Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Heartbreak for Rennie as Carnoustie by-election fails to show much trace of a Richmond Park bandwagon effect

Immediately after the Richmond Park result became clear a few days ago, Professor John Curtice speculated about the possibility of an 'Eastboune effect' - a reference to a by-election gain out of the blue in 1990 that got the Lib Dems back into the game after a couple of years during which they had appeared to be fading into irrelevance.  Well, the first little test of whether we're about to see something similar came in yesterday's Carnoustie by-election, and although there was an increase in the Lib Dem vote, it was pretty trivial in scale.

Carnoustie & District by-election result, 5th December 2016 :

Independent - Cheape 43.5% (n/a)
SNP 32.1% (-4.2)
Conservatives 17.7% (+11.6)
Labour 4.4% (-1.8)
Liberal Democrats 2.3% (+1.4)

I think the reason why a full-blown Eastbourne effect is unlikely is that British politics is much more fractured than it was in 1990.  Not only are there more 'major' parties to choose between, but Scotland is also now much more psychologically detached from the rest of the UK.  People here will have regarded the Richmond Park result as almost irrelevant to us - if you want to back an unashamedly 'Remain' party here, you'll generally do it by voting for the SNP, and not for a party that incomprehensibly voted against European single market membership in the Scottish Parliament only the other week.

That said, there's clearly scope for a 'niche' Lib Dem comeback in parts of England with decent levels of Remain support.  I was shaking my head in disbelief on Thursday night at Diane Abbott's complacent line of argument that the Lib Dems' pro-European pitch will not play well in areas that voted to Leave.  It doesn't need to, Diane - they're not trying to win a general election.  46% of the English electorate voted Remain, and if the Lib Dems can win over just one-third of those people, they'll essentially double their vote and regain a number of their old seats.  Polls prior to Richmond Park suggested that the "Brexit Means Brexit" Tories were still comfortably outpolling the Lib Dems among Remain voters in England.  There is now a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems to reverse that.

To return to Carnoustie, the SNP vote has actually held up much better than in the by-election in the same council area last week.  There seems to be a pattern in the north-east of some No voters switching from the SNP to the Tories, but it hasn't happened on a big scale on this occasion - most of the boost in the Tory support came from elsewhere.  Technically, this result is an independent gain from the SNP, but as is so often the case in STV by-elections, that's pretty meaningless - the SNP didn't actually win the popular vote in the ward last time around (they finished second behind a different independent).

As was the case last week, when the lower preferences of Labour voters were distributed, there were more transfers to the SNP (35) than to the Tories (20).  Has Kezia backed the wrong horse?