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Eastleigh Final Analysis – A Major Reality Check

As the hordes of MPs head back to Westminster after their Hampshire mini-break and the residents of Eastleigh ponder how to deal with their overflowing recycling bins full of discarded political leaflets, what lessons are there that can be learned from the Eastleigh by-election?

Liberal Democrats Defied Well-Worn Media Expectations of Collapse

Firstly and most obviously, the already dubious theory that Chris Huhne’s fall from grace or the media furore over Lord Rennard would result in a major loss of support for the Liberal Democrats can be finally laid to rest. If the lessons of Oldham East and Saddleworth, Barnsley Central, and Rotherham were not enough, after Eastleigh it ought finally to be clear that scandals of personal misbehaviour by individual MPs do little to damage voter’s already abysmally low impressions of specific political parties. The general reaction to such stories is that politicians are ‘all as bad as each other’, and the fact that they sometimes carry out immoral or even criminal acts is as obvious to the general public as that the sky is blue.

Secondly and more generally, it is clear that predictions among some in the media of a great Liberal Democrat wipe-out at the next General Election have been greatly exaggerated. With their national poll ratings in the doldrums ever since the Coalition Government was formed, there has been debate between those who took this to project vast losses of half their seats or more, and those who reasoned that the localised resilience of LibDem support and party organisation in incumbent areas would shield most of their sitting MPs from the worst of the damage. The Eastleigh by-election has offered the first real test of this in an area pretty representative of most incumbent Liberal Democrat seats across the South of England where the Conservatives are the main challengers (for our pre-election analysis, see here).

By and large, the latter theory has been vindicated. Not only did they hold the seat, but the fact that their margin of victory was entirely dependent on their large lead in postal votes points to the crucial success of their local party machine in mobilising voters to get their ballots in early. How well their vote share holds up in Lib-Lab marginals remains to be seen, but those LibDem MPs with seats across the South of England can sleep a little easier in their beds after this week.

No Easy Excuses for the Conservatives..

By contrast, the Conservative grass roots have looked rather withered, with their party membership having atrophied considerably since 2010 and despite shipping in many high profile figures from London, such as Boris Johnson and a raft of Cabinet Ministers, they could not match the LibDem numbers of ordinary activists on the ground. In fact if anything the Conservative campaign was too centralised, directing media attention away from their local candidate Maria Hutchings (who many in the press claim was ‘gagged’ and barred from giving interviews) and towards speeches by government ministers.

Our research, however, suggests that this was a mistake; Maria Hutchings was in fact a perfectly good candidate, with 30% of likely Conservative voters in our last poll listing her personally as their number one reason for voting Conservative; more so than any other party’s candidate. Meanwhile the success of UKIP seems to indicate a strong anti-politics disillusionment, that may have made the sending of so many high profile Cabinet Ministers by the Conservatives rather a mistake, as it only reinforced people’s perceptions of them as an establishment party. The success of UKIP and the LibDems, who both campaigned extensively on local issues such as housing and a proposed gravel pit construction, points to the issues that people genuinely care about and are often overlooked by centrally directed campaigns.

Nor should the Tories blame their third place finish on UKIP ‘splitting the right wing vote’, deluding themselves into thinking that there was a genuine ‘conservative’ majority out there to be won and so naïvely hoping that these voters will return to vote tactically come 2015. In fact, as the chart below shows, our polling indicates that UKIP took votes from the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in broadly equal measure, thus contributing little if anything to the gap between LibDem and Conservative vote.

ukip vote source

Speculation Over a Farage Candidacy Misses Evidence To The Contrary

Turning to UKIP themselves, it is clear that they have achieved an extraordinary success. Despite a few claims starting to emerge that UKIP could have won if Nigel Farage had only stood as their candidate, the evidence does not seem to bear that out. Our polling showed that Diane James performed extremely well as a candidate, succeeding in attracting votes from groups beyond UKIP’s traditional core, including a large number of female voters who in the end made up 46% of the UKIP vote (up from only 28% before the candidates were announced). At the same time, Farage’s recognisability as party leader and presence on the campaign trail in a way that neither Cameron nor Clegg had time to match meant that he was still providing the same sort of personal boost to the UKIP vote as he likely would have done had he been the official candidate.

It is also worth bearing in mind that, had Farage stood, the entire campaign narrative would have been different from the beginning. Expectations on UKIP would have been much higher and consequently attacks from the other parties much fiercer, as they would have recognised it for the three horse race that it ultimately turned out to be. Next time round the other parties may learn not to underestimate UKIP as a political force. The Conservatives may, however, find they have a harder time after today in persuading UKIP supporters to lend them tactical votes, when UKIP can point to the Eastleigh result as evidence that they could actually win. With the Conservatives saying a vote for UKIP is a wasted vote and UKIP saying a vote for the Conservatives is a wasted vote, tactical voters in marginal seats around the country will have a hard time working out who their best bet really is if they want to get rid of their incumbent LibDem or Labour MP.

Evidence for Changes in Opinion Polling Methodology

Pollsters too would seem to have lessons to learn. We suggested earlier in the week that UKIP might do better than the headline figures would suggest, and indeed they have. Weighting
algorithms that strongly emphasise past voting behaviour may underestimate the success of newly popular parties (as pollsters in Italy also discovered this week after failing to predict the success of Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement). That many pollsters don’t include UKIP in their main voting prompt is also starting to look increasingly out of touch with the political facts on the ground. UKIP has generally overtaken the Liberal Democrats in national polls to reach third place and now has on record a second place finish over the Conservatives in a seat that the Conservatives were initially very hopeful of winning. UK political narratives are increasingly dominated by four parties, rather than three, which polling needs to find a way of reflecting. Standardising the inclusion of UKIP in the top-line data when reporting on voting intention would be a good place to start.

UKIP – The “Protest” Theory Has Little Evidence

Attempts to write off UKIP’s surge in support as simply a ‘mid term protest vote’ that will melt away at the next General Election are not really borne out in the data. Despite 83% of UKIP voters in Lord Ashcroft’s post-voting poll saying that protest voting played at least some role in their choice, only 19% of UKIP voters in the last Survation poll reported that their main motivation of voting was one of protest. Perhaps the more telling figure from Ashcroft’s poll is that 58% of Eastleigh UKIP voters were voting in part because they wanted UKIP to win the next General Election – the very opposite of a transitory act of protest. When Ashcroft asked UKIP voters who they would vote for at the next General Election, 43% said “UKIP” again and 34% replied “don’t know”. These proportions of vote retention were exactly the same when the question was put to Liberal Democrat voters, who it would be odd indeed to describe as ‘protest voters’ given that the LibDems are in government. Meanwhile 15% of UKIP voters in the last Survation poll had not even voted in the 2010 General Election, suggesting that something positive about the party is motivating them to turn out.

No Conservative Lurching Required, Only Listening to Voters

Those doing the most reflecting this morning, however, will be the Conservative Party strategists. Eastleigh was high on their target list of seats to win, and their strategy for an overall majority after 2015 looks increasingly like the realm of fantasy politics. Predictably enough the rift between Cameron’s modernisers and Tory traditionalist backbenchers has reopened with renewed vigour after the brief post-Europe speech lull. The right wingers argue that UKIP’s success proves the attractiveness of traditional Tory values, whilst the centrists argue the dangers of abandoning the political centre ground on the back of a single by-election upset.

Looking carefully at the results, however, neither a lurch to the right or the left seem particularly advisable. Trying to become more like UKIP to win back their votes would seem like a futile effort. In fact the Conservatives already ran an extremely ‘UKIP-y’ campaign, with an anti-establishment, anti-gay-marriage, anti-immigration, anti-abortion candidate, Cameron making strongly worded interviews about denying benefits to immigrants and most astonishingly (and desperately?) even Conservative campaign literature printed in the UKIP colour scheme, pointing out the support of a (now ex-)UKIP MEP for Maria Hutchings.

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None of this appears to have been remotely successful. By aping UKIP policies
and branding, the Tories only seem to have lent more attention and credibility to the actual UKIP campaign. As the Blighty columnist in the Economist put it aptly, “Why would anti-establishment voters support a Tory mimicking Nigel Farage when they can back the real thing?”. Pretending to be UKIP looks to hold no more electoral promise for the Conservatives than pretending to be like the Green party did for Cameron in his early years as leader.

Nor, however, is the solution to further alienate the Conservative base which Cameron so desperately needs to reconnect with. The Conservative electoral victories of decades past were not based on narrow franchises of right wing social conservatives and Eurosceptics or of only centrist metropolitan liberals, but a broad coalition that stretched right across the political spectrum. This is what needs to be rebuilt; tackling issues of universal concern such as living standards, supporting businesses and addressing concerns about immigration (a key issue, in Eastleigh as elsewhere) in a sensible and measured way that does not look like cheap populism are the paths to doing so.

Conclusion – Harder Questions Still Ahead For Cameron

The real problems for Cameron, however, are not the implications for long term electoral strategy, but the immediate political consequences. Early last month a group of discontented backbench Conservative MPs set out a list of five key ‘tests’ that they felt Cameron had to pass in order to avoid a leadership crisis. These were; preserving our AAA credit rating, a victory in the Eastleigh by-election, avoiding a triple dip recession, a successful budget and minimizing losses in the local elections in May. Of these five, the first two have now been missed. The third may already be failing as we speak, as a streak of bad weather and international economic gloom does little to improve the prospects of growth this Quarter after a contraction in the last. As for the final two; the local elections will almost certainly be poor for the Tories given they are in seats last contested in 2009 at the height of Cameron’s poll ratings. That leaves only the budget standing between David Cameron and a potential leadership challenge.

— By Patrick Briône, Survation Director of Research 

Further reading: 

Damian Lyons Lowe –Will “some other party” decide general election 2015?

Professor John Curtice analyses the UKIP threat for the 2015 General Election

Survation’s pre-result Eastleigh analysis

 

Damian Lyons Lowe

Damian Lyons Lowe

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