Sunday, 26 October 2014

Environmentally unfriendly: who loses from an increase in the Green vote?

I last wrote about the Greens' prospects of taking more seats at the next election. My conclusion was  that  in general those prospects were ethereal. For more details, see here:

But the Greens are currently recording poll ratings well in excess of their vote share at the last election and just as importantly are standing in many more constituencies. At the Green Party conference, their leader Natalie Bennett committed to having Green candidates in at least 75% of constituencies (that's in the region of 500 seats), up from 310 at the last election.

At the last general election, the Greens took 0.9% of the national vote share but on that reduced number of seats fought.  Presumably they stood in what they considered to be their better seats, so we cannot simply scale that up to get a full notional national vote share.  On a wholly unscientific basis (psephologists, look away now), I'm going to work on a notional national vote share of 1.5% at the last election.

Right now, the Greens are polling rather better than that.  As of today's date, the UK Polling Report average is 4% and they have polled as high as 8% in one poll in recent days.  It's worth noting that most pollsters do not immediately prompt for the Greens.

Even at 4%, we can expect the Greens to have an increased impact on results, even where they come nowhere near taking the seat.  At 8%, their impact would be substantial.  So what are the seats where their influence will be felt most and who will it affect?

This is one of those occasions where I can be lazy (I always enjoy those), because the bulk of the work has already been done for me by Ian Warren of Election Data:

The key passage is as follows:

"My analysis has shown that the following demographic groups voted for the Greens in 2014:
  • Well educated singles living in purpose built flats
  • City dwellers owning houses in older neighbourhoods
  • Singles and sharers occupying converted Victorian houses
  • Young professional families settling in better quality older terraces
  • Diverse communities of well-educated singles living in smart, small flats
  • Owners in smart purpose built flats in prestige locations, many newly built
  • Students and other transient singles in multi-let houses
  • Young renters in flats with a cosmopolitan mix"
Wildly simplifying, I interpret that to mean in the main students and right-on urban dwelling professionals.  I hope Mr Warren will forgive that simplification.  

If the Greens aren't going to win many new seats, whose support are they eating into and whose chances are diminished as a result?  These are two different questions.

It is my assumption that the Greens pull their voters from the pool of voters who in the broadest terms could be labelled progressive, and who at various times in the past would have considered voting for the Lib Dems or Labour (or in Scotland the SNP).

Up to this point in the Parliament, these voters in England and Wales had looked like coalescing primarily around Labour, often having previously voted in 2005 and 2010 for the Lib Dems.  Labour may not be losing voters from 2010, but it may be failing to convert voters who it had previously banked on converting.  So in England and Wales, any increase in the Green vote is going to be bad news for Labour in any seat in which it is in contention.  The question is how bad.

Despite the name of the party, you generally find students and right-on urban dwelling professionals in large cities (obviously you'll also find students in smaller cities with big university populations).  In Britain's largest cities Labour hold the great bulk of the seats, often with large majorities.  At an election where a swing to Labour is currently anticipated, the impact in such seats of the Greens will be of footnote interest only.

There is, however, a set of seats where the battle is entirely between progressive parties.  Here are the Lib Dem held seats where Labour were second at the last election or are otherwise now seen in the betting markets as a main challenger:

There is a substantial overlap between these seats and those where the Greens are likely to do relatively well.  Up to the last election, the Lib Dems had made great inroads into the university seats.  Bristol West, Bath, Cambridge, Cardiff Central, Manchester Withington, Norwich South and Sheffield Hallam are all currently Lib Dem held seats with substantial university votes.  In all bar Bath, Labour are currently rated their closest challenger by the bookies.  The next election will be held in termtime, so we can expect most students to be voting in their university constituencies.

It's fair to say that the Lib Dems' USP in relation to university education has been tarnished.  The volte face on tuition fees has seriously damaged the Lib Dems' image.  Labour have been hoping to profit as a consequence.

In the most recent ICM poll, Labour tally 35% and the Lib Dems are at 11%.  That represents a 9% swing from the Lib Dems to Labour (other pollsters are recording slightly bigger swings).  As can be seen, a uniform swing of this size would enable Labour to take 12 seats, with hopes of taking two or three more if they slightly outperform the swing required.

If some of the votes in these seats that might otherwise have been heading from the Lib Dems to Labour head to the Greens instead, this makes Labour's task harder (a Lib Dem vote lost to the Greens is worth half as much to Labour as a Lib Dem vote that comes directly to them).  But the movement would be quite substantial before it made much of a difference.  Labour look unlikely in practice to take either Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey or Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross in any case, given the disruptive effect of the SNP on Scottish politics.  Bristol West might well be put out of reach, as might Bermondsey & Old SouthwarkSheffield Hallam always looked a big stretch, as did Leeds North West, and the impact of the Greens might be to make the odds on the Lib Dems still more promising. 

In all of the bolded seats named above, the Lib Dems now look like the value bet, taking the rise of the Greens into account.

Any rise in the Green vote in Cambridge is similarly likely to be helpful for Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem incumbent.  I do not place too much weight on the ICM constituency poll in Cambridge in April 2014 showing him well behind, which was based on a small sample and did not name the candidates.  He is a very active local MP and is likely to have a strong personal vote which such a form of polling will not capture (indeed, the ICM poll asked questions about his performance later and he was given a firm thumbs-up).  Lord Ashcroft's poll in September 2014, on a larger sample, found that when the constituency was named and respondents were prompted to think about the candidates standing, Labour polled 33%, the Lib Dems 32% (and the Greens 8%, which is pretty impressive considering that they were not prompted for).  However, this poll is also problematic, because it was taken from 3-12 September, before the university term began.  Students make up almost 20% of the town's population.  It is far from clear how this telephone poll was conducted to capture those students in the results, given the unusual nature of this constituency.  We have the competing forces of the polling possibly not yet fully reflecting the make-up of the constituency and the MP's personal profile not yet being fully drawn out through the polling questions asked.  We have much more information about this seat than most, but no more clarity.

The effect of the Greens should not be overstated.  Lord Ashcroft undertook a constituency poll in Cardiff Central in September of this year, showing that the Lib Dems remain well adrift there, even though he found a 5% poll share for the Greens:

The effect is going to be at the margins only.  You will note that Ian Warren found Cardiff Central to be the constituency with the most fertile ground in the country for Green vote-hunting.

In Scotland, the dynamics are quite different.  Here the party who has most to lose from a rise of the Greens is the SNP.  The Greens and the SNP fought shoulder to shoulder on the Yes side of the referendum debate.  The SNP will be hoping so far as possible to convert the Yes votes into SNP votes.  Any that take a detour into verdant fields will reduce the SNP's prospects of getting the huge swings that they need to take substantial numbers of new seats.

Let's look at the SNP's target list ranked by odds:

The SNP's sharp moves upwards in the polls now look very fully priced in.  Any possible impact from the Greens does not.  There are no obvious bargains on the SNP side of the fence (Dundee West aside) and some of the Labour prices now look worth considering.

There is the suggestion that the Greens and the SNP might come to an arrangement:

"There has been serious speculation about the SNP standing down in the seat [Edinburgh East] in exchange for the Greens giving them a free run at a few of their key targets. From their perspective, they are never going to win every MP in Scotland. If they can do something to make it more likely that one of the other seats is someone else who supported independence, if they can ensure Scotland sends to Westminster a delegation of MPs which represents the diversity of the Yes campaign, then this will be helpful to the thing they care about most – securing more powers for Holyrood."

This would be a smart thing for the SNP to consider.  They can't afford to lose even a couple of percentage points to the Greens elsewhere, given the swings that they require.

Finally, the Greens may yet have a part to play in straight Conservative/Labour battles and in particular straight Conservative/Lib Dem battles.  The effect of the Greens' intervention is unlikely to be anything like as significant as the effect of UKIP's intervention in most such constituencies. But it needs to be factored in.

In such seats, the advantage will be entirely for the Conservatives, because the progressive vote will be split.  In straight fights between the Conservatives and Labour, any increase in the Green vote will concern Labour.  If the Greens do well in seats like Stroud and Brighton Kemptown, they will be depleting the stock of progressive voters available to Labour.  Another way of looking at this is to consider whether this is a way that the cohort of 2010 Lib Dem voters who have defected to Labour will be diminished.  It may be.

As I noted in my previous post, an increase in Green support is likely to prove fatal for the Lib Dems in Solihull.  It may make the Lib Dems' large majority in Bath that bit more within reach for the Conservatives (though as a 5/1 shot, it's hardly a bargain).  In a whole slew of seats in the south west, the Greens didn't stand in 2010.  Any votes that they pick up in 2015 in such constituencies are unlikely to be to the Lib Dems' benefit.

Another area where the Lib Dems will be shifting uneasily is south west London.  The Greens did stand in the Lib Dem constituencies in this area in 2010, but did not poll well.  They will hope to do considerably better in 2015, given the Lib Dems' decision to enter a coalition with the Conservatives - though interestingly there was no sign of this in Lord Ashcroft's constituency polls in this area.  A shift of Lib Dem votes to Greens in these seats could be worth in effect something like a 2% swing to the Conservatives without the blue team picking up a single additional vote.  This effect may also be under-recorded by pollsters who do not prompt for the Greens (though in practice I expect that many voters who are surprised and delighted to find a Green option in the polling booth would have said previously that they were voting for Labour when asked).  I don't see this as a decisive consideration such as to alter my betting positions, but it is one more negative when deciding whether to back the Lib Dems in the constituency markets.

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