In the last few weeks, we've had the European elections, local elections, the Newark by-election and a shedload of polling. This means that I have to look again at my previous assumptions and work out what still holds and what new information we have. Old ideas, no matter how appealing, will need to be thrown out if they now look to be wrong. New ideas need to be taken on board.
I shall start by going in off the deep end by trying to make sense of how UKIP are doing at the moment. This is both one of the most controversial and one of the most complicated questions that the election round has thrown up. Others have very different views on some or all of these points. But I shall set out my thinking. Today I'll look at the overall national picture and tomorrow I'll look at the regional patterns of UKIP voting.
The bare facts first.
1) UKIP came first across the UK in the European elections with 27.5% of the vote. It came second in Wales and fourth in Scotland. As a result, it increased its tally of MEPs to 24.
2) UKIP came third in vote share in the local elections on the same day with what has been estimated to be a notional national election vote of 17%. However, they did far worse in terms of getting councillors elected, managing to get only 166 councillors elected (including three in northern Ireland), tallying under 4% of the councillors up for grabs in Britain.
3) UKIP came second in Newark with just under 26% of the vote. In 2010, UKIP lost their deposit.
So far, so uncontroversial. But what does all this mean? Some observations, in no particular order.
UKIP's share of the vote in the European elections was much higher than in the local elections
Clearly considerable numbers of voters favoured UKIP specifically for the European elections. Since my main area of concern is how voters will vote in the general election next year, I infer that it is very dangerous to assume that voters will behave similarly in elections for different purposes, when clearly they do not.
Which of these elections is a more reliable signpost for the general election? Since UKIP's unique selling point is its aim of Britain leaving the EU, I see the European election result as more confined to its own facts. An impressive result, mind.
One minor point to dispose of. Some ardent Kippers claim that most of An Independence From Europe's vote share should be attributed to it as a spoiler party (I can't really see the point of obsessing about this, since the European elections were carried out under a different system for a different purpose, but since I have a view, I'll express it). While it seems likely that some voters were confused, I'm very doubtful that the number was substantial. The party name is not particularly close to UKIP's and while its slogan had potential to confuse the hasty, AIFE managed to gain some profile, mainly by dint of a memorable if lurid party political broadcast.
AIFE's vote share varied considerably across the English regions it contested, from 1.2% in London to 2.3% in the North East. The relative size of AIFE's vote share correlated only loosely with UKIP's vote share: UKIP got under 30% in the North East, while in the East of England UKIP tallied a stonking 34.5% and AIFE managed a relatively poor 1.7%. Perhaps this differential performance was down to ballot paper design (or differing intelligence levels in different regions), but that seems unlikely to me. It seems more likely that it simply reflects differential performance by a minor party.
The clincher for me is the West Midlands region, Mike Nattrass's home territory where he was an incumbent MEP. Voters in that region had a plethora of anti-EU parties to choose from. UKIP polled 31% and AIFE polled 2%. But We Demand A Referendum tallied 1.7%, and the BNP, English Democrats and NO2EU notched a further 2.8% between them. It seems likely that Mike Nattrass would have had some form of personal vote. Whether that would be more or less than that of Nikki Sinclaire of We Demand A Referendum is moot. I would start from the presumption that the 0.3% difference between two very similar parties was referable to voter confusion. Beyond that, I'd take some convincing. I'd take that as my marker across the country.
UKIP aren't yet winning in first past the post elections
This may reflect inexperience in fighting such campaigns, it may reflect lack of infrastructure or it may reflect tactical voting against them (I'll come back to this last point). Whatever, UKIP aren't yet winning very often in a set of contests where there is no prize for second place.
UKIP's notional national election vote in the local elections apparently declined from 2013 to 2014
Actually, I don't put all that much weight on this. Without a detailed understanding of how last year's NNEV was calculated, it seems likely to me that it overstated UKIP's share by not allowing for UKIP's relative weakness in large cities and especially London. UKIP seem to have done as well in the shires as last year. But UKIP don't seem to have taken another step forward from last year.
UKIP is becoming the natural choice of the protest vote
I had not expected UKIP to do anything like as well as 26% in Newark. They did so by becoming the party of opposition to the Conservatives. This was an impressive harvesting of votes at one level.
But UKIP's ground game is not what it could be
UKIP thought that it was within 2,500 votes of the Conservatives on the night of the by-election. They were in fact over 7,000 adrift.
Moreover, they may have missed out on their best support. Before the by-election got going, the unmissable Election Data site published this profile of the constituency:
I'm particularly interested in this chart of receptiveness to UKIP:
Newark itself is marked as the least receptive area for the Kippers. Yet the anecdotal evidence suggests that UKIP focused heavily on the town. This is both good news and bad news for UKIP. On the one hand, it suggests that they have further to go. On the other hand, their methods of reaching their potential vote may need quite a bit of work.
There appears to have been anti-UKIP tactical voting at Newark
This needs explaining. Occam's razor suggests that where one party, UKIP, sees its support grow by more than 20% while all the others fall back, we should not infer tactical voting against that party. Some Kippers have been accordingly reluctant to entertain the idea of tactical voting against their party, and I can understand why.
But quite apart from the anecdotal evidence from Labour canvassers and the evidence that the Conservatives explicitly targeted this, the result itself at face value is hard to square with what we know of the UKIP support base. The Conservative vote share dropped by only 9%, which considering the circumstances of the by-election was a small drop. Meanwhile, the Lib Dem vote share dropped by 18% - a nearly 90% drop. If we take the result at face value, UKIP picked up twice as many 2010 Lib Dems as 2010 Conservatives.
This seems improbable, even allowing for the fact that the figures could be skewed by the differential turn-out between the 2010 election and the by-election, and by the Conservatives' intense ground game. We have considerable polling evidence that UKIP normally pick up far more support from former Conservatives than from former Lib Dems - and unsurprisingly so, given the Lib Dem core messages and support base.
What seems to have taken place is a complex set of voter movements, with tactical voting both against the Conservatives and against UKIP. The Conservatives seem to have managed to persuade some progressive voters to vote for them against UKIP. That is new and important.
Such behaviour would not, however, be surprising. ICM polling established in March that UKIP was the least liked and most disliked party:
It would not be surprising to see voters act accordingly.
Polling evidence suggests that UKIP support remains solid - but the polling evidence seems quite hard to square with the facts
A ComRes poll after the European elections suggested that 37% of UKIP's support in those elections are certain to vote for UKIP in the general election next year, while 49% of UKIP's support were likely to do so. That would imply that UKIP would gain the support of far more of these voters next year than they managed in practice in the local elections held on the same day as the European elections. This seems inherently improbable. Nevertheless, we can probably treat the 37% certain UKIP voters as a reliable base. Given the differential turn-out in European elections and general elections, this means that UKIP have a floor of 5% and on this opinion poll they have entirely reasonable hopes of double that.
UKIP had an excellent result in the European elections, but have yet to convert their success in those elections into meaningful success in first past the post elections, despite continuing to pick up substantial support in other elections. UKIP seems to be reaching a ceiling in support and is starting to provoke some tactical voting against it from progressive voters. Its ground game is shaky, as is to be expected of a new party.
All this means that in general it is better to bet against UKIP succeeding in first past the post elections than to bet on them doing so. Their only serious hope of a seat on present trends is in three way marginals. Even in such seats, they will face a harder fight if a stop-UKIP candidate emerges. And the weaker ground game looks likely to hurt them.
Here are the current seats where UKIP feature at a short price (I've defined "short" as less than 20/1):
The UKIP odds in many markets have shortened considerably since I last looked at this in April. For the reasons given above, that makes me think that there should be value on the opposite side of the bet in many of these constituencies. Of the 24 seats where UKIP are quoted at 10/1 or less, 11 of those seats have majorities of 10,000 or more (and of course in every case the majority is not over UKIP). I'm not tempted by propositions of that kind.
The better value on UKIP is to be found in the relative longshots. One wild seat is Wyre Forest. The Conservatives took this from Dr Richard Taylor (Health Concern) in 2010. Dr Taylor is apparently intending to stand again. In 2013 UKIP topped the polls in the local elections in Wyre Forest Borough Council and came within an ace of doing so again in 2014 (gaining five councillors in the process). I took odds of 25/1 last night on UKIP taking this seat. These odds have now shortened to 16/1, which probably does not represent any great value. But this is a seat to keep a close eye on.
But the other parties need to plan on the basis that UKIP will still be a substantial presence in May 2015. What does this mean in detail? For that I need to look regionally and demographically, and will turn to that in my next post. I'll also have a look at some of the UKIP-friendly constituencies in more detail tomorrow.