“Revolt on the Right” by Robert Ford and Matthew J. Goodwin.

UKIP book

 

The first book to go on the new Ballots and Bullets section – The Bookshelf -, is Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Extremism and Democracy), written by Robert Ford and Matthew J. Goodwin. Published today, Revolt on the Right (which can be followed on Twitter @RevoltonRigh) focused on the UK Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP is the most significant new party in British politics for a generation. In recent years UKIP and their charismatic leader Nigel Farage have captivated British politics, media and voters. Yet both the party and the roots of its support remain poorly understood. Where has this political revolt come from? Who is supporting them, and why? How are UKIP attempting to win over voters? And how far can their insurgency against the main parties go?

Drawing on a wealth of new data – from surveys of UKIP voters to extensive interviews with party insiders – in this book prominent political scientists Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin put UKIP’s revolt under the microscope and show how many conventional wisdoms about the party and the radical right are wrong. Along the way they provide unprecedented insight into this new revolt, and deliver some crucial messages for those with an interest in the state of British politics, the radical right in Europe and political behaviour more generally.

 

Robert Ford is Lecturer in Politics in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, UK, and tweets @RobFordMancs.

Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is also Associate Fellow at Chatham House and tweets @GoodwinMJ.

 

Polling Observatory 31: No joy from the polls as festive season approaches

 

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This is the thirty-first 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.

Both of the largest parties have had something to crow about in November – the Conservatives have trumpeted growing statistical evidence of a recovery as vindication of their economic strategy, while Labour have received a shot in the arm from the surprisingly strong response to their proposals to freeze energy bills, which have pushed the government onto the back foot. Yet our most recent look at the polling evidence suggests that, despite all the shouting from their cheerleaders, neither party has yet received any meaningful boost in support as a result of these developments. Labour’s support has fallen half a point to 37.8%, giving up half of the one point bounce we noted last month. Over the past six months or so commentators have claimed that Labour, among other things, is in crisis, is resurgent, is surging ahead, is slipping back and is melting away. Yet when the poll data is considered in the aggregate, there is almost no movement at all: Labour have been dead steady at around 37% to 38% for more than six months. The last significant shift in its support came in early spring, around the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death, when Labour lost 2 percentage points of support that they have failed to win back since. It is not clear if the Iron Lady’s demise really lead some voters to rethink their view of Labour, but it is as plausible a theory as any of the others floating around in the comment pages, and has the notable advantage of actually fitting the evidence.

What little movement there is in blue support is also in the wrong direction – and our most recent estimates find Conservative support at 30.9%, down 0.9% on last month. Support for the Conservatives among the electorate has moved around more in 2013 compared to Labour, largely because of a strong link with UKIP support – when Nigel Farage’s party has been up in the polls, this has tended to hurt the Conservatives. This pattern continues this month – as the Tories fall by nearly a point, UKIP have rebounded by 0.6% to 11.9%. UKIP tend to do better when immigration is high on the agenda and when Nigel Farage is highly visible in the media. Both have been the case this month, with the proposal of new restrictive immigration reforms and escalating speculation about migration from Bulgaria and Romania following the lifting of restrictions on January 1st. Mr Farage has been a regular presence across the media spectrum, weighing in on both these issues, and his party seems to be benefitting in the polls once more. The European Parliament elections in May next year will likely produce a similar virtuous circle of rising poll ratings and increased media attention.

The main source of speculation regarding the Liberal Democrats continues to be whether their performance come election day will really be as awful as the polling suggests. The party lost nearly two-thirds of its 2010 support in the months after joining the government, and this month provides no respite. As in nearly every month since early 2011, the Lib Dems are treading water just under 10% – we have them at 8.0%, up 0.6% on last month.

None of the political leaders will enter the festive season with many reasons to be cheerful – aside from the knowledge that 2014 begins with everything still to play for.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

 

Polling Observatory conference season update #2 – UKIP

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 are receiving an increasingly low share of the vote, and electoral geography has become so substantially distorted, that comparisons with leads from past elections are potentially 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 unsecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

UKIP

When we reported on UKIP at the time of its annual conference in Birmingham in September 2012, the party had just emerged on the scene as a serious political force – first following growing public attention to the EU and Eurozone bailouts and second in the aftermath of desertion of Conservative voters after the Omnishambles budget of March 2012. Since then, UKIP have shown they are more than just a flash in the pan, adding a further four points to their support, which now stands at 11.3%, well above the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats. This represents something of a fall on their May peak of more than 14% in the Polling Observatory estimates, but it nevertheless looks like UKIP will be a significant factor in the 2015 election. Most significantly, research commissioned by Lord Ashcroft shows it is having an impact on support for the party in marginal constituencies that will likely decide the result, and may deliver the election (and a parliamentary majority) on a plate to Labour and Ed Miliband. UKIP, and its talismanic leader Nigel Farage, have already started to face the message that ‘a vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour’ – as Conservatives and sympathetic media commentators have started to realise the threat posed by Farage and his party. There has also been a surge of interest in the background of Farage and the records of UKIP candidates, as attempts to undermine the credibility of the party have been stepped up as Conservative fears have grown – with the PM’s former PR adviser, Andy Coulson, advocating highlighting the “less pleasant and stranger utterances” from Mr Farage. Both strategies have the potential to backfire: Conservative attempts to get UKIP supporters to vote strategically risks underestimating its supporters’ hostility to the political system in general, and to David Cameron in particular, while efforts to paint the party as extreme or incompetent risk looking like a smear campaign, which could increase UKIP’s populist appeal.

But UKIP have already changed the political landscape for 2015, and may yet cost the Conservatives votes, even if not directly at the ballot box – but in driving the party off the centre ground that David Cameron had managed to inhabit in the run up to the 2010 election. UKIP are putting serious and sustained pressure on the Conservatives to tack to the right to take up traditional Tory territory – much to the (secret) delight of commentators in the right-wing press who have enthusiastically been drumbeating over the need to move more towards the political agenda set by UKIP (see here, here and here). Boris Johnson has described UKIP supporters as the ‘lost tribe’ of Conservatives, but there is still much confusion in Conservative ranks over how to handle the UKIP challenge – simply because they are dragging the party back towards its ideological roots, away from most voters. It therefore has revived the fundamental tension in the post-Thatcher Conservative Party – with the main hope for the party being that the British public has shifted rightwards in the past decade.

Ultimately what UKIP supporters are unified by is dissatisfaction with politics and the ruling class, revealing a much deeper underlying discontentment with democracy in Britain that can’t be solved by parties trying to position themselves further to the right.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

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

Polling Observatory #26: Politics becalmed as summer approaches

Nott 30-06-13 low res cropped smallThis is the twenty-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.

As the political hurricane of the May local elections has quickly become a distant memory, with hostilities easing as parliament heads towards its summer recess, support for the parties has seen a slight unwinding of some recent developments. In the last month the media, and the public, appear to have lost interest in Nigel Farage and his party, with support for UKIP having fallen to 12.8% (down almost two percentage points on our estimate last month). This is the first time UKIP support has seen a monthly drop for several months – suggesting its challenge to the main parties has eased temporarily at least. The Conservatives, in contrast, have seen their political fortunes improve slightly, with their support rebounding to 30.0%, up almost two percentage points on last month. This figure still puts them far down on their standing in the polls at the start of 2012, and there is clearly a long way to go before they have any chance of forming the next government. Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have edged up slightly in the polls to 8.3%, though their support has seen little meaningful movement since the end of 2010, which does not portend well for their hopes at the next general election.

Despite persistent talk of Labour’s struggle to gain traction in making the political weather and convincing the public that it offers a credible alternative to the current government, it retains a healthy lead over the Conservatives of almost eight percentage points, with its support standing at 37.6%.

This currently becalmed state of British politics arguably reflects the high degree of uncertainty about the country’s future, combined with wider public disillusionment about politics. Talk of economic ‘green shoots’ is clearly premature, although there are some signs that the worst may be over and voters may be starting to get the feel-good factor back. There is much potential for the political weather to change again, with the upcoming Scottish Referendum and continued debate over an EU referendum leaving much uncertainty over where the UK will stand in May 2015, when the parties are next due to face the electorate. Just to what extent austerity will change the British economy and politics is unclear. What is unquestionable, however, is that citizens have become deeply disenchanted with politics and mainstream parties. In a recent YouGov poll for the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance at the University of Southampton, a remarkable 80% of the public agreed with the statement that “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”, while 72% agreed with the suggestion that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”. Interestingly, older voters were even more negative about the capabilities and intentions of politicians. It is no wonder, then, that all the parties are struggling to convince anything close to a majority of the public that they have the capability and strength of character to make a difference.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

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

Polling Observatory #24: Blue revival, purple advance

Nott 29-04-13 low res cropped(1)

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

Polling Observatory #23: The continued chill in Conservative Party support, a Lib Dem revival and the onward march of UKIP

Nott-01-04-13-low-res-cropped-2This is the twenty-third 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.

We last reported on the state of the parties in the aftermath of the Eastleigh by-election. This month’s Polling Observatory update relates to poll data collected before the death of Baroness Thatcher. This is a momentous political event in British political history, whatever your view of the Iron Lady, but one that we would not expect to have any lasting consequences for voting intention. Instead, voters’ responses to Thatcher are likely to be a function of their present and past political leanings so her death is unlikely to change the political weather in quite the same way as she did when she was alive.

The estimates of vote intention for the month up to the start of April reflect many of the patterns that we have observed in the past quarter: with UKIP and the Liberal Democrats on the rise, while Labour have fallen back slightly from recent gains, and the shrinking of Conservative Party support continues to what must be worrying levels for its leadership and the parliamentary party.

Last month support for the Conservatives fell from 31.9% to 29.9%, and they have hit new depths this last month, with their support now standing at 28.9%. This is not far off some of the wretched poll ratings they achieved in opposition, under Hague and IDS, against another divisive political titan, Tony Blair. Labour has fallen back from its gains last month, from 41.2% to 39.3%, but retains a healthy lead which would see it swept to power with a sizable majority if the election were held now.

Both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP continue to make gains at the expense of the main parties. This month support for the Liberal Democrats has risen to 10.1% (from 9.1% in March), while UKIP has seen an even bigger rise in support from 9.3% to 11.2%. These parties are making gains against the larger parties for rather different reasons. The Liberals Democrats may be benefitting from a subtle shift in distance away from their Coalition partners, with more visible splits becoming apparent on a number of policy issues, while UKIP’s message continue to resonate with voters who are concerned about immigration and generally disaffected with the mainstream political elite.

Thatcher left many legacies, and now is arguably not the best time to debate them, but it is clear that the Conservative Party has never been quite the same since their act of matricide in November 1990. While they recovered briefly under John Major to win the 1992 general election, they have never achieved the same electoral dominance that Thatcher did. Thatcher was a brilliant rhetorician, but perhaps too many of those who followed her too easily lapped up the myths as well as the realities of her government and its policy achievements and electoral success. Whereas New Labour clearly learnt the lesson of the importance of party discipline and pragmatism from the 1980s, the post-Thatcher Conservative Party has become more ideological and less disciplined, as exemplified in the bizarre murmurings over the prospect of replacing David Cameron, the first Conservative leader in a decade to make them a competitive electoral force, even if he was not able to win a majority against a deeply unpopular incumbent. Competence and party unity remain the key criteria on which the Conservative Party will be judged by voters in 2015, areas in which Thatcher’s legacy is mixed, if one puts down the rose-tinted spectacles for a moment.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #22: Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP on the up, but Conservative support has fallen

Nott 03-03-13 low res croppedThis is the twenty-second 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.

As the dust settles from the Eastleigh by-election, our latest polling estimates provide confirmation of the continued troubles of David Cameron and the Conservative Party, the continued rise of UKIP as a political force, and a slight revival in the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. As the months tick away, and this spring’s budget providing another ‘final chance’ for the government to deliver a game-changer, is it time to ask: is the 2015 election already lost?

Following the downgrade of the UK’s triple-A credit rating and a humiliating third place in Eastleigh, with an ill-disciplined and unhappy backbench (and the quiet murmur of leadership rumours), and with the government facing potentially more bad economic news on the horizon, it is no surprise that since the last Polling Observatory report on February 1st, Conservative support has fallen from 31.9% to 29.9%. This is one of the largest single month shifts we have recorded since the 2010 election. In contrast, Labour has further strengthened its position despite an underwhelming performance in Eastleigh (where party expectations were much lower), with an increase in support from 40.7% to 41.2%. This leaves Labour with a lead of 11.3% in the polls, continuing a run of double-digit leads which has persisted for almost twelve months and must start to cast doubt on popular wisdom that this is ‘soft’ support that will crumble as soon as an election is called.

Indeed, there is evidence that Labour’s reputation is recovering from when it was thrown out of office in 2010. Specifically, it has been steadily been polling around level with the Conservatives as the party best able to handle the economy in general, and has, in fact, been leading on taxation in most months since George Osborne’s calamitous omnishambles budget statement of March 2012 (see the YouGov issue tracker here). How is this even possible after the financial ‘mess’ that the last Labour government is so frequently accused of leaving the public finances in, and Labour’s struggle to develop a convincing economic narrative against the Coalition’s shock doctrine of austerity? Much of the reason is the simple fact that the debt crisis was the result of a global financial crisis only of limited making of the British government (with British voters typically being more pragmatic and nuanced than either their politicians or the media). Research by Ray Duch and Randy Stevenson has found that voters tend to punish governments less for poor economic performance in contexts that are more exposed to economic shocks from outside: in other words, voters can find it difficult to evaluate the competency of policy-makers in open globalised economies where external factors can influence macroeconomic outcomes. However, as economic waters have calmed across the Eurozone area it has become increasingly difficult for George Osborne and David Cameron to blame the excesses of southern European governments for the economic difficulties being endured at home. The label of ‘a recession made in Downing Street’ may be the most damaging for the Conservatives come the 2015 election, if the British economy does not pick up but things are improving on the continent.

Despite what has been a tumultuous month for the Liberal Democrats, a steady performance in Eastleigh, based on a strong ground campaign and popular local candidate, combined with a rise in support from 6.9% to 9.1% suggests their electoral fortunes for 2015 may not be quite as bleak as some have predicted.

Last, but not least, our estimates provide yet more evidence of the continued rise of UKIP, with its support increasing from 8.5% to 9.3%. Combined with the by-election result in Eastleigh pushing the Conservatives into third place, this points to the continued challenge to Cameron’s party: UKIP tends to attract older voters who perceive social and demographic change as threatening to their sense of British identity, voters who remain strongly concerned about immigration and have become deeply disaffected from the mainstream political elite. The rise of UKIP, and the roots of its support, needs to be put in the context of several decades of public policy. In recent times, governments have tended to favour the quickest path to economic growth above all other considerations, in particular focused on financial services and London. This economic imperative arguably was one of the factors behind Labour’s relaxing of migration policy after 1997, and its decision to allow unrestricted access to migrants from Eastern Europe in 2004. As a consequence, there has been a widening gap between the social and economic experiences of Britain’s cities – where economic growth has harnessed immigration and ethnic  diversity  is a well established and accepted part of social life – and experiences in suburban and rural “shire Britain”, which remain ethnically homogenous and attached to  a nostalgic 1950s ideal – a world of leafy suburbs, small businesses, country pubs, village greens, strict classrooms, obsequious deference to authority, and the friendly local policeman. Nigel Farage is a man of this world, and has proved effective at harnessing anxieties about contemporary developments – immigration, diversity and Brussels – and marrying them to a sepia-toned vision of the “common sense” society of times past. Anxiety and nostalgia combined is a potent mix, particularly for older voters, who turn out in droves. We expect UKIP to continue to play a high profile, disruptive role on the political scene over the rest of this Parliament – particularly at the European Parliament elections next year.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

EU membership: UKIP and the Conservatives are competing over an issue most voters don’t think is critical

Image by Euro Realist

Image by Euro Realist

European integration has long been a divisive issue in British politics, leading to differences within and between parties. Voters’ views on this tend to vary by party support but, in recent years at least, this subject has been some way down the list of issues that voters view as most salient. How do voters view the issue at the moment and what effect does this have on party competition?

From a party perspective, the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) has served to exacerbate tensions among Conservatives over how far integration should go and whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union (EU). While the Conservative Parliamentary Party has become more Eurosceptic over time, as argued elsewhere, divisions remain between those favouring withdrawal, those wishing to see renegotiation of membership to varying degrees and those simply wanting integration to go no further than the status quo. Michael Fabricant’s leaked paper on dealing with the UKIP threat suggests a high degree of concern among some Conservatives about competition between the two parties especially given Tory divisions on the issue. This may only have been heightened following UKIP’s second place in the Eastleigh by-election. As Rob Ford argues though, any plans for a blue-purple alliance would be ill-advised at least partly due to the diversity of UKIP voters.

One way for parties to deal with internal dissent on the EU issue is to pledge a referendum to be held some way off in the future. This helps to shift the conflict out of the parliamentary party and postpones a potentially divisive discussion of the issue. Parties may gain from this if they make the pledge close to a European or general election and if the pledge quells dissent in the party – or at least dampens it until some future point – and wrong-foots opponents. David Cameron’s decision to promise a referendum following an election and a renegotiation of UK membership terms is consistent with this approach. This is not a new tactic though. John Major used it in 1996 when committing to a referendum if the government recommended joining the Euro, as did Labour when pledging a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty shortly before the 2004 European elections and in 1975 with the referendum on the UK remaining in the European Community. Nevertheless, a risk, in Cameron’s case, is riling the small proportion of pro-integration Tories.

However, what are the public’s views on this issue? Do they view it as salient? How do attitudes vary by party support and what is the effect on competition between the Conservatives and UKIP? Cameron’s speech on Britain and the EU led to a spate of polling which, alongside longer running surveys, helps to tell us about where the public stand on these issues. The British Election Study’s Continuous Monitoring Surveys (CMS), which involve monthly cross-sectional surveys of the British public, include a question which asks: ‘Overall, do you strongly approve, approve, disapprove, or strongly disapprove of Britain’s membership in the European Union?’. Combining responses into ‘approve’ and ‘disapprove’ categories, Figure 1 shows trends over time for the groups who have a sense of attachment to each of the three major parties (Con, Lab and Lib Dem). Cameron’s view that the UK’s current terms of EU membership are problematic seems consistent with Conservative identifiers’ higher likelihood of disapproving of EU membership. These levels of disapproval are much higher than those among Labour and Lib Dem identifiers, and this difference is sustained over time. In every survey conducted between June 2005 and December 2012, a majority of Conservative identifiers have  expressed disapproval. The average level of disapproval for Conservative identifiers is 66%. Conversely, the average levels of approval for Labour and Lib Dem identifiers are, respectively, 64% and 69%.

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We can look at the views of party identifiers in more detail by dividing them up according to strength of partisanship (very strong, fairly strong, or not very strong). Table 1 presents levels of disapproval for identifiers of each major party broken down by strength of attachment. There is a clear pattern here: very strong Conservative identifiers are most likely to disapprove of EU membership, while Labour and Lib Dem identifiers with a very strong sense of attachment are most likely to approve of Britain being part of the EU.

Screen-shot-2013-03-03-at-16.56.40Given recent developments on the European issue in domestic politics, we can also chart attitudes on the specific issue of voting in a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. Using data compiled from YouGov polls between 2010 and 2013, Figure 2 shows the proportions who would vote to withdraw from the EU, broken down by vote intention. Again, Conservative supporters are much more likely to express a preference for withdrawal, compared to supporters of the other main parties. However, views do fluctuate over time, partly due to differences from one sample to another but also suggesting that, to a degree, public opinion may be malleable on this issue and responsive to developments at the party-political level and resulting media coverage.

Screen-shot-2013-03-03-at-16.57.37What are the likely effects of this on party competition? One way of assessing this is to look at how voters view parties’ ability to deal with the EU issue. The Conservatives seemed to come out better than others in most polls taken shortly after Cameron’s speech in January, although not by much of a margin. A Survation poll on 25 January 2013 showed 25% of respondents thought the Conservatives had the best policy on Europe, followed by 19% for Labour and 16% for UKIP. A Populous poll (23-24 January 2013) showed Cameron as the most trusted leader to renegotiate UK membership of the EU with 36% support compared to 18% for Ed Miliband and 10% for Nigel Farage. An Angus Reid survey (24-25 January 2013) showed 22% viewing Cameron as the leader most trusted on Europe, a higher score than for others, with Farage on 11%. Given these polls were taken shortly after Cameron’s speech we would need longer term data to assess how much they represent a temporary boost for Cameron or the Conservatives as the best leader or party at dealing with this issue. We can gain some indication of the effect of the speech on Conservative-UKIP competition via the Survation poll which showed that 42% of 2010 Conservative voters who had heard or read Cameron’s speech, agreed or strongly agreed that it had made them less likely to vote UKIP. Around 21% disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement. These figures should be treated with some caution as they are based on fairly small numbers of respondents but they indicate the Conservatives may have some basis for concern about the possible leakage of votes to UKIP.

Further bad news for Conservatives is that among those who care passionately about the issue, the party appears to have lost out sometime ago. According to the British Election Study’s (BES) post-campaign surveys, at the 2005 general election, of those seeing Britain’s relations with the EU as the most important issue, 35% thought UKIP was the best party to deal with this issue, with 30% favouring the Conservatives. By 2010, of those viewing Europe or the Euro as the most important issue, 61% saw UKIP as the party best able to deal with the issue while only 14% felt this about the Conservatives. While UKIP seem to be in a much stronger position than the Conservatives on this, the problem they face is that the salience of the issue among voters is very low. In the 2010 BES, a tiny 0.7% of Conservative voters identified Europe or the Euro as the most important issue. Data from Ipsos-MORI show that in 2012, only 6% of survey respondents thought that the EU or Europe was most important issue facing Britain. The EU did not even make the top ten issues among respondents questioned in February 2013, despite Cameron’s speech.

Analysis of open-ended responses to questions about the most important issue facing the country on the 2010 BES surveys suggests salience may be a little higher than this because some voters explicitly link the EU to other issues such as immigration, particularly from central and eastern Europe, and the economy, often with regard to the financial cost of EU membership. Pointing to connections between EU membership and other issues, such as immigration, is a technique UKIP have used to battle against the low salience of European integration among voters. But raising the profile of this issue is something UKIP will have to do more of if they are to gain clear ownership of this among voters more widely. Otherwise, UKIP will need to continue expanding beyond their core issue if they are to win more votes.

EuroscepticismThis post is part of a collaboration between British Politics and PolicyEUROPP and Ballots & Bullets, which aims to examine the nature of euroscepticism in the UK and abroad from a wide range of perspectives. Read more posts from this series.

Dr Ben Clements is Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. His research interests include public opinion on the EU and foreign policy issues, attitudes on environmental issues, and religion in British politics and society. He is currently researching a monograph on the impact of religion on political attitudes and behaviour in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan).

Dr Philip Lynch is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. His current research focuses on the Conservative Party and European integration,  party competition between the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party, and Euroscepticism in the UK. His work has been published in British Journal of Politics and International Relations, Parliamentary Affairs, British Politics and the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties.

Dr Richard Whitaker is a Lecturer in European Politics in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. His research interests include the European Parliament and British centre-right parties and European integration. He is the author of The European Parliament’s Committees.