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.
Lord Ashcroft has released a new poll of Rochester and Strood. Topline figures are CON 32%, LAB 17%, LDEM 2%, UKIP 44%, Others 5%. This is a narrower UKIP lead than the ComRes and Survation polls at the end of October, but still enough for a comfortable UKIP win (especially since the poll was conducted at about the time postal votes were going out, so opportunities for people to change their mind are now fading).
Ashcroft also asked about how people would vote in Rochester and Strood come the general election, and found a substantial contrast. The figures aren’t exactly comparable since Ashcroft didn’t do likelihood to vote at the general election or reallocate don’t knows, but it suggests around a one or two point Conservative lead in general election voting intention amongst those giving a voting intention – hence raising the possibility of Mark Reckless winning his by-election, but losing his seat next May. Full tabs are here.
The Kent Messenger are now reporting the voting intention figures from the Survation/Unite Rochester & Strood poll. Topline figures with changes from the previous Survation Rochester poll right after Mark Reckless’s defection are CON 33%(+2), LAB 16%(-9), LDEM 1%(-1), UKIP 48%(+8), GRN 2%.
As with the ComRes poll a week ago it shows UKIP with a solid lead. While there will always be some underlying churn, the obvious implication of the changes since the start of October is that the Labour vote has been significantly squeezed, and is breaking heavily in UKIP’s favour.
Yesterday we had two by-elections. Claction was an emphatic, walkover win for Douglas Carswell and UKIP, which was largely what everyone expected – he was particularly well regarded as an MP and the demographics of the seat could not have been better for UKIP. Heywood and Middleton was more of a surprise, many expected the seat to be a relatively easy Labour hold when in fact UKIP came within 2 points.
After every by-election you essentially see the same comments reading far too much into them, and I make the same blog post saying that by-elections are extremely odd events and you can’t read too much into them: they have low turnout, are in a single seat that will not be representative of the wider country, are far more intensely fought than normal election and, crucially, do not have any impact on who the government will be the next day. If by-elections behave like the national polls, they tell us nothing new. If they behave differently, it’s probably because by-elections themselves are very different.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t extremely important, as they are. They help shape the political narrative and public opinion. While Carswell’s victory was broadly expected and costed in within the Westminster village, its getting huge coverage on the media now and I expect it will result in a boost for UKIP in the national polls. If you follow UKIP’s support in the opinion polls over the last few years you’ll see it’s a pattern of spikes in support from positive publicity, mostly as a result of electoral success (local elections, strong by-election showings, European elections), each time settling back at a slightly higher level. For a challenger party the big challenges are getting coverage, being taken seriously and being seen as a viable choice rather than a wasted vote. This will help them a lot – I’d expect a spike it in the polls, and it’ll be interesting to see which other parties they draw support from. On that issue, it will also be interesting to see how Labour react to the closeness of the result in Heywood, currently support for UKIP has disproportionately come from former Conservative voters and the Labour party seem to have regarded UKIP as their enemy’s enemy, but they also have the clear potential to draw support from more Labour demographics.
As this is a polling blog I should save my last comment for the polls. The two polls in Clacton, conducted by Ashcroft and Survation, were both conducted more than a month before polling day, so they cannot in all fairness be compared to the final result (opinion in Clacton could easily have changed in the interim period), for the record though they were both pretty close to the actual result, certainly they got the broad picture of a UKIP landslide correct. The two polls in Heywood and Middleton (conducted again by Ashcroft and Survation) are more worrying. They were conducted about a week and a half before the election – so there was time for some change, but not that much (and many would have voted by post before polling day). Both showed a nineteen point lead for Labour when in reality they ending up squeaking home by two points. In both cases the polls both overestimated Labour support, and underestimated UKIP support.
Populus and Lord Ashcroft have both published new polls today. Lord Ashcroft’s poll echoes YouGov’s post conference polls in showing a small Tory lead – CON 32%, LAB 30%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 17%, GRN 7% (tabs here). In contrast today’s Populus poll still shows a robust Labour lead, as did their Friday poll – CON 31%, LAB 37%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 15% (tabs here).
Lord Ashcroft also conducted A poll on the forthcoming Heywood and Middleton by-election. Topline figures there are CON 16%(-11), LAB 47%(+7), LDEM 5%(-18), UKIP 28%(+25). While Labour and UKIP are both a little lower than in the previous Survation poll the nineteen point lead is exactly the same, and it looks like we can expect a comfortable Labour hold.