Over the next several months expect a deluge of paper from the Westminster parties misrepresenting the polls and offering simplistic bar charts as they try to persuade us that a vote for someone else is wasted. Before we drown in them and go completely insane, let’s take a (relatively) unbiased look at what the constituency polls taken this year in Cornwall are telling us.
Two warnings to kick off. As I’ve already pointed out, pollsters usually ask two questions. They first ask a general one about people’s voting intention for a party if there was an election ‘tomorrow’. Then they ask a more specific question based on votes for a named local candidate in the next election, which we know will be next May. As most candidates are already in place (Ukip seem to be the slowest), answers to the second question would seem to provide a better idea of current intentions for the next election and that’s what I focus on here.
Second, all polls come with a margin of error. For example, that for the Survation poll for Camborne-Redruth last week was at least + 4.4%. That means that either the Tories’ George Eustice or Ukip’s ‘Derek Elliott’ (who’s not actually their candidate) could have topped the poll. And either Labour’s Michael Foster or the Lib Dem’s Julia Goldsworthy could have languished in third place. It’s all within the margin of polling error.
This fairly wide margin of error in the Survation poll hardly warranted the enthusiastic hyperbole of the local media, backing and predicting a Ukip victory on the basis of a lead of 3%, well within the + 4.4% margin of error, in the answer to the first, more theoretical, question of the poll.
However, all the rest of the constituency polling in Cornwall has been undertaken by Lord Ashcroft Polls and, as they polled twice the number of electors, the margin of error was consequently less – around + 3.2%. Which still means that any difference within 6% might not be a real difference at all but just polling error.
Leaving the silliness of the Tory press behind us, what are the polls saying? Because Cornish seats are classed as Tory-Lib Dem marginals (a fairly meaningless distinction these days one might have thought) they’ve received a good deal of attention – nine polls in all, two for St Ives, Camborne-Redruth, St Austell and Newquay and North Cornwall and one for Truro-Falmouth. The only constituency left out is South East Cornwall.
Here’s a series of simplistic bar charts of my own, giving the overall situation constituency by constituency. (The detailed results of the separate polls can be found here.)
First, here’s the mean voting intention.
And here’s the change since the 2010 General Election.
On the basis of these, Camborne-Redruth looks like a Tory/Ukip marginal, with Labour having a possible outside chance. North Cornwall is a Tory/Lib Dem marginal. St Austell and Newquay is a three way marginal – Tory/Lib Dem and Ukip. St Ives is another Tory/Lib Dem marginal whereas Truro and Falmouth looks on the basis of this to be safe for sitting Tory MP, Sarah Newton. Which all looks pretty depressing for any Cornish progressive – at the moment it’s just a question of which pro-austerity, right wing party gets in.
However, we could also aggregate these polls. This gives us a far larger number to play with (around 4,000 respondents) and reduces the margin of error. It also allows us to see where each party is gaining their support in a little more detail.
This gives us an overall picture of the movement in support across these five constituencies as follows.
We have gloom for the Lib Dems, encouragement for Ukip, some advances made by Labour and the Greens, invisibility for MK and a hell of a lot of good fortune for the Tories. On the basis of these polls they may be looking at gaining one or two or even three seats despite their share of the poll dropping by nine percentage points since 2010. What a wonderful electoral system that could give the Conservatives a whitewash in Cornwall on just over 30% of the vote!
But where do the parties’ votes come from? Only the Lib Dems and Ukip show a difference in support depending on gender. Men are far more likely to vote for Ukip than women; women far more likely to vote for the Lib Dems than men. I’m not sure what this tells us. Are men angrier? Are women more forgiving? Does Clegg retain more (hetero)sexual allure than Farage?
When it comes to age, younger voters in Cornwall are not surprisingly more likely to plump for the Greens than older voters, who have yet to be convinced that the global environment is heading rapidly in the direction of hell in a handcart. For the Tories it’s the opposite, with the over 65s keenest on the that nice man Cameron. Labour pulls a greater than expected number of voters from among the young (a bit of a mystery why) and fewer from the more elderly. The Lib Dems are equally attractive, or unattractive, to voters irrespective of their age, while there is a hint that MK voters may be more likely to be middle-aged, especially 35 to 54. And possibly black and white van drivers.
The biggest surprise however in Cornwall is that Ukip, although polling less well among the youngest age band, does not see its support steadily rise with age. In fact its level of support among all the age groups older than 35 is closely in line with its overall support. Which flies in the face of political wisdom in England that suggests Ukip is particularly appealing to the more senior
citizen subject. That’s not the case in Cornwall.
Class used to be the most powerful predictor of voting behaviour back before the 1970s. No longer. It seems far less salient than age these days. True, the Conservative vote still shows some decline as we move from the highest to the lowest socio-economic grouping but the difference isn’t huge. The Lib Dems and Labour both appeal fairly equally across the various social groups. New Labour would seem to have comprehensively obliterated any relationship Labour once had with the working class in Cornwall. It’s been replaced as the party of the working class here by Ukip, whose support is a mirror image of that of the Tories. Support for Ukip steadily increases as we move down the social spectrum. Meanwhile, the Greens gain greater support from the middle classes and less from poorer groups.
Where have all the Lib Dem voters gone?
Finally, if we compare the claimed 2010 vote of people with their current voting intention we find that both Tories and Labour are holding on to around two thirds of their former vote. A fifth of Tory voters in 2010 are now toying with the other Tory party – Ukip. But then, so is one in seven of former Labour voters.
But the Lib Dems are managing to cling on to less than half of their former voters. Even that might appear to some as a surprisingly high and undeserved proportion. Some are heading, as might be expected, to Labour. But a greater number are turning to Ukip, while the Tories and Greens are also siphoning off former Lib Dems.
This is the problem the Liberal Democrats face. Their support is fragmenting in all directions rather than just one. This makes it difficult for them to choose policy options that could appeal to all of their deserters simultaneously. Not that we should worry unduly about the plight the Lib Dems have got themselves into.