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Lord Ashcroft tells the Tories that first time incumbency bonus is not a right – its something that has to be earned

September 30th, 2014

Why things might be very different on May 7th next year

One of the great hopes that the Tories have clung onto as their polling deficits continue is what’s known as “first time incumbency bonus” – the extra benefit that those MPs defending their seats for the first time have experienced in the past. The chart above shows the average increases in CON votes shares last time based on different categories of seat.

As can be seen new candidates seeking to retain CON seats saw the smallest increases while first time incumbents saw the largest. But will the same happen next May?

In his now large number of single constituency marginal polls Lord Ashcroft has sought to test the impact of incumbency by asking a two stage voting intention question. The first being the standard one and the second asks respondents to think specifically above their own seat and what they might do.

In his report on the latest batch of CON-LD battles the first question results in the LDs being on 20% and the Tories on 36%. The second question responses take this to 32% each which represents a swing of just 2% from LD to CON since 2010.

That’s a colossal turnaround and one which keeps yellow hopes alive. But for Tory incumbents there’s been a very different experience with in some seats no increase being found at all. This is from Lord Ashcroft’s analysis.

“… Historically, MPs standing for re-election after their first term have enjoyed a bigger (or suffered a smaller) swing than their party more widely. My constituency polling, with its two voting intention questions, has allowed us to see to what extent the supposed incumbency advantage is taking effect. Reviewing the results of my seat-by-seat surveys published since May we find that while the Lib Dem vote climbs when voters in Lib Dem seats are asked to think about their local area, this is not always the case for the Conservative vote in Conservative seats. Indeed in the last group of Conservative-held marginals I surveyed in July, the Tory vote fell on the “own constituency” question more often than it rose.

So what is going on? Much of the discussion about this subject effect seems to assume that the incumbency effect is something that just happens to a politician. But it is not – it is something he or she creates (or doesn’t). Incumbency is not so much an advantage in itself as an opportunity to build a profile, make a reputation, and achieve the things that will ultimately be rewarded on election day. I suspect new MPs, knowing they will have a battle to hold on to their often marginal seats, have in the past worked harder than most, thereby creating what has become known as the “first-time” effect. I further suspect that some have registered the existence of the phenomenon without having understood the reasons for it, and now think it will be bestowed upon them gratis by a benevolent electorate. The MPs who enjoy the biggest boost from incumbency will be the ones who earn it.

I’d add another big reason. The Tories are currently the main party of government and there’s data to suggest that incumbency is less of a benefit.

Whatever wise words from Lord A.

Mike Smithson

2004-2014: The view from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble