A set of opinion polls released just before Christmas will lead to some furrowed brows at the Conservative HQ New Year's Party...
Not the normal opinion polls but a set of individual constituency surveys by the Survation company.
Although they were commissioned by wealthy UK Independence Party supporter, Alan Brown, to prove that, in some places, UKIP, is doing much better than the national polls show and is drawing votes from all parties, Survation is a mainstream polling organisation and has a good track record in polls carried out for recent by-elections.
Given that there has been more variation in the results between constituencies in recent general elections, these polls should give extra insight into the likely effect of people’s voting intentions on actual results.
The seven constituencies polled include three Conservative marginals, two Labour hyper marginals, and two normally safe Conservative seats where the Liberal Democrats came second last time, while four are seaside towns where UKIP have done well in local elections.
What does the polling tell us?
The most dramatic feature of these polls is the fall in the Conservative percentage of the overall vote by at least 10% everywhere and as much as 20% in South Thanet.
Labour’s vote rises enough to take all three marginals comfortably, especially Crewe and Nantwich, where the effect of the Conservative gain in the 2008 by-election appears to have worn off. The Conservatives are nowhere near gaining the two Labour marginals of Great Grimsby and Dudley North, the sort of seats they need for a Parliamentary majority.
The first puzzle for Conservative strategists...
Cameron is more popular than Miliband in national polls and, despite Labour’s cost of living offensive, the Conservatives are favoured on the economy but Labour are 6% ahead nationally and heading for an easy general election win on the basis of these constituency polls.
The Liberal Democrat fall in the constituency polls is not surprising, given their national poll ratings, but in Folkestone and Hythe their support actually falls to 10% in a seat where they have polled around 30% in every general election since 1983.
The second puzzle for Conservative strategists...
What is the UKIP vote? The constituency polls, apart from Crewe and Nantwich, show a UKIP surge similar to that in the last local elections. Ranging from 30% in Great Yarmouth to 22% in Great Grimsby they emerge as a significant force, coming second in one Labour held seat and in four Conservative held seats. This is about twice what most national polls are saying.
The difference has led to a debate among opinion pollsters. Survation are now using two methods that are different from other pollsters: first, they have added UKIP into the question asking voting intention whereas other pollsters have been prompting for the three main parties and then Other; second, whereas other polls allocate undecided voters on the basis of who they said they voted for in the last election, Survation don’t. Survation’s view is that there has been a sea change in party support and previous methods are not picking this up.
Many months to go though....
There is, of course, still many months to the next general election and voters’ views can change and crystallise if the economy improves further and they concentrate on who should form the next Government.
Labour’s current opinion poll lead is about the same (though rather more consistent) as that of the opposition party at the same stage before the 1987 and 2005 elections and in each case they lost.
The Conservatives may not be able to catch Labour just by squeezing UKIP though. Survation found, in their aggregate results, that only 26% of UKIP voters would switch to the Conservatives and that was only if there was no UKIP candidate, while 13% would go to Labour.
On this basis squeezing half of the UKIP vote would only give the Conservatives an extra 1% of the national vote so current Labour and undecided voters have to be won over as well.