YouGov’s latest voting intention figures are CON 42%, LAB 25%, LDEM 11%, UKIP 12%, GRN 4%. It was conducted over last weekend, so shortly after the Liberal Democrats’ success in Richmond Park. The 11% for the Lib Dems equals their highest from YouGov since the election, but it’s not a huge bounce and not a record breaker. More notable is the Labour score – 25% is the lowest that Labour have recorded since back in 2009 (as others have commented, it appears to be the lowest they have had in opposition since all the way back in 1983, though that should be seen in the context that there were fewer small parties in the 1980s and the big parties normally had higher scores than are typical these days)

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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.


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YouGov have a new Scottish poll in yesterday and today’s Times. Topline voting intention figures for Holyrood are CON 25%, LAB 15%, LDEM 6%, SNP 48% for the constituency vote; CON 24%, LAB 14%, LDEM 6%, SNP 39%, GRN 11% for the regional vote. The SNP obviously remain dominant, but the Conservatives are now in a very clear second place. Since the referendum Scottish voting behaviour appears to have been increasingly based on independence vs unionism – the SNP have recieved the overwhelming support of those who voted Yes back in 2014 (85% of them would give their constituency vote to the SNP in an election tomorrow). The Conservatives – the most unabashedly unionist of the Scottish parties – increasingly seem to get the largest share of those who voted NO. They are probably also helped by Ruth Davidson’s continuing popularity and that fact that they are the largest opposition party in Holyrood, so are in some sense the natural home for those opposed to the SNP government.

What it is probably isn’t is a continuation of Theresa May’s honeymoon. While May’s ratings are still very high in GB polling they’ve started to turn in this Scottish poll. 40% now think May is doing badly as PM (up from 22%), only 35% well (unchanged).

On the other leaders, Nicola Sturgeon’s ratings are down from the Summer, but still positive. 50% think she is doing well, 39% badly, a net rating of plus 11 compared to plus 20 in August. Ruth Davidson’s ratings continue to far outstrip her party – 49% think she is doing well, 24% badly. Looking at the crossbreaks it’s clear that there are some SNP supporters and a majority of Labour supporters who can think that Davidson is doing a good job without being tempted to actually vote for her party.

Moving onto Scottish independence there is still no sign of any post-EU Ref movement in favour of independence. Asked how they’d vote in a referendum tomorrow 44% would vote YES to Scottish independence, 56% would vote NO. While the change since the summer is not in itself significant, for the record it’s the first time since the IndyRef that YouGov have shown a larger lead for NO than at the referendum itself. I think we can now be confident that the EU referendum result in itself has not lead to any increase in support for Scottish Independence. When the details of Brexit start to become clear that may change of course, but only time can tell us that – the mere threat of Brexit has not been enough to make Scotland want out.

On the subject of Brexit, Scots are evenly split over whether they would support Scotland seeking to remain within the European Union if Britain as a whole leaves – 42% would support attempting to do so, 41% of people would be opposed. The majority think any such attempt would be unlikely to succeed anyway (or at least, would be unlikely to work unless Scottish independence has been achieved). 62% think it would probably not be possible, only 22% think it would be.

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