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Left, right and centre. By Professor Phil Cowley

Guest contributor

A ComRes poll reported in this weekend’s Independent on Sunday got considerable coverage – as a result of discovering that voters saw UKIP as to the left of the Conservatives. This morning, however, a YouGov poll for the Times (£) finds people placing UKIP to the right of the Conservatives.

As it happens, the British Election Study contains a similar question asking about political placement (and on a similar ten point scale to that used by ComRes, rather than the 100 point-scale used by YouGov) – but with the advantage of a much larger sample size than either. What does it find amongst its almost 28,000 respondents?

The first thing to say about questions like this is that not everyone can answer them. Although politicos routinely talk about left and right as if they are widely understood terms, a full 17% of people couldn’t place themselves on a left-right scale in Wave 3 of the BES, and they had even more trouble placing the parties. For Labour and the Conservatives, some 19% couldn’t place them, for the Lib Dems the figure was 21%, and it was 22% for UKIP. For the Greens, the figure is 26%. (The BES does ask about the SNP and Plaid, but only in their respective countries, and so I’ve excluded them from what follows for the sake of brevity). The fact that this Don’t Know figure for UKIP is not noticeably higher than for the other parties is probably a good sign that they have established themselves as part of the political furniture.

In terms of where respondents positioned the parties, it’s also worth noting that there is considerable variance. The standard deviation, for example, was never less than 2.0 for any of the parties, and reached 2.6 for UKIP (which shows that it is still the party people are least sure about). But, for what it is worth, here are the mean averages for all respondents who expressed a view:

Greens: 3.1         Labour: 3.3          Lib Dem: 4.8       Conservatives: 7.8           UKIP: 7.9

So, UKIP were perceived as being to the right of the Conservatives, but only just. It’s also worth noting just how close perceptions of Labour and the Greens were. Indeed, these positions are so close that many respondents overlap with one another. For example, although the mean estimates put Labour to the right of the Greens, a full 37% of respondents thought Labour were the more left-wing party, and 18% put them on the same point on the scale. Under half (45%) placed them to the right of the Greens. Something similar went on with UKIP and the Conservatives. Whilst on average UKIP were seen as (just) to the right of the Tories, a view shared by 55% of respondents, almost a quarter (22%) put them in exactly the same place on the spectrum, and another quarter (24%) put the Conservatives to the right of UKIP. So when we say (for example) that voters see UKIP as to the right of the Conservatives, it’s not really true of all voters: most voters may do so, but not all.

Moreover, not everyone is paying the same level of attention. Here are the same mean figures broken down by the level of interest the respondents said they paid to politics. I’ve split them into three groups: low interest (that is, those who gave a score of 0 to 6 on the interest question, which is around a third of respondents), medium interest (7 or 8, around 40%) and high interest (9 or 10, and around a quarter).


Labour: 3.1         Green: 3.6           Lib Dem: 4.9       UKIP: 7.1              Cons: 7.6


Green   3.1          Labour  3.2          Lib Dem 4.8         Cons: 7.8              UKIP: 8.0


Green:  2.6          Labour: 3.4          Lib Dem: 4.8       Cons: 8.0              UKIP: 8.4

Amongst those who (by their own admission) are not paying attention the Conservatives are seen as to the right of UKIP – and Labour are seen as to the left of the Greens. As the levels of interest in politics increases, so the positioning changes: the Greens become seen as more left-wing, and UKIP as more right-wing. However, as interest in politics increases, so the Conservatives also become seen as more right-wing, and therefore although UKIP are seen as the most right-wing party by those paying (more) attention to politics, the gap between them and the Conservatives is not that great, even amongst the group paying the most attention.

It’s also worth looking at where each party’s voters think their own parties are. Again, here we take the mean average for those saying they are going to support that party.

Green:  2.7          Labour: 3.5          Lib Dem: 4.7       UKIP: 7.0              Cons: 7.6

Note that the figure for Green, Labour, and the Lib Dems are very close to the estimates reported above by all respondents. But UKIP voters put their own party at 7.0 and to the left of Conservative voters who place their party at an average of 7.6 (although, again, there is considerable overlap). So Conservative voters on average think their own party is to the right of where UKIP voters think their own party is. Plus, if you look at where party supporters place themselves you find Conservative voters put themselves at 7.1, whereas UKIP voters place themselves at 6.5. In both cases, the weekend’s ComRes poll found the same.

So the BES finds that the public as a whole position UKIP and the Conservatives at roughly the same place on the left-right spectrum, with UKIP only very slightly to the right of the Conservatives; moreover, UKIP voters see their party to the left of where Conservatives see their own party and UKIP voters are on average themselves to the left of Conservative voters. In other words, that ComRes poll was not some fluke.