How might The Independent Group fare in a general election?

Ceri Fowler (University of Manchester) and Chris Butler (University of Manchester)

The defection of 8 Labour and 3 Conservative MPs to form “The Independent Group” (TIG) in February 2019 set Westminster alight with intrigue about what impact they might have on UK politics. With both major parties struggling to find a position on Brexit which unites their Parliamentary Party and voters, there has been much speculation about whether The Independent Group could become a viable electoral force, and whether they are more likely to take votes from one party rather than the other.

Whilst the MPs involved have been keen to dismiss the notion that they are an SDP Mark II, many commentators have predicted that the 11 TIG MPs face an uphill battle to hold onto their seats, similar to how only 4 of the 29 MPs who defected to the SDP were re-elected at the subsequent general election.

The SDP/ Liberal Alliance polled 25.4% of the vote in 1983, just short of Labour’s 27.6%. Yet they only won 23 seats compared to Labour’s 208 as their vote was spread so thinly across the UK. However, TIG could fare better if their supported was more concentrated in particular constituencies. To understand how TIG might fare under the UK’s first past the post system, we looked at the available polling data on TIG support.

Our key findings:

· There is very little prospect of TIG gaining any new seats or of most of the current MPs holding on.

· If allied with Liberal Democrats, TIG could come close to denying the Conservatives a majority, particularly if Conservative MPs such as Justine Greening also made the jump.

Where might TIG fare best?

To calculate how TIG might fare under first past the post, we looked at data from the 2011 census on constituency demographics to give each constituency a TIG rating. Polling has shown (ComRes, Deltapoll, Survation, YouGov) that voters are more likely to support TIG if they:

· Voted remain

· Are educated to at least degree level

· Aged between 35 and 54 (although this varies slightly as different pollsters use different age intervals)

· Are classed as ABC1

We also included a weighting for the proportion of Jewish voters in a constituency to take into account that Jewish voters are likely to share many values with the Labour party but seem to be put off by the party’s anti-semitism rows and may consider TIG as an attractive alternative (see work by our colleague Andrew Barclay).

We generously took TIG’s high point in the polls of 18% and distributed it across constituencies according to their TIG rating. We then adjusted the other parties’ vote shares according to TIG supporters’ past voting intentions .For simplicity’s sake, vote swings between other parties were applied uniformly, rather than also being based on demographics.

TIG’s best prospects are listed in the table below. Even with taking their most generous poll rating so far and weighting it by favourable demographics, our model does not predict that TIG win any seats.

Table 1: Best TIG prospects

The two constituencies where they would need less than a 5% swing to win are Battersea and Edinburgh North and Leith. TIG come close in winning these seats in our model partly due to favourable demographics but also because they are already marginal seats and therefore the vote share necessary to win is relatively low.

What our model does not show is how tactical voting might affect the results in these places. However, given that TIG would be standing as a new party it is hard to predict how they might benefit or not from tactical voting.

We then modelled how the 11 incumbent MPs might fare. To work out their potential incumbency “bounce” we calculated the average swing to the SDP in seats where incumbent MPs re-stood compared to the average swing to the SDP in 1983 and applied the same weighting to the TIG MPs.

Table 2: Incumbent TIG MPs

This predicts that only Heidi Allen of the 11 incumbent TIG MPs will hold her seat, although Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes come within a 5% swing of holding on.

What else could they do?

The model so far suggests that either TIG need to get a lot higher in the polls, concentrate their support to do better under first-past-the-post, or accept the alliance with the Liberal Democrats suggested by Vince Cable.

TIG MPs have so far been dismissive of the Lib Dem overtures for an electoral pact but our model suggests that they might want to reconsider this. If we combine the Lib Dem and TIG vote shares in each constituency based on our model, an alliance of the two parties would win the following 34 constituencies:

Table 3: TIG/Liberal Democrat Potential Wins

Whilst the level of support TIG receives is more damaging to the Liberal Democrats than it is to Labour and the Conservatives, when the level of TIG and remaining Lib Dem support is combined it is enough to gain these mainly former Lib Dem or Lib Dem target seats under first past the post.

By entering into an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, our model also predicts that Chuka Umunna, Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston would retain their seats, bringing the total number of Lib Dem or TIG MPs to 38.

What is also interesting is how an Alliance would affect the balance of Parliament, both from the amount of constituencies gained, and from the effect it has on other seats changing hands. The 38 TIG or Lib Dem MPs would constitute the third biggest group in the House of Commons.

Table 4: Projected General Election Results

As some Labour commentators have warned, one of the effects of TIG attracting more support from former Labour voters than from former Conservative voters is that it would turn 24 Labour marginals into Conservative gains, enough to give the Conservatives a majority despite our model showing TIG and the Lib Dems gaining 13 constituencies from the Conservatives. It would also give the Conservatives a working majority of 6. Notable Labour casualties would include Chris Williamson and Gloria de Piero.

A couple of ‘what ifs’…

TIG winning 18% of the vote and aligning with the Liberal Democrats would win them 38 seats, as we have seen. But there are a further 12 seats where they would be within a 5% swing of winning, listed in Table 5, and an additional 17 seats where they would be within a 10% swing of winning.

Table 5: Target Seats for TIG

It is noticeable that among those MPs in TIG target seats are Justine Greening, Stephen Hammond, and Martin Whitfield; all of whom have significant disagreements with their party leaderships over Brexit and may be tempted to defect to TIG over the coming weeks. Our model would predict that with their incumbency bounce, all three could hold their seats in an alliance with the Liberal Democrats, and therefore deny the Conservatives a majority.

What comes next?

This is a preliminary analysis that uses a handful of polls to estimate potential gains and losses for TIG — it will be interesting to see if the same demographic trends hold with further polling and if TIG gain or lose momentum. If the UK does end up taking part in the European Parliamentary elections, this offers an opportunity for the group in an election that has historically proved kinder to smaller parties — but only if they manage to establish themselves as a fully-fledged party in time.

Chris Butler is a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester. His thesis examines how UK Governments respond to public opinion. He tweets @chrisbutlerpol.

Ceri Fowler is a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester. Her thesis looks at gender and voting in the 2016 EU Referendum. She tweets @cerifowler.