The two big parties are left scrapping over the also rans
One of the more remarkable features of the polling in the last parliament was the almost complete inability of both Labour and Conservatives to win voters from each other. Vote shares may have gone up and down but it was gains from and losses to the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Greens and SNP (and non-voters) that was responsible; the direct swing between the big two was negligible.
As then, so now. All three polls released this last week tell the same story. ICM record 3% of the Labour vote from 2015 going to the Conservatives, with 3% of the Tories’ general election vote going back the other way; BMG’s figures are almost identical; YouGov have the Tories doing a little better, gaining 6% of Labour’s former vote while losing only 2% of their own but even there, that amounts to a swing of only a half per cent. We’re talking tiny numbers.
The current very comfortable Conservative leads are instead based on two different aspects. Firstly, the Tories are doing better at holding on to their own vote. ICM and YouGov record the Blues as keeping between 72-75% of their 2015 voters, against Labour’s 60-67% (this includes those who say they don’t know or would not vote). And secondly, the Conservatives have done better in the net swings from the lesser parties and in particular, from UKIP.
In fact, the notion that many Corbyn supporters have that the increase in the Conservative lead over the summer can be put down to the leadership challenge is at best only partly true. Labour’s introspection no doubt caused it to miss opportunities but the Labour share has drifted down only very slightly.
Of far more significance since June has been what looks like a direct UKIP-Con swing, presumably off the back of both the end of the EURef campaign and the change in Conservative leader.
What looks to be the case is that Britain is a very divided country with the concept of the traditional swing Lab/Con voter close to extinct and instead, three distinct broad groups (with subdivisions but let’s keep this simple): those who would vote Conservative, those who would vote Labour and those who would vote neither (who, outside of Scotland, we can more-or-less ignore).
So while there’s barely any defecting between the Tory tribe and the Labour lot, they do potentially meet when they go walkabout elsewhere, to UKIP, the Lib Dems or (most frequently) to none of the above.
What that suggests is that the big boys, but especially Labour, need the also-rans to be performing fairly strongly. Without those parties being attractive enough to their rival’s supporters, the negative campaigning of old will be far less effective as voters might be disillusioned but find no real alternative home.
Interestingly, the Lib Dems have been performing fairly strongly against the Conservatives in local by-elections recently but this hasn’t made its way across into the national polls. All the same, that the party seems capable of big swings across the country suggests at least a willingness by Conservative voters to consider them again; a willingness that might translate into Westminster voting given the opportunity.
The Lib Dems will no doubt hope that the opportunity will come in Witney. That might be a little too early but with Con and Lab unable to take support from each other, with a far-left Labour and a Tory government engaged in debates about Europe, if they can’t take advantage in the next two years, they never will.