Changes in voter migrations over the last year

Changes in voter migrations over the last year

2016 was without doubt a dramatic year in politics - both in the UK and abroad. At the start of the year, the EU referendum debate was beginning to rage, Jeremy Corbyn had faced just one leadership election, David Cameron was still Prime Minister, and the Liberal Democrats were still in a desperate search for a raison d'être.

How times change.

Brexit has clearly been a momentous event in British politics, and just as it has lead to a radical shift in the UK's foreign policy, it may well be a reorganising force in party politics, too.  How well parties respond to this new landscape may well prove crucial to their prospects at the next election.

The question is: how have voters shifted in party support over this last year?

Below are two graphics, each showing how 2015 voters were planning to vote at a specific point in time: the first graphic shows how each party's 2015 voters were planning to vote at the end of January 2016, and the second graphic shows the same thing, but taken a year later - at the end of January 2017.

Voter migrations, May 2015 to January 2016 . Data from YouGov.

Voter migrations, May 2015 to January 2016 . Data from YouGov.

There are a few things to note from this first graphic:

1. The Conservatives, at the start of 2016, were having some real issues with UKIP defectors.  Comparing all the different sinuous migrations, the blue one going from 'Conservative 2015' to 'UKIP' is by far the largest.  In fact, at the end of January 2016, 8% of 2015 Conservative voters were planning to vote UKIP.  And looking at it from the other way around, UKIP's 2015 voters simply weren't defecting to the Conservatives in the required numbers: sure, a greater percentage of the party's 2015 vote was planning to vote Conservative (11%), but because UKIP's 2015 vote was so much smaller than the Conservative vote, this greater percentage wasn't delivering the raw numbers of voters needed to stem the Conservatives' leak.

2. Many Liberal Democrat voters at the last election were not, in January 2016, planning to reward the party with their vote next time round.  Only 63% of Lib Dem 2015 voters said they'd vote for the party again; in comparison, 87% of Conservative 2015 voters said they intended to vote Tory again, with 82% of Labour and UKIP voters saying the same.  Where were these 2015 Liberal Democrats fleeing to?  It doesn't look like there was one main beneficiary: 15% of the general election voters said they'd vote Conservative, with 18% saying they'd vote Labour.

3. Labour didn't start 2016 with a whole load of supporters who'd previously voted for different parties.  If you look at the Labour party's position on the right of the graphic, it hasn't really got many voters pouring in from different parties.  In fact, Labour seemed to be having its own defection problem: a fairly hefty 5 and 6 per cent of the party's 2015 vote were planning to vote UKIP and Conservative, respectively.  What's interesting, though, is how few of the party's former voters were switching allegiance to the Liberal Democrats - could this have been an ongoing 'punishment' for the party's decision to go into government with the Conservatives, or their capitulation on tuition fees? We can't be sure, but they're both good bets.

Voter migrations: May 2015 to January 2017.  Data from YouGov.

Voter migrations: May 2015 to January 2017.  Data from YouGov.

Moving forward one year to YouGov's poll taken last week, things look very different:

4. The Conservatives haven't properly plugged their UKIP leak, but it doesn't matter.  Back at the start of 2016, 8% of the Conservative party's 2015 voters were intending to vote UKIP.  Fast forward one year and that figure has become 5%.  That's clearly an improvement, but it would be an exaggeration to say the party has fully plugged the leak.  What's important, though, is that it might not have to: looking at the flow from UKIP to Conservatives, it's clear that the Tories are getting far, far more former UKIP voters on board than they're losing their own former voters to the party.  A full 26% - over a quarter - of UKIP's 2015 voters told YouGov they now intend to vote Conservative.  The reasons for this are numerous, but the two biggest likely causes are the outcome of the EU referendum and Theresa May's adoption of a 'Hard Brexit' negotiation strategy for our withdrawal from the EU.

5. The Lib Dems haven't got any more of their old voters back, but they're attracting plenty of new ones.  At the end of January last year, only 63% of the party's 2015 voters said they planned to vote for the party at the next election.  That figure has not changed at all one year later.  What has changed, though, is the defectors from other parties they are attracting to their own party.  By focusing on two key messages - being an unabashed pro-EU party and celebrating the achievements of New Labour - Tim Farron has managed to attract 11% of Labour's 2015 voters to his party as well as 4% of the Tory party's former voters.

What's the take-home message from these changes in voter migrations?  It's that Brexit is reshaping the party political landscape.  The Labour Party, by standing in the middle of the road, is running the risk of being run over; UKIP don't look like they have much room to attack the Tories given the government's commitment to a 'hard Brexit'; and the Lib Dems, by being the only unabashedly pro-Remain party (as well as, let's be honest, starting from such a low base), have been able to bring in disaffected voters from both Labour and the Conservatives.

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