Archive for the ‘Brexit Party’ Category

Why Peterborough matters: electoral preferences are now driven by Brexit identities

In the end, the parliamentary arithmetic has not changed. In the first-ever by-election propelled by the recall of an MP under the eponymous act passed in 2015, Labour narrowly managed to cling to the constituency gained from the Conservatives in 2017 and to fend off the challenge of the Brexit Party. Should we, then, just forget about the vote in Peterborough and move on? Certainly not, especially when considering the by-election in conjunction with the recently held European elections, write Andrea Pareschi and Gianfranco Baldini.

Experts have grouped by-elections – together with local elections and European elections – under the heading of “second-order” contests. As the common underlying rationale goes, for the voters there is simply less at stake, since the life and death of a government meant to wield executive power are not involved. Key ensuing consequences include low turnout, solid showings of minor parties and punishment delivered to the incumbent government (unless it is still undergoing “honeymoon” phase). More specifically, by-elections have been described as “barometer elections”, whose results are decisively swayed by the national electoral cycle, government popularity and economic prospects. A by-election offers the involved voters an easy opportunity to send a signal – all the more visible as the constituency temporarily garners unrivalled media attention – and to express a “cost-free” protest, as quite rarely does a single seat impact upon the government/opposition arithmetic.

By-elections seldom affect the results of contests taking place in the same constituencies at the following general elections. However, as Ivor Crewe perceptively added, they may bear on such important factors as the timing of a general election, the position of a party leader, party policies and the fortunes of minor parties. To be sure, the relevance of each by-election is contextual. For instance, the upset of 1 December 2016 in the pro-Remain constituency of Richmond Park – in which the Conservative-turned-independent incumbent was defeated by a Lib-Dem candidate strongly campaigning on Brexit – ultimately made no major difference, before being “reabsorbed” in the 2017 snap election. After twenty years, Crewe’s conclusion still holds true: “[i]n the river of British politics most by-elections are mere pebbles; but among them are rocks that capsize the canoeists and the occasional boulder that alters the course of the flow”.

That being said, several elements concurred to identify the struggle in the Peterborough constituency as a consequential one. Already a very marginal Conservative seat fifty years ago, then held by Labour in 1974-79 and more recently in 1997-2005, it endorsed the Conservatives’ Stewart Jackson until 2017, when Labour’s Fiona Onasanya “recaptured” it with a 607-vote majority (48 per cent) over the incumbent MP (47 per cent) on a 68 per cent turnout. In the Brexit referendum, however, Peterborough had backed Leave by 61 per cent on a turnout of 72 per cent; and in November 2018, according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates based on a Survation poll, it still favoured Leave by 55 per cent. In the European elections, the city of Peterborough – only partly encompassed by the Westminster constituency – went on to support the Brexit Party (38 per cent, 16,196 votes) well above Labour (17 per cent) and the Lib Dems (15 per cent), with the Conservatives and Greens trailing at about 11 per cent. These data chime with the estimates produced by Hanretty for the constituency itself. In sum, the label given to Peterborough by a minor candidate – “the mother of all marginals” – seemed emphatic but not out of place.

Apparently, even in the transition from a second-order election to another one, two weeks are a long time in politics. In the by-election – whose turnout (48 per cent) was sizably higher than in the European election (35 per cent) – Farage’s contender (29 per cent, 9,801 votes) was overtaken by the Labour candidate (31 per cent, 10,484 votes). The Conservatives, confined to the third position (21 per cent), lost two-thirds of their 2017 support and more than half of it in terms of percentage points, as compared to Labour’s one-half and five-eighths respectively. The Lib Dems improved past general election results, almost matching their European election percentage of support (12 per cent), which the Greens were not able to do (3 per cent). Data referring to recent elections in Peterborough is shown in Table 1 below.

* Data are estimates computed by Chris Hanretty as indicated above.

** % column totals may not actually add up to 100.0 due to rounding.

After much speculation on a prospective Brexit Party success, the second place obtained by Farage’s new political operation may look like defeat. Yet, one should be mindful of what UKIP accomplished from 2010 onwards, when Farage’s party embarked in a strategy exploiting by-elections to gradually build momentum. By 2013-2014 the party was able to score about 20 per cent in four diverse constituencies across England, paving the way for its triumph in the European elections of May 2014. This, in turn, helped it to claim its first two seats in late 2014 – via two Tory defectors – while almost snatching a third one from Labour.

UKIP’s rise was ultimately stopped by the first-past-the-post electoral system, which in 2015 delivered “single party government in a fragmented system” and rewarded its almost 4 million voters (12.6 per cent) with a single seat. The agency of the party, however, had been crucial in relation to its “blackmail potential” – its pressure on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party – which played a key role in the sequence of events leading to the Brexit referendum.

Fast forward to 2019, and the Brexit Party has not just enhanced Farage’s previous European election result: it has just managed to get in two months to a stage UKIP needed three years to reach. If Farage’s results of 2013-2014, in Crewe’s terms, represented “rocks”, it is true that Peterborough per se marks no “boulder” yet. Nevertheless, the waves it contributes to create may well ensure that the blackmail potential of Farage’s reboot makes the ancient influence of UKIP pale in comparison.

The Brexit uncertainties lying ahead should suggest to both Conservatives and Labour to take the Peterborough result seriously, especially after the European elections revealed widespread breakaways from the electoral coalitions that had supported them in 2017. Electoral preferences seem to be more consistently driven by Brexit identities than in the past, with the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems now emerging – beyond Peterborough itself – as the most voted parties among the “strong identifiers” within the two camps.

As John Curtice suggests, we might have even entered the era of four-party politics, at least considering the three recent opinion polls published in late May. According to them, the four main parties – now also comprising the two winners of the European elections – all fluctuate between 16 and 26 per cent, on a pattern not dissimilar to the one that emerged in the “Spanish deadlock” of the two elections of 2015-16. Somewhat alarmingly for the Tories, they are the only party among the four not to lead the race in any of those three polls, which testify to the relevance of Farage’s renewed challenge and to the volatility of the British electorate. For that matter, such aspects are all but confirmed by the three subsequent polls having surfaced since then.

A final note of caution is in order. Evidence from Peterborough, certainly, does not dispel the conclusion that circumstances look grim for Labour and grimmer for the Tories. Yet, their combined share of the vote (52 per cent) – much lower than in the general elections of 2015 (75 per cent) and 2017 (95 per cent) – noticeably exceeds the analogous estimate for the European election in Peterborough (32 per cent). To put it differently: bearing second-order dynamics in mind, the by-election vote – coming only two weeks after the European one – shows that it might just be too soon to call the two major parties off. And with a new Prime Minister to be soon selected, the Brexit path is riddled of twists and turns to come.

This post represents the views of the author and not the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image Copyright by Philip Jeffrey and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Andrea Pareschi is a research fellow at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies (Pisa), completing a PhD jointly awarded by the School together with the universities of Siena, Pisa and Florence. His research interests include British politics, UKIP, Brexit and its consequences, European politics, mass-elite opinion congruence, Euroscepticism and populism.

Gianfranco Baldini is Associate Professor of Politics at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna, and Adjunct Professor of Italian Politics at the Dickinson College Centre for European Studies in Bologna. His research interests include British politics, Populism, Political parties and representation, comparative European and Italian politics.

Are the European election results likely to be repeated in a general election?

ben farrerThe Conservatives and Labour performed unusually badly in the recent European Parliament elections, while the Lib Dems, the Brexit Party and the Greens did well. What might the result – and recent local elections – tell us about the outcome of a future general election? Ben Farrer (Knox College) looks at whether second-order elections are, historically, a guide to a party’s performance in a GE.


Predicting elections is never easy, and Brexit has only made it harder. Across Europe, people are looking to the UK for clues about what will happen, but nobody really knows what clues they should be looking for. The recent byelection in Peterborough, the 2019 European Parliament elections, and the local council elections before that, might all carry useful hints about future trends. But they don’t all tell the same story. If there is a smoking gun then it’s still surrounded by smoke.


Nigel Farage backstage at Any Questions in 2017. Photo: Steve Bowbrick via a CC BY 2.0 licence

In a recent paper “Connecting Niche Party Vote Change in First- and Second-Order Elections”, I suggest one relatively simple way to cut through this uncertainty. It is the scientific version of the ‘brute force’ approach. Collect all the historical data – look at every potentially-informative election leading up to a general election – and see which ones are most closely correlated with subsequent general election results. After getting data from six countries and from three decades, it turns out that local council elections are much better than European Parliament elections as a guide to future general elections. This finding has important implications for how we sort through the clues in predicting the next UK general election.

Predicting first order (not in Star Wars) elections

I began this research because I was particularly interested in niche parties. These are parties that focus on one main issue that the party members believe is inadequately addressed by mainstream parties. A classic example would be the Green Party, focusing on environmentalism, but we could also consider the Brexit Party as an example, with their focus on leaving the EU.

These niche parties are usually newer, smaller, and less well-known than their competitors. They also tend to be less successful in general elections. Some scholars have argued that they can compensate for this by using other types of elections, like sub-national elections or European Parliament elections, to build their base. Sub-national and European Parliament elections are ‘second-order’ elections, generally perceived as less important. This means voters are more willing to take a chance on a niche party. If those parties can capitalise on this and do well in second-order elections, they might also be able to use it as a springboard for first-order success.

I tested this, beginning by splitting up countries into their electoral districts. For every district, the general election result was recorded, and then was matched up with the most recent European Parliament election, and also with the most recent sub-national (local or regional) election. Then things get complicated. With six different countries, it was also important to account for differences in electoral rules, differences in election timing, differences in turnout, and differences in the federal structure of the country. In the end, the best way to incorporate all this variation was to focus on one statistic: the correlation between the change in a niche party’s vote total between two second-order elections, and the change in their vote total between two general elections. This is explained further in the paper, but the basic idea was to find a way to account for growth in votes despite a lot of variation in turnout percentage. The main equation from the paper boils this down in a hopefully helpful way. If each electoral district in each country is labelled i and each iteration of an election is denoted t or t+1 then the analysis takes the following form:


The results show that across most of these countries, it is the sub-national elections, rather than the European Parliament elections, that predict how niche parties will do in national elections. If we take the example of Germany, imagine that a niche party wins 2000 more votes in a regional election in time t+1 than they had at time t. The model then predicts they will gain 1731 votes in the next national election. If, on the other hand, they had instead won 2000 more votes in European Parliament elections, then the model predicts they will get only 86 more votes in the next national election.

So what does this mean for the UK? First, some caveats. No country has ever left the EU before. So we should be cautious about extrapolating from past results. Also, the article was written using data from different countries, not the UK. I did look at results from the UK, but only national-level data were available. The same patterns seemed to show up, but there wasn’t enough data to do a rigorous analysis. Still, despite those caveats, I think this research can be useful for understanding the UK’s current situation.

In the most recent local elections, the Lib Dems and the Greens increased their share of the vote. The Conservatives lost ground, as did Labour. The Brexit Party and Change UK were not competing yet. In the most recent European Parliament elections, the Brexit Party won the highest vote share, with the Liberal Democrats coming second, and Labour and the Greens following them. Change UK were not able to make much headway. If we look at the results in the light of the research described above, we should be treating the local results as ‘part signal, part noise’ and the European results as essentially ‘all noise’. So the Lib Dems and the Greens should expect to replicate their modest gains from the local results, not the dramatic swings of the European results. Change UK should not necessarily be too disheartened by their European showing, and neither should the Brexit party be too encouraged by their victory.

Perhaps there is still no smoking gun. By the next general election, the Conservatives will have a new leader, the Brexit process will probably produce some more of the crises left up its sleeves, and of course who knows what else will happen. But underneath it all, elections are still elections. Since the inception of the European Parliament, there has never been a consistent pattern of niche parties doing well in European elections and then going on to do just as well in national elections. Sure, just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean it won’t happen now, but the evidence is definitely against it. So as we predict what might happen next, it’s important to bear these findings in mind.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Ben Farrer is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Knox College, USA.

‘I think they were very lucky’: Peterborough locals react to Labour win

Constituents give their views after the Peterborough byelection in which Labour scraped past the Brexit party

Looking on grimly as Labour activists gathered to hear a victory speech from Jeremy Corbyn in Peterborough on Friday morning after the city’s byelection, Robin Parkin, a retired businessman and Brexit party supporter, said he was disgusted. “We need something new. What is the matter with people? I’m sick of the same old parties. I’m an old man but I can’t understand why young people can’t support something a little bit new and more energetic.”

The Brexit party had been tipped to take the seat, made vacant when Labour’s Fiona Onasanya was forced to stand down after a conviction for perverting the course of justice, but instead it was narrowly beaten. Labour’s candidate, Lisa Forbes, received 10,484 votes, seeing off the Brexit party’s Mike Greene by a margin of 683.

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What can we learn from the Brexit party’s narrow defeat in Peterborough? Our panel responds | Caroline Lucas and others

Labour fended off Nigel Farage’s party, but only just. The Tories tanked. All three will have learned important lessons

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Labour’s Peterborough win shows its grassroots strength. But Brexit risks persist | Owen Jones

A successful campaign has lifted the party – but now it needs to embrace a full-blooded position on a second referendum

The Peterborough byelection could not have offered more fortuitous circumstances for the Brexit party. This is far from a Labour safe seat: it was held by the Tories with large majorities throughout the Thatcher and Major years, and lost again under Blair in 2005 to a rightwinger, Stewart Jackson, who once declared: “I’m at one with Ukip.”

Related: Peterborough byelection result: Labour scrapes past Brexit party to hold seat

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Labour’s ground game helps secure coup in Peterborough

Party’s winning share of vote is lowest in any byelection since 1945 despite split rightwing vote

Labour’s victory in Peterborough is a psychologically significant coup for a party that limped into third place in the European elections a fortnight ago, and a handy win in a seat where 60.9% voted leave in the 2016 referendum.

The victory in a classic marginal – the kind of small city seat where general elections are won and lost – is undoubtedly important, but falls short of a decisive endorsement for Jeremy Corbyn and his party’s Brexit contortions.

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The Peterborough result spells out the dangers the next Tory leader will face | Katy Balls

The Conservatives must find a way to avoid a general election until after the UK has left the EU – or face annihilation

The Peterborough byelection result is bad news for both the Brexit party and the Conservatives. The vote – triggered after former Labour MP Fiona Onasanya was ousted under recall rules following her conviction for lying over a speeding offence – had been touted as a perfect opportunity for Nigel Farage’s newly formed party to build on their success in the European elections and prove they’re a force to be reckoned with in Westminster.

In the end, they fell short – with Labour retaining the seat, their candidate Lisa Forbes beat the Brexit party candidate Mike Greene by 683 votes. Brexit party officials put their narrow defeat down to a lack of data and Labour having more time to prepare. The number of votes the party received is impressive for a new party but given the high expectations following the European elections the overall sense is one of disappointment. The fact that they failed to clinch the seat is a reminder of the difficulty smaller parties face in a first-past-the-post general election system. It’s something Farage knows well. He himself has sought Westminster election seven times in the past 25 years without success.

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