When will UKIP implode?

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Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


UKIP’s supporters show the classic signs of populism in their backing of the party. The dynamics of populism drive its beneficiaries in terms of voting support on a trajectory where surge is followed by slump. Predicting when the former will stop and the latter start is not possible as it depends on a complex set of contingent factors but that the implosion will occur for UKIP at some juncture is a racing certainty.

Populism is an embedded element in the culture of contemporary democracies. It is ready to emerge and be exploited because of a gap between widespread understanding of democracy and the rather the pragmatic reality of its everyday practice. The vision of democracy as rule by the people implies precisely that the wishes of the people will find expression in the policy and practices of government.  Citizens in the grip of populism tend to assume that the public has one voice and that it is theirs; since all reasonable people would agree with their commonsense views. Democracy in practice is messier as different interests compete to achieve compromise through backroom deals and special interests use their influence to get deals done on issues that matter a great deal to them. The gap between the visionary ideal of democracy and murky realities of its practice provide fertile ground for populism. The failures to achieve the people’s will is down to malevolent forces:  a corrupt political elite, their cosy media friends and the influence of powerful unaccountable forces. Only by ridding ourselves of “them” can “we”, the people of commonsense, get back “our” democracy.

UKIP supporters are populists in much of their outlook as a number of recent surveys tell us (see Table 1 below). More than other citizens they think politicians are out for themselves and beholden to powerful interests. They are happy to see themselves and the party they support as outsiders to the clubby and stitched-up world of Westminster politics; claiming a bias in the news coverage and the media against them more than others. In that sense many more UKIP supporters are prepared to view the current system of politics as a waste of time. In UKIP world they are the challengers or as UKIP expert Matthew Goodwin puts it Nigel Farage is “leading a modern peasant’s revolt against Westminster”.

Table 1: UKIP and populist attitudes

Opinion %  AgreeAll  Citizens % AgreeUKIP Voters Source
British politicians are out merely for themselves 48 74 YouGov/ Southampton University(October 2014)
Politics is a waste of time 26 44 YouGov/Southampton University

(June 2013)

Politics is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society 72 85 YouGov/Southampton University

(June 2013)

News media coverage of UKIP has been biased against them 44 77 YouGov(May 2014)
There is a political class, clubbing together, using their mates in the media and doing anything to stop the UKIP charge 54 92 YouGov(May 2014)

The populist dynamic that is driving the surge of support for UKIP, garnering the support of the disillusioned rather than the disengaged voters), is capable of and likely to eventually turn in on itself. The gap between the democratic ideal in the heads of their supporters and the messy reality of modern democratic politics remains in place and it provides a trap for UKIP to fall into. So when UKIP supporters see their political heroes backing the interests of big business, or when their elected representatives appear as craven as others and when simple solutions to complex problems cannot be delivered, disillusionment will drive down the party’s support just as it drove it up. Or when self-interested internal power struggles dominate media coverage of the party the drift in support can lead quickly on to implosion. In Australia, Pauline Hanson led her populist One Nation party to remarkable success in state level elections in Queensland and secured over 9% of the vote in the 1998 federal elections. Hanson’s demise was swift, however, and in the 2010 federal election One Nation polled less than 1% of votes. The established mainstream parties are not easy to shift; not least in part as they can occupy some of the issue and policy ground claimed by populist challengers.

Some claim that UKIP are fast becoming the Teflon party of British politics immune from media exposure of scandals affecting it because its base reflects a value or cultural rejection of liberal Britain and a sense of deep distrust of mainstream political parties and their media allies. The survey evidence backs up the scale of distrust held by UKIP supporters but our argument is that the Teflon factor should not be overplayed; distrust of one group of political actors can quickly spread to others. One time beneficiaries can become a target, ask Mr Clegg. Because UKIP is a party of populism it must live and die by its rules. Those rules predict a surge followed by a slump as scandals, exposure of political self-interest and failures of delivery take their toll. The bookmakers would be well advised to offer  considered odds on that possibility as well as the number of seats that UKIP will earn in May 2015 general election.

Political disaffection is not new, but it is rising and driving UKIP support

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Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


Some argue that the current anti-politics mood is just a contemporary manifestation of a timeless phenomenon: that people don’t much like politics or politicians. It probably true that politicians have never been greatly popular in the history of British democracy but there is now clear evidence of decline and more than that it appears that anti-politics is having a big effect on politics by driving  support for UKIP.

Good longitudinal data on public attitudes towards politics and politicians is difficult to come by. To address this, we have replicated a poll question that was first asked by Gallup in July 1944: “Do you think that British politicians are out merely for themselves, for their party, or to do their best for their country?” To mark the 70th anniversary of the original poll, and the launch of a new ESRC project that looks at popular understandings of politics between 1937 and 2014, YouGov carried out a survey for us asking precisely the same question as was asked to the British public in 1944 and 1972.

The results (see Figure 1) show that there has been a clear shift in public attitudes seeing politicians as self-serving, with some 48% of respondents now considering that they are ‘out for themselves’, a further 30% believing they are out for their party, and just 10% thinking they want to do what is right for the country. The fact that only 1 in 10 of us think politicians try to their best for the country now represents a large drop, both from the wartime poll (where 36% were willing to see politicians as trying to do their best for the country) and from the 1970s poll (where 28% felt that politicians were out to do their best for us). The data tells us that people are noticeably more negative about politics today than they were seventy years ago. Indeed, the fact that public opinion moved only slightly between 1944 and 1972 but much more negatively since then indicates that recent disenchantment with politics is an issue that is of serious consequence.

Figure 1. What Motivates Politicians? 

Figure1

It is also clear from our data that disaffection with politics and politicians is fuelling the drift of voters away from the main parties to UKIP. UKIP voters are steadfastly negative about the political class. Some 74% of them believe that politicians are out for themselves and 19% for their party, with a paltry 3% thinking they are out to do their best for their country. This view of self-serving politicians is the unifying feature of attitudes of UKIP supporters.

Arguably political disaffection unifies UKIP supporters at least as much as either opposition to the EU or concern about immigration. If we model the likelihood of voting UKIP as a function of those answering that politicians are out for ‘themselves’, as much variance is explained as typical social predictors of UKIP support (those predictors in our dataset being respondents who are male, over-54 and working class). UKIP voters are not necessarily the ‘left behind’, but are people holding unambiguously and intensely negative views of politics and politicians. UKIP supporters are also much more firm-minded on this issue, with just 4% indicating ‘don’t know’ (a much lower figure than the average of 12% for the other parties). Not only are UKIP supporters more negative, they are surer of their views. They “know” that establishment politicians are serving themselves or their parties not the country.

Another notable finding, given the conventional wisdom about anti-politics, is that younger respondents (18-24) are in fact much less likely to think politicians are out for themselves. This is despite the popular claim that young voters are unengaged. It is older voters who are more cynical about the motivations of politicians.  So the decline in citizens’ willingness to back politicians to do the right thing by their country cannot easily be explained by a generational shift to more challenging, critical or cynical voters. It has got something to do with citizens’ judgement about how politicians and politics are presented and appear to them.

In that light it is worth noting that if your party is in power you might be more willing to give its politicians the benefit of the doubt. In our results, Conservative voters are most positive, with ‘just’ 34% thinking politicians are out for themselves, while 21% think they are out for their country (more than double the average). Curiously, Lib Dem voters tend not to think politicians are out for themselves (just 26% do), but 44% think they are out to do what is best for their party. This is perhaps a function of the party being in a coalition as well as the fact that Lib Dem voters are now something of a rump. Despite much celebration of the quality of Scotland’s democratic debate over independence, respondents from Scotland are more likely to see politicians as being self-serving than any other part of the country (with London and the South being more positive than the rest of the country).

Finally let us return to the original 1944 Gallup results. Remarkably, as war continued to rage across the globe, some 35% of respondents still believed that Britain’s politicians were out for themselves, 22% for their party, and 36% for their country. A healthy scepticism appears to have been ingrained in British citizens for a long time and will never be rooted out. But with only 10% of citizens now thinking that politicians try to act in the public interest it suggests that governing in a time of real crisis would be even more difficult. And those crises are potentially upon us, whether they are forging economic recovery, dealing with global warming or funding health care for an aging population. As David Runciman argues in his historical review The Confidence Trap, democracies have muddled through crises in the past but they may be losing the capacity to do so in the future. Our survey findings should give further reason for sounding alarm bells: if no one believes in elected politicians our ability to take effective collective action on issues that matter may be diminishing or disappearing.

 

Technical note: Total sample size was 2,103 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 20th – 21st October 2014.  The survey was carried out online. Figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). Full cross-tabs of the survey can be found here.

Details of the logistic regression of UKIP vote intention comparing the effects of social predictors with political disaffection can be found here.

Why being in government will cost the Tories in 2015. So far UKIP is picking up the spoils

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By Jane Green and Will Jennings. Jane Green is Professor of Political Science at University of Manchester (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


Cross-posted at the APSA British Politics Group Blog.

It has been described as one of the most important unanswered questions in political science: why governments regularly and predictably lose popular support over their time in office. Such is the regularity of ‘costs of governing’ that it appears that governments are simply ‘passive observers’ of their diminishing support, leading to the suspicion that these trends may be almost wholly independent of the performance of a government in office.[1] The implication of costs of governing is stark: it seems to matter little what a government does in office, its decline in popular support is all but guaranteed. Here we consider the implications of costs of governing for the 2015 British general election and summarise our answer to the question of why governments experience these all-important governing costs.

The Implications of Governing Costs for 2015

The Conservatives began their period of government without a majority. What this means, of course, is that the party has to increase its popular support between 2010 and 2015 (and how that is translated into seats) to have a chance of winning a majority in 2015. David Cameron has to buck the ‘costs of governing’ trend if he is to win back support before 2015.

That isn’t looking likely. Vote intentions towards the Conservatives since June 2010 have followed the predictable pattern of governing costs that we identify in all countries for which regular polling data are available. The following two figures show (a) the decline in vote intention for the Conservatives since June 2010 (the average of all available polls for each month), and (b) the decline and curve that best fits the data for governing party support across 79 government lifecycles in 31 countries. The first figure plots vote intention for the Conservatives over the course of this parliament by month, the second plots vote intention over often much longer time periods by year.

(a) Conservative Party vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_CON

(b) Governing party vote intention (79 governing periods, 31 countries)

COG

The high level of support (or honeymoon) at the start of Conservative-Lib Dem government in 2010, and the loss of support thereafter, is consistent with the trend we find exhibited in the largest collection of cross-national over-time poll data it is currently possible to analyse.

UKIP are the beneficiaries

What is striking to us is that the only pattern in the last four years which doesn’t entirely fit our conventional expectations is the following. Whereas we would usually expect the major party of opposition to be the beneficiary of declining trust and support for the government, it is UKIP rather than Labour that appears to be capitalising on the costs of governing for the Conservatives (the Liberal Democrats’ support collapsed early in the parliament and has been flat lining around 10% or less since). The following figures display (c) vote intentions for Labour between June 2010 and August 2014, and (d) vote intentions to UKIP in the same period (again taking the average of all polls in both cases). We can see that although Labour received a boost to its support in the first 2-3 years of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition – a pattern we would have predicted – it has steadily lost that support since 2013. UKIP, by contrast, has witnessed a significant gain in popular support over the same period.

(c) Labour Party vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_LAB

(d) UKIP vote intention June 2010 – August 2014

VOTE_UKIP

A reading of recent British public opinion data may be interpreted simply that Conservative voters are moving over to UKIP due to UKIP’s policy and rhetorical appeal, and latterly Labour voters too. But looking at these data in the context of cross-national and over-time trends in costs of governing suggest something more profound may be happening. The Conservative Party should have been expected to lose its support. That support could have gone to the Lib Dems, to Labour, to UKIP or to being undecided. It is a signal of the distrust in mainstream politics that the predictable costs of governing have resulted in rewards to UKIP. Labour would have been the beneficiaries under usual expectations but on the face of public opinion alone, the trends point to UKIP as the classic party of opposition. This is in a context whereby the Liberal Democrats cannot pick up those opposition party spoils. The anti-politics mood in Britain may be fundamentally shifting the winners and losers of some of the most important and conventional trends we are aware of in political science.

The Conservative Party may experience an uptick in support as we near the 2015 election. The tendency of some incumbent parties to experience an uptick can be seen in the modest U-shape curve in Figure (b) above. But any uptick to the Conservatives won’t reverse the fundamental trends that we highlight above.

Explaining Costs of Governing

Costs of governing are surprisingly poorly understood, despite their prevalence and their profound implications. The reason for this has been an absence of data on public perceptions of party and government performance. Our recent paper for the annual conference of the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties specialist group of the Political Studies Association sets out new explanations for the decline in governing party support using a unique data set we have collated on subjective performance evaluations of governing parties by British, American, Canadian, Australian and German voters. This draws on over 10,000 individual survey questions asked over as many as 65 years (a measure we call ‘macro-competence’). For more information see http://www.competence-politics.co.uk.

The first explanation for costs of governing concerns the initial honeymoon period; the high from which governing costs occur. We find that the early period of a new government is characterised by blame to the government’s predecessor; an effect that lasts around one typical election cycle (of 4-5 years). This means that Gordon Brown’s government will have been blamed for the first years of the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with that effect unlikely to persist into and beyond 2015.

The second explanation concerns how blame accumulates to the incumbent government. As a government continues its period in office, blame begins to stick, and the effects of negative information stick more than positive information. As governments are seen as performing badly, we show that this has a significantly greater effect on vote intention than positive changes in perceived government performance or competence. This negative information accumulates over a government’s time in office. Mistakes, policy disasters and scandals remain in the minds of voters long after politicians have moved on. In our paper we reveal that the addition of a new negative change in governing party competence, and another new negative change, each has a unique effect. The final innovative theoretical (and evidence-based) expectation is that there is a saturation point in the effect of competence evaluations. Negative competence effects begin to weaken after ‘shocks’ accumulate above a certain level, as voters make up their mind that a government cannot be trusted – and their attitudes become fixed in stone. In the case of the present Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, our analysis explains how information about bad performance has been weighed more heavily than information about good, and how this information accumulates until the electorate no longer has trust in the government to deliver on its objectives. This is consistent with the gradual decline in Conservative Party support displayed above between June 2010 and August 2014. It is also notable that the costs of governing have happened for the Conservatives very quickly in relation to the amount of time they have actually served in office. The early ‘omni-shambles’ and the unpopularity of austerity measures may well have contributed to this, as well as their relatively low starting point at from May 2010.

[1] Here we paraphrase the observations of Stimson (1976) in his analysis of declines in presidential approval.

Parties and Anti-Politics

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Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


How and why do political parties struggle to ‘get’ anti-politics? They all nod in speeches and policy statements in the direction of public disenchantment with politics but fail to take tackling its causes seriously. UKIP seek to exploit it, the Tories want to wish it away, Labour under Miliband claim innocence and ineptness in their defence, while the Liberal Democrats misread it and think constitutional change is the answer.

Let us admit immediately anti-politics is not easy to respond to or understand. It is now some five years since the expenses scandal broke unleashing an already building undercurrent of dissatisfaction to become a storm of contempt for the political class. Some of the confusion of the political class likely stems from the difficulty of pinpointing a single or direct cause of growing political disengagement and disenchantment. Instead, each of the political parties tends to see anti-politics in its own image, and through the lens of what it would like to believe rather than what it is. But the evidence we have suggests that from the perspective of citizens none of them has the solution to anti-politics in their grasp.

1) UKIP

In many respects, UKIP have the most straightforward relationship with anti-politics. The party has an intuitive grasp of the scale and intensity of public discontentment with the political class and the appeal of populist policies. This makes it highly effective in presenting itself as political outsiders disconnected from the Westminster bubble – and pulling off the tightrope act of appealing to right-wing Eurosceptic former Conservatives and traditional economically disadvantaged Labour supporters at the same time. It also helps them deflect criticism and media scrutiny, such as on the ill-discipline by local councillors and candidates, as snobbish and elitist bullying from the political establishment. UKIP’s empathy for anti-politics is superficial, however. While effective in channelling the sentiment of protest into votes at the ballot box, their style of politics and policy do not address the problems of political discontentment at its roots, and are likely to disappoint in the long-term. The UKIP project itself stems from a carefully media managed outsider image and populist rhetoric, dominated by the charismatic Nigel Farage, that has learned much from the spin operations of the Blair and Cameron teams. For UKIP, anti-politics is something to be exploited: they are more the symptom of anti-politics rather than offering a thick understanding or treatment for its causes.

2) Conservatives

The Conservatives hope that anti-politics will just go away when the good times return. A recent blog by Dominic Cummings, former special advisor to the Secretary of State for Education, recounts the tale of a wargame organised in Westminster during the autumn of 2010 “to consider the likely dynamics of the next five years”. His contemporaneous notes of the exercise make for interesting reading in the likely scenarios identified for anti-politics sentiment among citizens. These reveal a troubling complacency, with the ideal future scenario identified by the ‘Cameroons’ in the room (as Cummings calls them) as being simply “anti-politics dies away”;  as if this widespread sentiment was a passing fad rather than a more entrenched mood requiring serious reflection and solutions. Part of this misplaced optimism might be put down to the ‘too-clever-by-half’ tendencies of their professionalised brand of politics, as well as cultural disconnect that gives limited understanding of the day-to-day lives of ordinary people (unhelped by toxic stories that suggest a financial existence beyond the imagination of most voters; such as the recent retirement of a Conservative minister complaining his family was unable to manage on a six-figure income). This disconnect is fuelled through recruitment of a modern professional political class that looks and thinks little like its voters. The modern politician, and their army of special advisors, has been taught a number of ‘iron laws’ of politics that must be followed for electoral victory.

In some respects the teaching of politics must take some of the blame here, in its role in socialising aspiring politicians in the rational choice view of the world that individuals favour economic self-interest above all else. Subscription to aphorisms like ‘it’s the economy stupid’ has led to over-simplistic diagnoses of the problem, as well as a more general subscription to gimmick politics – giveaways to groups of target voters (a political art put as much to use by George Osborne as Gordon Brown). The recent Coastal Communities fund is one such example, with government subsidies targeted at prime UKIP territory without addressing the underlying causes of economic decline. The Conservative stance on immigration typifies the downward spiral created by strategic and presentational politics. Although a fruitful issue for hammering the Blair and Brown governments when it was in opposition, immigration is an issue that most voters will never trust the government to deliver on, but it keeps on trying. To keep ramping up the anti-migration rhetoric simply feeds anti-politics sentiment and cynicism (it is no coincidence that the only prominent figures to recently make the case for immigration are retired politicians – Tony Blair and Sir John Major – with no need to play the populist card to the tabloid audience). The Conservatives’ liking for news management is also evidenced in the short-term attention span of their responses to foreign policy issues – such as Russia and EU reform – where there is a rush to take rhetorical positions without much thought to the long-term consequences of symbolic politics. Cameron’s infamous EU veto in 2011 did nothing to undercut the rise of UKIP, and much like immigration arguably served to embolden them and feed a cynical public.

Anti-politics predate the economic crisis of the last few years and as such to imagine it will go away when the good times roll is naive.

3) Labour

Labour’s relationship with anti-politics is somewhat different. They have struggled to understand it when in government – perhaps focusing more on their own policy achievements in office than the emergence of political discontentment. Now in opposition Labour likes to pretend they are not part of it, such as Miliband’s recent speech lambasting presentational politics. “I’m not from central casting; I’m the one with bold ideas and deep thinking” is the plea from Labour’s leader. But does that get to the heart of the issue or represent a form of post-spin spin?

Labour are imprisoned by the necessities of political warfare and news management. Their response to anti-politics is muddled again because of the instinct for safe professional strategic politics that won’t scare voters off. There is good reason for this, with a media environment that is unsympathetic to the party or its leader. In many respects, Labour is the biggest puzzle of anti-politics, as this should be something it can deliver on better than anyone (and arguably should benefit the party most electorally given the demographic of the anti-politickers). However, it has struggled to offer a narrative that links anti-politics to a positive message that might offset the alienation that many voters feel due both to their experience of the democratic process and an economic existence which is increasingly precarious – with falling real wages, less secure employment, longer hours and immobility for those who can’t get on the employment or housing ladder early on in life. Labour’s failing on anti-politics is thus more about its inability to come up with imaginative and convincing solutions that address these problems.

Collectively, Labour want to get anti-politics, but have been unable to join the dots between aspects of their own modernisation project, which intentionally distanced them from the ‘left-behind’ (their traditional base, the shrinking working class part of the electorate whose experience is increasingly economically and culturally distant from the political class in Westminster), and the reason why many people feel disenfranchised from political representation. The Blairite project was hugely successful as an electoral strategy, but left many communities with few economic or political prospects – as the economic and political gravity of Britain shifted towards London under its watch (and has continued to move in that direction ever since).

4) Liberal Democrats

With the Liberal Democrats largely dazed and confused as a political force since their decision into the coalition in May 2010, anti-politics is just another problem for a party that has lost its identity and its electoral appeal. They seem particularly at sea in dealing with anti-politics and find it hard to understand why it appears no one likes them anymore. Getting involved in government at the local level was not such a negative experience but the national engagement has made it impossible for activists to present themselves on the side of the angels; they are firmly part of the political elite and have found that an uncomfortable position.

Because traditionally the Liberal Democrats pursued a more positive/optimistic style of politics than their counterparts, especially locally, anti-politics is something of an anathema to them, and as such it is understandable the have not fully been able to comprehend the alienation felt by some. The traditional focus on constitutional reform has become outdated, as the roots of anti-politics attitudes have become better understood as not simply about the electoral system. When asked in focus groups or surveys citizens do not back the idea of constitutional reform among their top choices for political reform.

None of the main parties get anti-politics. Perhaps some of the truths of anti-politics remain too hard for those working at the coalface of politics to hear. In certain respects this is understandable, party activists and leaders have committed their lives to participating in politics and must find it hard to empathise with those who see no benefit or virtue in politics. The first party leader or group of activists who really show an ability to understand the world from another’s perspective and then show a real capacity to shift the way they do politics might indeed reap a considerable reward in support. Each false dawn risks alienating the public further. There is little sense from the evidence about anti-politics that most citizens see the solution as them becoming more active, taking more decisions, sitting on more committees or taking part in referenda. There is some push for having more of say but the overwhelming sentiment is for a political leadership that is seen engaged, connected and responsive and not driven by spin, self-aggrandisement and connections with big business. People want a representative democracy that works. If a political party could show them how to get that it would be on to a winner.

‘Different clique, same sofa’: the Carswell defection to Ukip and anti-politics

DipticBy Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter). Read more posts by Will here.


 

Much of the commentary that has followed the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip has focused on Eurosceptic disquiet within Conservative ranks that threaten to pull the party apart even before a referendum on EU membership can be held. But the challenge that Ukip poses to the Westminster village is a symptom of the ongoing crisis of political trust that reached a climax with the expenses scandal and the global financial crisis. Indeed, Carswell’s statement on his resignation is just as much a statement on the failings of contemporary politics as it is about the need for EU reform or reduced immigration (factors typically claimed to be pivotal to Ukip support). Carswell’s views are firmly in line with widespread public discontentment with politics today, and are especially close to the intense contempt for the political class felt by Ukip supporters.

In a YouGov survey last year, we asked respondents a series of questions about the ability and willingness of politicians to deal with the problems facing Britain today. Many of their views reflect the criticisms that Carswell directs at the Conservative party and towards the political class more generally. These reflect a much more fundamental challenge to the political class than gripes over government policy on the EU and immigration. Three failings of politics stand out in Carswell’s statement that are also reflected in public opinion: self-interest, spin/cynicism and lack of leadership.

Leadership

There is a lack of conviction and seriousness, Carswell argues, about the challenges facing Britain: “The problem is that many of those at the top of the Conservative party … aren’t serious about the changes that Britain desperately needs.” We found that 33% of people, and 28% of Ukip supporters, agreed that “politicians possess the leadership to tell the public the truth about the tough decisions that need to be made.”

Self-interest

The ruling class is attacked by Carswell for lacking principle and being motivated by self-interest: “Few [politicians] are animated by principle or passion. Those that are soon get shuffled out of the way. Many are just in it for themselves. They seek every great office, yet believe in so little.” We find a prevailing belief among the general public that politics privileges the rich and the powerful, with 72% of respondents agreeing with the view that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”, and just 8% disagreeing. A striking 85% of Ukip supporters take this view, contrasted with just 53% of Conservative supporters.

Spin/cynicism

Politics has become too much a parlour game for the ruling class, detached from the concerns of ordinary people, Carswell argues: “Politics to them is about politicians like them. It’s a game of spin and positioning.” This too-clever-by-half schoolboy approach to politics leads to an emphasis on headline-grabbing: “They don’t think things through. They make one glib announcement after another – and then move on. On to the next speech. The next announcement. The next headline.” This viewpoint is resoundingly supported by respondents to our survey, with 80% agreeing with the statement “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”. An astonishing 88% of Ukip supporters held this view, with just 1% disagreeing.

While the Carswell defection can be seen as a consequence of the fault lines over Europe that have existed in the Conservative Party since the 1980s, it also reflects a clear groundswell of public opinion calling for change in the way politics is carried out. The prevailing mood of contempt for the practice of politics and the political class has not been seriously addressed, despite much rhetoric and promise. This may only be the start of a fracture across the whole political spectrum – as frustration grows with how little has changed, both inside and outside the Westminster bubble.

Further details of the original survey can be found here.

Polling Observatory #38: Polls may bounce, but public opinion usually doesn’t

This is the thirty-eighth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 30-01-14 anchor on average

 

This was a bouncing polls month. Early on in June, several polls pointed to an unexpected rebound in Labour’s fortunes, leading to a brief flurry of speculation about a Labour surge. Then, right at the end of the month (and mostly outside of the window that our latest estimates refer to) polls started to show a slight recovery for the Conservatives, which was immediately labelled a “Juncker bounce” by the media, particularly the parts of it who approved of David Cameron’s fruitless campaign to prevent former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker from taking over as President of the European Commission.

The Polling Observatory’s method tends to have a more conservative view of moves in public opinion. Our estimates for the first of July put Labour at 34.6%, up 0.8 points on a month ago. While this is a modest rebound, it nonetheless represents a reversal of the downward trend evident for most of 2014 to date, and is the first significant up-tick in support for Labour since the autumn of last year. Conservative support is stable at 30.8%, down just 0.1 points on last month. However, this is without most of the alleged “Juncker bounce” polls collected in the first week of July, which, when added in, may push the Conservatives modestly higher than they were in late May – but this remains to be seen.

There is little evidence yet of a fall in UKIP support now the European Parliament elections have passed, confounding the expectations of pundits who believed the European election victory was the “peak UKIP moment”. Our estimates have Farage’s party at 14.8%, down just 0.1% on last month. The Liberal Democrats, however, continue to slide to new record lows. This month they register just 8.8%, down 0.5% on last month, and an all-time low under our new methodology.

While our model does register significant month-on-month, and even week-on-week, shifts in public opinion, these are never as dramatic as those shown in the polls which grab the most headlines. The truth is that such bounces are far too large to be plausible as real movements in public opinion — a 7 point swing, for example, would require 2 million people to change their vote preferences in a single week or month. This simply does not happen in the absence of a very powerful change in the political context. It is just not very plausible to believe that 2 million people switched to Labour at the beginning of the month, without any compelling reason to do so, or that a similar mass of voters were won over to the Conservatives by Cameron’s quixotic anti-Juncker campaign.

Once the polls are aggregated together, and the noise inevitably produced by random sampling variation is filtered out, the bounces in public opinion from month to month become much smaller. The largest weekly shifts in support we find to date in this Parliament mostly occur at the very beginning, when Lib Dem support fell by 1.5% in the second week after the general election, and then carried on falling at a similar rate for several weeks afterwards, while Labour support shifted upwards at a similar rate. In fact, almost half of the 20 largest weekly changes in public opinion in this Parliament are accounted for by the Lib Dems’ post-election collapse. This shift in preferences followed a hugely significant and largely unexpected event – the formation of a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Millions of Liberal Democrats who had regarded the party as an ideological stable mate of Labour saw their vote choices in a new light and changed their preferences accordingly.

Party Number of weeks since May 6, 2010 (week starting) Weekly change in vote intentions
Lib Dem 2 (13/05/2010) -1.5
Lib Dem 3 (20/05/2010) -1.5
Lab 2 (13/05/2010) 1.4
Lab 3 (20/05/2010) 1.3
Con 101 (05/04/2012) -1.2
Lib Dem 4 (27/05/2010) -1.2
Con 86 (22/12/2011) 1.2
Lib Dem 5 (03/06/2010) -1.0
Lib Dem 9 (01/07/2010) -0.9
Lab 4 (27/05/2010) 0.9
Con 102 (12/04/2012) -0.9
Lib Dem 6 (10/06/2010) -0.9
Lib Dem 8 (24/06/2010) -0.8
Con 100 (29/03/2012) -0.8
Con 159 (16/05/2013) -0.8
Lib Dem 7 (17/06/2010) -0.8
Lab 34 (23/12/2010) 0.8
Lab 86 (22/12/2011) -0.8
Lib Dem 10 (08/07/2010) -0.8
Lab 107 (17/05/2012) 0.7

The other major shift in voters’ preferences during this parliament (aside from a sharp, but short lived, rally in Conservative support immediately after David Cameron’s European summit veto in December 2011) came in the aftermath of the “omnishambles” budget of March 2012, with the Conservatives’ poll rating falling around a percentage point three weeks in a row, and. Even then, there are several different explanations for this dramatic shift in preferences (as we discussed at the time here), which may have combined to make something of a perfect political storm – wrecking the Conservatives’ reputation for competence, alienating previously supporting groups, and reinforcing negative stereotypes about the ‘nasty party’.

Events such as the formation of a governing coalition between two parties that were not regarded as natural allies can produce large swings in the polls, so can highly visible examples of incompetence or economic crises. However, the vast majority of political events are nowhere near as significant. This is why the correct initial reaction to any headline of the form “x produces bounce in polls” is “let’s wait and see”. In the vast majority of cases, the apparent realignment of voters is swiftly revealed to be a statistical phantom.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

The Polling Observatory Forecast #2: Still A Dead Heat, Despite Recent Turbulence…

As explained in our inaugural election forecast last month, up until May next year the Polling Observatory team will be producing a long term forecast for the 2015 General Election, using methods we first applied ahead of the 2010 election (and which are also well-established in the United States). Our method involves trying to make the best use of past polling evidence as a guide to forecast the likeliest support levels for each party in next May’s election (see our previous research here), based on current polling, and then using these support levels to estimate the parties’ chances of winning each seat in the Parliament. We will later add a seat-based element to this forecast.

Forecast 01-06-14

In light of the turbulence of the polls over the course of the European election campaign (with a Lord Ashcroft poll showing the Conservatives ahead for the first time since March 2012), inquests into the insipid performance of Labour and Ed Miliband, better than expected results for the Conservatives in local and European elections, and a disastrous showing by the Liberal Democrats, some might have expected a turning point or a step change in the predictions for May 2015 – consistent with the pattern for governments to often recover in the polls during the final year. However, some degree of recovery is already built in to our model and there is, as yet, no evidence that the Conservatives are outperforming the historical trend. Our forecast puts Labour and the Conservatives in a dead heat, as it did last month. We currently forecast both parties to receive 35.8% of the vote. In part this reflects the very recent uptick in Labour support following a decline over recent months. More significantly, though, it reflects the fact that both parties are polling well below their historical level, and therefore we expect both to make some recovery in the polls. However, the prospect of a recovery to the kind of levels seen by winners in past elections – 40% plus – is tempered by the very low starting point for both main competitors. Both main parties are likely to put in weaker performances than in the past, even with a recovery from the current low ebb, but at present history continues to suggest a very tight race to the finish next spring.

Polling Observatory #37: No Westminster polling aftershock from European Parliament earthquake

This is the thirty-seventh in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 06-01-14 anchor on average

This month’s Polling Observatory comes in the aftermath of the European Parliament elections and the so-called UKIP earthquake for the electoral landscape. Despite much volatility in the polls ahead of those elections, with a few even putting the Conservatives ahead of Labour for the first time in over two years, underlying support for both main parties remained stable over the course of the month. Labour may have fallen early in the month in the run-up to the European elections, or the Conservative leads may have been the result of random variation. In any event, by the end of the month, we had Labour polling at 33.8%, just 0.2 points down on their support a month ago. The Conservatives are also broadly flat at 30.9%, 0.3 points below their standing a month ago. The Lib Dems have suffered slightly more of a post-election hangover, perhaps set back by infighting over the botched coup by Lord Oakeshott and the widespread ridicule over the Clegg/Cable beer-pulling photo op, on 9.3%, down 0.4 points. UKIP support remained stable at record high levels, as they enjoyed a moment in the limelight around the European Parliament elections. We have them rising 0.2 points on last month to 14.9%, their highest support level to date. Note that all these figures are based on our adjusted methodology, which is explained in detail below.

It is noticeable that while Labour’s support has been in decline for the last six to nine months (having plateaued for a period before that) underlying Conservative support has remained incredibly stable around the 31% level. In fact, setting aside the slight slump around the time of the last UKIP surge at the 2013 local elections, their standing with the electorate has been flat since its crash of April 2012 around the time of the ‘omnishambles’ budget. The narrowing in Labour’s lead over the past year is entirely the result of Labour losing support, not of the Conservatives gaining it. We have written at length previously about how the fate of the Liberal Democrats was sealed in late 2010, and as such it is remarkable that in this parliament there has been so little movement in the polls for the parties in government. The prevalent anti-politics mood out in the country and continued pessimism about personal/household finances has meant that neither of the Coalition partners have yet been able to convert the economic recovery into a political recovery. Instead, both are gaining ground relatively as the main opposition party also leak support, perhaps also succumbing to the anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-Westminster politics of UKIP.

As explained in our methodological mission statement, our method estimates current electoral sentiment by pooling all the currently available polling data, while taking into account the estimated biases of the individual pollsters (“house effects”). Our method therefore treats the 2010 election result as a reference point for judging the accuracy of pollsters, and adjusts the poll figures to reflect the estimated biases in the pollsters figures based on this reference point. Election results are the best available test of the accuracy of pollsters, so when we started our Polling Observatory estimates, the most recent general election was the obvious choice to “anchor” our statistical model. However, the political environment has changed dramatically since the Polling Observatory began, and over time we have become steadily more concerned that the changes have rendered our method out of date. Yet changing the method of estimation is also costly, as it interrupts the continuity of our estimates, and makes it harder to compare our current estimate with the figures we reported in our past monthly updates.

There were three concerns about the general election anchoring method. Firstly, it was harsh on the Liberal Democrats, who were over-estimated by pollsters ahead of 2010 but have been scoring very low in the polls ever since they lost over half their general election support after joining the Coalition. The negative public views of the Liberal Democrats, and their very different political position as a party of government, make it less likely that the current polls are over-estimating their underlying support. Secondly, a general election anchor provides little guidance on UKIP, who scored only 3% in the general election but poll in the mid-teens now, but with large disagreements in estimated support between pollsters (see discussion of house effects below). Thirdly, the polling ecosystem itself has changed dramatically since 2010, with several new pollsters starting operations, and several other established pollsters making such significant changes to their methodology that they were equivalent to new pollsters as well.

We have decided that these concerns are sufficiently serious to warrant an adjustment to our methodology. Rather than basing our statistical adjustment on the last general election, we now make adjustments relative to the “average pollster”. This assumes that the polling industry as a whole will not be biased. This assumption could prove wrong, of course, as it did in 2010 (and, in a different way, 1992). However, it seems pretty likely that any systematic bias in 2015 will look very different to 2010, and as we have no way of knowing what the biases in the next election might be, we apply the “average pollster” method as the best interim guide to underlying public opinion.

This change in our methodology has a slight negative impact on our current estimates for both leading parties. Labour would be 34.5% if anchored against the 2010 election, rather than the new estimate of 33.8%, while the Conservatives would be on 31.5% rather than 30.9%. Yet as both parties fall back by the same amount, their relative position is unchanged.  UKIP gain slightly from the new methodology – our new estimate is now 14.9%, under the old method they would score 14.5%. However, the big gainers are the Lib Dems, who were punished under our old method for their strong polling in advance of the 2010 general election.  We now estimate their vote share is estimated at 9.3%, significantly above the anaemic 6.7% estimate produced under the previous method. This is in line with our expectations in earlier discussions of the method in previous posts. It is worth noting that none of these changes affect the overall trends in public opinion that we have been tracking over the last few years, as will be clear from the charts above.

The European Parliament elections prompted the usual inquest into who among the nation’s pollsters had the lowest average error of the final polls compared against the result (see here). We cannot simply extrapolate the accuracy of polling for the European elections to next year’s general election. For one thing, these sorts of ‘final poll league table’ are subject to sampling error, making it extremely difficult to separate the accuracy of the polls once this is taken into account (as we have shown here). Nevertheless, with debate likely to continue to rage over the extent of the inroads being made by UKIP as May 2015 approaches, some of the differences observed in the figures reported by the polling companies will come increasingly under the spotlight. These ‘house effects’ are interesting in themselves because they provide us with prior information about whether an apparent high or low poll rating for a party, reported by a particular pollster, is likely to reflect an actual change in electoral sentiment or is more likely be down the particular patterns of support associated with the pollster.

Our new method makes it possible to estimate the ‘house effect’ for each polling company for each party, relative to the vote intention figures we would expect from the average pollster. That is, it tells us simply whether the reported vote intention for a given pollster is above or below the industry average. This does not indicate ‘accuracy’, since there is no election to benchmark the accuracy of the polls against. It could be, in fact, that pollsters at one end of the extreme or the other are giving a more accurate picture of voters’ intentions – but an election is the only real test, and even that is imperfect.

In the table below, we report all current polling companies’ ‘bias’ for each of the parties. We also report details of whether the mode of polling is telephone or Internet-based, and adjustments used to calculate the final headline figures (such as weighting by likelihood to vote or voting behaviour at the 2010 election). From this, it is quickly apparent that the largest range of house effects come in the estimation of UKIP support, and seem to be associated with the method a pollster employs to field a survey. All the companies who poll by telephone (except Lord Ashcroft’s new weekly poll) tend to give low scores to UKIP. By contrast, three of the five companies which poll using internet panels give higher than average estimates for UKIP. ComRes provide a particularly interesting example of this “mode effect”, as they conduct polls with overlapping fieldwork periods by telephone and internet panel. The ComRes telephone-based polls give UKIP support levels well below average, while the web polls give support levels well above it. It is not clear what is driving this methodological difference – something seems to be making people more reluctant to report UKIP support over the telephone, more eager to report it over the internet, or both. The diversity of estimates most likely reflects the inherent difficulty of accurately estimating support for a new party whose overall popularity has risen rapidly, and where the pollsters have little previous information to use to calibrate their estimates.

House Mode Adjustment Prompt Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
ICM Telephone Past vote, likelihood to vote UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 1.3 -0.9 2.8 -2.4
Ipsos-MORI Telephone Likelihood (certain) to vote Unprompted 0.5 0.4 0.5 -1.6
Lord Ashcroft Telephone Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ -0.7 -0.8 -1.2 0.9
ComRes (1) Telephone Past vote, squeeze, party identification UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 0.6 0.0 0.2 -2.5
ComRes (2) Internet Past vote, squeeze, party identification UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 0.3 -0.7 -1.0 1.8
YouGov Internet Newspaper readership, party identification (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 1.9 2.1 -1.3 -0.2
Opinium Internet Likelihood to vote UKIP prompted if ‘other’ -0.8 -0.9 -2.3 3.0
Survation Internet Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010) UKIP prompted -1.8 -1.5 -0.2 4.4
Populus Internet Likelihood to vote, party identification (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 2.3 1.5 0.2 -2.2

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

The Polling Observatory Forecast #1: Lessons for 2015 from polling history

With a year to go, the Polling Observatory team launch their forecast for the 2015 general election…

Starting this month, the Polling Observatory team is joined by a new member: our old friend and colleague, Christopher Wlezien of the University of Texas at Austin, who will be helping us to produce a long term forecast for the 2015 General Election, using methods we first applied ahead of the 2010 election. Our method involves trying to make the best use of past polling evidence as a guide to forecast the likeliest support levels for each party in next May’s election, based on current polling, and then using these support levels to estimate the parties’ chances of winning each seat in the Parliament. In this first post, we introduce the poll-based element of this model; in later posts we will introduce and explain the seat-based element.

The past is, of course, an imperfect guide, as voters and parties change and each election is, to some extent, unique. However, this does not mean past polling tells us nothing. On the contrary, as we have shown in previous research (non-gated version here), careful analysis of past polling reveals common underlying trends and patterns in British public opinion. It is these trends and patterns which we use to estimate our forecast of the likely path of public opinion. In 2010, our method fared relatively well against the alternatives on offer, getting the overall outcome of a hung Parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party correct, and coming quite close on all three parties’ seat totals. The forecast performed well relative to others forecasting models published by colleagues, notably beating celebrated polling oracle Nate Silver’s prediction for the British election.

The method works in the following way. Thanks to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, we know how many days remain until the next general election. For any given day, we can use all the polling data from past general election campaigns to estimate two things: how closely the current polling is likely to reflect the election outcome, and which direction public opinion is likely to move in between now and election day. We do this for each of the three main parties separately, seeing what polling history can tell us about their respective fates.

This is one of the simplest possible ways of forecasting how elections will turn out, and it leaves out an awful lot. We do not look at the impact of leader approval ratings, the objective state of the economy, or public economic perceptions – things which other models have used as forecasting tools. We simply take the best possible estimate of where public opinion is today (an estimate constructed using our poll aggregation method) and ask: How informative does history suggest this estimate will be as a prediction of the next election? Where does history suggest public opinion will move between now and election day?

Our method starts by considering the systematic and predictable ways in which the public’s intention to vote for parties varies over the election cycle – based on past evidence. Some shifts in public opinion are impossible to anticipate, such as in reaction to shocks or events. Other dynamics may be more predictable, however; for instance that pre-election poll leads tend to fade or that parties may benefit from ‘campaign effects’ (such as due to increased attention during the official election campaign). To forecast the election day vote share, we need to know the relationship between vote intention t days before the election and the vote share in past elections. Therefore, the first step in our forecasting procedure is to estimate the relationship between vote intention and vote share through a series of regressions – for each of the main parties – for each day of the election cycle. To do this, we use all available polling data since 1945 (more than 3,000 polls) – across seventeen elections. This allows us to determine both how well the polls predict the final outcome on a given day (unsurprisingly the polls become more predictive the closer we get to the election), and to determine whether support for a party is above or below its long-term equilibrium level – and is likely to gain or fade as the election approaches.

Our past work, using this very simple method, suggests it has some useful lessons to teach us. Firstly, we find that the predictive power of polls evolves differently for different parties: polling of Conservative support becomes steadily more predictive from over a year out, while for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the main improvement in accuracy comes in the last six months. Secondly, we find that support for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives tends to “regress to the mean” – if current support is above the long run average, it tends to fall; if it is below, then it tends to rise.

While the daily regressions teach us a lot, there is a fair bit of “noise” in the regression estimates, as each regression is based on 17 data points (elections). However, although each regression is based on only 17 data points, we have a separate regression for each day and we know that the estimates for one day should only differ so much from the estimates from the days immediately before and after it. Therefore, the second step in our forecast procedure is to reduce the noise by smoothing the regression estimates over time. The procedure we use to produce the smoothed regression estimates is similar to the procedure a sound engineer would use to remove static from a sound recording.

The third step in our forecast is to use the smoothed regressions estimates to produce forecasts by plugging our daily estimates of vote intention into the smoothed regression equations. These vote intention estimates come from the same poll aggregation method we use in our monthly Polling Observatory updates – a Bayesian averaging of the polls.

In the final step, we pooled the forecasts over 30 day intervals, so that the new pooled forecast on each day is a Bayesian averaging of all forecasts up to 30 days prior to that day.

The predictions we get by applying these methods to current polling since March 2011 are shown in the figure below. Our forecast model has consistently predicted a very close result – the Conservative vote share is expected to recover from its current level of around 32%, rising to around 36%, within half a percentage point of Labour, whose poll share is not expected to change much from current levels. In vote share, the result is close to a dead heat – the Conservatives are currently forecast to have 36.1%, and Labour 36.5%. The Liberal Democrats are forecast to recover some ground from their current polling position, but still put in their weakest performance in decades, with a forecast vote share of 10.1%.

Forecast 01-05-14 cropped

Forecasting vote shares can only take us so far, however. Westminster elections are won and lost in 650 separate battles for constituencies up and down the country. The aggregate vote shares are only an imperfect guide to the likely distribution of seats – our current forecast of a 0.8 point Conservative lead in vote share, for example, would be likely to produce a Labour seat lead. In future posts, we will employ the second part of our forecasting model to translate these vote shares into seat shares.

The seat-based section of the forecast also provides us with a mechanism to examine two of the big unknowns in our forecast – how the Liberal Democrats will perform after their first term in government for generations, and the impact of UKIP. Neither has any historical precedent, so we cannot model these effects in the historical part of the model. However, we can take an alternative approach, taking the baseline predictions from our historical model and applying different scenarios in the seat based part of the model. This will give us some sense of how sensitive the likely outcome is to changes in the fortunes of the two smaller parties. We will explore such scenarios in future posts.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien.

Polling Observatory #36: Farage’s Spring Uprising

This is the thirty-sixth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 04-30-14 cropped

This month’s Polling Observatory suggests that, not for the first time, Nigel Farage’s UKIP uprising has thrown a spanner into the Westminster political machine. The slow but steady tightening in the gap between the big two parties comes to a halt this month, as both lose ground while UKIP surges. Our estimate for Labour this month is 35.3%, down 0.9% on last month, and continuing the past year’s pattern of slow but steady decline. Labour have now hit their lowest point in the polls since Ed Miliband was elected leader of the party in the autumn of 2010. However, the Conservatives have not been able to capitalise on Labour’s continued decline as their support has fallen even more sharply this month, down 1.4 points at 31.6%. The Liberal Democrats have also seen no electoral benefit from their leader’s high profile combat with Nigel Farage over the EU – we have them down 0.2% this month at 7.4%.

All the momentum, and the media focus, lies instead with Nigel Farage and UKIP, whose surge in European Parliament polling is, as we predicted in earlier posts, being echoed in Westminster polling: UKIP stand at 14.1% this month, close to their highest ever share of 14.4% achieved in the aftermath of their local election success last summer. With UKIP currently favourites to win the European Parliament election, and become the first new party in nearly a century to top the poll in a nationwide election, further advances in the next few months look likely. It is likely that the upcoming Newark by-election will take place with UKIP support in domestic polling at record levels.

The current UKIP surge, however, does owe something to the unusual political context with a European Parliament election looming. In each of the past two European elections, UKIP has advanced in the polls, as their defining issue dominates the political agenda, and they expand beyond their traditional base of disaffected, struggling working class voters angry about immigration by winning over better off, often Conservative-leaning Eurosceptic voters who find UKIP attractive in European elections but less so in Westminster ones. In past election cycles, UKIP has struggled to hold on to these “strategic defectors” – voters who view UKIP as a vehicle for sending a message about the EU, but not a natural political home.

It remains to be seen whether the same dynamic will assert itself in the rather different political climate of 2014 – UKIP’s much stronger poll standing, greater media coverage, and improved financial and organisational resources may make it easier for them to retain new recruits. However, the Conservatives will certainly be hoping that the pattern of 2009, and (to a lesser extent) 2013 repeats itself – with UKIP’s spring surge fading away as voters return to the domestic political agenda and start to drift back to the mainstream parties, boosting Tory vote shares in particular.

Labour will hope that, with UKIP now targeting both main parties for votes, the decline in their support this month also reflects the temporary inflation in UKIP support, and that they too will recover more ground if and when UKIP decline than was true before. This is certainly possible, but it might be unwise to pin their hopes on a Farage fallback. The fall in Labour share this month was the continuation of a now well established trend that has seen the party shed 7 percentage points of support since their peak in the summer of 2012. Those within the party pushing for a “35% strategy” might be a little concerned that Labour support has already fallen back to this level, with over a year to go, and clear evidence of a downward trend in support. It is quite plausible that the remaining Labour backers are more firmly behind the party than those who have leaked away over the past 18 months, but the continued loss of support, and the precarious lead remaining, must give Labour plenty to worry about.

Those within all the parties wondering what today’s polling means for next year’s election will have some additional information to chew on next week when, exactly one year ahead of the general election, we launch the Polling Observatory forecast model, which utilises historical polling trends to estimate the likeliest pattern of results next May based on where things stand today. Tune in on May 7th to find out our current estimate of where support for the parties will be come election day.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup