Author Archives: Roger Scully

Roger Scully

About Roger Scully

Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. Jazz fan and horse-racing follower. Dog-walker.

Elections to the National Assembly: Who Makes the Rules?

It is often said that the United Kingdom doesn’t have a constitution. (Thus, the renowned constitutional expert Prof Vernon Bogdanor has quipped that his entire career has been based on talking about something that doesn’t exist!) That is not quite true. The UK does not possess a single document termed a Constitution. But the functional equivalent of one does exist – albeit spread across various Treaties, Acts of Parliament and other documents, and placing far fewer restrictions on the law-making abilities of parliament than most democratic constitutions do.

The UK’s devolved institutions, however, are in a somewhat different position. The various Acts establishing them and revising their powers operate as the very close equivalent to a written constitution: a core text that does much to define the main governmental institutions, their shape, and the scope and scale of their powers.

Among the things that such legislation determines is how the institutions are elected. In Wales, the 1998 Government of Wales Act provided for a 60-seat National Assembly, with 40 seats to be elected on a constituency basis and 20 seats to be elected from five regional lists. The 2006 Government of Wales Act made one specific amendment to the electoral system: it prevented individuals from standing as candidates both in a constituency and on a party regional list (so called ‘dual candidacy’). The current Wales Bill provides for the removal of that ban on dual candidacy.

But common to all these pieces of law is that control over how the NAW is elected has been retained wholly within the hands of Westminster. The same is true for the other devolved chambers as well: while the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly have many powers, they cannot alter the systems under which they are elected. The electoral systems remain firmly under the control of parliament in London.

Things are different for local government. There was a major reform of the electoral system for Scottish local government introduced in time for the 2007 Scottish local elections. The Single Transferable Vote system was introduced – a very different system to the mix of single- and multi-member district plurality used previously. This was done entirely by an Act of the Scottish Parliament. In Wales, Local Government is one of the twenty subjects that are devolved to the Assembly; therefore, it would be possible for the NAW to alter the electoral system, and other aspects of how local elections are conducted, in Wales. Thus, the devolved chambers are in the slightly ironic position where they control the electoral system used by other entities – Welsh local authorities – but have no control over how they, themselves, are elected. (EDIT, 8.52, 27/10/14: Thanks to Peter Black for pointing out – see comments below – that, apparently, the National Assembly does NOT have the legal competence to change the electoral system for local government elections in Wales. I had misunderstood that point. I will try to track down precisely WHY the Assembly does not have the competence to do this).

In this context, it was interesting to read the following point within the recent joint statement made by the four party leaders in the Welsh Assembly:

“7. Calls on the UK Government to give the National Assembly for Wales the power to determine its electoral arrangements”

I welcome this statement, and would welcome the change if enacted. However, I do so with a significant qualification.

Political parties are, inherently and unavoidably, interested actors with regards to electoral systems. In any representative democracy that has political parties it cannot be otherwise. There will always be a temptation for political parties to try to change those systems to their own narrow advantage. Thus, the constitutions of many political systems include provisions to make this difficult. For Westminster, no written constitution inhibits a majority party in the House of Commons from seeking to manipulate the electoral system. But any temptation to try to do this is restrained by two key factors. The first is the House of Lords: an upper chamber where no party has a majority, and in which many members act with considerable independence. Any attempt to manipulate the electoral system for partisan advantage would almost certainly run into fierce criticism, and substantial parliamentary obstruction, in the Lords. Second, any such attempt would also face substantial scrutiny and criticism in the news media. The bad publicity that would be attracted by a party seeking to fix the system for their own benefit would quite likely outweigh any advantages gained from the changes made.

A problem we have in Wales is that both of these checks on potential partisan manipulation of the electoral system are absent. We have a unicameral legislature: there is no second chamber that can slow the legislative process down, or force reconsideration of proposed changes. Perhaps even more importantly, we do not have a sufficiently strong native media to raise widespread public ire against the unacceptable use of political power. The potential danger, therefore, is clear: if a party (or even a coalition of parties) with a temporary narrow majority sought to manipulate the National Assembly electoral system for their own benefit, there would be few significant obstacles in their way.

I would, therefore support the devolution of powers over the electoral arrangements of the NAW to the NAW if, and only if, the following condition were attached to the legislation. Any changes should require approval not merely by a majority of those voting within the Assembly, but by a ‘super-majority’. That super-majority should be significant: at least two-thirds, and possibly even three-quarters. We should not seek to make change impossible. But given the innate and substantial self-interest that parties have in electoral systems, it is essential that changes should reflect a broad, cross-party consensus.

The electoral system, in any political system, should never be the plaything of one political party. It was very welcome to see acknowledgement of this, by both Carwyn Jones and Andrew RT Davies, in last Tuesday’s Assembly debate on the future of devolution. Both appeared to agree on a two-thirds threshold for electoral system change. By writing into the relevant legislation a super-majority requirement, Wales would be provided with the equivalent of a written constitutional protection against partisan manipulation. That would be a very good thing.

Trends in Referendum Voting Intentions: the EU and Income Tax

Thanks to our friends in the north, referendums have been on the minds of many people over recent months. While there is currently no realistic prospect of Wales facing a referendum on independence in the short to medium term, there are other referendums that we may well be facing at some time in the next few years. The Silk Commission recommended that partial control of income tax powers be devolved to the National Assembly – but only after an affirmative vote in a referendum on the matter. Meanwhile, UK-wide debates about the European Union, the Prime Minister’s proposal for a 2017 referendum, and the continuing advances of UKIP, mean that there is every prospect of a referendum on British membership of the EU occurring at some point after the next general election.

Because both these referendums remain realistic possibilities, since the launch last December of the Welsh Political Barometer our polls have regularly been asking questions about voting intentions on these two issues. There have also been a few other polls, going back to February last year, that have asked about such matters. What have these polls been showing? Are any significant trends evident?

First, income tax devolution. YouGov first asked about this in a poll for ITV-Wales in February 2013. They used the following question: “If there was a referendum tomorrow on giving the National Assembly for Wales powers to raise or to lower the levels of income tax in Wales, how would you vote?”. That has been the same question formulation used in all other surveys, except for one carried out by Beaufort last December; the latter asked a slightly different question: “The UK Government says it will pass a law to enable a referendum to be held on whether the Welsh Government should be able to vary rates of income tax up or down in Wales. If such a referendum were held tomorrow, how would you vote?”

The following table shows the levels of support for Yes and No (as well as the level of ‘Don’t Know’/Wouldn’t Vote responses) in all polls up to and including September’s Barometer. (Full details on the sample sizes can be found in the Opinion Polls section of the blog).

Wales, Income Tax Referendum Polls

Poll% Yes% No% DK/NV% ‘No’ Lead
ITV-Wales/YouGov, February 2013393427-5
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 20133538263
Western Mail/Beaufort, December 2013323038-2
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 201431422811
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 20143339286
Walesonline/YouGov, June 20143441257
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 201432422610
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20143839241

There is no very clear trend in the figures here. But if there is any trend at all, it would seem to have been – up until the last Barometer poll, at least – a move away from support for income-tax powers. The only two polls to show Yes in the lead in the putative referendum were both conducted in 2013; those conducted in 2014, up until September’s Barometer poll, all had leads for No of six points or greater. The turnaround in the most recent poll could have simply been due to random sampling variation. However, it seems plausible to think that the findings may well have been affected by the prevailing public debate about the Scottish referendum, and the suggestions of greater powers over tax for Scotland that were very prominent in the news at the time when the fieldwork for this poll was being conducted. This may well have encouraged some people in Wales to see income tax devolution here as more possible or more desirable.

What about the EU? Here, all the polls carried out have used the same, simple question: “If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, how would you vote?” The findings for all the polls conducted are contained in the table below.

Wales, EU Referendum Polls

Poll% Remain% Leave% DK/ NV% ‘remain’ Lead
ITV-Wales/YouGov, February 20134235227
Western Mail/Beaufort, June 2013293735-8
WGC/YouGov, July 2013394021-1
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 2013384022-2
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 201444332311
Walesonline/YouGov, June 20144138223
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 20144136245
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20144337206

Once again, the table does not show a very obvious trend. But it is possibly of some significance that the only three polls to show a plurality in favour of leaving the EU were all conducted in 2013; the four polls that have asked the question in 2014 have all shown the balance of opinion (fairly narrowly) in favour of the UK remaining within the EU. Some may consider this puzzling, given the strong showing of UKIP in May’s European elections and recent Welsh polls. I don’t think there is actually any contradiction. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, not all of UKIP’s supporters agree with their policy on the EU. Moreover, their success may well have prompted some counter-reaction amongst others in the electorate. Overall, the polls are consistent with the broad picture that GB-wide studies have tended to show – that on EU membership, the Scottish electorate is most supportive of continued membership, and the English most inclined to lean towards leaving the EU; the Welsh tend to be located somewhere in the middle.

In general, neither of these sets of polls show a very clear or decisive lead for either side with regard to these potential referendums. Nor do we see any very clear trends. This is a rather different picture than was seen prior to the 2011 referendum: every poll conducted on the issue of greater law-making powers put the Yes side ahead, with the gap generally growing over time.

Frankly, if I were a leading politician in Wales contemplating an income-tax referendum, these poll findings would make me very nervous. There is strong international evidence, as I discussed in my previous blog post and which the experience of the Scottish referendum did nothing to dispel, that constitutional referendums tend to favour the status quo. If in doubt, people are more likely in the end to plump for no change, for what they have and are familiar with, than they are to vote to alter things. To be confident of success when proposing change, you would want to have significant and fairly stable leads in the polls. The polling evidence here does not show that an income tax referendum would be wholly unwinnable; it does, though, suggest that a No vote in any such ballot would currently start the campaign as favourite.

In an EU referendum, Wales would only provide around 5% of the votes; our stance on the EU could only plausibly tip the balance, therefore, if the vote was extremely tight across the rest of the UK. Much would depend on the campaign, and the political context in which it was set. We can know little about such things at present. What we do know is that opinion on EU membership at present in Wales is quite evenly divided.

Error and Bias in Referendum Opinion Polls

During the current (2010-15) parliament there have been three major referendums on constitutional change: the March 2011 referendum in Wales on increased law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales; the May 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote; and the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

Much has been said about many aspects of these referendums; and doubtless, much more will be said in the future. In this short piece I’d like to look at the record of opinion polls in the referendums. Overall, how successful were they at predicting the final outcome of the referendums?

First, though, a few words of definition and clarification.

Prediction: Prediction is not, in general, what opinion polls should be understood as trying to do. A poll is a measure – an attempt to assess the relative frequency of different attitudes within a given population. Of course, such measures can be used to derive predictions of some form, or at least projections (such as the uniform national swing projections I regularly make of the voting intention polls conducted in Wales.) Sir Robert Worcester, founder of the MORI polling agency, puts the point well: ‘polls don’t predict, even if many pollsters do’. Nonetheless, the final polls conducted by various companies shortly before a vote ought to be able to get close to the final result, unless there are some very dramatic late swings. In that sense, we might reasonably take an immediately pre-election or pre-referendum poll from a polling agency as their prediction as to the outcome of a vote.

Error and Bias: In looking at how close final polls before referendums may have come to the actual result, I want to distinguish two ways in which polls may get things wrong. When talking about the degree of Error in a poll, I will be concerned simply with the extent to which they diverge from the actual outcome of the referendum. Bias is a rather different concept: it concerns whether the polls are tending systematically to be wrong in a particular direction. As I’m using it here, the term bias does not imply any deliberate attempt to make the polls wrong in a particular direction. Deliberate manipulation might, I suppose, be one reason why the polls might tend to err in a particular direction. But there are plenty of others. It is, therefore, very possible that polls might tend to have substantial errors associated with them, but without any bias at all. It is also possible – as, indeed, we will see – for the polls to have only small errors, but with a clear bias.

So, how well have the pollsters done in the three referendums? In the tables below I’ve listed all the final, publicly-reported polls from British Polling Council pollsters where they conducted a poll in the final week of the campaign, for each of the three referendums.

Wales, March 3, 2011

Poll (including survey end dates)% Yes% No% Error
RMG/Media Wales, February 2869315.5
YouGov/ITV-Wales, March 169315.5
ICM/BBCWales, March 269315.5
FINAL RESULT63.5%36.5%

Mean error = 5.5%

AV, May 5, 2011

Poll (including survey end dates)% Yes% No% Error
ComRes/Independent, May 134661.9
ICM/Guardian, May 332680.1
YouGov/Sun, May 440607.9
Angus Reid, May 439616.9
FINAL RESULT32.1%67.9%

Mean error = 4.2%

Scotland, September 18, 2014

Poll (including survey end dates)% Yes% No% Error
Opinium/Telegraph, September 1548523.3
ICM/Scotsman, September 1648523.3
Panelbase, September 1747532.3
YouGov/Times/Sun, September 1748523.3
Survation/Daily Record, September 1747532.3
Ipsos MORI/Standard, September 1747532.3
FINAL RESULT44.7%55.3%

Mean error = 2.8%

What do we see? A first thing to observe is that we see the most error in the first of the three referendums and the least in the most recent vote. That may indicate a tendency for the pollsters to be getting better over time. It could be that the three referendums saw progressively more resources invested in them by the pollsters, reflecting the respective extent of UK-wide interest in the three votes. Or, quite possibly, the level of error may be related to turnout. Turnout was by some way the lowest, at 35.6%, in the Welsh referendum. It may simply be rather easier for the pollsters to get things right when more people are participating in a vote.

Given the standard margin of error of +/- 3%, the ‘mean error’ performance of the polls in the first two referendums, and that in Wales in particular, was undoubtedly somewhat disappointing. However, we might bear in mind that the mean error figure for the AV referendum is actually rather misleading: two of the final polls came very close to the actual outcome, while two of them were some way from the truth. For the Scottish referendum, the mean error was below 3 points, while none of the polls were significantly further away than that. More problematic is that while there was limited error in the polls, there was clear bias: all the final polls over-stated the final Yes vote, and under-stated the final No vote.

One might think that this bias in the Scottish polls reflected some factors specific to that vote – such as a late swing induced by the high-profile promises of more powers for the Scottish Parliament made by the three UK party leaders and by Gordon Brown. Yet when we look across all three referendums, we actually see that this problem with the polls in Scotland was not the exceptional case, caused by the exceptional circumstances of that vote. Actually, what we saw in Scotland was the norm. In all but one of the thirteen final week referendum polls conducted, across all three votes, the support for constitutional change was over-stated.

These findings actually fit in with broader international experience. As my colleague Alan Renwick from Reading University has shown, there is a general pattern that polls ahead of referendums tend to over-state the final level of support obtained for constitutional change in referendums. The main reason for this, Alan suggests, is “uncertain voters typically end up sticking with the devil they know. If you are unsure quite what effects a change will have, then it is safer to hold to the familiarity of the status quo.”[1]

Two broad conclusions, I think, follow from this. The first is that the opinion pollsters’ performance in the recent Scottish referendum was rather better than some critics have suggested. However, the polls did tend to over-state support for change. From this follows the second conclusion. As Alan Renwick puts it “unless you are already way ahead in the polls, you should be cautious of advocating a referendum on your pet reform idea.” The implications of this for potential referendums in Wales will be discussed in my next Blog post.

 

[1] This quote, and the following one, both come from the following: Alan Renwick ‘Don’t Trust your poll lead: how public opinion changes during referendum campaigns’, in (P. Cowley and R. Ford, eds.) Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box:(50 surprising facts about Britain’s politicians and voters) (London: Biteback, 2014), p.81.

Up-Dates to Opinion Polls Section

 

The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I have made one or two small changes to the site over the last few days.

Most importantly, I have made some up-dates and improvements to the Opinion Polls section. I’d encourage you to look at that to see for yourself, but in brief what I have done is the following:

  • I’ve both up-dated and improved – I hope – the charts on voting intention. For both the general election and Assembly constituency vote charts, I decided that it made most sense for the charts to look at changes since the last election. So for the general election chart, the first data point is the May 2010 general election result in Wales; all subsequent ones are the opinion polls conducted since then. For the Assembly constituency vote chart, the first data point is the May 2011 result; again, all subsequent data points are from the following opinion polls
  • For the chart on regional list voting intentions, there is a problem: as discussed in a previous blog post , the changes in question wording that happened twice after the May 2011 election introduce considerable ‘noise’ into the signal offered by the polls. I have therefore chosen to present a chart giving the figures only from December 2013, when the current question wording used by YouGov was adopted.
  • For all these charts, the small chart visible on the screen should expand into a much larger chart if you click on it. Let me know if this doesn’t work for anyone.
  • The detailed figures on which the charts are all based, as well as the figures for earlier polls, are listed below the set of charts in Section 2 of the Opinion Polls page. There are links to several PDF documents here. This section also contains figures for a few opinion polls that have asked about National Assembly voting intention without specifying intentions for the constituency and list vote; and also figures from those polls which have asked about European Parliament election voting intentions in Wales.
  • If that were not enough to get you through the long winter evenings, Section 2 also contains links to PDF documents giving you the figures for all polls I am aware of that have asked about voting intentions in referendums: those conducted prior to the March 2011 referendum on greater powers for the National Assembly; the potential referendum on income-tax powers for the National Assembly recommended by the Silk Commission; and a potential referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
  • Finally, I have also up-dated Section 3 of this page. This section contains links to a number of PDF documents with the detailed top-line results of major opinion polls conducted in Wales over the last year and a half. These include all the Welsh Political Barometer polls (up to and including the most recent one, conducted in September) and the most recent poll conducted by ICM for BBC Wales.

 Have fun exploring all this information!

New Poll of Cardiff Central

 

Regular readers of the Blog – and anyone not a regular reader should ask themself some searching questions – will recall discussion in May of a constituency poll in Cardiff North by Lord Ashcroft. This was one of a series of detailed polls of marginal Labour-Conservative constituencies conducted by every psephologist’s favourite former non-dom.

Now, Lord Ashcroft has released findings from a series of polls conducted in a different set of constituencies – the Liberal Democrat marginals. And one of those is also a Cardiff seat – Cardiff Central. This is a seat that was captured from Labour by the Liberal Democrats for the National Assembly in 1999, and for Westminster in 2005. However, in 2011, it was narrowly re-taken by Labour for the Assembly.

The poll was conducted (by telephone) between 3-14 September, so the fieldwork is relatively recent. A full sample of 1000 voters was obtained. (This is unlike many individual constituency polls in the past, where inadequate samples have been obtained).

As with Lord Ashcroft’s previous constituency polls, a number of different figures are reported for voting intention. Probably the most important is that which asks respondents “Thinking specifically about your own parliamentary constituency at the next General Election and the candidates who are likely to stand for election to Westminster there, which party’s candidate do you think you will vote for in your own constituency?”. This question makes every effort – as much as can be made at this stage, when we don’t have final confirmation of who all the candidates will be for all the parties – to tap into constituency-specific factors. This question can certainly produce different results from that obtained by a ‘standard’ voting intention question, which simply asks “If there was a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?”

Lord Ashcroft’s poll gets the following figures for the main parties (weighted for likelihood to vote):

 

Standard Question

Labour: 37%

Conservative: 22%

Lib-Dems: 16%

UKIP: 10%

Greens: 7%

Plaid Cymru: 6%

Others: 1%

 

Constituency-Specific Question

Labour: 36%

LibDems: 24%

Conservative: 17%

UKIP: 9%

Plaid Cymru: 9%

Greens: 5%

There was also an interesting question about levels of local contact – asking people whether any of the parties had “contacted you over the last few weeks” by various means (including leafletting and canvassing); here, the Liberal Democrats had a clear edge, with 28% of respondents reporting having been contacted by them, compared to 18% contacted by Labour, and with all the other parties unsurprisingly well behind in what looks like a clear two-horse race.

The standard voting intention question would suggest that the Liberal Democrats are completely out of contention in Cardiff Central. The more constituency-specific question gives Jenny Willott a much better chance of holding on to the seat. Nonetheless, it still puts her some way behind Labour, who must currently be considered to be the favourites to win.

One of the problems facing the Lib-Dems is captured in a further question in the poll. This asks respondents whether there are any parties that they would definitely not vote for in the general election. Among those who report voting for the Lib-Dems in 2010, fully 36% say that they definitely would not vote for them now – almost as many as say they would not vote Labour (42%). By contrast, only 11% of those who supported Labour in 2010 indicate that they would not vote for the party now. While they continue to drain away so much of their past support, the Liberal Democrats will find it hard to hold on to many of their current seats.

Who Will Vote?

 

One of the features of the Scottish referendum that has elicited considerable comment was the level of turnout. At 84.6%, the turnout figure was 20.8% higher than in the 2010 general election, and a full 34.6% above that recorded in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election. While this was, in the end, no great shock – reflecting the extraordinary levels of public engagement and participation generated by the referendum campaign – it was still something that in a broader context should be seen as quite remarkable. On no previous occasion in the democratic era had such a high percentage of the Scottish electorate participated in a ballot.

As the attention of the psephological community returns to the rather more mundane matters of mere general elections and the like, the issue of voter turnout will remain important. This is not because anyone – at least, certainly no-one with whom I am familiar – is expecting voter turnout at the next general election to reach 85%. I would be fairly confident that participation levels will be substantially lower, probably somewhere in the 60s%. But lower (and even low) turnout can be every bit as important and interesting as high turnout. Most obviously, it opens up substantial scope for differential turnout among the potential supporters of the various parties. As both scholars and most party activists have long understood, success in elections is not just about persuading people to support your party. At least as important is mobilising your existing support – making sure that those sympathetic to you actually do go out and vote.

With that in mind, the Welsh Political Barometer polls have begun including a ‘likelihood to vote’ question relating to general election turnout. We will, I very much hope, include this question in all our polls up to next May’s general election. Before discussing the detailed figures, though, a cautionary note is in order. As I’ve mentioned previously on the blog [http://blogs.cardiff.ac.uk/electionsinwales/2014/05/29/so-how-did-we-do/], all polls that attempt to estimate voter turnout seem to over-estimate it. This is true not only of those conducted before elections, but even of those done afterwards, and it appears to be particularly the case for on-line polls. There are various reasons for this. One is that some people do seem to lie – giving what they may perceive as a more ‘socially acceptable’ answer to the pollsters by saying that they voted even when they didn’t. A bigger problem, though, seems to be that the sorts of people who don’t vote are, disproportionately, the sorts of people who also don’t answer opinion polls!

 

How do we address this problem? One method, often used these days in post-election surveys, is to offer respondents a question phrased in such a way as to make non-voting seem a wholly respectable behaviour. Thus, in the post-election wave of the 2011 Welsh Election Study, we asked the following to respondents: “Many people have told us that they didn’t manage to vote in the election for the National Assembly for Wales. How about you – did you manage to vote in the election?” This may address at least some of the ‘social acceptability’ issue.

For pre-election surveys, a method now used by several pollsters is to offer respondents a 0-10 scale (where 0 means ‘not vote’ and 10 means ‘definitely would vote), asking them how likely they are to vote in the election. Such scales are not flawless – our final Barometer poll before the European Parliament election in May saw 55% of respondents say that they were 10/10 certain to vote. What may be most useful are not the absolute levels of turnout that such questions ‘predict’, but the relative positions of supporters of the different parties. That is, the polls probably can’t tell us to the second decimal place what the overall percentage turnout will be next May. But they plausibly can give us a good indication of which party’s supporters are currently most motivated to go out and vote in the general election.

Our latest Barometer poll used the 0-10 scale question, linking it specifically to “the UK General Election next May”. So what did we find? In the table below, I offer two summary measures for each of the five main parties. This shows the percentage choosing the 10/10 ‘definitely will vote’ option, and the average score out of 10, for those who indicated that they would vote for this party in the next general election.

 

Party

% 10/10

Average /10

Labour

74

9.28

Conservative

77

9.52

LibDems

59

8.84

Plaid

78

9.26

UKIP

83

9.47

So what do these figures tell us? Perhaps the clearest message relates to the Liberal Democrats. Not only was their level of support in this poll low – only 6% of respondents offering a voting intention indicated that they would support the party in the general election. But even among those few supporters the party has retained levels of certainty to vote are relatively low: their voters are the least certain to vote of all the main parties. This is truly a grim position for the Lib-Dems to find themselves in.

Among the other parties there are relatively minor differences. On one measure – the percentage of 10/10 responses – UKIP seems to have the strongest degree of support; on the other, the Conservatives are slightly ahead. Labour and Plaid are slightly behind, but not by much. Still, these figures may be a bit concerning for Labour: in a potentially very close election where every vote could count, even modest differences in likelihood to vote could really matter. But maybe the most important thing that these results point to is that much of UKIP support looks pretty motivated! This does not look just like a spasm of protest that is destined to melt away, or armchair grumbling that won’t manifest itself on polling day. For UKIP this is clearly good news; for the opponents not so much.

 

ADDITION: I had just finished drafting this post when I was sent the details of the BBC Wales-ICM poll. Interestingly, that too includes a 0-10 certainty to vote question. Even more interestingly, it offers a rather different picture to that presented by YouGov in the Barometer poll. Here are ICM’s figures:

 

Party

% 10/10

Average /10

Labour

71

9.03

Conservative

72

9.06

LibDems

56

8.73

Plaid

59

8.32

UKIP

63%

8.74

The news here continues to be grim for the Liberal Democrats, with relatively low levels of certainty to vote even among their much-reduced support base. The main difference between the two polls is that Plaid Cymru’s position on certainty to vote looks much weaker with ICM than it does with YouGov. Given that ICM seem to show higher levels of voting support for Plaid, perhaps these two factors balance out. But UKIP’s position also looks rather weaker with ICM, who at the same time are showing them on a slightly lower level of voting support than are YouGov.

 

Why should these two, highly-esteemed, survey agencies come to rather different pictures on certainty to vote? To be frank, I’m unsure. I suspect that it may well be related to the very different methodologies used by the two companies (YouGov use internet polling, ICM’s poll used telephone sampling). But I’m not clear as to why these two methods should produce results that differ in this way. I’m also unsure as to which set of results I find the most believable. What I think these two sets of figures do reinforce is the importance of continuing to keep an eye, over the next few months, on likelihood to vote. In a general election that nearly everyone expects to be very close, voter turnout could make all the difference.

 

New BBC/ICM Poll!

 

BBC Wales are publishing today some findings from a new opinion poll. [Edit, 25/09/14: the first part of the detailed results have now been released, and can be found here]. Conducted by ICM, by telephone, it was run shortly after the confirmation of the result of the Scottish independence referendum. [Disclosure: I was consulted by the BBC about the content of the poll, and made some suggestions on question wording].

The poll mainly covered attitudes to the result of the Scottish independence referendum, and public views on what should happen now – both regarding potential further devolution for Scotland, and how Wales should now be governed. There were lots of interesting results in the poll; some are discussed here, while I will review and comment on others in a future blog post.

In addition to all these questions about the future governance of the UK, however, the poll also asked about voting intentions for the general election. This is useful not merely because it provides another measure of such intentions, but because it offers one not coming from a poll conducted by YouGov. That comment is in no way a slight on YouGov (who have been, and continue to be, a pleasure to work with); it is simply an observation that it is valuable to have different polling companies measuring voting support. This was the second BBC-ICM poll in 2014 to ask about general election voting intention. The figures (with changes from the previous BBC-ICM poll, conducted in February, in brackets) are:

 

Party

Vote Intention

Labour

38% (-4)

Conservative

23% (-1)

Liberal Democrats

7% (-2)

Plaid Cymru

13% (-1)

UKIP

14% (+7)

Others

4% (no change)

Projecting ICM’s figures to a general election – using the standard uniform national swing approach – produces the following outcome:

Labour: 28 MPs. (Holding all 26 seats won in 2010, and also winning Cardiff North from the Conservatives and Cardiff Central from the Liberal Democrats).

Conservatives: 8 MPs. (Losing Cardiff North to Labour, but winning – very narrowly – Brecon & Radnor from the Liberal Democrats).

LibDems: 1 MP. (Losing Brecon & Radnor and Cardiff Central, but holding Ceredigion).

Plaid Cymru: 3 MPs (Holding their current 3 seats).

Although the poll has UKIP in third place in popular support on 14%, on uniform swing assumptions they do not actually come even close to winning a seat anywhere. Nonetheless, UKIP support clearly is reaching the sort of levels where they might plausibly make a difference to who does win some seats.

In general, this poll is very much in line with the current trends that other polls have been showing. Here is the full list of polls on UK general election voting intention conducted and reported this year so far:

Poll

Lab

Con

Lib-Dem

Plaid

ukip

others*

Lord Aschroft, Jan 2014 (published March)

40

24

6

15

13

3

ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 2014

47

22

7

11

9

4

BBC Wales/ICM, Feb 2014

42

24

9

14

7

4

FoES/YouGov, April 2014

45

24

7

11

10

3

ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 2014

43

22

7

11

13

5

ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 2014

41

25

5

11

14

5

ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 2014

38

23

6

11

17

6

BBC-Wales/ICM, September 2014

38

23

7

13

14

4

 

Taken together, these numbers give the following averages for 2014 as a whole:

Labour: 41.8%

Conservatives: 23.4%

LibDems: 6.8%

Plaid: 12.1%

UKIP: 12.1%

 

It is encouraging that ICM’s figures are so close to those produced by the recent Welsh Political Barometer poll conducted by YouGov – that two such highly-respected companies, using wholly different polling methods, are producing identical figures for the two largest parties, and have all five main parties within the ‘margin of error’, rather increases our confidence in the findings.

ICM’s findings reinforce the point, made previously on this blog, that Labour support in Wales has slipped considerably over the past 18-24 months. In the four polls conducted in 2012, Labour’s general election vote share was always at or above 50%. Both the last two have had it below 40%. Indeed, it is notable that while Labour across Britain as a whole is running generally well ahead of the 29.0% vote share it won at the 2010 general election (as of this morning, Labour was on 35% in the UK Polling Report running average), in Wales Labour’s support level is now only 2% points above that gained in 2010.

Two years ago, Ed Miliband could have confidently looked forward to Wales delivering him several seat gains at the general election; now, Welsh Labour’s seat harvest looks likely to be much smaller. That is probably the most important single message to come out of the recent polls on general election voting intention here in Wales.

The Electoral State of the Parties, 5: UKIP

 

This time last year I didn’t write about UKIP. It seemed justifiable at the time. The party had few councillors in Wales (to be precise, a total of two on Wales’ twenty-two local authorities), having made conspicuously little impact in the May 2012 local elections. UKIP also had no MPs or AMs, and while they had won a Welsh seat in the European Parliament in 2009, by August 2013 their MEP was increasingly semi-detached from his own party. UKIP also appeared to be making more limited ground in the opinion polls in Wales than in England; it was not clear from the polls that the party was on course to win many, if any, seats in the National Assembly in 2016. In the YouGov poll published on this site in July 2013, for instance, UKIP support in Wales was still firmly in single figure percentages for both Westminster and the National Assembly constituency vote.

It is a measure of the extent to which things have changed in the last twelve months that it longer feels remotely credible to exclude UKIP from my review of the electoral state of the main parties in Wales. The most obvious reason for that is this year’s European election. Prior to 2014, UKIP’s performance in these elections had always been notably poorer in Wales than in England: in 1999, 2004 and 2009, Wales was either UKIP’s second or third weakest ‘region’ in Britain in vote share (with Scotland always being the weakest, and London twice narrowly beating Wales for second place). The Celts, it seemed, were generally averse to a party that, some research had suggested, drew its support in England heavily from those who identified themselves primarily as English rather than British.

Even as the European election approached, and the polls showed UKIP support rising in Wales, it still seemed likely that they would do notably less well here than in England. In the event that did not happen: UKIP came within 0.6% of topping the poll in Wales, scored a percentage vote in Wales that was only 1.5% behind the 29.1% secured in England, and its 14.8% rise in vote share since 2009 was its third highest of any region in Britain (behind only the East Midlands and the East of England). Moreover, UKIP did not merely do well in the more ‘anglicised’ parts of Wales (although these were where it topped the poll). Its performance was strong everywhere: UKIP came first or second in every single local authority across Wales, the only party to achieve this.

How did UKIP do so well? Its success was not built upon an obviously thriving party machinery across Wales. In other respects, though, we can at least in retrospect see a basis for significant UKP support in Wales. First and perhaps foremost, Wales has a great many of the economically ‘left behinds’, those whom Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin have identified as a key support base for UKIP. Second, there is considerable support in Wales for UKIP’s stance on immigration: as some forthcoming research will show, attitudes here are every bit as hard-line as in England (and rather more so than in Scotland). Third, it may also be the case that the long-standing antipathy to the Conservatives in much of Wales also played to UKIP’s advantage: socially conservative working-class voters, who have often become ‘working class Tories’ in much of England, in Wales in 2014 may have jumped straight from Labour to UKIP. They would hardly have been discouraged from doing so by the hapless Euro-election campaigning efforts of Ed Miliband.

Of course, European elections are very far from an infallible guide to the outcomes of other electoral contests. UKIP did quite well in the 2009 European election across Britain, before performing miserably in the 2010 general election. However, even polling on voting intentions for the general election and Assembly election has shown UKIP making some ground in Wales in recent times: in polls thus far this year UKIP has averaged 12.2% for Westminster voting intention, 10.3% for the Assembly constituency vote, and 13.4% for the Assembly regional list vote.

What does this suggest for UKIP’s electoral prospects in Wales? Despite these improved poll ratings, there still appears little chance of the party winning a Westminster seat next May. (UKIP’s best performance in the 201 general election in Wales was their 3.5% in Ynys Môn: not only 29.9% behind Labour’s winning candidate, Albert Owen, but also behind several other parties). What UKIP might well be able to do, though, is affect who does win some seats. If their vote share in Wales remains at roughly the levels currently indicated in the polls, they will be attracting sufficient numbers of votes that this could conceivably make a difference to who wins in some, more marginal seats.

It is in the 2016 National Assembly election that UKIP’s prospects of electing representatives would seem to be brighter. The semi-proportional voting system allows UKIP the possibility of gaining some regional list seats. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll, which put UKIP on 17% for the regional list vote, would on uniform swings from 2011 put UKIP on course to win eight Assembly list seats.  But of course the next Assembly election is almost two years away; success there will require UKIP to sustain its current momentum for a considerable period of time. And we might want to remember that in both the last two NAW elections UKIP talked up their chances of winning list seats but ultimately failed to deliver. Their recent success may also be something of a double-edged sword. The party will have to be ready to cope with the increased level of scrutiny and criticism it will receive. As their newly-elected MEP Nathan Gill has already discovered, this is not always very comfortable. UKIP’s opponents and the media will also surely not continue to allow them to spend so much time talking about Europe and immigration in the future. The party will have to have credible things also to say on issues like tax, health and education.

UKIP have clearly arrived as a serious force in party politics in Wales. But arriving is one thing, staying is another, as the history of radical right and protest parties in Europe has shown. Some, like the Austrian Freedom Party, the Danish Progress Party and the French Front National, become significant long-term forces. Others rise only to fade away. One of the big questions in party politics over the next few years concerns which of these categories UKIP will end up being placed into. It’s going to be interesting to watch.

New Welsh Political Barometer Poll

 

This week sees publication of the latest poll conducted by the Welsh Political Barometer – a unique collaboration between ITV Cymru Wales, the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, and the leading polling agency YouGov.

The poll provides us with a valuable opportunity to assess the state of the parties: as the political season resumes after the summer break, the main parties all approach their autumn conferences, and we look forward to a general election next May.

The poll asked our usual questions about voting intentions for next May’s general election, as well for both votes in the National Assembly election. So, what were the findings for Westminster? We got the following results for general election vote intention (with changes from the July Barometer poll in brackets):

  • Labour 38% (-3)
  • Conservative 23% (-2)
  • Plaid Cymru 11% (no change)
  • UKIP 17% (+3)
  • Liberal Democrats 6% (+1)
  • Others 6% (+1)

Although Labour remains some way in the lead, this is yet another poll that shows its support continuing to ebb. This 38% score is Labour’s lowest in any published Welsh poll since the 2010 general election.

The Conservatives’ modest decline sees them revert to the level of support they have typically enjoyed in Welsh polls over the last few years, after an unusually high score in July’s Barometer. They remain only a few percentage points short of their performance in the 2010 general election. The contrast with their coalition partners continues to be stark: although they have actually improved a notch since last time, at 6%, Lib-Dem support is more than 14 points below their vote share in 2010. Plaid Cymru continue to hold steady, at a support level pretty much identical with how they did in 2010: although not terrible news, they will probably be disappointed with a lack of progress here. Meanwhile – perhaps boosted by the news of Douglas Carswell’s defection, which came shortly before the fieldwork for this poll was conducted – UKIP continue to advance in their support levels for Westminster.

If the changes since the 2010 general election implied by these figures were repeated uniformly across Wales, this would produce the following outcome in terms of seats (with changes from the 2010 election outcome indicated in brackets):

  • Labour: 28 seats (+2)
  • Conservatives: 8 seats (no change)
  • Plaid Cymru: 3 seats (no change)
  • Liberal Democrats: 1 seat (-2)

Only three seats are projected by this poll to change hands: Labour would capture Cardiff Central from the Liberal Democrats and Cardiff North from the Conservatives, while the Conservatives would take Brecon & Radnor from the Liberal Democrats.

What about the National Assembly? For the constituency vote, the results of our new poll were (with changes from May’s Barometer poll in brackets):

  • Labour 36% (-1)
  • Conservative 21% (no change)
  • Plaid Cymru 19% (-1)
  • Liberal Democrats 6% (+1)
  • UKIP 12% (-1)
  • Others 6% (+2)

Here too, we see Labour’s support continuing to edge downwards. Although the change since last time is well within the sampling ‘margin of error’, 36% is their lowest support level with YouGov for the Assembly constituency vote since May 2010. The change since July is tiny, but it continues a series of polls that have seen Labour’s support slip considerably over the last 18 months or so. The Conservatives and Plaid Cymru are holding steady; so also are the Lib-Dems though at a much lower level of support. The surprise, perhaps is that UKIP’s rise in support for Westminster is not mirrored here by any advance in their support base for the National Assembly; if anything, they have slipped back.

Applying the changes since the 2011 Assembly election implied by these figures uniformly across Wales, only one constituency seat projected to change hands from 2011 on the figures from this poll: that is Llanelli, being won by Plaid Cymru from Labour.

For the regional list vote, we saw the following results (with changes from the May Barometer poll again indicated):

  • Labour 31% (-3)
  • Conservative 21% (no change)
  • UKIP 17% (+1)
  • Plaid Cymru 16% (-2)
  • Greens 7% (+3)
  • Liberal Democrats 5% (no change)
  • Others 3% (no change)

Once again we see Labour’s support level continuing to erode, as it has consistently over recent polls. Most of the other parties hold more or less steady, within the margin of error – although these figures will again surely be rather disappointing to Plaid Cymru. Perhaps the most interesting feature of these findings is the rise in support for the Greens, who have now moved ahead of the Liberal Democrats on the list vote, relegating the latter to a somewhat ignominious sixth place.

Taking into account both the constituency and list results, this produces the following projected seat outcome for a National Assembly election (with aggregate changes from 2011 indicated in brackets):

  • Labour: 29 (-1); 27 constituency AMs, 2 list AMs
  • Conservative: 11 (-3); 6 constituency AMs, 5 list AMs
  • Plaid Cymru: 10 (-1); 6 constituency AMs, 4 list AMs
  • UKIP 9 (+9); all 9 would be list AMs
  • Liberal Democrats: 1 (-4); 1 constituency AM

These projections indicate the possibility, on the results implied by the current poll, of UKIP becoming a significant force within the National Assembly, and largely doing so at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. As with the last Barometer poll in July, our new poll projects Kirsty Williams in Brecon & Radnor to be the only remaining Lib Dem AM.

Overall, this poll confirms the continuation of the trend, observable over the last year or more, of Labour support declining. Labour’s support for the Assembly, on both the constituency and list votes, is now not only well below the levels they won in 2011; it is also below the levels won in 1999 and 2003. The saving grace for Labour, however, is that there is no single strong challenger to them emerging. Labour continue to be on the slide, but none of the other parties is yet taking full advantage of this.

I’ll be back later on this week – or, more likely given events in Scotland, next week – with further analysis of some of the details in this poll.

The Electoral State of the Parties, 4: the Liberal Democrats

 

Last year’s review of the electoral fortunes of the Welsh Liberal Democrats started with the words ‘Oh dear’, before going on to detail the many electoral misfortunes of the party. Twelve months on, it is difficult to see that things have in any way improved; indeed, one might plausibly suggest that things have actually worsened.

The party’s current travails can be traced very precisely back to May 2010. The party going into coalition at the UK level with the Conservatives was always likely to impose some electoral costs on their Welsh arm: beyond the electoral price that is typically paid for being a junior coalition partner was the damage from being so closely associated with a Conservative party that has long been anathema to many Welsh voters. What must seem very unfair to many Welsh Liberal Democrats, however, is that while support levels for their coalition partners have remained notably resilient, the junior partners have taken, and continue to take, such a serious hit in terms of lost votes and lost popularity. Acting as a human shield for the Tories was not what most Lib-Dems thought they were signing up for in 2010.

What has followed has been a series of electoral setbacks and humiliations, with no signs at all yet that things are improving or that a corner has been turned. This year’s European election saw the party hit a new nadir. Sure, the party was never very likely to win an MEP in Wales – having failed to do so in 1999, 2004 and 2009, none in the party can have harboured any illusions that success was likely in 2014. But to gain merely 4% of the vote in the land of Lloyd George was utterly abject. Nor could Liberal Democrats take much comfort from a substantially better performance in a few bastions: their ‘relatively good’ performances in Ceredigion and Powys meant that they actually scraped into double-figures in percentage share of the vote there. Nonetheless, the party still came fourth in both counties. Cardiff was the only other local authority area in which they gained more than 5% of the vote, but this still meant a sixth place finish.

Of course, European elections are rather strange events (and arguably have become steadily stranger over time). But the opinion polls do not paint much better a picture for the Liberal Democrats in Wales – indeed, if anything they have worsened this year from an already poor position in 2013.

 

General Election

Assembly Constit.

2012

6.0

7.0

2013

8.3

9.0

2014

6.6

6.7

So is there any room for optimism? Well, just a little, perhaps. One positive is that, amidst their manifold difficulties over the last few years, the party has largely remained united. Within Wales, the only remotely significant figure making sustained public criticism of the party’s leadership and strategy has been the former MP for Montgomery – a figure sufficiently discredited by his own behaviour that he would probably do more harm to the leadership by offering ostentatious praise… A colleague attending the party’s Welsh conference this spring observed how striking was the loyalty that delegates showed, even in private conversations, both for the coalition and for the party leadership. But, of course, those showing such loyalty are the people that have stayed in the party. Many others have quietly drifted away, and the other main impression my colleague drew from the conference was simply how small it was in scale. Outside the main strongholds of Ceredigion, Powys and Cardiff, party membership in Wales must now be in the low hundreds; much of Wales simply does not have serious Liberal Democrat constituency parties.

A second possible cause for optimism concerns key personnel. Even in such a difficult political environment, Kirsty Williams has steadily grown in stature as an effective leader for the party in Wales. Several of her Assembly colleagues have also impressed; despite their small numbers, the Lib-Dems have arguably been the most effective party ‘pound-for-pound’ during the current Assembly term. Both individually and collectively, they have carved out profiles on a number of specific issues, and been able to deliver identifiable results on several occasions – although it is far from clear that such work will have any significant electoral pay-offs. Perhaps of greater, and certainly more immediate, electoral relevance have been the efforts of their MPs to develop their personal profile as constituency representatives. That Mark Williams, for instance, will start the election as favourite to hold off Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion is almost entirely down to his own reputation within the seat.

So what of Liberal Democrat prospects for next May’s general election? They won’t need me to tell them that things look difficult. I suppose the one benefit of this is that is clarifies the party’s objectives greatly. The strategy will, one assumes, be pretty much the complete opposite of 2010, where ‘Clegg-mania’ led to the party over-optimistically spreading its resources too thinly. In 2015 we will witness what my friend Phil Cowley of Nottingham University has – in somewhat questionable taste – termed the ‘Zulu’ strategy: like the redcoats at Rourke’s Drift, the Liberal Democrats, pushed back to the ‘last round of mealie bags’, will simply aim to cling on to their core strongholds. Unless the political context changes in some unforeseeable and dramatic way – Clegg-mania II, anyone? – the party will surely be reduced to running ‘paper’ candidates and virtually non-existent campaigns, outside around 40-45 seats across Britain that are realistically defensible. The campaigns in those last redoubts, moreover, will surely focus heavily on local candidates and constituency representation rather than the UK-wide picture. If this is done in a disciplined and effective manner, if neither Labour nor the Conservatives have any great momentum behind them, and with UKIP siphoning some support from both, then it is possible to imagine the Liberal Democrats escaping from the general election with a greatly reduced vote share but still with 35 or so MPs, 2 or 3 of whom could come from Wales.

Then, in a new political landscape and probably under new leadership (and with Kirsty Williams perhaps being called upon to play an increasing role UK-wide?), the party may be able to begin to renew itself while still having a significant parliamentary basis on which to build. But this, we should note, is the optimistic scenario! The next year for the Liberal Democrats will certainly be difficult. It could be very bloody indeed.