this Parliament was always going to be one in a Lib Dem-Conservative marginal.

There have been five polls of Eastleigh during the very short by-election campaign, two commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, two by Survation for the Mail on Sunday and one by Populus for the Times:

CON LAB LDEM UKIP
Ashcroft 05/02/13 34 19 31 13
Survation/Mail on Sunday 08/02/13 33 13 36 16
Survation/Mail on Sunday 22/02/13 33 13 29 21
Populus/Times 22/02/13 28 11 33 21
Ashcroft 24/02/13 28 12 33 21

All the polls have shown the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives quite closely matched, three with leads for the Lib Dems, two with leads for the Conservatives. The only changes between the Ashcroft poll at the start of the campaign and the ones at the end of it is a further drop in the Labour vote and an increase in UKIP’s vote. From the polling you’d expect quite a close race, with the Lib Dems perhaps more likely to win (which, given the Liberal Democrats continuing very strong performance in local elections in Eastleigh since 2010, is what I’d have expected to see). A remaining unknown is what effect, if any, the Lord Rennard scandal has. The most recent poll by Lord Ashcroft was conducted after the Rennard story broke and shows no obvious impact at all, but clearly the story can continued to roll on since then and become increasingly about how Nick Clegg has handled the issue.

Come Friday we’ll know the result, and people will be clambering to declare what it “means”. Well, I’ll start with the same message I give after every by-election – the result won’t tell us anything about the national picture that we can’t get a much better handle on from national polling. By-elections are a creature that is more different from national elections than it is similar: they happen in only one constituency, in this case one where the Lib Dems are overwhelmingly dominant at a local level and have an unrivalled network of local deliveries and supporters; there is an intensity of campaigning and campaigning spending that dwarfs that in any general election and, most importantly, it makes no difference at all to the government of the country. It is just one MP, in one constituency, so however people vote the government won’t change, only their local MP will. By-elections are either different from national polling, in which case it is a result of the unusual circumstances of by-elections themselves and the particular circumstances of the seat, or they are very much in line with national polling, in which case they don’t tell us anything new.

Anyway, let’s assume the results are as the polls suggest – that the Liberal Democrats narrowly hold the seat over the Conservatives, UKIP do extremely well and Labour get squeezed down to fourth place. Journalists will write comment pieces concluding that the Lib Dems will do much better than the polls suggest as they’ll still be able to get tactical support from Labour, that UKIP pose a serious threat to the Conservatives and that UKIP voters DON’T seem willing to vote tactically for the Tories and, for the Conservative leaning amongst them, that the poor Labour performance shows that Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” mantra is just empty words.

All of these conclusions are nonsense.

Or at least, while some of them may very well be true, none of them will be things we can tell from Eastleigh. Firstly, if it votes in line with the polls Eastleigh doesn’t really show the Lib Dems withstanding the national swing in seats they hold. In the final Ashcroft poll they were down 14 points on their general election score, which is pretty much what the polls show is happening to their national support. Secondly, I wouldn’t conclude anything about tactical voting either Lab to LD or UKIP to Con – by-elections are very special cases, voters get an intense amount of literature and contact from the parties imploring them to vote tactically and send a message, and their vote won’t change who governs so in many ways people are free to vote without consequence. The argument about Labour’s one nation message is just point scoring – it is perfectly normal for a third party to be squeezed in a tight by-election and despite the exuberance of some Labour supporters at the start of the campaign it was bleeding bloody obvious from the beginning that Labour had no hope whatsoever in this seat.

While the by-election won’t actually tell us much, that definitely DOESN’T mean that its not important. On the contrary, I think whatever the result it will be extremely important in terms of party morale and the political narrative.

David Cameron’s backbenches are already extremely restless and for the Conservatives to win a majority at the next election the party need to win a substantial number of Liberal Democrat seats. If the Tories win Eastleigh David Cameron can reassure his MPs that they can take Lib Dems seats, if they fail to do so it risks increasing the unrest on the Tory backbenches and putting further pressure on Cameron and Osborne (especially if UKIP run them close – if UKIP beat the Conservatives then Tory backbenchers risk having a nervous breakdown).

The Lib Dems meanwhile definitely need a win to try and move the narrative on from the Rennard scandal. The blow of losing a seat on top of the ongoing crisis around the party’s response to Rennard could be extremely difficult.

The final possibility is a UKIP win. It is extremely unlikely – all three of the final polls had them in third place and 12 points behind the leading party. The general consensus is that they had the momentum in the election, and the Rennard story may have pushed more people away from the Liberal Democrats in the final days… but equally, a lot of people would already have voted by post anyway. It would suggest a problem with the by-election polls if UKIP did win. Nevertheless, were it to happen it would have a serious effect on politics, you’d expect a big boost in UKIP national support and the effect on Conservative party morale would probably be drastic.

So when the result comes in on Friday morning don’t look at what it tells us about public opinion – by-elections are by definition unusual – look at how it effects the political narrative.


Lord Ashcroft has released a second poll of Eastleigh, conducted over the weekend.

Topline figures are CON 28%, LAB 12%, LDEM 33%, UKIP 21%. Like the Times poll conducted by Populus last week it shows the Liberal Democrats still ahead, UKIP in third place and the Labour vote squeezed right down. The poll was conducted after the Lord Rennard story broke, so it does not appear to have had any obvious effect on Lib Dem support in the by-election, although the story obviously has continued to rumble on since then.

Two days to go until the Eastleigh by-election so I expect this will be the final poll…

Full tables are here.