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Where things stand – Rochester and Strood

By Mathew Goodwin 

A new poll in Rochester and Strood provides further insight into Ukip’s evolving support ahead of this crunch parliamentary by-election. 

Today we have a new and fourth poll from Rochester and Strood, this time from Lord Ashcroft. The past three polls each gave Ukip a comfortable lead of 9, 13 and then 15 points. My hunch was that the new poll would show the race to be slightly tighter because of three factors. First, Lord Ashcroft polls (and others) in battles like Heywood and Middleton tended to underestimate Ukip support. Second, since the earlier batch of polls the Conservatives have been turning up the volume on their negative coverage of Mark Reckless, the Ukip candidate. And, third, Ukip are not used to being in the lead. It was plausible that a young party might take its foot off the pedal.

The latest snapshot does suggest a reduced Ukip lead of 12 points but the basic picture remains the same: a strong lead for Ukip, a difficult second for the Conservatives and David Cameron, and a distant third for Labour -a party that held this area of Kent as recently as 2010. If these snapshots turn out to be accurate on November 20th then Nigel Farage’s party will be handed their second seat in the House of Commons -and in the 271st most Ukip-friendly seat in the country.

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The significance of the latest poll can be found in the detail.

It confirms an interesting story that is emerging about the roots of support for Ukip in this Kent seat. This is what I wrote last week in my column for The Times Red Box based on the earlier polls: “Those who voted for the Conservatives in 2010 comprise less than half of Ukip’s current support in Rochester and Strood. In this battle Ukip is drawing significant support from disillusioned Liberal Democrats, and to a lesser extent Labour voters, while between 57 to 68 per cent of non-voters are planning to return to turnout for Reckless. A party that continues to be seen as a second home for exiled Tories is recruiting more widely, while Reckless also appears to be recruiting more successfully among the middle-aged than campaigns in the past that have depended heavily on the grey vote.”

Now let’s look at what Lord Ashcroft finds.

Again -a more diverse base of support for Ukip. Overall 44% of 2010 Conservative voters plan to defect to Ukip while 40% of 2010 Labour voters and 23% of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters are planning to do the same. If this happens then the bulk of Ukip’s support will come from non-Tories. Meanwhile, eight out of ten voters who said that they supported somebody else in 2010 are planning to turnout for Ukip. Suddenly, it seems that we are a long way from the ‘Ukip = exiled Tories’ argument that emerged in 2010-2012 and continues to drive much of Westminster thinking on this issue. And again this support is younger than usual -it is spread more evenly though especially among voters aged over 34 years old.

These numbers reflect how Ukip has been campaigning in the seat, which is something that we will discuss in detail in a forthcoming book. But it also reflects something else. By essentially withdrawing from this battle Labour is again easing the rise of Ukip. Were Labour taking the contest more seriously then Ukip’s lead would be significantly diminished and the race would be far more competitive. But they are not.

This is striking given that Labour controlled this area as recently as 2010, is the main party of opposition and has an impressive candidate in Naushabah Khan. The Labour candidate is especially strong when set against the abrasive Conservative candidate Kelly Tolhurst. Having watched both candidates in a televised debate last night (watch it here) it is the former that appeared as the better candidate. I am convinced that the Conservatives got this wrong -they should have stood a calmer, more inclusive and ultimately a more experienced candidate that non-Ukip voters could rally around. This mistake might be repeated in Thanet South where the Conservatives are again standing a similar ‘Ukip-lite’ candidate against Nigel Farage.

Labour’s capitulation is most likely driven by short-term expediency rather than long-term strategy about how to reconnect with the voters that it needs. Use Ukip as a means of damaging Cameron. But this is a big gamble -for reasons that we set out here. By the time that Rochester and Strood might once again become competitive Ukip may have turned disillusioned left behind voters into loyal Kippers. Much as they are doing in the coastal seat of Clacton -also an area of the country where Labour used to be competitive.

But perhaps more significant than any of the above is what the data are pointing to in terms of party organization and campaigning. This is the neglected aspect of the Ukip story. Take a look at the party contact rates below -where pollsters ask voters whether they have been contacted by the parties in recent weeks. Ukip used to fall apart at this point in the survey. Put simply, the party’s parliamentary by-election campaigns used to be shambolic.

But now Ukip is pushing ahead of the main parties; they are contacting more voters. This reflects internal change -new organisers, new software and a stronger grasp of how elections are fought (and won). Ukip is not doing anything that other parties are not doing but it is levelling the playing field and I suspect is benefitting from a more active and enthusiastic grassroots membership. Whether the party can sustain this level of activism at a general election remains to be seen.

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‘This is all just an anti-politics thing’, some will say. At least that’s what a journalist spent much of last night trying to tell me. This protest narrative is easy. It is simple. It is reassuring. It implies that -soon- all of this will go away once voters fall back in love with a main party. But those who push it rarely look at evidence. We know what Ukip voters think. It is not a mystery. They want Britain to leave the European Union. They want less immigration. They want reform in Westminster. And once again we have a poll that underscores the importance of these ideas over protest. Of those who say that they plan to support Ukip in Rochester and Strood some 82% say that policies are playing a ‘large part’ in their decision. Whether or not the party actually wins the contest remains to be seen, but along the way we are continuing to learn a great deal about its evolving support.

This article was first published on Mathew Goodwin’s blog available here 

Dr Matthew Goodwin is Associate Professor of Politics. He is also Associate Fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. 

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

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