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.
Two polls in the Sunday papers. The weekly YouGov/Sunday Times poll has topline figures of CON 36%, LAB 34%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 13%. That means both the YouGov polls since Cameron’s conference speech have shown a small Tory lead, though it’s worth noting that that the Populus poll on Friday did not show any movement to the Conservatives so the trend is not all one way. The more important caveat is that the polls were taken in the context of very good publicity for the Conservatives from their conference – we don’t know if it will last once the agenda moves on to, say, the expected UKIP by-election win on Thursday.
On that subject the Sunday papers also have the first poll of the Rochester and Strood by-election, conducted by Survation for the Mail on Sunday. Topline figures there are CON 31%(-18), LAB 25%(-3), LDEM 2%(-14), UKIP 40%(n/a), Other 1%(-5). UKIP start out with a lead, but it’s clearly not the complete walk in the park that polling for the Clacton by-election has shown. As commentators have suggested, this one looks like it will be a more competitive fight.
The Sun has two interesting polls tonight. Firstly the daily YouGov poll tonight has topline figures of CON 35%, LAB 34%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 14%. The fieldwork was conducted between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday afternoon, so was entirely after David Cameron speech, but largely before this morning’s newspaper coverage of it. Other companies like Ashcroft, ICM and MORI have popped out the occasional small Tory lead over the last year, but this is the first one that YouGov have shown since before the Omnishambles budget in 2012. Usual caveats apply, it is just one poll and conducted when David Cameron was getting some very good publicity, time will tell if it sticks.
Secondly the Sun have a Survation by-election poll in Heywood and Middleton. Voting intentions with changes from the 2010 result are CON 13%(-14), LAB 50%(+10), LDEM 4%(-19), UKIP 31%(+28) – it suggests a huge surge for UKIP into second place, but with a nineteen percent lead for Labour they should still hold the seat comfortably.
As part of his speech today Nigel Farage showed off polling for various target seats. A couple of the polls were just the figures from previous Ashcroft polls that showed UKIP doing well, but three are Survation polls for UKIP that we haven’t seen before. They show UKIP well ahead in Boston & Skegness – on 46% to the Conservatives 26%, one point behind in Thanet North and on 37% to Labour’s 48% in Rotherham. Of course, polling conducted for political parties should be treated with a medium sized ocean of salt until you’ve see the tables with your own eyes (I’ll put up a link once Survation put the tabs up (UPDATE: here)), but the previous Survation polls for UKIP donor Alan Bown have used their standard methodology.
The polls got very brief attention as they were rapidly followed by Mark Reckless defecting to UKIP and precipitating a by-election in Rochester and Strood. Rochester and Strood probably won’t be the complete walk in the park for UKIP that polls have suggested in Clacton (Clacton’s demographics are absolutely perfect for UKIP and Carswell particularly well thought of). UKIP came top in Medway in the European elections, but that was hardly unusual and as an all-out unitary authority we have no recent local elections in Medway to judge from. The seat does not appear in Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin’s list of the most UKIP friendly Con seats. The unusual circumstances of a by-election though mean anything is possible – and from a national polling point of view, it keeps the UKIP bandwagon rolling, keeps them in the public eye, keeps the publicity coming, keeps them looking like a viable choice.