Oldham by-election

One day I’m going to write a generic post by-election post labelled (insert constituency name here) that I can repost after every by-election. Until that day, here’s my traditional answer to what last night’s by-election tells us about the national political picture: not much.

By-election are extremely strange beasts. They take place in a single constituency that may be completely untypical of the country as a whole, they normally have no impact at all upon who will be running the country the next day, they have far greater campaigning intensity than any other election. After every by-election I post the same conclusion – if they show much the same as the national polls suggest they tell us nothing new, if they show something different it’s probably to do with the unique and different circumstances of by-election. In this case the opposition party has held onto a safe seat. This is exactly what we should expect unless they are tanking in the national polls, and Labour aren’t: despite Corbyn’s poor ratings and the constant news stories of Labour infighting their level of support is still pootling along at around their general election share. There is no reason to expect UKIP surges either – in the last Parliament UKIP had soared from 3% to the mid-teens, so almost every by-election saw them surging, but now we are comparing their support to what they got in the 2015 general election, after their breakthrough. This is a good local result for Labour, but doesn’t tell us much new.

That’s not to say it’s not important. By-elections have a significant effect on the political narrative and in that sense this is a very good result for Labour (or, depending on your point of view, for Jeremy Corbyn). If this by-election had gone differently it would have been part of a different narrative, it would have been all about Labour in crisis, their traditional working class support fracturing to UKIP. It would still have been over interpreting a by-election, but it would almost certainly have happened and it’s been avoided. In that sense, it’s an important victory.

A final note about the polling – there wasn’t any (I don’t know whether to be amused or depressed by the handful of comments I’ve seen about it being a another polling failure. Nothing to do with us mate!). By election polling used to be very rare, then in the last Parliament we were suddenly spoilt, with Survation and Ashcroft polls for most By-elections. This time we are back to having no real evidence to go on, to relying on what commentators have been told by the campaigns, what it “feels like” on the doorstep and in vox pops and all that sort of nonsense. I suspect the collective commentariat have got carried away with what would have made an interesting narrative to report, rather than dull old “safe seat held”. It’s a reminder that without any proper polling By-elections can be pretty hard things to call.


Just a quick line to point out that the Constituency guide part of the site has now been updated to reflect the general election results and the new MPs elected, including the target and defence lists for the parties (SNP and UKIP to follow). Before anyone points it out there’s still lots to do – including new swingometers and updating MPs profiles to reflect the reshuffles.


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Last week Opinium’s Observer poll was conducted prior to the Paxman interview, so I wasn’t sure whether the poll from them tonight would be “post-debate” or not. In the event it is – conducted on Friday and late on Thursday night.

As with Survation’s poll yesterday there is no sign of any significant post-debate shift in voting intention, with topline figures of CON 33%(-1), LAB 33%(nc), LDEM 7%(-1), UKIP 14%(+1), GRN 7%(nc). Full tabs are here.

Asked who won they think won the debate 20% of people who claimed they saw at least some of it said Nicola Sturgeon won, followed by Cameron on 17% and Miliband on 15%. Leader ratings show some movement, but not quite as dramatic as those in Survation’s poll (that may be a result of question wording – Opinium ask a general question about how the leaders are doing, Survation ask specifically about how they’ve been doing in the last month). David Cameron’s rating here is unchanged on plus 1, Miliband is up six points on minus 15, Nick Clegg is up ten points on minus 30, Nigel Farage is up eleven on minus 13.


ComRes have a new poll of Rochester and Strood out tonight that shows UKIP with a solid lead. As far as I can recall it’s the first ComRes by-election poll this Parliament. Like all constituency polls it was done by telephone, and with a healthy sample size by constituency polling standards of 1500.

Topline figures are CON 30%, LAB 21%, LDEM 3%, UKIP 43%, GREEN 3%. The only previous Rochester & Strood poll was by Survation at the start of the month – that showed a nine point lead for UKIP. Obviously one has to be careful about direct comparisons between polls from different pollsters using different methodologies, so it would be wrong to draw too many conclusions about how opinion might have moved between the two polls (differences could be down to methods), but it certainly doesn’t show any obvious sign of the Conservatives eating into UKIP’s early lead.


As I write there is still one council to declare, but the maths mean that the overall result is going to be Yes 45%, No 55%. So, how did the polls do?

The final pre-election polls had all tightly converged around the same figures – Yes 48%, No 52%, with every company was within one point of this. In fact the level of No support was three points higher than this. For a single poll a three point error would be within the margin of error, but every poll being off in the same direction suggests some systemic error.

A possibility is the shy noes/enthusiastic yesses we discussed before the referendum, but on the face of it a simpler explanation is just late swing. The YouGov recontact survey on the day, going back to the same people they interviewed in their final survey found enough movement between final survey to actually voting to take the figures to YES 46%, NO 54%, one point from the actual result and enough to explain the apparent divergence. From that it looks as though no was going to win anyway, but there was a further movement from yes to no when people actually got to the polling station.