Eastleigh won’t change Labour’s obviously strong position

Labour’s lead with Opinium/Observer hit 12% tonight- the type of lead that is now becoming common for them. As mid-term slowly changes to the run up to the election campaign, there is no sign of a Tory comeback as yet. It may even be that it is David Cameron who is desperate for the TV debates come March/April 2010- a change from his current attitude.

Yet it seems that some are still clinging to the hope that if Labour’s vote collapses in Eastleigh, their prospects for 2015 are somehow damaged. In actual fact, the appearance of a Labour collapse with the Lib Dem vote holding up or increasing, is actually the Tories’ worst nightmare. The Conservatives are relying on taking advantage of the predicted Liberal Democrat collapse at the next election, as well as defending their own seats, as the only real strategy to them remaining the largest party, or less likely, securing an overall majority. If Labour voters are still prepared to vote tactically, even after the Lib Dems joining the Coalition, then there are huge problems for David Cameron.

Labour would obviously prefer to not finish 4th in Eastleigh- behind UKIP- as seems increasingly likely. However, as @AndyJSajs’ excellent Labour target sheet spreadsheet shows, this is Labour’s 337th target seat. It is not on their radar. In the grand scheme of things, the Labour result in Eastleigh is completely irrelevant to Ed Miliband and Labour. Far more relevant is whether the Lib Dem vote holds up. 

If the Conservative party finds solace in a poor Labour performance next Thursday, then their  overall strategy may well be as misguided as it has appeared over the last few years. Defeat for them in Eastleigh, coupled with the loss of the UK’s triple A rating, is exactly the kind of start to 2013 that the Conservatives would have been dreading. The clock is ticking as they attempt to turn around their current dire polling situation.

Could the Tories really poll at 29% in 2015?

Today’s YouGov poll has put the Conservatives 15 points behind Labour for the second time in a month. Even more startlingly for Cameron, his party sit beneath 30%. Even if this poll is an outlier, is 29% a realistic figure for the Tories in 2015?

In 1997, John Major’s Conservatives polled 30.7% of the vote in a complete electoral humiliation. They lost 11.2% from their 1992 total, almost all of it going to directly to Labour (the Lib Dems actually lost almost a million votes from the previous election). Many people assumed that this was truly the nadir- the core vote of the Tories. Are they really less popular now than they were in 1997?

There are several key differences between now and 1997. Firstly, UKIP polled at 11% in today’s YouGov. They managed 0.3% in 1997, an irrelevant speck on the electoral landscape. It would be truly incredible if UKIP received 11% of the vote in 2015- but even if they managed half of this, the Tories are in a whole world of trouble, considering that their 2010 vote was just 3.1%. 

Secondly, it is suddenly possible that the Conservatives could lose votes to the Liberal Democrats as well as Labour. Social liberals/economic conservatives may not have been too impressed with David Cameron’s party on issues such as gay marriage- instead of voting for the Tories, why not the other part of the coalition? This may be less of a problem, as the Tories will be expecting to pick up votes from the Lib Dems in return- but perhaps we will get a truer reflection of which way this will go after Eastleigh.

Finally, the harsh reality for the Tories is that a section of their 1997 vote are- or will be in 2015- dead. At the risk of using subsamples- something I will discuss in a future blog- Labour consistently have huge leads in all of the age sub-sections under the age of 60. It is possible that they simply are not picking up enough new voters to replace the lost ones.

Let’s also remember that Labour polled 29% in the 2010 general election, just five years after scoring 35.2%. The Tories vote last time round? 36.1%. Maybe 29% for the Tories in 2015 isn’t as unlikely as it sounds. The real issue will be how well Labour can capitalise on this.

Do the YouGov daily polls make trends easier or harder to spot?

For a polling junkie like myself, the news in 2010 that YouGov would be polling daily for The Sun was excellent news. Gone were the times of waiting days and days for the latest poll- an instant snapshot after every single political event was now available.

Of course, the fieldwork is always a few days behind, meaning that it’s not really instant at all. And while it’s fun for some basic analysis, do the daily polls really add much value to the overall polling picture? In my opinion, they can be vital.

This idea first struck me a few days ago, when Labour’s lead hit 15% on February 4th. If a general election were called tomorrow, I would be utterly stunned if Labour got anywhere near a 15% lead. I would be surprised if there was any Labour supporter anywhere who believed that this was a true reflection of the current picture.

The leads since then have been much more consistent, and arguably more realistic: 10, 11, 8, 9, 11, 11 and 10. The lead seems to have settled into these kind of figures, and 15% is seen as the outlier. It is interesting to note then, that if these polls did not come at such a quick rate, a very different scenario could occur. 

Imagine that 15% lead came, then no polls for a few days, and then the 8% poll is released. Suddenly Labour have dropped 7 points from their lead. Pundits would be scrambling to find reasons why Labour have been doing badly, or what the Conservatives had been doing well, when in reality, hardly anything has changed.

Therefore, the value of the daily YouGovs is clear- follow the trend, not any one specific poll. A 15% amongst a raft of 8-10% leads is probably too good to be true, much as it would be for the Conservatives if they were at level pegging in tomorrow’s poll. With such a constant stream of data, outliers are always going to be likely, but the trends will always prevail. 

As this blog continues, I will be trying to examine as many of the regular pollsters as possible- it is a shame that there has not been much more (public) polling on Eastleigh, and I am surprised that more of them do not see it as almost a competition to see who can be the most accurate to the final result. Perhaps we will see some more as the campaign reaches its final week.

Could Eastleigh be the final nail in the 2015 Tory coffin?

It may seem odd, in my first piece on this website, to talk about the 2015 election being effectively over as a contest. Indeed, over two years away from the expected election month of May 2015, it would seem nothing short of foolish. Margaret Thatcher’s chances of re-election looked hopeless from the moment she set foot in Downing Street in 1979, with catastrophic polling figures that would not turn around until the Falklands War. David Cameron himself seemed set for a huge majority at many points during Labour’s third term, yet ended up 20 seats short of an overall majority when the dust settled from election day in 2010.

However, from the moment that it became clear that Chris Huhne’s position was untenable, resulting in this by-election in Hampshire, it has always seemed as though there was a huge amount at stake. And all of this in a seat where it impossible for the main opposition to win. The last time that the Conservatives won Eastleigh was in 1992- it did not come as a particular surprise, and there was in fact a small swing to the Tories away from the Liberal Democrats. The majority was 17, 702. It is perhaps telling that this was the last time that the Conservatives won an overall majority.

The Conservative party seem to have only recently woken up to the idea that the challenge of them winning a majority in the House of Commons is actually a rather huge one. As mentioned, 1992 was their last outright win, with a majority of 21 for John Major’s party. Since then, the strength of the Liberal Democrats has roughly tripled- and mostly at the expense of the Conservatives. To win in 2015, the Tories not only have to hold their seats where Labour are challenging- a tough enough challenge as it is, given recent polling- but must also take seats directly from the Liberal Democrats. That includes places such as Eastleigh.

Two further problems have compounded the Conservatives’ chances of victory. Firstly, the defeat of the boundaries bill is clearly a huge blow for the party. Secondly, the rise of UKIP could quite feasibly cost the Tories seats at the next election, even if it remains distinctly unlikely that UKIP will win any themselves. UKIP’s true support is in my view, still unknown. Cameron’s Europe speech was expected to quell most fears about a splitting of the Right. UKIP polling at 14% with ComRes would suggest that Cameron has more convincing to do.

However, UKIP polling 14% at a general election is in my opinion, incredibly unlikely. Many people will return to their natural voting habitats come 2015, and often, that comes down to who voters think can feasibly form a government (or in the Lib Dems’ case, part of a government). UKIP could cost the Conservatives a few seats, but it would be a surprise if it ended up being the decisive factor in a Tory victory or defeat.

No, the real issue for David Cameron is ensuring that he can win in Lib Dem/Tory marginals. The gay marriage vote could arguably be seen as a spot of ‘love-bombing’ towards right-leaning Lib Dems. Why vote for the weaker part of the coalition when you can have the real thing? The trouble is, there isn’t all too much Lib Dem vote left to take from. When the Lib Dems hold Eastleigh (and I am convinced that they will), tactical voting will play a huge part. Many Labour voters- despite all the talk of wanting Lib Dem ‘annihilation’ in 2015- will hold their nose and vote yellow to keep the blues out. They’ve done it for years, and they’ll continue doing it until something very drastic changes. And if going into coalition with the Tories doesn’t stop Labour voters marking their ballot for the Lib Dem candidate, then it’s hard to see what will.

So what of Labour and Ed Miliband in this crucial by-election? If Miliband is honest, he would love nothing more than for the Lib Dem vote to hold up in places like Eastleigh come 2015- if that means some very poor vote percentages and possible fourth place finishes (unlikely here I think), then so be it. Labour’s real hope is that they can take back a chunk of the Lib Dem vote in Labour/Tory marginals. The Tories should quite rightly be terrified by some of the numbers here. In Labour’s top target seat, North Warwickshire, there is a Conservative majority of 54. There is a pool of 5481 Liberal Democrat voters for Labour to chip away at here- let alone convincing non-voters and Tories from the last election to vote Labour. You would expect this to be the case in Labour’s top target seat. So how about their 50th? Cannock Chase. Tory majority of 3195. Lib Dem voters last time round? 7732. Even in Labour’s 100th target seat- Jacqui Smith’s old seat, Redditch- there are 7750 Lib Dem voters to the Tory majority of 5821.

Nobody is expecting 80 or 90% of Lib Dems to suddenly switch to Labour in 2010. However, it is possible that around 50% could, which is something I will be examining in a future post. The point is that the Tories are in a very tricky spot. They will want the Lib Dem vote to hold up in Labour/Conservative marginals, but to collapse in Lib Dem/Conservative marginals. For Conservatives hoping for the former, they may be advised to look at last years by-election in Corby, where Labour increased their vote by 9.8%. The Lib Dems? They dropped by 9.5%. Eastleigh may be the first indication that the latter hope is also not going to materialise.

The Conservatives could well prove me wrong in Eastleigh- however their shocking choice of candidate, coupled with the traditionally strong Lib Dem ground game at by-elections, would suggest that the small amount of polling we have had from Eastleigh could be roughly correct. The only surprise in this by-election could well be that the Liberal Democrat majority goes up- it would be a huge shot in the arm for Nick Clegg- and possibly the start of something terminal for David Cameron.