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.


The Evening Standard have published a new BMG poll of the Richmond Park by-election, suggesting a significantly less exciting race than some people thought (and than the Lib Dems hoped). Topline voting intention figures are:

GOLDSMITH (Ind) 56% (down 2 from the Con share in 2015)
OLNEY (Lib Dem) 29% (up 10 from the LD share in 2015)
LABOUR 10% (-2)
OTHER 5% (-5)

While there is a month to go, this suggests that Goldsmith should hold the seat relatively easily. The idea that, with both main candidates opposing Heathrow expansion, it could become an by-election about Brexit in a pro-EU seat doesn’t really seem to working out at present. 25% of voters say that Brexit will be the most important issue in deciding their vote, but they are mostly voting Lib Dem and Labour already. Goldsmith’s voters say their most important considerations are Goldsmith’s own record and views, followed by Heathrow opposition.

BMG also asked people how they would have voted if the Conservatives had put up an official Conservative candidate against Goldsmith. Topline figures would have been GOLDSMITH 34%, LIB DEM 25%, CONSERVATIVE 20% – so the race would have been far more competitive, but with the Tories trailing in third place. It was an unusual decision not to stand, but the polling suggests it was the right one for the Tories (or at least, neither option would have produced a Tory MP, but the Conservatives presumably prefer Goldsmith winning to a Lib Dem). Full details are here.


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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.