Yesterday was the Newark by-election, a relatively comfortable hold for the Conservatives over UKIP in second place. When the by-election was first announced there was an obvious risk for the Tories – it was taking place at a time when UKIP would be basking in the glory of a successful European election, there was always that chance that they could have pulled off a surprise victory. In the event it never happened.
I expect to see lots of comment today about what Newark tells us about the state of public opinion. I’ll make my usual post by-election comment that it doesn’t tell us much at all. By-elections are extremely strange beasts that bear very little resemblence to politics as usual. They take place in but one constituency (which may be extremely unrepresentative of the country as a whole), they have no direct bearing upon who runs the country, only on who the local MP is (voters in Newark knew that whoever won, the next morning there would still be a coalition government under David Cameron) and they experience an intensity of campaigning unlike any other contest. Essentally, if voters at a by-election perform pretty much in line with the national polls it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, if they behave in a different way then it’s likely because of the extremely unusual nature of by-election contests.
It doesn’t mean that by-elections don’t have an important effect on politics – they do. If UKIP had won or been a closer second it would have continued the “UKIP earthquake” narrative. As it is I think it might start playing into a “UKIP faltering” sort of narrative. That wouldn’t really be fair – it was, after all, a pretty safe Conservative seat and UKIP increased their vote by 22% – but politics is not always fair.
I’ve also seem some comment along the lines of why Labour weren’t in contention, and whether it was a bad night for them. Realistically by-elections do tend to end up becoming a two-horse race – people rapidly identify who the challenger party is and it normally becomes a fight between them and the incumbent; Labour were just a victim of that. Of course, in a different situation Labour could have been the challenger party – Labour would have needed a swing of 16% or so to win Newark, the sort of swing that the Conservatives got in Norwich North and Crewe & Nantwich. The fact is though that we knew anyway that Labour weren’t in that sort of position – they aren’t an opposition that’s tearing away into the sunset, they are an opposition holding onto a relatively modest poll lead. In the present political context, we shouldn’t expect them to be competitive in a seat like Newark.
Finally a brief word about the polling. Survation released a second by-election poll yesterday evening (conducted before the by-election, but released after polls closed), which was almost identical to Lord Ashcoft’s a few days earlier. Both polls had the Conservatives on 42%, both had UKIP on 27% and both were relatively close to the actual result of CON 45%, UKIP 26%. Worth noting in particular is that both polls got UKIP right this time, when previous by-election polling has tended to underestimate their support.
Lord Ashcroft has released two polls this afternoon, his regular weekly GB poll and a poll for the Newark by-election later this week. In Newark he has topline figures of CON 42%(-12), LAB 20%(-2), LDEM 6%(-14), UKIP 27%(+23) – changes are since the general election. Compared to the Survation Newark poll last week UKIP support is almost identical, but the Tories are six points higher, giving them are far more comfortable 15 point lead.
Figures are less positive for the Tories in Ashcroft’s normal weekly GB poll which has topline figures of CON 25%, LAB 34%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 19%: a nine point Labour lead and a chunky 19 points for UKIP, once again the highest they’ve recorded in a telephone poll. I’m still getting used to the weekly Ashcroft polls, but on the surface they do seem to be quite volatile – a Tory lead here, a nine-pointer here. There is no obvious reason for that looking at the methods (sample size after taking away don’t knows is about 500, so it will be naturally more volatile than bigger online samples, but should be similar in volatility to ICM). Perhaps it’s just a perception created by having started polling around the European elections when public opinion genuinely is quite volatile.
Meanwhile this morning’s Populus poll had figures of CON 32%, LAB 37%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 13%. While that doesn’t look notable at first sight, Populus tend to show some of the lowest Labour leads, so five points is actually the largest they’ve shown since February.
Tomorrow’s Sun has a Survation poll of Newark, ahead of the by-election next week. Topline figures with changes since the general election are CON 36%(-18), LAB 27%(+5), LD 5%(-15), UKIP 28%(+24). This is the first poll we’ve had of Newark, and unless Lord Ashcroft also has one in the works it’s probably the only one.
A swing of 21 points from the Conservatives to UKIP would be a storming great swing, but the fact remains that Patrick Mercer had a pretty hefty majority at the last election, so even a swing of that size leaves the Conservatives 8 points ahead. Still a week to go though…
The Sun politics team have tweeted tonight’s YouGov poll – the topline figures show the same five point Labour lead as yesterday: CON 32%, LAB 37%, LD 9%, UKIP 14%.
There’s more interesting electoral news though, Patrick Mercer has resigned in Newark triggered a by-election in what would normally be a safe Tory seat. The timing could hardly be worse for the Conservatives – it is too late for the by-election to be held on the same day as the European elections, so the by-election will presumably come fairly soon afterwards, at a time when UKIP will almost certainly be enjoying a big publicity boost from having done well in the European elections…
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.