Polling Observatory #25: UKIP surge, but who do they hurt?

Polling Observatory 25This is the twenty-fifth 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.

The big story of the month was the surge in support for UKIP, who secured close to a quarter of the vote in the local elections at the beginning of the month, and scored a similar share in the by-election to replace David Miliband in South Shields on the same day. This was by far the best national performance by a minor party in modern British politics, and as a consequence Nigel Farage and his party dominated the political agenda for much of the month.

UKIP’s local elections triumph, and the wave of positive media attention which followed it, was reflected in a series of record breaking performances in opinion polls over the past month. Some of these were dismissed at the time as outliers, but the Polling Observatory aggregate, which pools all the polling information, also shows a record breaking surge in UKIP support, up 2.9 percentage points to 14.4%. This is the third successive month we have UKIP at an all time high, and with some pollsters showing the party at closer to 20%, and Nigel Farage continuing to dominate the airwaves, the party has by no means exhausted its potential for growth. As we argued last month, the local elections provided a key test of UKIP’s capacity to mobilise voters and hence accumulate political influence. They passed the test with flying colours, and now look set to play a big role in the political debate for the rest of this Parliament.

With UKIP on the march, there is naturally much speculation about who among the main parties is hurt most by their advance. There is a case to be made that they hurt all three: UKIP voters are more likely to report previously supporting the Conservatives than the other parties (though less than half express a prior Tory allegiance), but their social profile more closely resembles the traditional Labour voter: poorer, blue collar, low income men with few qualifications. The Liberal Democrats are also in the firing line as UKIP have usurped their traditional role as the repository of mid-term protest.

The capacity of UKIP to do damage across the board is reflected in this month’s estimates, with all three mainstream parties seeing drops in their support. The Conservatives come off worst, dropping 2.2 percentage points to 28.1%, their worst showing of the Parliament so far. However, not all of this drop may be down to UKIP – we noted last month that the Tories appeared to be enjoying a rebound in support following Margaret Thatcher’s death. This month’s slump may partly reflect the fading of the Thatcher bounce.

Labour have little to cheer, though, as their support has also dropped substantially for the third month running, down 0.7 percentage points to 37.7%. While Ed Miliband and his party retain a healthy lead over the Conservatives, their popularity is also now close to the lowest seen since Miliband took over the leadership. Recent polling showing voters comparing Miliband’s leadership unfavourably to that of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will hand further ammunition to critics arguing that Labour’s position remains vulnerable.

It was also a demoralising month for the Liberal Democrats. While their losses in local elections were relatively modest, this was more to do with the Conservatives’ weakness than their strength. Their poll ratings fall 1.1 percentage points to 8.0%, undoing a modest recovery over recent months and putting them close to last year’s low ebb. As UKIP continue to advance, it will become more difficult to argue that Nigel Farage and his party should be excluded from political events, such as leader’s debates, which feature the less popular Lib Dems.

The pattern for coming months looks set: UKIP continue to advance, upsetting the political equilibrium and forcing reactions from all the main parties. This is likely to continue as the European Parliament elections, UKIP’s favourite competition, approach. Yet it remains unclear how much support UKIP will be able to retain at the next Westminster election. Serious UKIP seat gains still look unlikely, and the first past the post system is brutal on parties that voters think have little chance of winning. While currently the Westminster village is debating whose voters UKIP are recruiting, UKIP’s ultimate impact may depend as much on which voters it can retain when the tide turns. There is reason for Labour to worry on this front, as previous research suggests that in the last election cycle, “strategic defectors” who switched to UKIP at mid-term and then return at the general election are often more middle class and Conservative leaners than core UKIP loyalists, who are often poorer and more working class. If this pattern repeats itself in 2015, the Conservatives may recover some of their lost support while Labour voters tempted by Farage may prove harder to win back.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

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