It’s the middle of recess. Political news is scarce and the voters are concentrating on the summer and their holidays. Politics is far from their minds. So surely nothing of any great import is happening?
Well, actually, there is. Since the beginning of July, 56,000 voters have been to the polling stations in constituencies across the UK, taking part in local government by-elections. And one thing is clear – UKIP are not going away.
These are voters expecting things to get worse for them and simply not believing that the mainstream parties have any answers.
The election outcome in 9 months’ time may turn on who can best bridge the glaring gap between government and the governed.
There have been 40 by-elections over the last 6 weeks and UKIP’s average poll is 19.2%. Take out just three outlying results, in London, Oxford and Pendle, where UKIP scored an unusually low vote, and the average across the remaining 37 by-elections is 20%.
This is a significant sign from this last summer before the general election. There is little political news, UKIP have not featured in any significant national story for months. The convention states that when protest parties get no publicity, their support drops away. Indeed, that’s what the national polling organisations are saying. There have been 19 national polls published over the same period as these by-elections, and they have given UKIP an average support of 12.7%.
Each poll sample between 1000 and 1500 voters generally. But more than fifty times that many have actually been to a ballot box and voted. And their verdict tells a different story. Voters may be telling the polling organisations one thing, but they appear to be doing something different when ultimately exercising their democratic rights.
Indeed UKIP’s 19-20% score in real votes shows an advance on its 18% score in the May local elections, when it was receiving a huge amount of publicity. So the party is progressing without any media noise, either positive or negative. And its actual performance is significantly ahead of its poll score.
With the general election only 9 months away this matters. The view held by some that UKIP would inevitably enjoy a surge from the campaign built around a European Parliament poll, but would melt away thereafter, looks wrong. Yes, it is polling below its May 22 score, but what matters is that it is advancing on its local government score.
The 40 by-elections give us some further pointers. UKIP continues to be squeezed out in London and generally performs poorly where there is an alternative ‘protest’ option, such as an issue-based independent, or a regionalists alternative (e.g. in Cornwall). But if these features are absent, the party scores well, polling over 20% in 17 of the 40 contests, and over 30% in five of those. The strongest performances are geographically diverse, including Worthing, Epping Forest, Huntingdonshire, Blackpool, Doncaster, King’s Lynn, Charnwood, Yeovil and Barnsley (all of these seeing a UKIP poll of 25-42%). The party’s support does have areas of particular concentration – but there are certainly more than a handful of them.
Both the Conservatives and Labour can see their votes heavily eroded by UKIP, especially in their traditional ‘heartlands’ – suggesting that the voters’ verdict continues to be one of a widespread willingness to desert their usual loyalties – a form of ‘we will not be taken for granted’.
Party conferences are only a month away. They will mark the start of the election campaign. Neither of the two main parties can afford to ignore this summer warning. Neither can credibly rely on ‘core’ voters simply coming home when the choice of a national government lies in their hands. The summer by-elections suggest there is a quiet determination on the part of voters to reject conventional choices. That throws the election wide open.
UKIP isn’t going away because frustrated voters, feeling let down and ignored, aren’t going away. According to a recent YouGov poll on personal financial outlook, 18% of the general public expect their personal finances to improve over the next year, while 36% expect it to worsen. Although this paints a pessimistic picture in and of itself, the relevance is clear when you look specifically at UKIP supporters: only 8% expect an improvement against 51% expecting their personal finances to get worse.
These are voters expecting things to get worse for them and simply not believing that the mainstream parties have any answers. The election outcome in 9 months’ time may turn on who can best bridge the glaring gap between government and the governed.
Time is short for meeting that challenge. At least one in every five voters is deeply sceptical of what have become conventional approaches. And it looks like they intend to say so.