Polling Observatory conference season update #3 – Labour

This is the twenty-ninth 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.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

Labour

A year ago, when we reported on the party conference season, Labour’s vote share stood at around 42.2%. Our estimates now put it almost five points lower, at 37.3%. As we noted at the time, Labour suffers from the same problem as any party in opposition – not being master of its own destiny, but instead depending on the favourable wind of events and government cock-ups. It is not so much anything that Labour has done recently that has led to this easing of support. Indeed, Labour’s level of support has hardly shifted at all in the past five months, despite the kerfuffle over Syria, the seeming fallout with the unions over events in Falkirk, and mutterings about Miliband’s leadership. The slump happened in the spring of 2013, and may reflect UKIP’s surging popularity and the newfound celebrity of its leader, Nigel Farage. The Eurosceptic populist party has attracted a lot of the voters dissatisfied by the government, particularly older working class voters, who might otherwise (reluctantly) be backing Ed Miliband’s Labour.

The public has not been paying much attention to Labour or its leader. But this is quite normal for a party that was in government so recently, despite a quite pathological obsession of some commentators with Miliband – the public were tired of Labour in 2010 after thirteen years of government, and these negative memories have not faded sufficiently for voters to think they deserve another turn in Number 10. For an opposition, it is difficult to define yourself when you lack control of the daily news agenda – and the communications machinery of government is not at your fingertips.

In a number of important political battles, Miliband has shown himself to have some mettle and a calm strategic mind where other opposition leaders would have folded. Labour is seeing a gradual loss of fair-weather supporters gained during a period when the economy was struggling, it had the Prime Minister on the run over the phone-hacking scandal, and the Chancellor had delivered the infamous omnishambles budget of March 2012. Where Miliband and Labour are struggling, is to define what they stand for. It needs to provide a clear alternative, but there are risks attached to revealing their cards too far before the next election. One should also be careful interpreting the numbers. People know what David Cameron stands for, but many of them do not like it – with 48% thinking he is ‘out of touch’ compared to 15% for Miliband. In assessing the popularity of party leaders, one has to be careful making historical comparisons, too – as the public are increasingly negative about the political class in general. Indeed, the ratings of all the party leaders have been in decline during the current parliament, with both Labour and the Conservatives seen as ‘rather old and tired’ by voters.

There are dangers, too, in Labour dancing to the tune of an unfavourably disposed media that is never likely to be won over – as illustrated by the journalistic appetite for leadership crisis stories during the summer silly season, and its overreaction to Labour’s position on Syria, which was in line with public opinion. Labour’s strongest attributes with voters are its reputation for its heart being in the right place and caring for the more vulnerable in society. Despite the evidence that social attitudes have become increasingly unsympathetic towards issues such as welfare, much of this comes down to the dominant framing of these issues – which have immense power to shape public opinion. The Conservatives have suffered from this too – where attempts to deliver more hardline policies on Europe (the veto) and immigration have only served to prime public opinion to demand more and more undeliverable reforms – and hence fuel  UKIP, who are happy to promise the impossible as they will never have to deliver it. Both parties are being dragged in different directions – and need to stop trying to appeal to the short-attention spans of commentators pushing their own visions of what the parties should be doing. Labour needs to stop trying to appeal to the hardcore Blairite fringe (Dan Hodges et al) that wants to treat 2015 as a re-run of 1997, and pretends nothing has changed in between. The Conservatives need to be wary of commentators using the threat of UKIP to drag them to the right and into unelectable territory – in the same way that the Tea Party has done serious damage to the long-term electoral prospects of the Republican Party in the US.

While Labour could be performing better, it could also be performing a lot worse. The political landscape has changed considerably in recent times – meaning there should be great caution in historical comparisons. The often referenced past elections when oppositions built up towering leads at mid-term were in the days when the combined Labour and Conservative share of the vote regularly exceeded 80%, so voters unhappy with the party in charge had only one place to go. Today, British politics has become fractured, and voters more polarized in their assessments of party leaders, driven by widespread disillusionment with politics, and fed up voters can switch to UKIP, the Greens or other minor party options rather than lending their support to the opposition. Today, the combined three-party vote of the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour barely reaches the 80% figure habitually achieved by the two main parties in the past – and their combined share has been in steady decline over the course of this parliament. Between 1945 and 2010 it averaged 95% of the vote. It now stands below 80%. No party can expect to have the sorts of leads that Blair or even Kinnock saw in opposition particularly when 10-15% of the most dissatisfied voters are opting instead for UKIP’s “none of the above” option.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Why party conferences still matter

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The annual Party Conference season is now well and truly under way. It’s a time when each political party’s enthusiasts – what I call the badge wearers – spend a week debating obscure composites, resolutions and amendments. Little wonder then that the general public generally switches channels to see if there is a decent repeat available on Dave.

To their detractors like Tony Benn, party conferences have become like American political conventions in which ‘we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if you’re lucky, have the occasional debate.’

So, do party conferences still matter?

The answer partly depends on whether a party is in Opposition or in Government. Opposition parties and their leaders are generally ignored by the media for the rest of the year, so the party conference becomes a vital occasion for Leaders of the Opposition to explain to the voters what they stand for. But if the party is in Government, conference defeats can be more easily discounted, as in 2003 when Tony Blair simply brushed off a conference defeat on foundations hospitals, and pressed on with the enabling legislation regardless.

In reality, the power of the annual conference largely depends on which political party we are discussing. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, currently gathered in Glasgow, genuine democracy prevails. As Nick Clegg admitted this week, ‘one of the joys’ of the Liberal Democrats is that their party conference truly decides matters of policy. Party delegates will largely determine the content of the next Liberal Democrat manifesto; at least in terms of policy, if not priorities. It matters, then, that Clegg narrowly won Monday’s debate on economic policy, not least to avoid the appearance of disunity.

If we go far back into its early twentieth century roots, the Labour conference was the sovereign body of the party. Labour MPs were seen as delegates whose role was to implement Labour party policy in the House of Commons. In theory, that part of the Labour rulebook – Clause 5 – still remains in place (‘The work of the party shall be under the direction and control of the party conference’)  But in practice, as the parliamentary Labour party grew in size, so its MPs started to flex their muscles. Initially, Conference defeats were rare, as the union block vote rallied behind the leadership. Indeed, between 1949 and 1960, the Labour leadership only suffered one defeat. It was only in the era of Hugh Gaitskell that the Labour leadership suffered a couple of serious reverses on the issues of Clause IV and nuclear disarmament. Since the Gaitskell era, defeats have simply been ignored.

Despite suffering these defeats, successive Labour leaders since Gaitskell have understood the true value of party conference speeches: they give Leaders of the Opposition a chance to be seen to be facing down critics in their own party. Famously, Neil Kinnock’s speech against the Militant Tendency in Bournemouth in 1985 demonstrated to the wider electorate that Labour was serious about modernization. His successor, John Smith, risked the leadership of his Party in 1993 in order to secure One Member, One Vote for the same reason. Twenty years later, Ed Miliband faces a similar challenge to that presented by Smith: he must show the public that he is serious about reforming Labour’s historic link with the unions.

In theory at least, the Conservative party conference is one in which the leadership is all powerful. But in practice, Tory conferences have shown a marked tendency to spark into life. Back in1978 when the Tories gathered in Brighton, a vigorous debate ensued in which delegates called for the lifting of economic sanctions against Ian Smith, the white supremacist ruler in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Replying to the debate, Tory frontbench John Davies gave a rambling speech, during which he was heckled loudly from the Conference floor. Sadly, the splitting headache he suffered from on that occasion was not the result of the heated debate, but a malignant brain tumour, from which he died a few months later. But no senior Tory frontbench still alive can forget the mauling Davies received from delegates on that occasion.

For decades following the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, the annual capital punishment debates at the Tory Party Conference became awkward events requiring careful handling by the conference platform. In his memoirs, William Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher’s first Home Secretary, acknowledged that his over-emotional response to the capital punishment debate at the 1981 Conference damaged his standing in his party. Later on in the decade, Douglas Hurd, a consistent opponent of capital punishment, recalled having to contend with emotive speeches from retired police sergeants who were capable of stirring the Conference delegates into a froth. Mrs. Thatcher felt she had to attend these law and order debates, even if she took a different view from her Home Secretary. As speaker after speaker called for the restoration of the death penalty, she would clap her hands under the platform table, out of sight of the delegates.

Unluckily, it was Douglas Hurd, by this stage Foreign Secretary, who had to cope with yet another lively Conference debate in 1992, this time over Europe. On that occasion, the Party hierarchy allowed Norman Tebbit to make a poisonous speech against the Prime Minister, John Major. As Hurd prepared his reply to the debate, Major peppered him with ‘Give ‘em hell’ notes. Hurd was able to face down his conference critics, but only just.

The very fact that the Tory leadership has to respond to the occasional bout of sustained criticism from their members is surely good for our democratic system. Granted, the party leadership normally gets its way. But what the public don’t see are the fraught negotiations behind-the-scenes between delegates and the leadership over the wording of those aforementioned composites, resolutions and amendments. It’s what Richard Kelly in his seminal 1989 work on Conservative Party Conferences called The Hidden System.

Hardly the sort of political intrigue to persuade the public to miss a repeat of Would I Lie to You? on Dave, but important nonetheless.

Mark Stuart

Polling Observatory #27: Labour in crisis? Tories resurgent? Not really.

UK 05-08-13 low res croppedThis is the twenty-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.

The big topic of national conversation over the past month has been the weather, with the hottest, driest conditions in recent memory. The political climate, however, has returned to normal. UKIP’s surge after the local elections has faded away – Nigel Farage and his party are no longer enjoying blanket media coverage as the press moves on to the traditional silly season fare of cyclists, cricketers, royal babies and expensive footballers. We now estimate UKIP support at 11.7%, down 1.1 points on last month and over 3 points on their June peak. This still leaves support for Farage’s party well above the levels seen at the start of the year, and well ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the battle for third place. We estimate support for Clegg’s party at 8.4%, up 0.1 points on last month.

UKIP’s surge was accompanied by a dip in support for the Conservatives, who have rebounded as the Eurosceptics have fallen back. This month we estimate Tory support at 31.2%, up a percentage point on last month and three points on their June low point. We cannot prove the link with aggregate data, but the mirror image pattern of UKIP and Conservative support in the past few months suggests the burst of publicity for Farage attracted the interest of disgruntled Tories who have drifted back to their traditional home as UKIP have fallen off the front page. This may be a worrying trend for Cameron given the near-certainty of renewed interest in UKIP next year as the European Parliament elections approach.

The recovery in Conservative figures has, however, produced a swathe of negative headlines for Labour : “Labour’s lead tumbles after difficult month for Ed Miliband” (Independent, August 6th); “Labour’s shrinking poll lead increases party jitters” (New Statesman, 23rd July); “Where is Labour?” (politics.co.uk, 31st July); “Labour slips in the polls as Miliband aide admits party fears over next election” (Daily Mail, 6th August). Long time Miliband critic Dan Hodges went one further in the Telegraph, declaring “the next election is becoming Mr Cameron’s to lose” A casual reader of such articles would be forgiven for thinking that Labour had lost the support of a significant chunk of the electorate, and that this was somehow related to things the Labour leadership had said or done. Yet there is little evidence for either.

In fact, our estimate, incorporating all the polling data, suggests Labour support is up half a point on last month, at 38.1%. The previous two months’ readings were almost identical: 38.4% in June, 37.7% in May. Labour have barely budged in our figures in four months. So why all the fuss? The problem seems to lie in two longstanding journalistic habits: the tendency to focus on poll leads, rather than shares, and to interpret the poll leads in terms of the prevailing Westminster Village narrative. Labour’s poll lead has indeed fallen, but as we have seen that is more down to the Conservative share recovering, which in turn is down to Tory voters who flirted with UKIP returning to the fold. The most likely explanation for the narrowing Labour poll lead therefore has nothing to do with anything Ed Miliband has said or done, but the dominant political narrative in recent weeks has been “Labour in crisis” following the public spat between Miliband and the leader of the Unite union Len McClusky over the unions’ role in Labour politics, and so journalists have framed the polling shift in these terms.

The mistake journalists make in doing this is to assume that the average voter pays attention to the same issues they do. The union row which so excited the Westminster Village barely registered with voters. Less than a fifth of the members of McLusky’s own union could recognise the man at the centre of the row (many thought he was Sir Alex Ferguson); the figure among the general electorate is surely even lower. Voters seldom base their decisions on internal party feuds that they don’t understand or care about. It is therefore no surprise to anyone except the political media to see that Labour’s poll share has not budged at all in the wake of these supposedly toxic feuds.

The underlying political equilibrium has barely changed in over a year: 35-40% of voters favour Labour, giving them a small but consistent lead over the Tories, who are settled in the low 30′s. This balance of forces won’t be shifted by funding fights, racist vans, NHS rows or any of the other emphemera that excite our columnists headline writers yet barely register with the average voter. Our fellow polling analyst Nate Silver has observed: that “most political pundits are completely useless”, and systematic research in the US suggests he is right. Readers looking for clues on the prospects for the main parties would be well advised to ignore the spin put on the polling by the professional tea-leaf readers in the op-ed section, and just focus on the data itself. The signals are there, but often all the pundits add is noise.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Public care about the source of MPs’ second incomes just as much as the amount earned

5116060964_c118f83d00_oIt was an interesting leap from the shenanigans in Falkirk Constituency Labour Party to proposing a restriction on MP’s outside interests, but it was a leap Ed Miliband made two weeks ago. Arguing that this would help clean up politics, and renew public faith, he proposed a limitation on MPs’ second incomes, to no more than 15% of their total income. This is one of those issues where MPs might be forgiven for thinking they can never get it right. When many MPs had second incomes, the criticism was that they were not spending enough time at Westminster. When we got more full-time politicians, the complaint became that we had not enough politicians with experience of the ‘real world’.

We know that the public say they don’t like MPs with second incomes. A recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times found a majority of the public opposed to MPs having second jobs and in favour of an outright ban. But MPs second incomes – where they exist – come in lots of different forms. Some involve fairly small sums of money. Some, on the other hand, have ‘second’ incomes larger than their parliamentary incomes. Plus, some of these second jobs are in fact first jobs, at least in the sense that they were the MP’s job before they became an MP – and exactly the sort of ‘real world’ professions that people often say they want to see represented at Westminster. (Miliband himself had previously argued that he wanted to see more entrepreneurs stand for Labour; an income cap would presumably limit the Party just to the unsuccessful ones, or to those who agreed to sell their companies for the pleasure of becoming a backbench MP). Other second incomes are directorships or such like picked up after becoming an MP.

To try to get at some of these differences, we ran a series of split-sample surveys, in which we tested the public’s reactions to small changes to the profiles of hypothetical politicians. To begin, we showed half of respondents to a survey two politicians:

Politician A is 48 years old.  After university, where he studied physics, he trained as an accountant, and set up a company, which he then sold.  He is married with three children.  He is an avid cricket fan, and a keen player in his youth; he is now a passionate advocate for sporting facilities for young people. He also has interests in the health service and pensions. He became an MP in 2001 and is a member of the Heath Select Committee and is known to be a hard-working constituency MP.

Politician B is 45 years old. Before entering politics he was a lawyer, although he no longer practices.  He is passionate about the environment and education. His wife is a primary school teacher and they have two children and he is a trustee of an educational charity that supports apprenticeships.  He has been an MP since 2005 and he is known for his focus on education policy, and is the one of the more rebellious and independent-minded MPs in the House of Commons.

We asked them, without knowing what party these politicians stood for, which would they prefer. Shown the profiles above, we found 38% of the public preferred A, 45% went for B, and 17% said neither. In other words, B led by 7 points. It doesn’t especially matter why B led by 7 points; this is just a baseline, with which we then compare other similar profiles.

So, for example, the other half of the same survey saw the same text as above, except we changed the second line of B’s profile so that it read ‘and he continues to practice, arguing that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster’. Support for A over B was now 1 point. In other words, continuing to practice as a lawyer damaged B’s popularity among potential voters; his lead of 7 was now a lead for A of 1. In a further survey, we then changed B’s profile yet again to add a sum of money, earned as a result of this work. Half of the sample saw: ‘This brings him in approximately an additional £10,000 per year in income’. A’s lead now extended to +6. The other half saw the sum of £50,000; A’s lead extended even further to +11. That’s a difference of 18 percentage points between the baseline for the non-practicing lawyer and the one who’s still earning £50,000 from the work, suggesting a hefty electoral penalty for continuing a career in law once elected, magnified by the sums of money earned.

Some of our previous work has shown that GPs make very popular election candidates with the public. So in another set of experiments, we changed the text of candidate B replacing ‘a lawyer’ with ‘a GP’. As expected, this made a huge difference. Whereas in our first experiment, B had initially led A by 7 percentage points, B’s lead was now 23 points. But when we changed the extent to which our fictional GP still worked as a GP, their popularity began to wane. Continuing to practice, but with no mention of money, and the lead dropped to 18 points; earning £10,000 and the lead was 13 points; an income of £50,000 reduced the lead to seven points. Even then, they were still the preferred politician (and by exactly the same amount as a lawyer who didn’t practice any longer), but that is because GPs make – rightly or wrongly – such popular candidates to begin with. The overall negative effect of increasing the extent to which they worked as a GP from not at all to earning £50,000 was 16 percentage points, basically the same as when we changed the income of the lawyer.

But this seems not always to be true. A third experiment took our initial profiles, and we changed the text of politician A. Instead of having sold his company, the text read ‘which he continues to run, arguing that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster’. And, again, we altered the income levels, from no mention of money, to £10k, and then to £50k. This time, the effect was non-existent. Politician B’s lead varied from six to 10 points, never statistically significantly different from the base-line. The additional income did not make him more popular, but it appears to have done no harm.

And finally, we tested for the effect of directorships gained since becoming an MP. Again, we split a survey, and randomly added the following text to the profile of politician A:

Since becoming an MP he has become a non-executive director of a company who pay him £10,000 per year. He argues that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster.

Without that text, in our baseline survey B had led A by seven points. Adding that text to A’s profile, extended that lead to 34 points. In other words, it made a difference of 27 points. When we changed the amount to £50,000 we produced a lead of 29 points, a difference of 22 points. This is a much larger effect than we found for any of the GP, lawyer, or accountant experiments. In other words, the public reacted with much more hostility to income gained since becoming an MP than they did from income from pre-existing occupations. But with directorships the sum of money didn’t especially matter. The politician who earned £50k from directorships was no less popular than the one who earned £10k. If anything, on the raw figures they were marginally more popular, although the differences were not statistically significant. It basically didn’t matter whether they earned £10,000 or £50,000. Both were equally unpopular.

We found the sums of money involved did matter, however, if both earned money from directorships. In our final experiment, we first added £50k in directorships to profile A and £10k to B; and then we swapped the sums around. When A trousered £50k from directorships, and B just 10k, B led A by 32 points, which is a deviation from the baseline of 25 points. The other way round, and A led B by 20 points, a deviation from the baseline of 27 points. We also found, once both candidates earned money from directorships that the percentage of respondents selecting ‘Neither’ increased to at least 30% of respondents, higher than in any of the other experiment.

If the aim of any income cap is to make politicians more popular, then we need to realise that the issue for the public is not just the sums of money involved but both the sums and the source. Continue to earn £50k from a company that you had set up before becoming an MP, and the public do not especially seem to mind. But earn even £10k from continuing your profession as a lawyer or a GP, they do. They object even more to directorships – the spoils of electoral war for some MPs – but again the sum doesn’t hugely matter; £10k earned from directorships is worse than £50k earned from pre-existing occupations. But in terms of just the sums: for a backbench MP £10,000 would be below the proposed 15% cap. In other words, it won’t do much good.

Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley

We ran questions with YouGov over five days, between 15-19 July 2013.  In total, we tested 15 variants of the profiles.  Each survey was weighted according to YouGov’s standard weighting. 

Polling Observatory #24: Blue revival, purple advance

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This is the twenty-fourth 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.

It seems that, even in death, Margaret Thatcher retains the power to move the British voter. We now have a full month of polling data gathered after Baroness Thatcher’s death, and our new estimate shows the first significant Conservative rebound in many months, with Cameron’s Tories up 1.4% at 30.3%. It is impossible at this stage to say whether this is a temporary blip, perhaps relating to the largely positive media coverage of the Thatcher funeral, or the start of a more lasting move. But at this stage, with the economy in dire straits, the backbenchers restive, and heavy local election losses anticipated on Friday, Cameron and his team will take any good news they can get.

The Conservatives will be doubly cheered to see that Labour have declined steeply for the second month running, down 0.9% to 38.4%. Labour are now down almost four points from their peak, and approaching their lowest scores since Ed Miliband took over as leader. They retain a healthy 8% lead over the Conservatives, but the recent softening in numbers must be a concern, particularly as it comes during a period without any significant positive economic news to bolster the government. Miliband will be hoping for a strong local election performance to boost morale and quieten critics. He will be helped in this regard by his predecessor’s appalling performance in 2009 – on the night when Hazel Blears and James Purnell launched their abortive putsch against him, Gordon Brown led Labour to their worst local election slump in decades. Even a modest rebound in support should be sufficient to capture hundreds of council seats, and enable Ed Miliband to declare steady recovery.

UKIP’s Nigel Farage will also be scouring the local election returns closely. He has already delivered one significant organisational victory for his party, fielding a record slate of candidates for Thursday’s polling, surpassing the struggling Lib Dems. He can now truly claim to lead a party with national reach, though as yet one without even local power. Farage will hope for major gains in the deep blue county councils elected on Thursday, but to achieve this he must overcome a foe more formidable than the political establishment he rails against: Britain’s first past the post electoral system. UKIP support is very evenly spread geographically which, as the Lib Dems know very well, makes converting votes into seats and power extremely difficult. While his party scored another record rating with the Polling Observatory this month, up 0.3% to 11.5%, Farage’s candidates may find themselves with little to show for this on Friday evening if UKIP candidates surge to second place across the nation. Only a disciplined and coordinated targeting and mobilisation effort is likely to change this script. As yet, we simply do not know if UKIP possess this kind of organisational capacity. Thursday’s poll therefore provides us with a key indicator about UKIP’s ability to move from soaking up protest to wielding real influence.

The Lib Dems will be hoping to avoid another local election bloodbath, having endured two already since joining the Coalition. Their poll ratings provide little cause for solace, slipping back to 9.1% but they will hope that deep local roots and the predominance of competition with the Conservatives rather than Labour will help them hold on in many seats on Thursday night. Nigel Farage may even help them by cutting into the vote of their national partners and local rivals, the Conservatives.

It seems highly likely that, however the results pan out on the night, Nigel Farage will be the big story this weekend. UKIP continue to chalk up record poll numbers for a fourth party challenger, and are almost certain to win at least some council seats, while also providing a challenge to the established parties over a wider range of territory than ever seen before. The momentum looks set to continue: UKIP fascinates media pundits and party apparatchiks in equal measure. Farage himself is a talented performer who can always be relied upon to deliver good copy, so the media look certain to keep him in the spotlight so long as his polling remains strong.

There are those who think UKIP will melt in the media spotlight, undone by their candidates’ eccentricities or the contradictions in their policy ideas. This misunderstands the nature of UKIP supporters, who are less interested in finding a reasonable, responsible government than in delivering a kick to the shins of a political class they deem unreasonable and irresponsible. There is always a section of the electorate which is fed up with the incumbent, hostile to the principle opposition, and eager for any outlet for their frustration. In stagnant, struggling austerity Britain, this sentiment is more widespread than ever, and, thanks to the Coalition, UKIP have this vote all to themselves. Add to this continued public hostility to immigration, socially conservative voters who, like Lord Tebbit, no longer consider the Conservatives a friendly home, and Nigel Farage’s personal charisma, and you have a recipe which looks set to deliver the goods for some time to come, particularly in UKIP’s big home fixture: 2014’s European Parliament elections. So get used to the mustard trousers, the tweed jackets and the pints of bitter: we will be seeing plenty more of them during this Parliament.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup