Sepp Blatter and the selectorate theory: FIFA shows how autocrats survive

dictatorshandbookThe police have finally come for several FIFA officials, and yet the organisation seems set to re-elect Sepp Blatter for a fifth term as President. It appears to go against all our expectations of how the system should work – democratic processes should remove corrupt leaders – but it fits in with our wider experience of how the world works, where autocratic rulers and their regimes do tend to stay in power much longer than their democratic counterparts.

So, why do corrupt, authoritarian and undemocratic regimes tend to survive longer than those that aren’t? That’s where the selectorate theory comes in. This is a theory devised by international relations scholar Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and others that seeks to explain this process, as well as some other features of the international system. I’m going to try and explain it briefly here, but for the full theory you should read either The Dictator’s Handbook or The Logic of Political Survival which give a much fuller explanation. (The Logic of Political Survival is the original academic text, The Dictator’s Handbook is written for a mass audience)

The theory looks at how leaders stay in power, and the key to staying in power in any system is keeping the support of a winning coalition within the selectorate that determines who gets to hold power. In a democracy, the selectorate is usually quite large – everyone who votes – and consequently the winning coalition needed to stay in power is also usually quite large. Within an autocratic or authoritarian system, however, the number of people who determine who gets to be in power is usually quite small and thus the winning coalition is also quite small, especially compared to the overall population. If all a leader has to do to stay in power is keep the support of that winning coalition, it’s a lot easier for the leader to do so if the winning majority is small.

There are too many reasons for this. First is the leader’s positive power to effectively pay off the winning coalition with state resources, diverting what should be public goods into private goods. This is also possible in democracies, but the size of the winning coalition means that any payoffs to its members are relatively small on an individual level. When you merely have to ensure the loyalty of a few thousand people (or a couple of dozen, in the case of FIFA) it’s a lot easier to achieve, which is one reason corruption is a lot higher in autocratic regimes – it’s how the leaders maintain their power.

The second reason is slightly more complex and relates to the size of the winning coalition compared to the selectorate and the population. This is an important ratio because it helps to bind the winning majority into supporting the current system and not wanting to see it overthrown. If the winning coalition is only a small chunk of the selectorate, then it will not want to see the system overthrown, because when a new leader emerges, they could well be relying on the support of a different chunk of the selectorate and those in the current winning coalition will be out of power and not receiving any of the benefits they get from that. We can see that with FIFA – the winning coalition needed is a very small number of people to maintain control of the Executive Committee. If Blatter was to fall and be replaced in an open process, there are enough people out there with some power in football that the chances of an individual still holding their position within the winning coalition afterwards would be quite small, so they remain committed to supporting the present regime.

That’s why, once they’re established (they’re actually more likely to collapse in the first year than democratic regimes), autocratic regimes tend to stay in power because it’s in the interests of all those in power not to rock the boat. The winning coalition wants to remain as small as possible to ensure it gets the best share of the spoils, and it’s in the leader’s interest to keep it as small as possible compared to the selectorate to ensure that the risk of losing their place at the table is too great to risk overthrowing them – apres moi, la deluge, is the autocrat’s warning to his supporters. That’s why corruption appears to be rife in many international sporting organisations as they tend to be run by restricted oligarchies who are all fearful of rocking the boat because there are too many out there willing to take their position and leave them with nothing.

Autocrats survive because of the way they corrupt the system, not despite it, and it’s the lure of the benefit of that corruption (and fear of the consequences of losing it) that keeps their winning coalition onside.

2015 General Election Day 24: Breaking the silence

yougovpredictionsI’m going to break one of my rules for these election blog posts today to talk about a poll. However, this one isn’t a voting intention poll, so I won’t be having to write ‘variations within the margin of error’ too many times. No, what I want to talk about is this YouGov poll, asking voters to predict who they think will win the election. This wasn’t asking who they wanted to win the election – one expects that would be similar but not identical to voting intention – but rather who they think will win the election. The same questions had been asked in February and found that when asked which party would win 42% thought the Conservatives would win, compared to 30% Labour and in terms of Prime Minister, 44% thought Cameron compared to 24% Miliband.

Now, though, the results are a lot closer: 37% Conservatives 36% Labour on the party question and 37% Cameron 34% Miliband on the leader question. Yes, there’s a difference between the two, but I think that just shows gaps in political knowledge rather than anything else. What’s more interesting is the way people’s expectations have changed in the last two months, and what this might tell us about the election result. There’s a famous book and theory in public opinion research called The Spiral Of Silence, written by Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann. The theory covers a lot of culture and mass communication, but one of the starting points for it was a German election in the 1960s (I can’t remember the exact one, and someone has the library’s only copy, so can’t check). There’d been regular polls throughout the election showing the election was close, but the final result – and the prediction of Noelle-Neumann and her team – was a clear CDU victory. They’d spotted this by not just asking people how they were going to vote, but who they thought would win and noticed that while the voting intention question remained tight, the CDU opened up a lead in the perception question which widened as the campaign went on.

The theory is that because people thought the CDU would win, they were more likely to decide later on that it was better to join the majority and back the winner and this accounted for the late change that wasn’t captured by the polls. In terms of this election, the February result backs up the initial theory of this election – that as it got closer, more and more voters would break for the Tories (Lynton Crosby’s proposed ‘crossover moment’), following the expected winner. Unfortunately for that theory, the latest figures show that something quite different has happened. A Tory victory – and Cameron’s lead over Miliband – is no longer widely expected and if anything, the momentum is with Labour. We don’t know what’s driven this change – it could be people reassessing Labour and Miliband after seeing him, it could be bad reaction to the Tory campaign, it could be the effect of local campaigning – but it’s a much more interesting change than anything we’ve seen in the voting intention polls so far, and it’s an indication that this is turning into a much tougher fight than the Tories expected.

Another indication of that is Boris Johnson joining David Cameron on the campaign trail today. He’s been kept mostly within the M25 for the first few weeks, and I think that’s entirely deliberate, as Cameron and Osborne wanted to be seen winning the election without Johnson’s help to boost Osborne’s chances in the next Tory leadership fight. I also think bringing him in is a risk as I think the point will soon come when there’s a public tipping point and people become much more aware of the real politician hiding behind the ‘What larks! Ho ho, here comes Boris the bumbling fool!’ facade.

Not worrying about image or minor things like being expected to win, today’s minor party is the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), standing ten candidates in the election, mostly in the south east. The SPGB is one of Britain’s oldest parties, formed back in 1904 as a split from the social democratic wing of the labour movement that would eventually form the Labour Party. The SPGB took an ‘impossibilist’ stance as opposed to Labour’s reformist one, holding that capitalism needed to be overthrown rather than reformed from within. It’s important not to confuse them with the Socialist Party (the former Militant, now part of TUSC) as relations between the two are about as good as you might expect between two splinters of the Left with easily-confused names. The chance of a peaceful solution to that dispute in the near future is about as likely as either side being represented in Parliament, but the SPGB has managed to continue for over 100 years without that so they’re definitely in it for the long haul.

They have been out leafletting, and Election Leaflets today gives us a good example of their work. It’s not a bad leaflet, actually, especially compared to the sort of information you normally get from left-wing parties and candidates. It doesn’t assume that the recipient is well-versed in Marx, it doesn’t hector them or shout slogans at them and it doesn’t spend half its time indulging in internecine warfare against other factions and fractions. If they carry this on, the five hundred years they’d need to get majority support (as calculated by Ken Macleod in The Star Fraction) might be shortened by a decade or two.

Receive-Accept-Sample: How people form opinions

the-nature-and-origins-of-mass-opinionAs we’re now into the election campaign, the entire purpose of which is to get people to form a certain set of opinions and then act on them on May 7th, I thought it was about time I went back to doing another post on a concept from political science that seeks to explain how opinions are formed.

What I’ll be looking at in this post is John Zaller’s 1992 book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion, and the model for public opinion he sets out in, which he terms the Receive-Accept-Sample or RAS model. This is a widely accepted model of how public opinion formed, but not universally agreed upon, and it’s also worth noting that it was published in 1992, so before any widespread use of the internet.

I’m going to try and explain the model as simply as I can, but remember that this is a 300+ page book with lots of charts and tables so Zaller’s arguments are a lot more complex and subtle than the precis of them I’ll provide here. The book is worth reading, or you can also try Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which takes a more psychological approach to public opinion, but is more up to date and discusses Zaller along with other approaches. (I wrote about it here)
Continue reading Receive-Accept-Sample: How people form opinions

David Sanders’ inaugural Regius Professorship lecture now available to watch online

wpid-wp-1416472228398.jpegA couple of months ago, I wrote about Reluctant Europeans?, David Sanders’ inaugural Regius Professorship lecture at the University of Essex. The lecture, and the panel discussion chaired by John Bercow that followed it, are now available online for you to watch. I think a lot of you will find both parts of it interesting.

The lecture is about an hour long and it’s a very good look at how British people think about European issues. It uses some quite recent academic research but isn’t aimed at a purely academic audience and Professor Sanders is a very good lecturer, so everyone should be able to understand the points he’s making.

The discussion that follows features Sanders, John Bercow (a graduate of the Department of Government at Essex), Professor Dame Helen Wallace, Baroness Shirley Williams and Professor Anthony King. It’s very wide-ranging around the points Sanders raised and has some interesting questions and comments from the audience.

Professor David Sanders’ Regius Professorship Lecture 2014 – Part 1: Lecture from University of Essex on Vimeo.

Professor David Sanders’ Regius Professorship Lecture 2014 – Part 2: Panel Discussion and Audience Q&A from University of Essex on Vimeo.

Could Lib Dem Voice be about to become the Literary Digest?

litdigThe Literary Digest holds an interesting place in the history of politics, thanks to its role in the 1936 US Presidential election. For several elections before it had been conducting a mass poll that had allowed it to successfully predict the result of the election, which obviously helped to gain it a lot of attention and sales. In 1936, it did the same thing, sending out over 10 million surveys to voters, and receiving more than 2 million back, which gave it the confidence to predict the election result. The result of their poll was clear: Governor Alf Landon of Kansas was going to defeat incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt.

As we know, that wasn’t just wrong, it was badly wrong. Roosevelt won the election in one of the biggest landslides the US has ever seen, and the Literary Digest, which was already doing poorly in the face of the Depression, went out of business two years later. Meanwhile, George Gallup had used a poll of just 5,000 people and predicted the result of the election much more accurately (though not completely accurately – he missed the size of the Roosevelt landslide).

Gallup’s success came from something we take as routine now – rather than aiming to cover as many people as possible, his poll had taken a sample from the population. In trying to cover as many people as possible and sending their samples to names they had from their subscriber records, phone directories and car registrations, the Literary Digest had failed to sample across the whole of the population, as the poor were unlikely to fall into any of those three categories and were much more likely to vote for Roosevelt than Landon.

What’s important to note here is that the Literary Digest’s methods had worked before and successfully predicted the result of previous Presidential elections, hence their confidence in calling the 1936 result from their data. What they’d missed was the effect of the Depression on both their sample and voting patterns. A large group of people were excluded from their sample because of their poverty, and because of that poverty that group had a very different voting behaviour.

Which brings us to Liberal Democrat Voice. They’ve been conducting regular surveys of members of their forum (which you have to be a Liberal Democrat member to join) and publishing the results on the site for a while. Now, while this is a sample of Lib Dem members, it’s not a randomly chosen sample but a self-selecting one, especially skewed towards those who like to talk and read about politics on the internet. Now, they regularly claim that when tested against other surveys of Lib Dem members their poll is generally accurate, and thus they refer to the poll as a survey of ‘Lib Dem members’ not ‘our forum members’ in headlines, but we’ve now got a strongly testable prediction to see just how accurate a representation it is.

As many of you will likely have noticed, voting in the Liberal Democrat Presidential election finished yesterday, and Lib Dem Voice published the results of their latest survey, asking how people would vote in that. That gave a result of 52% of first preference votes for Daisy Cooper, 30% for Sal Brinton and 18% for Liz Lynne. Unfortunately, there’s no George Gallup in this scenario, who’s done a survey using a different methodology, so it may turn out that they’ve got the result right. However, to me, it looks like a very big hostage to fortune that might well have oversampled a particular type of party member whilst missing out a large chunk who will vote in the election.

We shall see when the result comes out, but there might be a few nerves at LDV Towers while they await it…

Reluctant Europeans? David Sanders’ lecture on Britain and the European Union

wpid-wp-1416472228398.jpegAs I’m sure my regular readers have noticed, I’m currently a student in the Department of Government at the University of Essex. The University and the Department have recently been honoured with the appointment of the first Regius Professorship of Political Science which has been granted to David Sanders, who has lectured in the department since 1975 and been one of the most important figures in British political science in that time.

Last night, he delivered his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor: “The Reluctant Europeans: Britain and the EU, 1973-2015” I naturally went along to hear it, and there were lots of interesting points made. The University were filming the lecture and the discussion that followed, so I would expect it to be available in full on their site soon. Until that is available, I did get pictures of many of the slides that illustrated and expanded his points, which you can see here.

The main thrust of the lecture was looking at how Britain has always been a more reluctant member of the EU than other countries and trying to explain why that is so. Support for the EU is lower amongst both the general population and the political elite in the UK than it is in the other member states, and Sanders believes that there are seven main reasons for this. He calls these seven stories that we tell ourselves, and they are:

  • Our historic conception of British foreign policy sees Britain as a world power, not just a European one, and we don’t want to be constrained by Europe.
  • A perceived economic disadvantage, where the rest of Europe does better out of free trade than we do
  • A sense of constitutional disempowerment – Europe as the remote and uncontrollable behemoth – coupled with a story of ‘we never signed up for this’
  • A widespread belief that the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court were imposted on us by the EU, and that the decisions made there go against the authoritarian instincts of many Britons
  • The issues and perceived problems caused by immigration, and by mainstream politicians ceding discussion of immigration to the extremes for many years
  • Beliefs about the relative transparency and efficiency of the British state compared to Europe, and beliefs that Britain implements rules more rigorously than other EU states
  • Inconsistent messages from mainstream parties, reflecting their internal divisions over Europe, have led to no consistent pro-European message to lead public opinion
  • There’s more information on each of those points, including some YouGov polling on questions relating to them, on the slides Professor Sanders used during the lecture.

    I’m not going to go into too much more detail as I’ll likely miss out important points as I wasn’t taking notes, and the whole lecture should be available soon for you to see, I hope. However, he did conclude the lecture with a discussion of points that both those pro- and anti-Europe should take note of in advance of any referendum that may occur. There are issues that both sides haven’t addressed that could be crucial in any campaign – for those in favour, they’re mostly centred around the list above, but for those against, there is strong evidence that the financial benefits of being in the EU are much bigger than the costs, and that the most enthusiastic supporters of Europe are the young, particularly those with friends and family living or working elsewhere in the EU. Support and opposition to EU membership in the UK is affected by external factors which cut across all demographic groups, and the prospect of success in any referendum could be strongly affected by any shocks that might occur in the run up to it.

    After the lecture, there was a very interesting panel discussion, chaired by Essex graduate John Bercow MP, and featuring Professor Anthony King, Baroness Shirley Williams, Professor Dame Helen Wallace and David Sanders. Again, a lack of notes prevents me from covering it in detail, but Anthony King made a very interesting point about how the key difference between any future EU referendum and the 1975 one would be that the popular attitude towards the political class has fundamentally changed since then. In 1975, the party leaders’ endorsement of a Yes vote helped to secure the victory, but it’s unlikely it would have the same effect now as it did then, especially having seen what happened in the Scottish referendum. There was also some discussion of what might happen in the effect of strong regional and national differences in a referendum, especially the scenario where Scotland and Wales vote to stay in the EU but are outvoted by England.

    All in all, it was a very interesting evening, and definitely worth watching if and when the University make it available. (UPDATE: It is now available to watch online)

    Some more on political party membership – how rare is a membership like the SNP’s?

    snp_cards_and_coin_0A comment by Andrew Hickey got me thinking this morning about how the SNP’s surge in membership fits in a European context. In the post-referendum period, the party now reportedly has 80,000 or more members which makes it the third-largest UK party by membership, but also means its membership is about 2% of the total Scottish electorate. (As a comparison, to achieve that UK-wide, a party would need a membership of over 900,000)

    Luckily, to place that into a European context, I don’t need to do a huge amount of work because someone else has already looked at party membership in general across Europe. Van Biezen, Mair and Poguntke looked at the decline of party membership across Europe and their original paper not only includes the overall membership figures for each country, but breaks it down by party. By looking through their figures, I’ve found the following parties that all have around 2% or more of the electorate as members:

    Austria: Peoples Party – OVP (700k members/11% of population) and Social Democratic Party – SPO (300k/5%)
    Bulgaria: Bulgarian Socialist Party (210k/3%)
    Cyprus: Democratic Rally – DISY (40k/9%) and Democratic Party – DIKO (19k/4%)
    Finland: Centre Party – KESK (192k/5%)
    Greece: New Democracy (350k/4%) and PASOK (210k/2.5%)
    Spain: People’s Party (725k/2%)

    (Note that these figures are from around 2008, so don’t include new parties that might have reached the 2% milestone by now, or reflect any drop in members since they were obtained. I’d be very surprised if the Greek figures were still even vaguely accurate, for example. They also don’t include regional or national parties like the SNP like the Catalan nationalist parties or the Italian Lega Nord that might make an interesting comparison.)

    What these figures do show is that the SNP’s relative size is definitely a rare feat in modern Europe. To have 2% of a population as members of a single political party is rare, even when there’s a general trend of higher party membership than there is in the UK. Most of the countries with a higher percentage achieve that by having membership scattered across several parties, with none reaching 2% or more of the electorate.

    While the trend across Europe has been for a gradual decline in party membership, I do need to re-emphasise that these figures aren’t based on current data and so don’t reflect the appeal of new parties and movements. While I suspect the SNP’s tripling of membership post-referendum isn’t common, it would be interesting to see membership trends in other nationalist/regionalist/separatist groups since 2008, as well as the membership levels and trends of new political movements like Greece’s Syriza or Italy’s Five Star Movement. The interesting question is whether the downward trend in membership is set to continue inevitably or if it’s linked solely to the persistence of existing parties and can be reversed by introducing new ones to a political system.

    Lefts and Rights and Ups and Downs

    I mentioned Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracyin a post during the week, so thought it was time I explained the area of his theories that has possibly had the most impact on politics.

    Downs_Figure_2Downs’ work originates from the work of twentieth century rational choice theorists. Downs was looking at all areas of how rational individuals approach politic, but for this post we’ll just be looking at the ‘Downsian Model’ (also known as spatial theory and the median voter model). This assumes that voters are arranged in a normal distribution, with the bulk of voters in the centre and gradually reducing numbers of voters to the left and right of that centre. (See the diagram, where 50 is the ‘centre ground’, 0 is extreme left, 100 is extreme right and the vertical axis is the number of voters of that view) It’s important to note that this is a model of the real world, an approximation of the actual position in order to create and test theories, not a claim that this is exactly how people are organised. Downs was seeking to explain why political parties in a majoritarian system like the USA’s tended to converge ideologically upon the centre ground.

    Downs assumed that a rational voter would vote for whichever party was closest to their views. For instance, a voter at point 70 would be more likely to vote for a party at point 75 than one at point 50, and a voter at point 50 would be more likely to vote for a party at point 40 than one at point 65.

    The key to electoral victory – and why this is also known as the median voter model – is capturing the centre ground and the median voter at point 50. In a two-party system, whichever party best appeals to that mass of voters at the mid-point (which includes the theoretical median voter, whose views are the exact ideological centrepoint of the nation) will win a majority of the vote. As Downs assumes that parties are vote-seeking and power-seeking, this gives them a clear motivation to appeal to that median voter. As an example of how this thinking works:

    If we assume that a ‘left’ party exists with an ideology at point 25 and a ‘right’ party exists with an ideology at point 75, what we would expect to see is votes splitting 50-50. The median voter (the one sitting at the ideological centre point of 50) will be equidistant between the two parties, while everyone to the left of them would be closer to the left party and everyone to the right of them closer to the right party. If the left party then moved its ideology towards the centre (say to point 35), things would change. The midpoint between the two parties would now be at point 55, and everyone to the left of that would back the left party, giving them a majority as they are now closer to the median voter than the right. The right party would then be expected to react by moving its ideology closer to the centre, and so on and so forth until both parties are right up against the centre.

    It’s important to note that while this is the most commonly seen use of Downs, he didn’t say that all societies had preferences distributed in the same manner, and also looked at what might happen with different distributions of voters. For instance, in one where voters were distributed roughly equally between views, or with a number of peaks in the distribution, parties wouldn’t have the same pressure on them to move, and there would be more of an opening for multiple parties to emerge. It’s also missed by many that Downs was proposing a model, and models in political science are always simplifications. As with many rational choice theories, Downs was trying to establish a framework of how things would be if everything was fully rational, not saying that was the way it had to be. Indeed, by setting up a model of what should happen if everything was rational, we can see where things are actually irrational, which are more likely to be interesting to study. After all, where’s the fun in writing ‘everything went exactly as the theory predicted’?

    That hasn’t stopped people – including many who advise, or want to advise, political leaders – of assuming that Downs was making recommendations, not theories, and since the publication of his work in the 50s, we’ve seen many people assuming the only way to assure political victory is to head to the centre. Note that this is to take all of Downs’ assumptions – including the left-right spectrum and the normal distribution of voters along it – as given, when they might not necessarily be the case.

    There’s been a lot of writing that’s followed on from Downs in the decades since An Economic Theory Of Democracy was first published, and it’d be foolish to try and summate it all in a single blog post. Suffice to say, though, that there’s been plenty studied and written on every aspect of it, from the question of whether people form coherent enough political views to be able to judge which parties are closer to them to the ongoing issue of whether the left-right spectrum is the best way to look at people’s political views. So, the objections you’re already thinking of have likely been asked already, but it doesn’t mean they’ve been answered.

    Does seeking votes actually lose parties votes?

    downsI’ve been re-reading Anthony Downs’ An Economic Theory of Democracy again for part of my MA course, and it reminded me that I need to write a long post explaining some of his ideas in there as they are pretty fundamental to how a lot of modern party politics is conceived and reported.

    But I don’t have time for that today, so instead I’m going to share with you an interesting couple of paragraphs from it:

    According to our hypothesis, party officials are interested only in maximizing votes, never in producing any social state per se. But voters are always interested in the latter. Therefore a rational voter who is not a party official himself cannot assume members of any party have goals similar to his own. But without this assumption, delegation of all political decisions to someone else is irrational – hence political can never be the agents of rational delegation.

    There is only one exception to this rule: if a voter believes a certain party will seek to maximize votes by catering to the desires of a specific interest group or section of the electorate, and if his own goals are identical with the goals of that group or section, then he can rationally delegate all his political decision-making to that party.

    Downs’ book looks at what’s rational for voters and parties to do, rather than what they necessarily actually do, but this section jumped out at me as an interesting description of what’s happened to party politics in Britain since the 50s. (There’s probably an interesting debate to be had about whether An Economic Theory Of Democracy was a self-fulfilling prophecy in some countries, with the question of if parties began acting in the way Downs predicted because he said they would, rather than vice versa, but we’ll leave that for another time)

    What strikes me is that Downs’ ‘one exception’ matches with the way things were in the UK (and other countries too) in the 50s and 60s. Parties then defined themselves as the representatives of certain sections of the electorate and for most (though never all) members of those sections, it made sense to not think much about politics and assume that the party would get on with the job of representing them. This is the classic era where of cleavage politics where two parties represented each side of a cleavage within society. The classic societal cleavage – and the one on which most party systems developed around – was class, though there are others (church and state or centre and periphery, for instance). When there were strong cleavages in society, more people would closely identify with ‘a certain group or section of the electorate’, but as those cleavages have faded, the nature of the parties has changed and they are now more preoccupied with vote-seeking than representation, as Downs had assumed they would be from the start.

    Seen in this light, it’s no wonder that the membership of political parties has dropped so precipitously since the 50s, followed by the support for the traditional parties from the electorate. However, what’s also dropped since that period – matching up with the first part of Downs’ prediction – is that the amount voters in general identify with parties has dropped dramatically as well (I don’t have the figures to hand right now, but they can be found in Elections and Voters in Britain). The number of people willing to describe themselves as ‘Tory’, ‘Labour’, ‘Liberal’ or whatever else has dropped over time, with a corresponding drop in their willingness to vote the same at every election. Ironically, becoming organisations that are more about seeking votes has made them less likely to get them.

    Carswell’s victory in Clacton: Trend or outlier?

    Officials count ballot papers in WitneyA couple of months ago, I wrote:

    It seems that UKIP are very good at getting out the vote, but they’ll need to broaden the number of people willing to vote for them to have a serious chance of winning a Westminster seat.

    As they’ve now won a Westminster seat, let’s look at the evidence from the by-elections to see what happened.

    As I said in that last post, the interesting thing to look at in the UKIP vote isn’t the share of the vote, but the share of the electorate. We spend an inordinate amount of time comparing the share of the vote in elections without pointing to the fact that we’re often looking at vastly different numbers of total votes being cast. For instance, Labour’s share of the vote went up slightly (40.1% at the 2010 general election to 40.9% on Thursday) in Heywood and Middleton, but that masks the fact that the number of votes cast for them dropped by almost 7,000 (18,499 to 11,633). In 2010, they had 23% of the electorate voting for them, last Thursday just 14.7% did.

    UKIP’s share of the electorate in Heywood and Middleton was 13.9% – slightly ahead of how they did in Newark, but behind their previous high-water mark of 14.7% in Eastleigh. It’s now at third place overall for them though, because of the Clacton result. Douglas Carswell not only got well over 50% of the vote, he got the support of 30.4% of the electorate. In contrast to Labour in Heywood and Middleton, he was only around 1,700 votes short of the total he received in 2010 (22,867 to 21,113). In percentage terms, his vote on Thursday was 92.3% of his 2010 total, Labour’s in Heywood and Middleton was 62.9%.

    So, Heywood and Middleton was around the top of the range we’re currently seeing for UKIP votes, but Clacton was well off the scale. Carswell’s 30.4% was more than double the highest share of the electorate UKIP have received before (14.7% in Eastleigh) and if he can retain that share, he likely will retain the seat next May.

    The question is whether UKIP can repeat this feat in other constituencies. Thanks to Ford and Goodwin’s research (if you haven’t read Revolt on the Right yet, you really should) we know that Clacton is the most demographically favourable seat for UKIP. So, we would expect the UKIP share of the electorate to be higher in Clacton than anywhere else, but the question is whether that alone would explain it.

    I don’t have all Ford and Goodwin’s data to see what the difference in demographics is, and how much that might explain the change in vote. As I see it, that’s one of three factors likely to predict possible UKIP success, along with the general level of support for UKIP and local support for the candidate. The ideal way to test this would be through an experiment where we ran an election in another constituency with different demographics but with the other two variables either the same, or easily measurable. Incredibly, Mark Reckless’s defection gives us exactly the chance to do that. If UKIP support in opinion polls is about the same at the time of Rochester and Strood as it is now, and the UKIP candidate is also a sitting Conservative MP who’s defected, then the different demographics of the seats should play an important part.

    Of course, this could be completely wrong, and the Clacton result might be more easily explainable because of the level of local support for Carswell rather than the local demographics. Other results still seem to be holding up the idea that UKIP have a ceiling of support amongst the electorate, though that segment of the electorate – Ford and Goodwin’s ‘left behind voters’ is heavily concentrated in Clacton. At the moment, we only have the one data point of Clacton to suggest UKIP can win a seat when the turnout gets higher, but Rochester and Strood will give us some useful extra information.