How much do we know about how voters might vote in May 2015? We have two main ways of guessing. One is the headline polls, which we showed yesterday have changed very little despite all the upheavals of September.
Despite a funereal conference, our model is still suggesting a majority government for Labour.
But while the polls provide a weekly insight, they will eventually mean nothing. Instead, a different indicator we can look to is the results of the 16 British by-elections held since 2010 (two held in Northern Ireland, where none of the main parties organise, are excluded).
Eight of Labour’s new MPs were elected by less than a fifth of their electorate.
They show three things. First, both members of the coalition have suffered since being elected. Second, the Lib Dems have suffered more – as academic research has suggested minority parties often do. But third and most intriguingly, Labour have scarcely fared better than the Tories.
The polls may suggest Labour are on course to win the most seats in May, but Ed Miliband’s party has lost nearly 100,000 votes since 2010.
They have held onto 13 of the 14 seats they have had to defend, but have often won on miserable turnouts of less than 30 per cent. The only three turnouts above 50 per cent have been in seats which Labour have lost.
As a result, eight of the party’s new MPs – Seema Malhotra, Stephen Doughty, Lucy Powell, Steve Reed, Andrew McDonald, Sarah Champion, Emma Lewell-Buck and Michael Kane – were elected by less than a fifth of their electorate.
In other words, four in five of their constituents didn’t want to be represented by them. At the most extreme end, Lucy Powell in Manchester Central and Stephen Doughty in Cardiff South were elected by just one in eight of their constituents.
Mike Thornton, who held onto Eastleigh for the Liberal Democrats, was also elected by fewer than a fifth of his seat’s voters. In contrast the most ‘legitimate’ MP elected in a by-election since 2010 was George Galloway, who managed to convince nearly 30 per cent of Bradford West to back him.
Labour, who have had every advantage a divided, cost-cutting government could hand them, have performed as badly as the parties they oppose.
You could dismiss this, and suggest many Labour voters only vote during general elections, but their record is scarcely encouraging. The one party who have fared well are, unsurprisingly, Ukip. While the Tories have on average lost 10 per cent per seat, Labour 8 per cent and the Lib Dems 9 per cent, Ukip have won 3 per cent.
But this headline figure clouds the real story: Ukip performed fairly anonymously in by-elections until 2013. In November 2012 they won nearly 4 per cent more in Rotherham than they had in 2010, but it wasn’t until the Eastleigh by-election in February 2013 that they shocked pundits. Since then they have won 12, 9, 3 and 11 per cent more in each seat than they managed in 2010.
On the eve of three by-elections, they have proved to be a formidable force.