Who Will Win in 2015? Peter Kellner Talks to Birkbeck

By Dr Benjamin Worthy

Peter Kellner, expert pollster and President of YouGov, spoke to the Birkbeck Centre for British Politics and Public Life on Wednesday 5 November. A podcast of the talk is also available.

Peter spoke of how influential polls could be. He gave the example of the YouGov poll run by the Sun in August 2013 before proposed military intervention in Syria in 2013. This polling had a real impact on the subsequent debate and may have contributed to the narrow defeat of the vote on military action (or to put it more precisely, on the government motion).

Public opinion can also be fickle – see the changes in public opinion over the War in Iraq and the fluctuation in the ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ column between 2002 and 2007. The public can also get it wrong (see how mistaken we are about everything here). Peter spoke about the need for leadership and the fact that a leader’s job is to sometimes to tell people they are wrong. Immigration is good example – see this gap between perceptions and reality.

So how about the big question – who will win in 2015? In brief, it isn’t clear. Most elections are decided not by switches to Labour-Conservative but by undecided and Liberal-Democrat voters. However, for 2015 there is not one but three wildcards.

Wildcard 1: How will the Liberal Democrats do? We do not know whether or to what extent Liberal Democrats will suffer (or not) for being in government. Previous election results were based on Liberal Democrats as a ’third party’ and a ‘protest vote’. How many seats will they lose from their 57? Will they be down to 30? 20? Or will their famously efficient ground organisation machine save them? This analysisconcludes ‘there are so many possibilities, you can make up your own mind what it all means’.

Wildcard 2: How will UKIP do? This is less about which seats they may capture – possibly 10 but more likely four to six. More importantly, how may Labour versus Conservative seats will they throw in a particular direction? Here the number may be many more (see this blog by our own Eric Kaufmann and this analysis of UKIP support).

Wildcard 3: How will the Scottish National Party do? A recent YouGov poll gave the SNP an astonishing 19 point lead in Scotland, enough to capture 31 seats from Labour. Even if this does not happen, the SNP could capture enough of them to deprive Ed Miliband of victory. This is indeed Labour’s Scottish nightmare.

So these three wildcards may well shape who wins or loses, without mentioning even more complications such as the Greens, now polling higher than the Liberal-Democrats. The most likely result is some sort of ‘messy coalition’ made up of various parties of one combination or another. One thing is sure, as Peter puts it here, ‘Those days of decisive, first-past-the-post election outcomes might be over, at least for the time being’.

The Lessons of Clacton and Heywood

In this expert analysis, Professor Eric Kaufmann explains how Ukip will damage the Tories in 2015 but may ultimately harm Labour.

This post originally featured on Birkbeck’s departmental blog, 10 Gower St and on Huffington Post.

Ukip’s Douglas Carswell won the party’s first seat in Clacton while in Heywood & Middleton, Labour held the seat by a whisker. These results prefigure the kind of damage Ukip may inflict on the Tories, making a Labour victory more likely in 2015. Yet in the long run, Labour should worry about Ukip’s riseThe upstart party’s support rose substantially in both contests over its level in 2010. The media and some commentators have spun the story as a tale of dispossessed voters from forgotten constituencies striking a blow against the political elite. On this view, both the main parties will suffer at the hands of the Faragists.

Yet the data does not support the contention that the economically and politically disadvantaged of all political stripes are in revolt. Instead, the by-elections, and the rise of Ukip more broadly, reflects cultural anxieties and status resentments which loom largest among middle income people who lack degrees. These turn on the issue of immigration which I discuss in my recent Demos report on the White British response to ethnic change.

Ukip damages the Conservatives more than other parties and is set to tilt the electoral terrain in Labour’s favour in 2015 and beyond. This means we need to entertain the possibility the Tories may enter the political wilderness, much as the Canadian Tories did between 1993 and 2006 when the populist Reform Party split the right-wing vote.

In Clacton, Douglas Carswell, a high-profile defector from the Tories, carried the seat easily, winning 60% of the vote in a constituency Ukip did not contest in 2010. Popular in Clacton, Carswell carried wide support across a range of social and voter groups. In Heywood and Middleton, Ukip candidate John Bickley won 39%, increasing Ukip’s share by a whopping 36 points over 2010. It was an impressive Ukip tally, but the seat was held by Labour, winning 41% of the poll. Here we have two strong Ukip performances, resulting in a Tory loss in one instance, and a Labour win, albeit narrow, in the other. The constituencies are not typical of the country, but the results are indicative of what may happen in 2015. Why?

First, consider that in both by-elections, Ashcroft polls show the Tories lost a larger share of their vote to Ukip than Labour. These results are corroborated in the admittedly small sample of some 70 British Election Study (BES) internet panel respondents from these seats interviewed in early and mid-2014 about their 2015 voting intentions.

The British Election Study provides data on over 34,000 people, interviewed in both early and mid 2014. Looking at the second wave reveals a stunning pattern: 47 percent of those who voted Ukip in the 2014 European elections said they voted Tory in 2010 compared to just 13 percent from Labour. When it comes to intended vote in the General Election, it’s much the same story: 44 percent of those intending to support Ukip are ex-Tories while just 10 percent said they voted in Labour in 2010.

2014-10-10-Kaufmannimage1.png

In terms of current party identification, while 38 percent of those intending to vote Ukip in 2015 identify their party as Ukip, 24 percent say they identify as Conservative, compared to just 10 percent of Ukip vote intenders who currently identify with the Labour party. These data rely on respondents reported retrospective vote. However, the Understanding Society longitudinal survey just compares what people said in the previous wave with what they say in the current wave. These actual results, between 2009 and 2012, confirm the self-reported results from the BES: between 2 and 5 times as many people switched allegiance from Conservative to Ukip as moved from Labour to Ukip.

Some suggest Tory defections are in safe Conservative constituencies where they are unlikely to affect the Cameron-Miliband contest. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, there is no evidence for this. The figure below shows the predicted probability that an individual in the BES will vote Ukip in 2015, on the vertical axis, against the Labour share of the vote in his or her constituency in 2010, on the horizontal. The blue line represents those who voted Tory in 2010, the red line those who voted for parties other than the Conservatives in 2010. This is a multivariate model where we also control for a host of other predictors of Ukip voting, such as age, education, ethnicity and so forth. The cross-hatch lines represent confidence intervals, which are longer at the extremes of Labour share because sample sizes are smaller there.

2014-10-10-Kaufmannfig3.png

Two things jump out of this chart. First, Ukip will hit the Tories harder than other parties by 6-8 points across all types of constituency. There is no reluctance among 2010 Tory voters to desert the party for Ukip in marginal seats. Nor are Ukip defectors concentrated among Tory voters in Labour strongholds. Where votes averaged 30% Labour in 2010, often indicating a tight contest, a 2010 Conservative voter has a 21 percent chance of voting Ukip, which falls to just 15 percent among their Labour counterparts. Ukip support is holding steady in the polls, and if this continues, Ukip will pose a threat to Cameron.

Instead of fixating on the Clactons and Heywoods where Ukip is strong, pundits should focus on marginals where even a small shift to Ukip could tilt things Miliband’s way. We could see upsets not only in Ukip strongholds like Thurrock, but in middle class spots such as Cambridge or Hendon, often in the South of England, where Miliband may pull off an upset. The plot below shows seats the Tories won in 2010 with less than a six percent margin over Labour. These, and more, may be vulnerable.

2014-10-10-kaufmannfig4.png

If Ukip hands victory to Labour, this raises a whole series of important questions. Can the Conservatives strike a deal with Ukip, as with the ‘unite the right’ initiative between the populist Reform party and more elite Progressive Conservatives in Canada? Should Labour rejoice, or should they look to the reinvigorated Canadian Conservatives as a warning that the rise of the populist right can shift a nation’s political culture against them in the long run? Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford’s excellent book on Ukip warns that the party, with its working-class support base, threatens Labour as well as the Tories. My work suggests working-class Tories rather than Labour traditionalists are most likely to defect to Ukip, but their overall point holds: this is not a movement Labour can afford to ignore.

Eric Kaufman is a Professor of Politics at Birkbeck.