12 Oct 2014

Ukip marches on – but could it really have 128 MPs?

Analysis of a new poll predicts Ukip could win up to 128 seats at the next general election in 2015. Here’s how – and how seriously to take the results.

Prime Minister David Cameron is probably choking on his Sunday brunch over the polls published in the papers predicting various spectacular successes for Ukip at the general election in May 2015.

In The Sunday Times, leaked poll data suggests Ukip could win 25 seats. A poll in The Mail on Sunday by Survation goes even further, with analysis suggesting that Nigel Farage’s party could win up to 128 seats. And The Observer holds no real comfort – the Opinium poll gives Labour a seven point lead over the Tories but still has Ukip on 17 per cent (only nine points behind).

It is the 128 seats number which has grabbed the most attention, unsurprisingly: if Ukip really did win 128 seats, it would finally have delivered comprehensively on the “political earthquake” Mr Farage has long promised.

The poll, conducted by Survation with 1,003 adults on the telephone on Friday as by-election results in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton rolled in, had Labour and the Conservatives both on 31 per cent, Ukip surging to 25 per cent, and the Lib Dems on 8 per cent.

But the caveats on these startling numbers are almost as loud as the current clamour around Ukip.

Behind the numbers

Pollsters are quick to point out that the results are a snapshot, and a lot could change in the next 6 months. The boost of a win in Clacton for Ukip could also explain the numbers. They also suggest that polls and by-election results are often protest votes, directing attention to the SDP in the 1980s which, at one point, polled at 50 per cent.

However, in the election itself in 1983, the party got about half that and the result was a landslide win for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

Read more on the history of Ukip's long climb up the greasy pole

The process of translating voting intentions to seats is also a tricky one. For the Mail on Sunday, Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University has done the numbers, and he says it’s all about the regional spread of Ukip’s support. He told the paper: “The 25 per cent level represents a 22-point increase on the three per cent the party won in 2010. If that increase were to occur evenly in every constituency, they could still fail to pick up a single seat. But today’s poll suggests Ukip’s support has increased much more in the south of England outside London than it has elsewhere in the UK – by a staggering 34 points.

“If that level was recorded throughout the south, Ukip could win as many as 128 seats, with no less than 102 of them coming from the Conservatives, whose vote in the region is down 14 points.”

Can I get a prompt?

Finally, another thing worth pointing out about this poll in particular is the way it was conducted. Katy Owen, research manager of Survation, explained to Channel 4 News: “The reason why Survation generally – not just today – tend to show higher levels of support for Ukip than other polling companies is that we ‘prompt’ Ukip in our national polls.

“What this means is that when we ask people who they will vote for, we give them the options Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Ukip and ‘another party’. Other companies only give the options Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat and ‘another party’ – only giving Ukip as an option to respondents when they click ‘another party’. It is our opinion that this has the effect of underestimating Ukip support.

However, before you – and David Cameron – write the results off based on this, Ms Owen has another point.

“Something to think about is that both Survation and Lord Ashcroft both had polls in Heywood and Middleton where Ukip was ‘prompted’. Both showed lower levels of support than Ukip got on the day,” she said – although of course strong last-minute campaigning by Ukip made a big difference here too.

But based on this last point, perhaps 128 MPs could even be a conservative (no pun intended) estimate…