Dan Byles MP by Policy Exchange

Dan Byles, MP for North Warwickshire

 

The Conservatives won North Warwickshire in 2010 by only 54 votes: a margin of 0.1%. With today’s announcement of MP Dan Byles’ retirement, the predominant punditry verdict is that the axe will swing on the Conservatives in 2015, bringing the seat back to Labour. With a spate of 2010 retirements, Conservatives look set to lose out on the edge that incumbency brings. But how important is the effect of their incumbent’s retirement on the Conservatives’ prospects in North Warwickshire?

Received wisdom – and quantitative analysis, though the connections between the two might not be as tight as you’d hope – has it that when an incumbent retires, her party is penalised by voters. A FiveThirtyEight model, drawing on data from the 2005 election, puts the expected penalty for a retiring Conservative incumbent at 1.5 points. The figure was the same for Labour, indicating no sure-fire connection between a candidate’s belonging to the party of government and the candidate’s incumbency penalty.

A simplistic analysis would indicate that the retirement penalty, as I’ll call it, will be sufficient to send North Warwickshire swinging back into the red. But, though the retiree-penalty exists at a macro level, we should be cautious about projecting its magnitude onto individual constituencies without consideration of the specific – including the local – factors at play.

Timothy Hallam-Smith puts the typical advantage of incumbency for Conservatives at a mere 1%. It’s slightly stronger for Labour candidates, at 2%; and significantly more so for Liberal Democrats, at a rather surprising 15%. If Byles hadn’t retired, all else equal from 2010, one might cautiously expect to see the Conservatives clinging on. The effect, though small, has the potential for decisiveness at the margins.

Yet, two further factors in North Warwickshire are at play, which common sense might predict to be the dominant determinants of the outcome for 2015, dwarfing the significance of Byles’ retirement for the final outcome. The first is the historic strength of the Labour vote. The second is UKIP’s newfound popularity. While the first seems counterintuitively muted in the polls, the second is looking huge, with its disruptive potential highly significant.

Interestingly, the strength of North Warwickshire’s support for Labour prior to 2010 seems not to be re-manifesting itself. In 2005 they had a 15 point lead over the Conservatives. The last election the Conservatives won in the constituency was 1987, where they held by only 5 points. Even in the Thatcherite heyday of 1983, the Conservatives managed a less than 5 point margin. Yet, Lord Ashcroft’s polls put Labour at 39% in North Warwickshire – slightly under the 40.1% they achieved in 2010. For an electorate that showed such strong support for New Labour, the absence of a backlash against a fiscally contractionary Conservative government indicates that the wounds of 2007 are likely still raw.

Lord Ashcroft’s polls still give Labour a lead of 7 points, though. Securing a mere 39% of polled votes, the size of their lead is historically exceptional. This brings us on to the second likely determinant of the seat’s victor: enter UKIP, which according to Lord Ashcroft’s polls has eaten a large chunk of Conservative support in North Warwickshire. Scoring only 2.8% in 2010, UKIP’s share in Lord Ashcroft’s poll puts them safely in third place, at 21% of intended votes.

To depend on the size of UKIP’s bloc remaining constant would be unwise. UKIP’s showing nationwide in the European elections was weaker than polls predicted. One might reasonably expect the gap between expectation and reality to be even greater for a general election contest in which a vote for UKIP can be no more than a protest. First-past-the-post makes a North Warwickshire resident’s vote for UKIP an effective vote for the leading major party. In a race which was so close in 2010, residents’ votes have the potential to pack a relatively strong punch: and so, we should expect arguments from Conservative and Labour alike to follow suit.

The interesting question in North Warwickshire, then, is whether the Conservatives are capable of poaching 7 – let’s say 8, including a charitable nod to the retirement penalty – more points away from UKIP (and the tiny Lib Dem slice of the electorate) than Labour. The answer will turn on UKIP’s ability to get a firm grip on their protest vote; Labour’s ability to retain their supporters and/or turn protest against the government into a vote for the major opposition; and the Conservatives’ ability to placate disillusioned Eurosceptics.

Conservatives, with their promise of a referendum, look almost certain to do better with the current UKIP bloc than do Labour. Turning an issue-based protest vote to Labour’s advantage on an issue over which Labour are profoundly opposed to the direction of protest is a tall order indeed. The crux is, then, whether the Conservatives can flip enough would-be UKIP supporters to outsize the Labour contingent.

In a Newton Abbot strawpoll we conducted in Newton Abbot, ‘CanUPikUKIP?’, we found that only 1 in 3 respondents were able to identify the promise of a referendum in 2017 as Conservative policy; and that half thought the policy belonged to UKIP. To hold the seat in North Warwickshire, the new Conservative candidate will need to differentiate from UKIP, while demonstrating sufficient Eurosceptic credentials to claw back those points.

Not all election news is relevant to the outcome. The event of MP Dan Byles’ retirement should not be understood as decisive for North Warwickshire, where the race looks set to be closer than the Twitterati and the pollsters predict. Retirement penalties will likely determine some marginal seats; but in constituencies where the UKIP-effect is large, we cannot expect them to be dominant.

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