Reform UK rises up poll ratings but are its supporters real?

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Good morning. Thanks for your kind words and more importantly your interesting questions about our data team’s exciting new poll tracker (which you can find at the bottom of this email from now until the election, whenever it may be, and browse in much more detail here).

As I wrote on Friday, my favourite thing about our tracker is how it depicts uncertainty around the opinion poll results. I’m not going to write about the polls every day between now and whenever the next election is (anytime from early November is my read), but I am going to occasionally write about things that either fascinate me or keep me up at night because I think I might be missing something.

Today’s newsletter is on the latter: the roughly one in 10 voters who the polls say are going to vote for the Reform UK party.

Mysterious girl

When I travel around the country asking people about how they’re going to vote, the same question keeps bothering me: if the polls are right, every tenth person I speak to ought to be voting for Reform: the renamed Brexit party, once led by Nigel Farage but for the moment led by Richard Tice. (Our tracker today puts the Reform poll rating at 9.3 per cent.)

I certainly meet plenty of people who look and sound a lot like the people the polls suggest are voting Reform. These tend to be older voters, who have either paid off their mortgages outright or live in social housing, people who really dislike Rishi Sunak, but absolutely loathe Keir Starmer, who voted to leave the EU and think the government has failed on immigration and who rather like Farage. But just one of them said they planned to vote Reform — most instead said they would not vote.

And in terms of the actual elections we’ve had in that time, the Reform party has done significantly worse than we would expect. They are doing much worse than either Ukip, Farage’s original party, did from 2010 to 2015, or than the Brexit party did in the 2017 to 2019 period.

As I’ve written before, I’m struck that when you look at the polling, Reform does better among men than women. Men who voted Leave are angry about the government’s immigration record, dislike Sunak and hate Starmer, and tell pollsters they will vote Reform. Women who voted Leave are angry about the government’s immigration record, dislike Sunak and hate Starmer, and tell pollsters they don’t know how they will vote.

One of the most robust findings about opinion poll research is that men are less likely than women to answer “Don’t know”. Given that, I am inclined to think that for most people who say they will vote Reform, what they actually mean is “Don’t Know”.

And for what it is worth, essentially everyone who works in electoral strategy at Westminster privately agrees with this! Even many who work for Reform think that the polls are right to say that the party is more popular now than it was a year ago, but that they are overestimating the level of support for Reform.

The belief that the Reform vote is overstated is a big source of comfort to Conservative MPs and spooks Labour people at Westminster. (That said, it doesn’t take all that much to convince Labour types that they are going to do worse than the opinion polls.) Owen Winter, of Stack Data Strategy, has done some interesting analysis of the impact of weighting a survey before vs after excluding “don’t knows”: removing them could be exaggerating Labour’s poll lead.

Still, there is no guarantee that someone who is currently responding “Don’t Know” is going to return to voting for their previous party of choice. It’s just as possible that the 9.3 per cent of people who say they will vote Reform will either vote Reform, stay home or spoil their ballot. Given Reform are not going to win parliamentary seats, and the party’s sole political impact will be whether they take votes away from the Conservatives, this might all be much of a muchness.

Or it could be that the 9.3 per cent will, in the heat of an election campaign, stick to the Tories for fear of something worse. I’ll be off on one of my trips around the country soon to talk to more people and see what I can pick up. But for now, I’m going to simply say that I don’t really know what the 9.3 per cent of people in our tracker who say they will vote Reform will do, other than I really, really, really don’t think they are going to vote Reform.

Now try this

I had a lovely dinner at a friend’s on Saturday night — I continue to get a lot of use out of Jancis Robinson’s 121 questions about wine for a source of what to bring and what not to bring, so do give that a read if you haven’t.

Film-wise, I also enjoyed but did not love The Civil Dead. It’s a dark comedy about an out-of-work LA-based photographer who is haunted by the ghost of a failed actor friend from back home. It’s nice enough, and if you manage to see it at one of the limited screenings in the UK you won’t have a terrible time. But if you’re at home and looking for a film to watch, I wouldn’t choose it.

On the subject of things you can watch at home: the Criterion Collection edition of One Night in Miami looks beautiful and has some wonderful extras — it also made me re-read and freshly enjoy Jurek Martin’s obituary of one of the characters.

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