For the yellows a record low – but no panic
September might have been one of the most dramatic months in British politics since the last general election, with the near-dissolution of the three-centuries old Anglo-Scottish Union but you wouldn’t know it from the polls. That the Yes and No camps crossed party lines and brought opponents together might have had something to do with it; more likely, it’s that the majority of the UK electorate, in England, have moved on.
Overall, the picture remains much as it has over most of the summer with the monthly averages for September being:
Lab 34.9 (-0.6), Con 31.7 (n/c), UKIP 15.0 (+1.1), LD 7.6 (-1.0), Others 10.7 (+0.5)
Perhaps unsurprisingly after their two defections, UKIP are the month’s biggest winners and have largely recovered the ground lost in the last two months. Interestingly, that gain hasn’t come directly from the Conservatives, who once again poll in a very narrow range centred on 31.5%, despite the defections of Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless. Instead it’s Labour and the Lib Dems who drop support.
The Labour figure may simply be down to normal fluctuation: the August ICM poll now looks to have been a bit generous going by others in that series and Labour’s monthly average with Populus has barely shifted since June, though their share with YouGov did register a bit of a dip last month.
By contrast, the situation for the Lib Dems looks like a genuine loss of support. September not only saw the first month where LD support in the PB average was less than one-third that which they received in 2010 but was the fourth in a row to have been sub-nine percent – and those are the only four months since the start of the series. YouGov, Mori, Opinium and ICM all recorded their joint-lowest Yellow scores of the parliament; Populus scored an outright low.
What’s perhaps remarkable is the apparently complete lack of panic within Lib Dem ranks at what are, on the face of it, disastrous figures. Had Labour lost two-thirds of their voters since the previous general election, the talk of replacing the leader would be deafening. Had the Tories lost that sort of share, the coup would have happened years ago. How to explain the calm?
The first thing to note is that the polls are a bit contradictory. While the national figures suggest a catastrophic meltdown, the Ashcroft constituency polling suggests not only that the Lib Dems are retaining strength where it matters but when voters are asked to think about their local situation – as they will be next April and May – the Lib Dem share improves further.
That’s vitally important for them because put simply, the national polls have to be wrong if they’re to keep a coachload of MPs rather than a minibus-full; there simply aren’t enough votes to go round otherwise. For example, if the Lib Dems did receive the 7.6% they scored in last month’s average, then on the same size turnout and electorate as in 2010 (to keep things simple), this would be about 2.26m votes. By contrast, their combined vote in the 57 seats they won last time was 1.23m. It’s inconceivable that they could keep the great majority of those while losing five votes in six elsewhere. Of course, if polls worded along national lines are understating them in their own seats (and perhaps elsewhere), then the overall figure will also be low. Still, that doesn’t explain the drop since April at a time when local campaigning should be having the opposite effect.
There are other possible explanations. The first is that there’s a fatalistic acceptance that there’s no realistic alternative to the current strategy and so panicking will not help. The second is the opposite: that there is an alternative but the time is not yet ripe and MPs and/or the leadership are keeping their powder dry (though I have my doubts as to whether the secrecy of such a plan could be maintained). The third is that there’s a belief that things will be all right come the day itself; they did in 1992 – the last similar situation – and the constituency polling supports that contention. That said, I remember Tories thinking much the same in the run-up to 1997.
Whatever the reason, this parliament’s polling figures continue to break new ground for the Lib Dems and UKIP in particular. With three UKIP-friendly by-elections in the offing, those boundaries may yet be pushed further.