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UK General Election 2015: Focus on opinion polls

This general election will see more opinion poll activity than has ever been available not just from the 10 firms carrying out national polls but we have also had separate polls for Scotland, Wales and London and, most interestingly, over 100 polls of individual constituencies commissioned by Lord Ashcroft from some of the national polling firms.  

All polls are, of course, subject to random sampling variations that may add or subtract perhaps 3% from a party score and so the overall pattern is more important than any single poll – newspapers love to pick on a single poll to give the impression that there has been a sudden change in party support.  

Peter Kellner of YouGov warns that there may be problems with constituency polls because the effects of local factors and the candidates only really starts to have an impact in the later stages of a campaign and it may be more difficult to know whether the voters that have been contacted are socially representative at this level. Nevertheless Lord Ashcroft’s poll give an impression of the great variability in voting changes that are making this election so difficult to predict.

So what do all these polls seem to say about General Election 2015:-

It’s close between Labour and the Conservatives

Labour held a significant lead over the Conservatives over most of this Parliament, though never at the level that suggested they were definitely heading for power.  A standard view is that an opposition lead mid-term in a Parliament represents dissatisfaction with the Government rather than a clear party choice.  As the election nears, voters think carefully about which party they want to run the country and who they want to be Prime Minister and so after the Christmas/New Year break we might expect voters to be doing this.  The polls have certainly narrowed but they did this September/October next year and have not changed much since, with more Conservative leads than before but Labour still mostly just ahead.   

Will one party or another get far enough ahead by the time of the general election to form a majority government?  Most of us probably saw The Christmas Carol over the holiday in which Scrooge, having been shown a vision of Tiny Tim’s family in the future by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, asks, “Is this what will happen or what may happen?”.  The Spirit replies (at least in the film version), “ Yes, if conditions remain the same”.   Opinion pollsters, when asked whether the opinion polls mean that there will be a hung Parliament, will say much the same.  Voters are used to a three week campaign rather than the long campaign that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act has given us and so maybe when they really focus, they will decide that they do not want Ed Miliband as Prime Minister and accept the Tory message that we are on the right road and give Cameron a majority, or maybe instead Labour’s policy promises will get through to them and the NHS will become the main issue. There are two indicators that militate against this though:-

  • First, a feature of voter decisions over the last couple of years has been that few people have crossed over between the two parties. The Labour lead mid-term has essentially been because of Conservative losses to UKIP and Lib Dem voters moving to Labour.  The narrowing recently has not been because of Conservative gains from Labour, the polls show their vote changing little, but because Labour has lost support to the SNP and the Greens.  Although SNP gains may cost Labour a majority, once you remove Scottish voters from the national voting figures, Labour is still doing much better in England than it did in 2010 so it will take a significant Conservative lead nationally to even prevent Labour taking some seats from them, especially as it takes less votes to elect a Labour MP, given the lower turnout and slightly smaller electorate in Labour seats.
  • Secondly, Labour and the Conservatives seem to be appealing to quite different parts of the electorate.  We have to be careful in looking at the detailed figures that the polling companies provide because the sample size becomes much smaller but in pretty much all of them Labour is ahead amongst the younger half of voters from 18 to 45 and always among the unskilled workers (the DE group that pollsters use) and the Conservatives are always ahead amongst those over 65.  The perceptions of these groups is probably quite different with the working age population affected by zero hours contracts, the failure of wages to keep up with inflation and the loss of public sector jobs while over 65s have protected pensions  and are more anti-EU.  There is always the potential to peel some of these voters away from the other side, and older people depend more on the NHS and will be concerned about their children and grandchildren, while working people may become concerned that the recovery will be threatened by Labour.  On election day it will also depend on which lot turns out and pensioners are more likely to vote, especially now that it is so easy to get a postal vote.

The Lib Dems are down but not out while UKIP and the Greens are up but will it do them any good?

We clearly now have a multi-party system like other European countries and although some pundits such as Steve Richards of The Independent believe the system will settle down to a pro-state Labour party versus a minimal state Conservative party in the longer run, maybe after an EU referendum that keeps us in, that certainly won’ t happen by May.  The London machines of the two main parties are like two prizefighters, landing punches on each other to little effect, but a large proportion of the spectators are no longer watching.  Down in the constituencies things are very complicated. The shifts in voters are more between the Conservatives and UKIP on the right and between the Lib Dems, Labour and Greens on the left, and, in Scotland between the SNP and Labour and the Lib Dems.

Potential tactical voting makes this even more complicated. 

  • There are Labour working-class voters who are thinking of voting UKIP because they see it as the way of getting rid of Cameron and they did vote UKIP in the Rochester by-election.
  • There are Labour middle class voters who are thinking of voting Conservative to keep out UKIP and it looks like they did in the Newark by-election.
  • There are Conservative voters thinking of voting UKIP in formerly safe Labour seats.
  • Will some Conservatives who were No voters in the referendum support Labour to keep out the SNP?
  • Will Labour voters who have voted tactically to help the Lib Dems beat the Conservatives still do so?
  • There are more Lib Dems ready to vote tactically Conservative than Labour in the marginals, though this is because the more left-leaning Lib Dem voters have already gone elsewhere.

The Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems have lost about two-thirds of their 2010 voters and so they are not going to win seats, though there is a suggestion that Montgomeryshire voters, having rejected Lembit Öpik as rather too colourful for this sober constituency,  might return this seat to its long Liberal tradition, and the Lib Dem vote has stood up surprisingly well in Watford where they hold the position of elected mayor. 

Over 20% of the Lib Dem support has gone to Labour and, with this sort of transfer of voters, the small group of seats that they have recently won from Labour such as Burnley and Redcar look hopeless for them and the constituency polls confirm this. Simon Hughes may hold on in Bermondsey, where he has been the MP for over 30 years.  

Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam constituency illustrates the problem that the Conservatives now have in gaining a parliamentary majority.  Before 1997 the Conservatives had never lost an election here in the previous 100 years. The constituency polls now show this as a close fight between Nick Clegg and the Labour candidate, Oliver Coppard, with the Conservatives well behind.

The pattern in the Lib Dem/Conservative marginals is more complicated. The surprising thing is that the biggest falls in the Lib Dem vote in the constituency polls are mostly in their South-West England heartland. These are also areas with an above average UKIP vote and so it may be that the working class voters that have been a mainstay of the Lib Dems in the small towns of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset have left them for Farage’s party, which has done well in European elections here for some time. The Conservative vote has fallen in these seats but not by as much as the Lib Dem vote and the constituency polls show them winning seats such as Chippenham and Newton Abbot and Truro and Falmouth easily.  In St Ives and North Devon, well known Lib Dem MPs may be able to hold on.  

Elsewhere the Lib Dems are doing rather better, with Bob Russell looking to win again in Colchester and more middle class suburban areas, such as Cheadle and Sutton and Cheam more likely to stay Lib Dem.  Polls that have asked people how they will vote in general and then how they will vote in their constituency have shown the Lib Dems doing better on the second question in these sorts of seats.

UK Independence Party

The UKIP vote looks as though it may have peaked at about 15% and may get squeezed a little as people focus on who they want to run the Government, unless Nigel Farage can pull off something exceptional in the television debates.  Even then polls show that he is most liked of the party leaders by many voters but also most disliked by many other voters so the debates may only confirm existing views.  There still be a determined group of UKIP voters in May.  This is one of the reasons why the Conservative share of the vote is stuck, although UKIP is also attracting disgruntled voters who have not turned out in recent elections.  This and the closeness of the election are likely to make turnout higher than in 2010. 

The UKIP vote is at 15% nationally but they are not doing well in Scotland and London, so this means that in other places they are doing much better than that.  The constituency polls demonstrate this – UKIP scores are 31% in Great Yarmouth, 34% in Dudley North, 34% in Rother Valley and 33% in Thanet South.  The problem for the party is that these figures may still not win them any seats, only in Thanet South has a poll put them ahead.  With first past the post in a multi-party system it is possible to lose all the seats where a party gets  about 32% of the vote in constituencies and win a good few if it gets up to about 38%.  

Only Clacton where Douglas Carswell had such a by-election triumph is a certainty, though their other by-election success in Rochester and Strood and Thanet South where Farage is standing are strong possibilities.  Pundits have suggested others – Boston and Skegness, Great Grimsby, South Basildon and East Thurrock, Plymouth Moor View, Rotherham, where the council is embroiled in the child sex scandal, Castle Point – but no one really knows and it is uncertain how much of an organisation UKIP has on the ground to mobilise the voters.

The Green Party

The green's ‘surge’ has been a feature of the last couple of months or so, though it is only a few points and nothing like Cleggmania in the 2010 general election campaign and much of this evaporated on polling day. The Greens have added to their environmental priorities policies such as rail nationalisation and the rejection of austerity policies which many on the Labour left would have liked to see their leadership adopting.  They have been able to detach votes from Labour and the Lib Dems and also get the support of the youngest cohort of voters who are not interested in the Lib Dems after their reversal of tuition fees and involvement in the Coalition and are looking for something new.  

Constituency polls suggest their greatest support is in university towns and areas of ‘alternative’ lifestyles such as Stroud and St Ives but is very low in the average suburban and medium sized town constituencies that make up most of the Labour/Conservative marginal so their impact on Labour may be less than suggested.  The increased support for the Green should see Caroline Lucas back in Brighton Pavilion where she might have been under threat because of dissatisfaction locally with some of the policies of the Green led council. Beyond that, Norwich South, where they had 20% in the constituency poll, is the only hope.  The rather odd decision of the Electoral Commission to change the voter registration system just before a general election may disenfranchise the student and younger vote that the Greens would need to win in that constituency.

Scotland is different ….. but so is London

Just as the devolution debate in the late 1980s and early 1990s transformed Scottish politics to the detriment of the Conservative Party, the much more intense debate over independence has transformed Scottish politics again, this time to the detriment of the Labour Party.  Many Scottish voters are not convinced that the promises made by English party leaders on further devolution will be carried out and see the SNP as the party that will stand up for Scotland at Westminster.  This has helped the SNP open up a big lead over Labour and the independence campaign produced many new members, some already experienced in talking to the voters.  Lord Ashcroft recently published the first Scottish constituency polls and they were worse than terrible for Labour.  He did choose mostly areas where the Yes vote was strongest but the swing in these is consistent with the national polls, so there is no reason to believe that Edinburgh would be different, and these sorts of results would leave Labour with only four or five seats.  Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University points out that a reduction of the SNP lead to 10% would save half of Labour’s seats and, indeed, the latest poll by TNS does show this but , if it is less accurate than the others, there is not much time left for the new leader, Jim Murphy, to turn things around.

Since Greater London was created as an administrative entity in 1965 it has been, like Lancashire, one of the key swing areas between Labour and the Conservatives. It is now turning more into a Labour city with recent polls putting Labour 10% ahead.  Labour did better in London than other parts of England in 2010 but the polls are still showing a 6% swing to Labour here as elsewhere.  This may still not be enough to win some of Labour’s target seats such as Ilford North but most Conservative marginals in the capital would fall to them.  Despite its relative prosperity, the cosmopolitan and multi-ethnic nature of London means that voters are less attracted to the Conservatives and UKIP do badly here, except perhaps in the easternmost borough of Havering which behaves more like South Essex.

But the Labour- Conservative marginals still matter most

Despite the complexity of party competition in constituencies across the UK, it is the two-party Labour/Conservative marginals that will have the biggest effect on who becomes Prime Minister.  Labour will have to win seats to stop Cameron returning to No 10.  These are almost all in England.  Labour seems to be achieving a lower swing in Wales and, though this should give it Cardiff North, the Wales Governance Centre does not predict any other gains and the constituency poll for  marginal Carmarthen West and South Pembroke shows it staying Conservative.  When the poll results are separated out for England they show a swing to Labour of about 6% which would mean a gain of about 70 Conservative seats.  However, the swing has varied considerably from seat to seat in recent elections and the constituency polls confirm that this is likely to happen again.  

Labour  seems to be getting slightly higher swings in the seats that it just won in 2010 making it even more unlikely that the Conservatives will win these to get their parliamentary majority, except a curious poll in Southampton Itchen which shows a swing to Conservatives, perhaps just caused by sampling error. There are plenty of seats from Carlisle in the north to Hastings on the south coast where the polls show a 6% swing, though some were taken last summer when Labour was doing better in the national polls.  There are also plenty more where the swing is less.

If nothing dramatic changes nationally then what happens in these marginals will depend on:-

  • Small switches of support between the two main parties.
  •  Switchers between UKIP and the Conservatives because, despite UKIP gaining some Labour voters, nearly half of their support is ex-Conservatives. On the left switches between Labour and the Greens and left leaning Lib Dems are critical.   This will also turn into a battle for tactical voting, if the two main parties can persuade supporters of the smaller parties that it is a battle between Labour and Conservative and they need to vote tactically to keep the party they least want out.
  • Who turns out to vote.  The Conservatives have the money for targeted letters and local advertising, this time also using advertising on social media.  Labour have far more party workers to talk to the voters face-to-face and the evidence is that this still matters.  The Conservative membership is older and many have gone over to UKIP.

There is plenty more polling to come over the next three months and so the picture as to what will happen on election day may become clearer – or it may just get more confusing.


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