How good a pointer are local by-election results?

How good a pointer are local by-election results?

    Be wary of the party spinners

As we get nearer the General Election pundits and punters will be looking beyond the opinion polls to find pointers as to what is going on.

One source that’s readily available are the results from the handful of local council by-elections that take place up and down the country almost every Thursday. For many years the results were aggregated and issued monthly as a sort of poll.

    These are real electors putting real votes in real ballot boxes and so, the argument goes, they are as good, if not better, a test of public opinion than the polls which only survey 1,000 to 2,000 people.

But be careful of all the party machines which seek to reinforce the morale of activists by selecting specific results and then extrapolating national trends.

We wondered whether the head of Populus, Andrew Cooper, might have been on the receiving end of such “spin” when he made this observation on the site yesterday “..local by-election results as well as national polls seem to suggest that Labour’s vote is hardening: if you average recent local by-elections in which all 3 main parties stood Labour lead by about 5% over the Tories, which wasn’t true at this point in the last Parliament.”

We follow the by-election results closely and could not work out where Andrew was getting his information from. If Labour was doing so well, the predictable response came, how come that it’s been the Tories and to a lesser extent the LDs who have been winning seats?

The Tory activist and regular contributor to the site, Sean Fear, then produced the following analysis of 24 wards where all three parties have stood since the start of October, and also stood in the previous election.

  • By-elections from June 2004 (5) : Con, 38%, Lab, 26%, LD 30%
  • By-elections from May 2003 (13) : Con 35%, Lab 30%, LD 27%
  • By-elections from May 2002 (5) : Con 34%, Lab 33%, LD 25%
  • By-elections from June 2001 (1) : Con 33%, Lab 42%, LD 19%
  • The big problem is that there are so few seats that fit the bill and it is hard to draw conclusions. Council by-elections usually have very low-turnouts and are probably a better indicator of the strength and morale of local party machines than they are of public opinion.

      In the year before the last General Election, it was possibly to look at the local by-election results and mistakenly conclude that the Tories and Lib Dems were doing much better than they did in the General Election.

    So far in 2004 the Tories have net gains of 15, the LD s have net gains of 4, and Labour is down 14 seats. We think this is pretty meaningless and we should be wary of those who seek to extrapolate large conclusions that they say apply to the nation as a whole.

    General Election seat markets:- Total Labour seats , Total Conservative seats , Total Lib Dem Seats.

    Mike Smithson

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