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by GK Strategy 24th February, 2017
2 min read

creativity in a crisis

By-election Bellwether

By-election results are poured over by political hacks as a litmus test of the political state of play. The first two by-elections of 2017 – caused by the resignations of two promising Labour MPs from the parties moderate wing to take ‘better’ jobs elsewhere – has caused a major upset. Following the resignation from Parliament of Jamie Reed, the Copeland by-election has been won by the Conservative candidate, Trudy Harrison, who saw off opposition from Labour’s Gillian Troughton. The result brings the Government’s majority in the House of Commons back up to 12, after the Liberal Democrats won Richmond Park off the Conservatives last November.

The Copeland result is very significant nationally – it is the first time that a sitting Government has beaten the Official Opposition party in a by-election since 1982, and the first time Labour has lost the seat since 1935. Harrison took the seat with 13,748 votes, giving her a majority of 2,147 over Labour’s Gillian Troughton. Despite Labour holding the seat of Stoke-on-Trent Central, where Labour candidate Gareth Snell defeated UKIP Leader Paul Nuttall, the loss of the seat adds more pressure to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, with much of the feedback from the campaign suggesting that Copeland voters were put off by him. Indeed, his long history of opposing nuclear power and weapons, in a seat where the local nuclear power plant is one of the region’s largest employers, hindered the local candidate, and in a country that supports both nuclear power and weapons, this issue will continue to cause Labour electoral headaches.

This adds to dire polling which shows the Labour leader behind Theresa May in the public’s preference for Prime Minister in every social demographic. This includes the traditional strongholds for Corbyn of 18-24 year olds; in fact, Corbyn is now only marginally more favourable than Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin amongst the UK electorate. To add further embarrassment, since Jeremy Corbyn ‘re-launched’ his leadership in January his poll ratings have decreased.

This is worrying news for Labour. The Stoke by-election saw a 2% swing from Labour to the Tories and UKIP. If replicated at a general election, this would mean 15 Tory gains, giving Theresa May a majority of 40. However, the Tories had focused attention on Copeland allowing UKIP to have a crack at Labour in Stoke. Copeland, therefore a better measure of the Labour-Conservative contest, saw a 6.7% swing from Labour to the Tories – if replicated at a general election, that would see the Conservatives pick up 52 seats from Labour, giving the Prime Minister a Conservative majority of 114. Add into this the prospect of the 2018 Boundary Review and the possibility of a Labour victory in 2020 becomes even harder to see; research by Lord Hayward suggests that the Labour party is set to lose between 25 and 30 seats from the 50 that are abolished.

The Stoke by-election was also bad news for UKIP. During the campaign, former leader Nigel Farage declared that the vote was “absolutely fundamental… for the futures of both the Labour Party and indeed UKIP”. With Labour struggling and divided on Brexit, UKIP were unable to gain a seat in Brexit heartland. Much of this defeat must be owned personally by candidate and party leader Paul Nuttall, who in the final stretch of the campaign was hamstrung by the exposure of his own “fake news stories”, his history as footballer for Tranmere Rovers, his loss of a close personal friend at Hillsborough, and his degree from Liverpool Hope University, all of which turned out to be untruths. If voters can’t trust Nuttall in his honeymoon period after ascending to the leadership, this does not bode well for a party, whose raison d’etre is leaving the EU, and now must try to determine its purpose in a post-Brexit world.

With Labour and UKIP in turmoil, the temptation grows for Theresa May to call an early election. Whilst May has been insistent that an early election would bring unnecessary stability, the opportunity to thrash the Opposition and increase her grip on power is a tempting one. She may also be somewhat disappointed by the Stoke result – getting a majority of ‘only’ 52, against an Opposition in disarray, might cause some discontent within her own party. The other down-side for May is that an early general election could finally topple Jeremy Corbyn, losing her greatest electoral asset and bring forward the election of a credible Labour leader and threatening Opposition by 3 years. The Stoke and Copeland by-elections have provided a bellwether on the political scene as it is now. How Westminster responds remains to be seen.

Meet the Social Media Swing-o-meter

Figure 1: Copeland

Social Media Graph

Figure 2: Stoke-on-Trent Central

Social Media Graph

While the election campaign raged on, OneFourZero’s analysts were tuned into social media chatter about the by-election. With the votes now counted and the results declared, we can look back and see that the swing in vote share was reflected in the sentiment of social media traffic. Close following of real-time social media data demonstrated a significant increase in right-wing sentiment in the run up to polling day. If using social sentiment to predict voting behaviour, the volume of conversations would correctly indicate a close Tory win in Copeland.

However, at face value doing the same in Stoke would indicate a landslide UKIP win. Further investigation shows that in Stoke, the pro-UKIP chatter was predominantly comprised of retweeted campaign tweets rather than original and unique statements. Therefore social media conversations supporting UKIP did not represent popular opinion, merely a well-orchestrated, but ultimately unsuccessful, last-minute social media campaign. This also demonstrates the importance of digging deeper into the headline feedback.

Whilst social media political analysis is still relatively new to the game, the by-election result has shown that it can successfully pick up trends in vote swings. Pollsters beware.

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