Is the Rawlings and Thrasher English Elections Forecast a bit timid?

At the weekend I posted my forecast for the English council elections to take place on May 4th, using a comparison with opinion polls both now and 2013, along with the forecast made by Harry Hayfield at Political Betting.

On Sunday, The Times published a forecast from Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, both Professors of Politics at the University of Plymouth.

Again they use local by-election results a a basis for their forecast, and come up with similar results to Hayfield for the Lib-Dems (+9%) and UKIP (-12%). The biggest difference is with Labour, predicting no change, as against -4% for Hayfield. More relevant is the forecast for seats, where they predict Conservative +50, Labour -50, Lib Dem +100, UKIP -100

Despite these chaps having considerable experience of election data, having written a number of post-election reports for the Electoral Commission, I believe that their forecasts might be somewhat out. This I have split into share of the vote and seat predictions.

Rallings & Thrasher share of the vote prediction

I have summarized some data in figure 1.

Rallings & Thrasher base their forecast on the Notional National Change, so I have shown the difference between those figures and the General Election Opinion Polls. There are reasons why the local council elections are different from the opinion polls, aside from the fact that opinion polls may not fully reflect actual decisions.

In 2013 UKIP benefitted in the local elections as people used their vote as a protest against the Coalition Government and/or in support of an EU Referendum.  That no longer exists as Brexit is underway; whilst UKIP is in disarray and has fund-raising issues. In this I would agree with Rallings and Thrasher in a huge drop in support for UKIP, swinging from outperforming the opinion polls, to underperforming.

With the Liberal Democrats, I would agree that they should not only outperform the opinion polls, but do so by a greater margin than in 2013, when being in Coalition Government damaged their brand as being the alternative to the Conservatives in the non-socialist areas. This year they may also benefit as being the Party of those most opposed to Brexit. But the actual share of the vote was 20%. For the notional share of the National Vote to rise nine points would indicate a larger rise to over 30% of the actual vote. It would effectively make the arch-Remainers effectively the biggest beneficiaries of the fall in support for UKIP. That is possible, but would imply very large underlying switches in effective party support. Also, this large net increase in Lib-Dem vote share would be despite no net movement in the general election opinion polls in the last five years. Even if local by-elections results indicate such a swing, when voting for full councils I do not believe that this will replicate this result.

The forecast for Labour to have no change from 2013 is perhaps the most out of line with reality. Just four years ago Labour seemed likely to be in a position to be win the 2015 election. Now they are 13 points lower in the opinion polls. Most of the councils concerned are in the Conservative heartlands, with Labour traditionally trailing in third place. They thus have less far to fall than nationally, but barring a miracle in the next four weeks, they will lose vote share.

By difference, this leaves the Conservatives making much larger gains that 5% of the Notional National Vote.

Rallings and Thrasher seat change predictions

This I think is the most timid part of the seat changes to repeat they are

Conservative +50, Labour -50, Lib Dem +100, UKIP -100

Prof John Curtice on the Sunday Politics thought, based upon a 12 point swing in the opinion polls, Labour could suffer a much bigger loss of seats than the 50 forecast by Rallings and Thrasher. (hattip Guido Fawkes)

But to get an idea of the likely level of seat changes, it is worth looking at the changes in the similar (but not quite identical in terms of seats and councils) council elections in 2009 and 2013. These, from Wikipedia (here and here) are shown in Figure 2.

Please note that the numbers do not quite stack up due to (a) one more council in 2013 (b) boundary changes (c) by-elections. But broad comparisons can still be made.

UKIP gained 139 seats in 2013. The swing from 2009 to 2013 was probably greater than the counter swing they will likely suffer next month, so the loss of 100 seats is a reasonable estimate.  Similarly the Lib Dem estimate of 100 seats gain seems about right, despite the likely net change in fortunes maybe be less at a National level not likely nearly countering the loss in popularity between 2009 and 2013.

When it comes to Labour, they are nationally in a worse position than in 2009. So their loss of seats could be greater than then suffered in 2009. A reduction of 300 seats, or nearly 60% of the defended seats, seems a reasonable forecast, with a 200 seat loss or less being a relatively good night for Labour with their current unpopularity.

The Conservatives should easily be the biggest gainers. Most of the councils are in Conservative Heartlands. Others, like Lancashire and Derbyshire, are where they have managed majorities in the recent past. Yet in 2013 the Conservative share of the vote was below that achieved in the UK as a whole in the General Election just two years later. Two years after the General Election, the party is in a considerably stronger position, so should gain considerably. A gain of 300 seats is my forecast.

Final points

An aspect to consider in local elections is the impact of turnout. In their report on the 2013 English and Anglesey Council Elections, Rallings and Thrasher noted that turnout was 31%, compared with over 39% in 2009.

In the similar 2009 report they note that this turnout was higher than in the previous three years.

Could the relatively high turnout be due to the confidence of Conservative voters? In 2009 the Conservative vote was 44.5%, 10% higher than in 2013. Labour had a 12.7% share (over 8% lower) and Lib-Dems were at 24.9% (5% higher). Then the Conservatives were a year away from going back into Government. In 2013, they looked like reverting to opposition. In 2017, there is a new sense of optimism among Conservative supporters, not seen since the end of the Falklands War – or at least with their Brexit supporters. These are concentrated in the middle-aged and older people, among whom turnout is usually higher than in the population at large. On the other hand, the Labour-supporting Remainers might stay at home, being doubly-demoralised. The change in seats could be even bigger than in either 2009 or 2013.

These are of course my forecasts compared with those of others who have more experience in these matters. What is crucial is how analyzing the difference between forecasts and actual results can deepen our collective understanding of what is happening in an interesting period in British history.

Kevin Marshall

 

Local Elections Forecast May 2017

At Political Betting Harry Hayfield has produced a forecast for the County Council elections in May 2017, just six weeks away. I have long followed this blog, though I neither bet nor follow the politics of the blog propriotor Mike Smithson (Lib-Dem & Pro-Remain on Brexit). However, it is the very differences that provide an alternative perspective. Harry Hayfield’s basic assumptions County Council elections in England are:-

In the local by-elections, areas that voted REMAIN saw the following change:
Con -9%, Lab -4%, Lib Dem +12%, UKIP -12%, Greens 0%, Ind -10%, Others +23%
Where as areas that voted to LEAVE saw the following change:
Con +4%, Lab -4%, Lib Dem +7%, UKIP -9%, Greens +1%, Ind +4%, Others -3%

With any forecast there is a lot of work involved in converting these into seats. Any baseline, when compared to the actual results will help develop an understanding of both of National opinion in turbulent times and also how it impacts at the local politics. What I would note is that the Counties are mainly Conservative territory; has a large Independent / Other representation (though this has been declining for decades); and is predominantly Remain voting, but not extremely more than the UK average.

But that said Harry Hayfield’s forecasts seem to be at odds with the opinion polls. Taking the UK Polling Reports opinion poll figures for (a) 28/04/13 to 10/05/13 and (b) 05/02/17 to 19/02/17 (the latest available) the change in voting intention is about

Con +11%, Lab -13%, Lib Dem +0%, UKIP -2%, Greens +2%.

Since then the Conservatives and Lib Dems at improved slightly at the expense of UKIP and Labour. The latest YouGov figures, for 25-27 March,  are

Con 43%, Lab 25%, Lib Dem 11%, UKIP 10%

And the change on 2013 are about

Con +13%, Lab -14%, Lib Dem +1%, UKIP -4%

The actual share of the vote – skewed by being counties – was

Conservative 34.3%, Labour 21.1%, UKIP 19.9%, Lib Dem 13.8% and Green 3.5%

therefore – Other 7.4%

In terms of the County Councils, perhaps 85% were for Leave in the EU Referendum, on the basis that maybe three-quarters of Parliamentary Constituencies in in England and Wales voted for Leave, and most of the Remain vote was in the Metropolitan areas. So why should the Conservatives only improve by 4% in most of the Council areas on 2013 when they are 13% up in the opinion polls nationally?

Harry Hayfield’s assumptions diverge from the opinion polls from being based upon recent by-elections nationally. That is upon a maybe half a dozen by-elections a week, These one-off events usually have low turnouts, and are highly impacted by protest votes.  The biggest reason for protest votes at the present time is the Brexit issue. It will have an impact on the local elections, with the Remain protest vote being stronger than the Leave support vote. But this will be much less than in by-elections due to (a) higher turnout due to area-wide elections (b) higher turnout on average as the counties tend to have higher turnout than the Metropolitan areas (c) the protest vote is concentrated in the cities, especially London. The latter is evidenced by the two recent very large petitions to change the referendum rules after the EU referendum and to cancel the State Visit of President Trump.

That said, using by-election results is a as good as any considering the political landscape has changed dramatically in the past four years. By using clear assumptions on forecasts it is possible to understand where they go wrong. But that understanding will be only on the empirical differences between forecast and actual. What I will now do is to give a forecast based on reasons (maybe my unfounded opinions) with some notes on the parties. This might muddy the waters a bit, but here goes.

For UKIP 2013 elections were a “game-changer“, to use Nigel Farage’s term. UKIP then got nearly double the share in the County vote as in the National opinion polls. A party campaigning on a single national issue made huge gains on votes at local government level. The 20% of vote share was a precursor to the 26.6% in the European Parliament elections achieved in 2014.  This impact is now gone, and the grassroots support needed to field and promote thousands of candidates may have diminished due to internal strife. Local by-elections may not fully reflect this impact, as they can concentrate their much reduced resources. UKIP’s share may go below the National Opinion polls. On these grounds I will go for a -13% change on 2013, giving UKIP 7% of the vote.

The Liberal-Democrats, are usually the main opposition to the Conservatives in the Counties and also usually perform much better than in General Elections. In 2013 they were in Coalition with the Conservatives, which severely damaged their standing as a local opposition. The 13.8% of the vote was 3-4% ahead of the opinion polls. This margin might not be much more than in previous 20 years, but in those years the Lib-Dems were doing much better nationally. Any bounce I believe will be mostly due to being the respectable face of hard-line opposition to Brexit. This could be bet positive, but put some folks off voting for them on local issues. I would guess at an increase of 5% giving the Lib-Dems 19% of the vote.

The Labour Party cannot fall nearly as far in the English Counties, where support is much lower than the national average. At the end of April and beginning of May 2013 they were polling 38-39% nationally, but achieved 21.1% of the vote. Will they still fall? In 2013 they managed to overtake the Lib-Dems with 538 to 352 seats, as against 247 to 476 in 2009, so the 21.1% was actually an improvement. Nationally Labour are doing worse (or at least no better) than in 2009. What is more, they have lost a lot of their working class base, which would have formed some of the core support in the Counties. I would estimate a 5% fall.

The Independents were once a major contingent in local politics, but only achieved 7.4% of the vote in 2013. How will this go? I would hope for an increase as people vote again for local representatives based on local issues. With the decline of UKIP, and maybe the Lib-Dems tarnished in the eyes of some for going very anti-Brexit, I think they may gain ground to around 10%. The Greens maybe the same.

By difference, the Conservatives will have a 11% increase in the vote share to 45% of the vote share. This is fairly similar to the change in national opinion polls over the last four years (from 30 to 41%). Indeed, it might be a low estimate, as in 2013 the Coalition Government was suffering from normal mid-term blues. At present, the Government is in the unusual position of being significantly more popular than when elected.

So, in conclusion, Harry Hayfield’s estimate was as follows

In the local by-elections, areas that voted REMAIN saw the following change:
Con -9%, Lab -4%, Lib Dem +12%, UKIP -12%, Greens 0%, Ind -10%, Others +23%
Where as areas that voted to LEAVE saw the following change:
Con +4%, Lab -4%, Lib Dem +7%, UKIP -9%, Greens +1%, Ind +4%, Others -3%

The LEAVE areas are at least 5 times more than the REMAIN areas. My estimate, for all English areas with a complete council elections in 2013 & 2017 is as follows.

Con +10%, Lab -5%, Lib Dem +5%, UKIP -12%, Ind/others +2%.

It is the actual results that will matter, and possible lessons to be learnt during a time of massive change in British politics.

Kevin Marshall

UKIP did not lose the Tories the Election

The notion that UKIP lost the election for the Conservatives is erroneous.

This claim originated by Richard North on EU Referendum, and repeated by Conservative Home (with figures), John Redwood and Cranmer.

UKIP cater for a niche of voters who would otherwise (mostly) vote Conservative. However, a mainstream party cannot cater for all tastes. If the Tories became more euro-sceptic to squeeze the UKIP vote, they would most probably have lost more votes to the Lib-Dems and Labour. Any main-stream political party must be a broad church. The problem with our current political opinion is that we had two left-of-centre parties that got over 50% of the vote, a mainstream right-of-centre party that got 36% of the vote and UKIP that got 3%.

The conclusion for the Conservatives is not to try to appeal to a very broad church by merging many different opinions. Rather, they must capture a vision that people can empathise with, as did New Labour and Thatcherism. The time to introduce this was not with the launch of the manifesto, but two or three years before an election. Further that vision should also be an implicit attack on the alternatives.

A positive vision to vote for; and the opposing failures to vote against.