6:45 am - March 2nd 2013
You’d need a heart of stone not to laugh at the Eastleigh result. The coalition parties viciously tore strips off each other in the campaign (for a party normally opposed to employee protection laws, the Conservatives are remarkably and creditably concerned about workplace sexual harassment all of a sudden).
The biggest winner, despite only nabbing second place, was a party resembling a mad scientist’s chimera of the Tea Party and the Five Star Movement. The Tories were an dismal failure. And Milibandian Labour continued its trend of doing absolutely nothing exceptional by doing absolutely nothing exceptional.
However, it would be deeply unwise to take the raw numbers from Eastleigh and conclude that David Cameron is buggered, that the Lib Dem vote will hold up at the next election, that anyone really cares very much about Europe, that the Tories need to tack to the right in general, or that Labour can’t win in the South. How do we know all this? Weirdly, thanks to renowned philanthropist and psephologist Lord Ashcroft.
“Here’s my private poll; I conducted it from my private plane”
Unlike most political pontificators, Lord Ashcroft has an absolute shedload of money. This meant that on the day after the election, he was able to conduct a detailed opinion poll of people in Eastleigh, asking them a massive range of questions about how, when and why they voted, and how that compared to the past and the future.
(obvious caveat: Lord Ashcroft is a massive Tory supporter and has a great deal of incentive to try and stop the Tories going off the rails. However, based on the way the poll has been created and weighted, and the questions asked, it doesn’t appear to be the kind of misleading voodoo that occasionally gets reported as real polling. The main difference is that his sample underweights UKIP voters, overweights Tories and Lib Dems a little, and overweights Labour a lot; I’ve adjusted all my numbers below to reflect actual % of votes cast.)
As a starter, there’s an interesting split in the postal versus in-person numbers. For the Tories and Labour, these are almost identical. But the Lib Dems won 38% of the postal vote, compared to 30% of the in-person vote. The Kippers did the opposite, winning 29% of the in-person vote and 23% of the postal vote. It’s interesting to speculate, but probably not possible to conclude, whether this is because people vote UKIP on impulse, or whether the harassment scandal was the final straw for a few Lib Dems. On in-person turnout, the Kippers were only one point behind the Lib Dems.
UKIP won more votes from former Lib Dems than from former Tories
From a party-political point of view, the most interesting part of the poll comes in these two tables (based on Ashcroft’s Question 3), which look at how individual surveyed voters in Eastleigh switched between 2010 and 2012, and how they expect to switch their vote between 2012 and the (presumably) 2015 general election.
The first table tells us that out of people who voted UKIP in the by-election, 40% say they voted Conservative in 2010, and 51% say they voted Lib Dem. Of people who voted Lib Dem in the by-election, the vast majority (78%) say they voted Lib Dem in 2010, with most (15%) of the remaining votes won from people who voted Tory in 2010. This was a fairly even swap, though, as 21% of people who voted Tory in the by-election say they voted Lib Dem in 2010. The most interesting shift is Labour, with more than half (56%) of people who voted Labour in the by-election claiming to have voted Lib Dem in 2010.
So if this result were to be repeated nationwide (which it won’t, obviously, but that’s not the point), then the traditional narrative of “UKIP shafts Tories” isn’t necessarily the whole story. At least in Eastleigh, much of UKIP’s support was made up of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010. Presumably, this is the set of people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 because they hated both Labour and the Tories, rather than people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 because of the party’s commitment to individual freedom, social liberalism, multiculturalism and greater integration with our European friends and partners.
The second table implies that when looking at the views of people who have any idea today about how they’re going to vote in 2015, the Tories will easily win Eastleigh in 2015 with 33% compared to 26% for the Lib Dems and 21% for UKIP. The Tories will keep the vast majority of their voters from the by-election, and pick up a decent chunk of people who went Lib Dem or Kipper this time. The Lib Dems will lose a few votes to the Tories, and a lot of votes to Labour. Impressively, Labour won’t lose any votes at all, and its vote share will come in fairly close to the other three parties at 19%.
I’ll eat a millinery shop if this is how it actually turns out (in particular, it’s likely that many of the by-election Lib Dems who say they’ll vote Labour in 2015 will end up holding their noses and voting Lib Dem again), but the underlying mechanics are very interesting. The Tory and Labour showing in Eastleigh consists of their core, base vote (with Labour having won back a few people who voted Lib Dem as a left-of-Labour party in 2010). The Lib Dem showing absolutely does not: a third of people who voted for them this time round don’t really see themselves as Lib Dem supporters. And although UKIP is seen as a joke protest party, a higher proportion of UKIP voters currently intend to vote for them in the general election than do Lib Dem voters.
Dave is popular, Nick is loathed, Ed is mediocre, and Kippers hate everyone
UKIP voters want the party to win the next election despite the fact that they don’t think it’s very good. According to Question 5 in the Ashcroft poll, only 46% of people who voted UKIP did so because Diane James was the best local candidate, and only 35% did so because Nigel Farage was the best national party leader – and yet 58% want the party to win the 2015 election.
Farage can take some solace in the fact that Nick Clegg performed even worse with his own supposed supporters: only 25% of people who voted Lib Dem did so because they thought that Clegg was the best national party leader. Mike Thornton’s victory rests on his own personal popularity, with 85% of people who voted for him doing so because he was the best local candidate.
As also shown above, the Tory vote in Eastleigh is solid. 77% of people who voted for Maria Hutchings did so because they thought she was the best candidate, which is bizarre, but then again Tory voters did elect Nadine Dorries and Louise Mensch. David Cameron’s personal popularity is also holding up: 78% of Tory voters think that he’s the best national leader. If I were part of his team, I’d be waving that statistic in the faces of the entire Tory Right. Loathe him though we might, the man is probably their single biggest electoral asset.
Arguably the Tories’ second-biggest electoral asset is Ed Miliband. Only 56% of Labour voters (remember, these are an absolute hard core, who overwhelmingly intend to vote Labour in the next general election) voted Labour because they thought he was the best national leader. Interestingly, given his charisma and celebrity, John O’Farrell didn’t perform much better. This is definitely evidence against parachuting in national establishment members and in favour of sticking to known local figures.
The most overwhelming reason for anyone to do anything, apart from liking Mike Thornton a lot, was to vote UKIP because you hate all the other parties. 83% of UKIP voters were unhappy with their usual party, and 75% were unhappy with all the major parties (it’s possible that the missing 8% think that UKIP is a major party).
UKIP owns xenophobia; Labour and the Tories own real issues; Lib Dems empty the bins
Although UKIP voters are taken from all parties, and hate them all more or less equally, they have one major thing common with each other when it comes to attitudes, as asked in Question 6 of the Ashcroft poll (*). 59% of people who voted UKIP in the by-election did so because their primary concern is immigration – alongside another 33% (“Classic Kippers”, perhaps?) who really don’t like the EU.
Remember here that Eastleigh is 93% white British, 95% white, 97% native English-speaking, and less than 1% of the population come from post-2001 EU accession countries. Claimant count unemployment is 2%, compared to 3.9% nationwide. While “I don’t dislike the Poles but they’re taking our jobs” may hold in some agricultural areas and some deprived urban areas, it doesn’t even pass the laugh test in Eastleigh. Same for “I don’t mind the Bangladeshis, but I’m annoyed the pubs have all shut”. If you live in Eastleigh and your main concern is immigration, it’s not that you’re lashing out because the system has failed you, and it’s not that you’re being culturally invaded – it’s that you don’t like being around foreigners. So we can conclude that 23% of Eastleighans are basically xenophobic, and 84% of these people voted UKIP (12% voted Tory).
The anti-immigrant message has been the first response to the election result from many pundits: “My party must win back the xenophobic vote by hating foreigners more!”. But the interesting thing here is that the vast majority of people in Eastleigh are not predominantly concerned about immigration, and almost all of the ones who are voted UKIP. Tory voters care about the economy and local government; and Labour voters care about the economy and the NHS. The question for politicians now should be, do you chase the quarter of voters who are xenophobic, or do you abandon them to UKIP and focus on the issues that your core voters care about (**)?
The fact that the Lib Dem victory was based almost entirely on local council issues is also interesting here: on traditional left-right issues, people split Labour or Tory in exactly the way one might expect. People don’t vote Lib Dem because they love the EU, respect its position on human rights or support its centrist economic position: they vote Lib Dem if the local council is Lib Dem and it hasn’t stuffed up too badly. So getting the bins emptied as competently as possible in as many places as possible is probably the best chance the party has to hold seats in 2015.
* I’ve aggregated some of Ashcroft’s totals, in a way that should be fairly obvious and I don’t think misleads.
** it’s worth saying again, in a constituency with high unemployment and/or high recent unassimilated migration rates, concern about immigration would not necessarily equate to xenophobia. Eastleigh can only be taken as a guide to I’m-alright-Jack wealthy suburban England, not to deprived rural or inner-city areas.
John Band is a journalist, editor and market analyst, depending on who's asking and how much they're paying. He's also been a content director at a publishing company and a strategy consultant. He is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy and also blogs at Banditry.
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