Saturday 6 April 2019

The Newport West By-Election

Have the good electors of Newport West sent British politics a message? This is what personages with far more esteem than I have scratched their heads about over the last couple of days. And the unsatisfying answer is ... it doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know. The result, which saw Labour's Ruth Jones retain the seat on a reduced turn out was always the certain outcome. But that hasn't stopped some, such as Sir John Curtice - patron saint of pollsters, from stirring the tea leaves and suggesting the polarisation seen since the 2017 election is coming to an end. Is he right?

There are a few things worth noting. By-elections, like European elections, local council elections, and Welsh Assembly elections are second order elections. In other words, contests that don't matter much for the bulk of people because general elections matter more. And they have a point. The writ of central government can run roughshod over every other representative body. Wales might be run by Labour and Scotland by the SNP, but their powers are limited and can be overruled by government. The rows during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat years over funding, and more recently the arguments between Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May over Brexit are cases in point.

Because these elections are perceived not to matter as much, they can be useful barometers for localised or passing issues. By-elections tend to be "flatter" than general elections. i.e. The support for the main parties falls as voters, perceiving now would be a good time to make a protest and register their dissatisfaction, are more likely to vote for third, fourth, or fifth etc. parties. For example, this tends to be the case in local council by-elections as well as parliamentary by-elections. As John Curtice observed on yesterday's Politics Live, the combined vote for the two main parties was 71% - well down on the 82% of the 2017 general election. Lewisham East last year saw the Tory/Labour combined vote at 64%. Stoke Central in 2017, 61%. But Copeland, held on the same day as Stoke's saw a combination of 81%. In other words, very little can be read off from how flat an election is. A further point worth adding is turn out from Labour loyal voters tends to be depressed in second order elections more so than Conservative voters, and those motivated by smaller parties. Why? Older people are more likely to vote, as study after study has shown, they tend to be concerned more about and follow the local issues that come into play for localised elections, and they are disproportionately Tory voters. Therefore nearly every by-election confers an advantage on the Conservative campaign that Labour has to make up for.

It's therefore premature to speculate as to whether Newport West is heralding the end of polarisation when the dynamics of the election were different to a general election. Remember, Labour's own local election results were pretty poor in 2017 - one month before the party served up the biggest electoral upset since 1945. What matters is the politics of a general election, and the next one - like the last one - will be a pretty stark choice between two parties with very different programmes of government. That was not as clear in 2015, and was even less so in 2010 and 2005. The dynamics of polarisation have not gone away.

Given the spread of votes away from Labour and the Tories in Newport West, can we glean anything? As John Curtice observed pro-referendum parties managed a combined 17% of the vote. And right there is your problem, combined. This is arrived at by totting up Plaid Cymru, the Greens and Liberal Democrats - each of which has a base independent of its EU positioning. One of the pretenders to the centre party crown, 'Renew', managed 3.7 per cent. Not bad for a first outing of a new party, but not great considering the salience of the issue it champions. However, division like this between the pro-referendum camp is not going to translate into success in the tougher battle of a general election and is super vulnerable to Labour. As we know, a confirmatory referendum is a position Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer are negotiating in talks with the Prime Minister.

Bad news for UKIP too and anyone deluded enough to think no deal = electoral success for the Tories. With wall-to-wall coverage of Brexit, with the right wing press screaming blue murder (and getting close to advocating it), UKIP managed eight-and-a-half per cent. Meanwhile the rebranded, reincarnated and pro-Brexit SDP managed less than one per cent, as did pro-Brexit fash candidates for For Britain and the Democrats and Veterans. Not quite the ground swell of angry leave voters we were expecting, especially in a seat that voted leave in the referendum. How to explain? UKIP certainly isn't what it used to be and is now virtually a legacy party drawing oxygen from the folk memory of Nigel Farage. Now he's interested in his new party for the lead up to the putative European elections, the days are numbered for the kippers. Though it will be interesting to see how the Brexit Party does as many UKIP voters won't be aware of his departure. Seeing the two cancel each other out while taking votes from the Tories will sure be fun.

In sum, the by-election shows Labour and the Tories are still the main choice and the political situation outside of them is chaotic and fractious. What else is new?


Boffy said...

It shows increasing polarisation. If you take the Brexit supporting parties - Labour, Tories, UKIP - their vote share dropped by 15%, as against 2017. The vote share of the anti-Brexit parties - Liberals, Greens, Plaid, Renew - rose by 11.5%. That represents a massive swing away from Leave to Remain, in what is was a Leave voting seat, and a traditional Labour stronghold.

It should send a clear signal to Labour that its Brexit strategy is not winning it Leave votes, but is causing it to haemorrhage its core working-class Remain supporting voters. The combined vote for the anti-Brexit candidates was 17.2%, or about half Labour's vote share. That is in a Labour stronghold, where many of those voting for these other parties would know they had little chance of winning.

If, and the EP election provide a basis for this, those anti-Brexit forces come together in an anti-Brexit alliance, that 17.2% vote share could increase substantially and would do so entirely at Labour's expense. That is even before they get some national names standing as their candidates as they join up with the Small Change UK group.

If they can do that in a safe Labour stronghold like Newport, imagine what would happen in a marginal, especially one where the Liberals, Greens, or Plaid are running a close second? The devastation awaiting Labour in Scotland, at the hands of the SNP, given Labour's continued fascination with the reactionary Brexit agenda doesn't bear thinking about, but it means any hopes that Labour had of winning a General Election are shot whilst it clings to it.

Dr Quelch said...

Good piece. It might be interesting to look at the actual votes cast rather than concentrate on vote shares.
Newport West Elections 2017 & 2019

2017 2019 Change % Change
Labour 22,723 9,308 -13,415 -59.0
Conservative 17,065 7,357 -9,708 -56.9
UKIP 1,100 2,023 +923 +83.9
Plaid Cymru 1,077 1,185 +108 +10.0
Liberal Democrat 976 1,088 +112 +11.5
Green 497 924 +427 +85.9
Renew - 879 +879 -
Abolish the Welsh Assembly - 205 205 -
SDP - 202 +202 -
Democrats and Veterans - 185 +185 -
For Britain - 159 +159 -
Total 43,438 23,515 -19,923 -45.9
Electorate 64,399 63,623

1. Ignore changes to the electorate due to deaths and new voters coming on to the roll, ie treat the electorates in the two elections as the same.
2 Assume further that everyone who voted in 2017 either voted or abstained in 2019 and that people who abstained in 2017 also abstained in 2019.
3 Assume that in 2019 all parties other than Lab and Cons kept their 2017 voters and added to them either from former Cons or lab voterss. The only switching that took place between 2017 and 2019 was from Lab or Cons to other parties. There was no switching between Cons and Lab and no switching between the other parties.
4. Assume, following Curtice, that the Cons “lost” switchers to “leave” parties and that Labour “lost” votes to Remain parties.


UKIP drew its extra votes, and the new parties run by ex-UKIP people - Abolish, Dems and vets, For Britain -, plus the SDP drew all their votes from former Cons voters.
Thus, of the 9,708 voters who backed the Cons in 2017 but did not back them in 2019, a maximum of 1,674 “switched” to leave parties, while the remainder (8,034 abstained. Put another way, of the voters who abandoned the Cons between 2017 and 2019, just over 17% switched, while the other 83% abstained.


In 2019, Renew was the only new remain party standing. It picked up the bulk of the increased vote going to remain parties. If Curtice is right, Remain parties gained 1,526 former Labour voters, or 11.4% of the 13,415 voters who abandoned Labour between 2017 and 2019.

It MAY be that 2107 Labour and Cons voters sat on their hands in 2019 because of the Brexit policies of their parties. But, even using the limiting assumptions made above, their disgust was not enough to make many of them switch party.

Boffy said...

I've analysed Newport in more detail in a blog that will be appearing later this afternoon.

One point I also make there is that analysing the change in vote share on the basis of % point change is misleading. For, example, Labour's vote share dropped by 12.7 points. But, this represents a % fall not of 12.7%, but of 24.28%, i.e. Labour's original vote share was 52.3%, and 12.7 is 24.28% of 52.3. Likewise, Plain's vote share rose by 2.5 points, but this represents a 100% rise in their vote share from 2017, and similar % rises apply to Liberals (109%), and Greens (255%).

By measuring in terms of vote share this accounts for the usual drop in total turnout that occurs in all by-elections compared to General Elections. The worry, for Labour is clearly that if in General Election, these kinds of % rise in the votes of Remain parties were to continue, i.e. doubling and trebling the actual vote in size, particularly if they were able to field a single Remain supporting candidate, Labour's majority would be wiped out, and the seat would go to whoever the Remain camp selected as its standard bearer, even in a Labour stronghold like newport West.

Boffy said...

My blog post on Newport West is now available here.

Anonymous said...

i get the distinct impression your analysis is biased towards remain.
i have read a lot of your posts on here and you have a tendency to be pertial.
you are. of course entitled to your view, however you need to wind your neck in, read the original post back several times before giving a considered view on the author's article