This morning the Communication Workers’ Union released a Survation constituency poll of Hartlepool, the first one we’ve seen (earlier in the campaign figures were released from a Focaldata MRP of the North, but you can’t really use MRP for a by-election – it doesn’t pick up the unique circumstances). Topline figures with changes from the last election were are CON 49%(+20), LAB 42%(+4), NIP 2%(+2), GRN 1%(+1), LD 1%(-3), ReformUK 1%(-25).

I should start by saying that constituency polling is difficult. It is mostly done by telephone and often has small sample sizes (in this case, the sample was 500, but the actual voting figures are based only 302 who gave a response). Its track record has sometimes been patchy. Nevertheless, it’s the best evidence of where the race stands that we are going to get. What can we tell?

The Conservatives are ahead (though the two main parties are within the margin of error for a sample of 302). Compared to the general election the poll suggests an 8 point lead from Lab to Con, significantly better than how the Conservatives are doing in national polls.

It would be extremely unusual for a governing party to gain a seat in a by-election. There have been only two instances in the last fifty years (Copeland in 2017 and Mitcham & Morden in 1982). Few governments poll ahead of their last election performance mid-term anyway, and if anything they do worse than that in by-elections.

The reason the Tories are doing better in Hartlepool than nationwide appears fairly straightforward, and doesn’t offer any obviously transferrable lessons. In Britain as a whole the Brexit party got 2% at the 2019 election. In Hartlepool they got a very healthy 26%. That vote has almost completely vanished, presumably to the benefit of the Conservatives.

As ever, by-elections are extremely unusual beasts that do not necessarily tell much about national politics. Maybe if the actual by-election turns out like this it will be a steer on how other seats with a high level of Brexit party support in 2019 may go… but then, come the actual by-election we’ll have a glut of other data from the local, Scottish, Welsh, Mayoral and London elections due to be held on the same day, so hopefully we won’t be trying to desperately read too much into one single by-election.

Also worth noting that – given this poll was commissioned by the CWU – it also asked about some of the issues that they are concerned about like broadband, Royal Mail privatisation, nurses pay. The answers in Hartlepool were as you’d expect from national polling (people like free stuff & nurses. They don’t like privatisations). It doesn’t tell us anything particularly useful about why Labour aren’t doing better. Don’t assume because the CWU chose to ask about those issues that they are necessarily ones that are driving support in Hartlepool. Maybe people in Hartlepool care more about Corona, or crime, or Brexit, or economic regeneration, or taxes…

Finally, before this poll there was also significant social media buzz about the Northern Independence party having an impact, not least because their candidate is Thelma Walker, a former Labour MP who resigned over the party’s refusal to re-admit Jeremy Corbyn. Realistically a party that hasn’t even been registered yet may be very pleased indeed if they manage to get third place, but nevertheless, the poll suggests they are not significant players here.

UPDATE: The tables for the Survation poll have appeared, and worth adding a further caveat. At the last election the Brexit party got 26% of the vote. Among people who took part in the poll, only 3% recalled voting for the Brexit party. This does not *necessarily* mean its a duff sample – there will undoubtedly be issues of false recall, of people re-aligning their past vote to match with present circumstances (especially since the Brexit party has rebranded itself into ReformUK and no longer exists in its old form), but it should be an extra reason for caution.

Scotland

There were two Scottish Parliament voting intention over the weekend, one from Panelbase, one from Survation. Topline figures are that both show the SNP continuing to cruise towards victory and on the edge of winning a majority. Both show a tight race for second place between the Conservatives and Labour.

However, these were also the first two to measure support for Alex Salmond’s new list only party, Alba. The Panelbase poll showed them at 6%, the Survation poll showed them at 3%. To understand the significance of these we need to explore the nuances of the Scottish Parliament electoral system.

The Scottish Parliament elects members using an additional member system. 73 MSPs are elected in constituencies using first past the post, a further 56 are elected on a proportional regional list system. The regional list seats effectively operate as a “top-up” to the constituency seats already won, so that overall the seats won should be proportional to the list vote. For example, if party A won 6 constituency seats, but got 10% of the list vote, they’d be awarded another 7 list seats so they had 10% of the total seats. It’s more complicated than that because it’s done by region, meaning there is an effective threshold to get any seats at all, but we’ll come to that.

Crucially people cast two votes – you don’t have to cast your constituency vote in the same way as your list vote, you can vote for different parties.

The SNP did extremely well at winning constituencies at the last election (59 out of 73). This meant that that despite winning 42% of the list vote, they didn’t receive many list seats, because they had already won almost their fair share through constituency seats. Compare this to the Scottish Greens – they don’t win any constituency seats (they barely stand), so there is nothing to set against their list vote and their list vote of 7% translates into 6 seats.

Therefore, the Alba argument goes, SNP votes on the regional list are “wasted” votes, that are unlikely to return MSPs. If a significant chunk of SNP voters voted Alba instead, it would return more pro-independence MSPs.

So far, so good. However, because the Scottish system uses regional lists, there’s an effective threshold to get any seats at all (about 5-6%). There is also already a second pro-independence party, the Scottish Greens. That means in practice Alba could have a positive or negative impact on the number of pro-Independence MSPs elected. If they get over 5% in a substantial number of regions, and do so by taking SNP second preferences, rather than taking votes who would otherwise back the Greens, they will increase the next number of pro-independence MSPs. If they get under 6% in most regions, they are unlikely to win any MSPs at all. If they get under 6%, but in doing so, take votes from the Scottish Greens, they could even reduce the the number of pro-independence MSPs.

Hence, in judging the impact of Alba, the thing to look at is the level of Alba and the Scottish Greens in the list vote, and whether each is above or below that threshold of around 5-6%. The two polls so far paint contrasting pictures – in the Survation poll, Alba were at 3% and the Scottish Greens were unchanged at 11%. In the Panelbase poll Alba were at 6%, the Scottish Greens at 8%, again comparable to their showing in previous Panelbase polls.

So in neither case was there any evidence that Alba were cannibalising the pro-independence list vote by taking support from the Greens, but the evidence on whether they’ll actually win seats of their own is unclear. On the Panelbase figures they may well do (John Curtice tentatively projects 6 Alba seats, with a total of 79 pro-Independence MSPs). On the Survation figures they probably wouldn’t, but the SNP and Greens would get 77 pro-Independence MSPs between them anyway.

And that, in itself, maybe underlines the extent to which this matters. As things stand most polls show the SNP getting a majority or getting close to one. Taking the SNP & Scottish Greens together, there will very likely be a majority of pro-Independence MSPs anyway. Whether Alba manage to scramble over the threshold to win some seats or not doesn’t look likely to change that given their present level of support.