Post-conference polling and by-elections
A three-topic bumper edition as voters head to the polls in two intriguing contests
Sorry, I’ve not written anything for a while, have I?
I’m going to make up for it with a bumper three topic post today!
Anyone who has been following my Twitter/X account over recent weeks will have noticed that I’ve been around and about a bit at various conferences here and there, which I will use as my excuse for not writing since… never mind.
But of course, my visits to Liverpool and Manchester this month provide the perfect topic for my return to wordsmithing.
In this post, I’ll give my brief thoughts on the atmosphere at both conferences, whether or not they shifted any dials in terms of public opinion, and then look ahead to tonight’s by elections.
Party conference vibe check
This was my second year attending party conferences, last year being my first. Given that the 2022 Labour conference coincided with YouGov releasing our big ’30-point Labour lead’ splash, and the ‘mini-budget’ chaos dominated the Conservative conference I attended a week later, I’m not sure comparisons between my two years on the scene are all that useful.
That said, there was a big change in the way I observed both parties (and their members, supporters, and allies) thinking about the next general election between 2022 and now.
For Labour, their mood last year while the Liz Truss induced Conservative implosion was happening all around them was one of shock and disbelief that they could really be getting ‘that far ahead’ in the court of public opinion.
This time, they held much more belief in what they were seeing in the polls, not least because it broadly tallies with results from local authority contests and parliamentary by-elections in the past 12 months – including the handsome and well-timed win in Rutherglen and Hamilton the Thursday before.
Much of the focus in Labour conference fringe events was on “how do we turn this polling lead into a win, and then what can we do with it”. There was a good mood and good energy surrounding the speeches made by both Rachel Reeves and Keir Starmer, and relief in many quarters that the tragic ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict did not dominate and overshadow proceedings in the way it maybe might have under previous party leadership.
For the Conservatives, there was little sense of outright panic this year (which there most certainly was last time). I would broadly split the party, its members, and supporters who attended conference into one of two camps.
The first group seemed united behind Rishi Sunak and his ‘five pledges’ strategy, believing he was the right leader at the right time to eat into Labour’s polling lead and recover the situation for the Conservatives.
The second group were making leadership pitches.
There was no shortage of not-so-subtle interventions at various fringes (and even buried within main hall speeches) from various current and former Cabinet ministers and their allies aimed directly at Conservative party members thinking about ‘what comes next’. I won’t name names, but I am sure you can work out to whom I am referring.
But did party conferences significantly shift the dials of public opinion?
In my latest piece for YouGov today, I argue that they largely did not.
This shouldn’t be of much surprise, as we already know that the public don’t pay close attention at all to the ins and outs of party conferences; in 2018, when YouGov asked the public how much attention they pay to what is said at party political conferences, just 3% told us they pay “a lot of attention”, while ten times as many (30%) said they pay “no at attention at all” (19% said they pay “a fair amount of attention”, while 42% said they pay “not much attention”).
If just under three-quarters of the public tell pollsters they pay not much or no attention at all to something, we should not expect it to drive any seismic changes in public opinion.
And so it has turned out: Before the Conservatives headed to Manchester, the YouGov headline vote intention figures on 27th September were 24% for the Conservatives and 45% for Labour. Last week, after the close of play at Labour’s event, our figures read 24% for the Conservatives and 47% for Labour.
But party conferences can influence public opinion in more subtle ways. They do tend to set mood music and agendas for media and ‘very online’ discussion and reporting around parties and their leaders. This in turn can feed into public perceptions around party unity, issue competency, potential government and prime ministerial credentials, and so on.
If a party has a particularly bad conference, the media coverage and subsequent reporting and framing of stories coming out of conference will reflect a party in trouble, volatile, and unable to maintain message and messenger discipline. Similarly, if a party has a particularly good conference, this will tend to create perceptions in reporting of a unit which is in control of itself, voter-focused, and all pulling in the same direction.
In some ways, this is fairly reflective of how this year’s party conferences were perceived for the Conservatives and Labour respectively (though I wouldn’t characterise the Tory conference of this year as especially bad). And in this sense, there were some notable shifts in some public opinion metrics surrounding competency and clarity.
For one, YouGov polling for The Times immediately after Labour conference closed suggested a notable increase in the number of Brits who believe that Keir Starmer has clear vision for what he wants to do in office. When asked if they thought that the Labour leader “does or does not have a clear plan for the country”, 28% said that he does, while 57% said that he did not. That represented a change of +6 and -3 respectively on the last time we checked in on this metric (11th – 12th October).
Similarly, there was a notable change in our ‘best prime minister’ tracker. On this measurement, while Starmer remained static on his pre-conference season figure of 32% (26th – 27th September) Sunak dropped significantly to record his lowest ever score of 20% (down five points on the week before, and two on the week pre-conferences).
There were also some small but nonetheless tangible movements in public opinion around some issue competency ratings.
Looking elsewhere, each month, YouGov check in with the public regarding their opinion on which prospective government would ‘best handle’ a wide range of policy areas: a Labour government led by Keir Starmer, or a Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak.
As of now, 28% of the public believe “a Labour government led by Keir Starmer” would be better at handling the economy (+3pts versus September), while 24% believe “a Conservative government led by Rishi Sunak” would do better (-1pt versus September).
As well, there was a similarly sized movement in terms of public perceptions on who would do a better job at “helping people get onto the housing ladder” – a key part of Starmer’s conference speech. Here, the Labour figure rose by three points to 34%, while the Conservatives dropped back a point to 12%.
These are however only small changes to the net leads, driven by movements which could theoretically be explained by just as well by statistical error as they can a specific response to conference season.
And to reiterate the ‘little change’ point; compared to September’s data (collected between the 17th and 18th of that month), our October measurements saw no significant change in public perceptions as to who would best handle what are likely to be key issues at the next general election such as “improving living standards for people like you” (17pt Labour lead, down 1pt versus September), and “keeping prices down” (11pt Labour lead, down 1pt versus September).
But we must remember that given the current state of the polls, “no change” is good news for Labour. To leave conference season in pretty much the same position that they entered it in was probably pretty high on Labour’s wish list.
What should we be looking out for in the by-elections being held today?
Voters go to the polls today in two Westminster by-elections: Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth.
While Mid Bedfordshire is seemingly providing the drama and attracting much more attention from the media and commentators alike, Tamworth is, in my view, far more important as it provides a far greater insight into what might happen at the next general election.
Yes, the adage remains – by-elections are by-elections, and there is no direct read across from parliamentary by-elections results to future general elections. Even in terms of who will win the seat itself in the next nationwide vote.
But there are always signals, signs, and suggestions.
The reason why Mid Bedfordshire is capturing so much of the coverage leading into today is the intriguing nature of a three-party contest. We don’t tend to get many of those in British politics.
The Liberal Democrats got in and got to work early in the constituency as soon as Nadine Dorries signalled her intention to resign, but Labour have also poured resource into a seat they finished a not-so-distant second in at the 2019 general election and feel they have a better chance of winning than Ed Davey’s outfit.
The result of both parties going hard at victory in Mid Bedfordshire is a wide sense of intruige and anticipation as to the outcome here, which is anticipated to be close, and what this might say about tactical voting (or lack thereof) at the next election.
But there are going to be hardly any genuine three-way contests at the next general election. The outcome of the next general election contest is highly unlikely to be decided by these handful of constituencies – nor what happens in Mid Bedfordshire (low down on the list of Labour targets) on the night.
But there are a whole heap of old English bellwether seats in the Midlands which Labour must win in order to put together a House of Commons majority. Seats like Tamworth.
Tamworth, and its former equivalent in South Staffordshire, has gone with the overall result across the country consistently since 1987. Blair’s Labour took the seat in 1997, before Cameron’s Conservatives then flipped it in 2010.
Since then, Tamworth has trended heavily away from Labour since they last won the seat in 2005. Given the size of the current Conservative majority, winning Tamworth is not required for Labour to put Keir Starmer into Number 10 on Labour seats alone. But Tamworth remains symbolic of exactly the type of constituency that Starmer needs in the ‘second push’ to put him into number ten (assuming he makes the ‘first push’ of winning back the seats lost to the Conservatives in 2019).
Looking down the Conservative majority line and the seats Labour need to pass the 325 mark, there would appear to be little prospect of an outright Labour victory without wins in places like Corby, Macclesfield, Erewash, and Nuneaton.
All two-party Conservative-Labour seats in the midlands in which the Conservatives have managed to build substantial majorities in what are usually highly competitive, swing seats in close elections.
All look far, far more like Tamworth than Mid Bedfordshire.
So, for tonight, I’m going to be paying my closest attention to what happens North of Birmingham, rather than North of London.
Labour don’t necessarily need to be taking this seat off the Conservatives tonight to signal that they are ‘back’ with midlands swing voters, but anything other than a big, big swing in their favour – including some evidence of direct switching from the Conservatives to them – should ring alarm bells in Labour Party headquarters.