The Polling Observatory Forecast #4: Conservative hopes recede slowly

As explained in our inaugural election forecast, up until May next year the Polling Observatory team will be producing a long term forecast for the 2015 General Election, using methods we first applied ahead of the 2010 election (and which are also well-established in the United States). Our method involves trying to make the best use of past polling evidence as a guide to forecast the likeliest support levels for each party in next May’s election, based on current polling, and then using these support levels to estimate the parties’ chances of winning each seat in the Parliament. We will later add a seat-based element to this forecast.

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This month’s Polling Observatory reported falls in support for both Labour and the Conservatives. Our forecast again finds the parties locked in a statistical dead heat, although Labour has edged up slightly, by 0.3 points, to 36.5%, and the Conservatives have slid back further, down 0.6 points to 34.9%. The continued stagnation in the polls is starting to harm the Conservatives in our forecast, with a slight widening of the gap between the parties.

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Spot the difference: noticing the change that austerity is making to public services.

 

“Public service cuts – did we notice?” asked BBC News back in October, publishing the results of a recent ICM Poll. The item parallels a commonly circulated argument that the unprecedented 28% cuts to local government’s central grant have been delivered without significantly impacting local services.  Can this really be true?

For the Coalition, such polls provide evidence that cuts are necessary for creating streamlined services.  The local government trade press prefer a heroic narrative, focussing on local authorities as the ‘most efficient part of the public sector’.  From an academic perspective, John (2013) has termed local government the ‘great survivor’; out-competing other local organisations through its resilient political and managerial core and flexible menu of administrative functions. The problem with these interpretations is that they share a tendency to over simplify the multi-layered process of delivering local savings.  They also negate deep-seated changes that are occurring under a veneer of stability.

So why haven’t spending reductions translated tangibly to service reductions?

Firstly, it depends on your perspective.  Research by Sheffield Hallam University and Joseph Rowntree Foundation has demonstrated that cuts have ‘hit the poorest areas hardest’, whilst more affluent areas have experienced lower levels of change. Secondly, local authorities themselves are contributing to the impression that ‘nothing has happened’ by delivering massive savings through a root and branch re-appraisal of local services.

Shared services across two or more authorities are increasingly common, raising questions about local political accountability.  ‘Commercialism’ is the contemporary buzz-word as services compete to produce ever leaner business models and lever-in income.  Contracts with the private and voluntary sectors are coming under pressure as authorities adopt a tougher approach to commissioning, rather than the partnership ethos espoused in better-resourced era of ‘network governance’.  Fundamental re-thinking is occurring on the extent to which local authorities can support the ‘big ticket’ issues such as social care, libraries and leisure. Whilst many would applaud such ‘efficiencies’, these changes are not value-free, and represent an extensive reappraisal of the way we deliver public services.

However, efficiencies are not the whole story.  There is also evidence of a continuous, but subtle resistance at an individual and institutional level to mitigate the worst effects of degradation of services.  Janet Newman reminds us that there are “multiple spaces of power and resistance with which actors engage – pragmatically as well as politically” and in some cases these spaces of power are being exploited at a local level to protect the most vulnerable.

For example from a political perspective, decisions have been made in some councils to instigate a living wage for the lowest paid staff, whilst pay freezes have been accepted by higher paid staff as a necessary trade-off.  There has been evidence of ‘gaming’ around elements of welfare reform with authorities exploring the re-designation of bedrooms in order to protect tenants from the bedroom tax, or directly employing benefit claimants to avert a benefits cap.  Despite cynicism about the ‘big society’, new spaces are also opening up for faith and citizens groups to engage with service delivery – organisations such as the Trussel Trust and Citizens UK have seen their national influence grow as the state contracts.

In short, the perception that ‘nothing has happened’ is arguably the result of continuous and strenuous effort by many actors at myriad levels.  This goes beyond a recycling of previous ideas and solutions to genuine attempts to design and enact alternative outcomes.  However, these changes are occurring in a piecemeal fashion, with varying impacts, internal contradictions, and limited national debate or direction.

The LGA and Parliamentary Political and Constitutional Reform Committee have called for a fundamental re-think on Councils’ role and functions; and debate on the powers of English local government will be fuelled by fresh negotiations on settlements for Wales and Scotland.  In the meantime the apparent capacity of Councils to absorb the spending cuts allows constitutional innovation to be metaphorically kicked down the road by successive administrations, whilst spending cuts carve subterranean caverns within local government’s future capabilities. If we fail to spot the differences occurring to our public services now, we may one day awake to find that the local picture of public services we want and expect to see has been altered out of recognition.

Alison Gardner is a doctoral research student in the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics, studying how local public services are responding to conditions of austerity.  Prior to starting her PhD she worked for 14 years as a policy advisor and consultant in and around local and national government.

Polling Observatory #30: Good news for all the parties… except the Lib Dems

UK 05-11-13 low res croppedtytThis is the thirtieth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

 

As the dust settles after conference season the state of support for the parties as 2014 approaches appears to have crystallised a little. Despite the supposed conference bounces and bumps that media commentators identified following Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge and David Cameron’s conference speech, when all the underlying noise has been accounted for there has only been a slight shift since the end of the summer (and – as we have noted before – vote intentions for the main parties had been stable for some time before this).

If there is a winner from conference season, it is Labour, who after making the political weather ever since putting energy prices top of the political agenda have seen their support increase to 38.3%, up one point from our last report at the time of their conference in mid-September. This marks a reversal of the recent trend of a decline in Labour support. Despite the fanfare around the Conservative Party conference and the Godfrey Bloom side show at the UKIP conference, support for both parties has been static in the last six weeks – with no sign of a lasting conference bounce. Support for the Conservatives stands at 31.8% (with no change since our report at the time of their conference in late September), and UKIP at 11.3% (unchanged). There is worse news for the Liberal Democrats who now stand at 7.4% (down 0.3 points since their conference) – close to the all-time low for this parliament. Despite efforts to put clear blue water between them and their coalition partners – such as on green taxes on energy and qualifications for teachers – they are still paying the price for their abandonment of key election pledges early in the parliament. It is increasingly significant that the UKIP vote has been consistently higher than the Lib Dems for six months now – suggesting that there has been a rebalancing of electoral support for the third and fourth parties.

In previous posts (here, here and here), we have sought to urge caution on the lazy anecdotal use of past precedent to predict the outcome of the general election due to be held in 2015. We are keen forecasters ourselves, and some of these important qualifications will also apply to statistical models that look to forecast the likely swing towards or against the governing and opposition parties as the election nears. It is not uncommon for the statistical relationships that underpin these forecasts are context-variant. In other words, the economy might be a critical factor in one election but not in the next. Or leader ratings might matter for some parties but not others. Or voters might move back towards the governing party late on for some election cycles, but not others. In short, aphorisms such as ‘it’s the economy stupid’ and ‘leaders matter’ are based on sound political science, but may not always hold and may lead forecasters to go badly astray when predicting the result. They also provide journalists and opponents a convenient stick to beat parties and their leaders with, when the foundations of electoral support are often more nuanced. There are several reasons why forecasts for 2015 might not stick to the expected script that the Westminster Village has been reciting so far.

Firstly, it is undeniable that both the Conservative and Labour parties have a much lower ‘ceiling’ than in past elections. The Conservatives last won over 40% of the vote in 1992 (and Labour in 2001), and have not looked likely to do so in 2015 so at any point in the current parliament. They would likely have to beat this figure to secure a majority. Yet the party still suffers from an image problem with large swathes of the electorate and has done little to widen its appeal while in office. This makes the prospect of a large final year swing towards the government improbable despite the historical trend for mid-term movement away from the government in the polls to return as Election Day nears. Labour’s prospective pool of support has also looked much lower than its time in opposition during the 1987-1992 and 1992-1997 election cycles, where its poll numbers exceeded 50%. It cannot count on protest votes against the coalition because of the presence of UKIP, and its traditional base is shrinking, and also vulnerable to the challenge from Nigel Farage’s party.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic to suggest that a growing economy will assure a Conservative victory. It would certainly make it more likely, given that many people will be better off as a result, but it still depends on who benefits from the economic recovery. Personal (‘pocketbook’) economic judgments have been shown to be a significant determinant of voting. Even then, parties that have overseen sustained periods of economic growth are not always rewarded by voters. This perhaps explains why the Labour Party have been keen to push the economic debate towards the question of living standards (and the cost of living) rather than focus on the Coalition’s record on reducing the deficit and the impacts of austerity cuts. While much of the public still blame Labour for the economic problems left after the financial crisis, they also are strongly of the opinion that the Coalition is handling the economy badly. This again points to the argument that the sort of pro-government swing experienced at past elections will have to be achieved against much stronger headwinds.

Thirdly, David Cameron has tended to enjoy a comfortable lead over Ed Miliband in survey questions both about the ‘preferred Prime Minister’ and leader approval or satisfaction. Cameron also receives much more positive evaluations on his performance from supporters of his own party. Miliband has not made an impact on substantial parts of the electorate. For some, this state of affairs might point towards a clear-cut advantage on the basis of the importance of party leaders for voters making up their mind late. However, these advantages are observed in a context where all of the party leaders in Westminster have had persistently negative net ratings for the past three years. Indeed, Cameron currently has lower approval ratings (38%) than the St-Remy brandy-swigging and crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford (44%) (no relation) [HT @JoeTwyman]. It is worth remembering that Cleggmania in 2010 stemmed from the public’s previous relative lack of exposure to Nick Clegg. If Ed Miliband is similarly able to put in a strong performance on the campaign trail and also during the election debates that surprises the expectations of voters, it may deliver a last-minute bounce and negate the recent trends.

In short, 2015 remains difficult to call, and it will be a challenge for any party to win a workable parliamentary majority.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

50 years after Macmillan retired, what can Cameron learn from ‘SuperMac’?

Harold_Macmillan_number_10_official

Image used under an Open Government License

A slick Tory toff is Prime Minister. He struggles to maintain Britain’s status in the world, wrestles with disunity in his party, but seeks to win an election promoting a land of opportunity. I refer not to David Cameron, but to Harold Macmillan, who resigned as Prime Minister almost exactly 50 years ago.

So how does David Cameron compare to Harold Macmillan, and what can the current Prime Minister learn from ‘SuperMac’, the Conservative politician who served as Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963?

Macmillan and Cameron are cut from the same cloth in that they can both be seen as actor-politicians. Both were and are superb at the set-piece occasions. Indeed, Macmillan’s motto, borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan was ‘Quite calm deliberation disentangles every knot.’ He even had that quote pinned on his Cabinet door. Underneath, Macmillan was anything but calm: he was regularly sick before the weekly jousts at Prime Minister’s Questions.

By contrast, Cameron is a natural leader in public and in private, conveying the air of someone born to rule. His Commons handling of the apologies over Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough were exemplary. He handles the big state occasions well. In short, he looks and sounds like a leader in a way that Ed Miliband doesn’t.

Macmillan and Cameron face similar problems in relation to foreign affairs. One of Macmillan’s greatest achievements as Prime Minster was to repair the ‘Special Relationship’ with America, which had been blighted following the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956. Macmillan used his charm with Dwight Eisenhower, the American President to negotiate the 1958 Nassau Agreement, which governs the British-American nuclear relationship to this day. Fast forwarding to 2013, Cameron must repair the Special Relationship, following his recent humiliation over the Commons defeat on British military action in Syria.

Both Macmillan and Cameron have had to reshape Britain’s relationship with Europe and have landed in trouble thanks to resistance from the French. Whereas Macmillan’s attempt to enter the European Economic Community in 1963 was met with a loud French raspberry from General de Gaulle, Cameron’s decision to promise an ‘In-Out’ referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union in January 2013 has again upset our Gallic partners.

The two Prime Ministers also share the problem of rebellious traditionalists in their parliamentary parties. For Macmillan, it was Empire loyalists who opposed his ‘Wind of Change’ decolonisation policies in Africa. For Cameron, it is a massive Tory right-wing, numbering more than a 100, who have opposed him on a whole range of issues from House of Lords reform to gay marriage.

But if there are similarities between the two Prime Ministers, Cameron is different in that unlike Macmillan, he is prepared to move with the times. Macmillan hailed from an Edwardian era where men especially didn’t show their feelings. His prudishness about all matters sexual was cruelly exposed during the Profumo Scandal in 1963. Already haunted by the fact that his wife Dorothy was having a long-term affair with Lord Boothby, Macmillan froze and handled the issue badly. Ultimately, it contributed to his downfall.

By contrast, Cameron is attempting to drag his party kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century by supporting gay marriage. Ever since Macmillan’s day, the British people have moved in an almost relentlessly liberal direction on social issues, and Cameron realises that he has to change his party to reflect that fact.

In terms of economic policy, there is a huge gulf between Macmillan and Cameron. Macmillan believed in the so-called ‘Middle Way’, a happy medium between socialism and capitalism. Macmillan’s economic views were shaped from his experiences in the First World War when officers and men from different social classes mixed more easily than in the past, and during his encounters with his impoverished Stockton constituents in the depression years of the 1930s.

Constantly fretting about the return of another depression ‘SuperMac’ wanted to go for economic growth, almost at any price. Many in his Cabinet disagreed. In 1958, Peter Thorneycroft, the Chancellor resigned along with his entire Treasury team in protest at Macmillan’s expansionist policies.

In truth, Macmillan’s support for the ‘Middle Way’ is much closer to New Labour’s adherence to its ‘Third Way’. Were Macmillan alive today, he would be thrown out of the Conservative Party for being a socialist. In his retirement, remember, Macmillan attacked the Thatcher government for ‘selling off the family silver’ through its privatisation policies. When Alistair Horne, Macmillan’s biographer admitted that he wasn’t a very good Tory, ‘SuperMac’ replied, ‘Nor was I dear boy.’ As Cameron embarks upon flogging Royal Mail to investors and selling publicly owned banking shares at a discount price, he should heed Macmillan’s warning.

Cameron could learn most from Macmillan in terms of his ability to win elections. Macmillan’s greatest triumph came in 1959 when he won a landslide majority of 100 against Hugh Gaitskell’s Labour Party. Labour had launched a highly professional campaign, making good use of television for the first time, but Macmillan trumped that by appealing to the British people’s innate love of the consumer society. Macmillan won big in 1959 because he realised that voters wanted a washing machine, a fridge and a television set. Cameron’s recent Conference speech where he extolled the virtues of a profit-making economy surely echoes Macmillan’s rallying cry of 1959.

Although Cameron is unlikely to repeat Macmillan’s 1959 feat of winning an outright majority at the next election, he remains the Conservative Party’s biggest asset because he, like ‘SuperMac’ realises that elections are fought and won on the centre ground.

Mark Stuart

Top picks from the Margaret Thatcher Foundation archives

Yesterday Lady Gaga tweeted the imminent appearance of the artwork to the cover of her new album – for her fans 6pm could not come fast enough. In a similar way, some will have been on tenterhooks to hear just which Liberal Democrat got what mediocre job in the reshuffle. It can be funny what we eagerly anticipate.

And whilst the Gaga fans can lay claim to being cooler, it was another Lady who grasped my attention for much of yesterday after this tweet by The Thatcher Foundation on 4th October:

If you haven’t ever checked out The Thatcher Foundation’s website and you have the remotest interests in British political history you should go there now. Beware; you may be there for some time. The site is a model for how an archive ought to work in the digital age – time and money prevent other Prime Ministers being afforded the same indulgence I guess.

It goes without saying that the Foundation is, online and accessible to all, making available some truly historic and valuable material. But it is also – as importantly – laying bare the mundane and everyday nature of what it would be like to be Prime Minister; and indeed the Whitehouse couldn’t get around to buying a Birthday Card.

Whitehouse birthday card

So to whet your appetite here are some of my picks from yesterday’s releases:

1) In 1936 Neville Chamberlain – then Chancellor of the Exchequer – wrote in the Daily Telegraph of how he had spent many months at Number 11 trying to identify a particular bird by its call. In contrast, if the Thatcher archives demonstrate just one thing it is the sheer workload of a modern politician and Prime Minister. And it isn’t all conference calls with World leaders…:

As you say, in parallel with the relaxation of controls over balloons I shall be amending the aerial advertising regulations to permit the towing of advertising banners behind aeroplanes.

Balloons1

Balloons2

2) If that wasn’t glamorous enough:

The store assures me that a hat won’t be necessary.

Sainsbury's hat

I understand that there are photographs on the wall of all previous Prime Ministers.

No 10 bar

3) On top of this, as a woman in politics, Thatcher faced an extra pressure that is unlikely to be recorded in many other Prime Ministerial archives – her appearance:

Jean Muir suede 2-piece

Clothes

I am told that you would be well advised to wear an A-line skirt, though I have no idea what that is.

A line skirt

Prime Minister’s hair during campaign

Hair1

Hair2

4) Then there is the both humdrum and brutal business of being at the top of the greasy pole:

I sense that you are a little bored with these afternoon tea parties!‘ She was.

Tea

He is no good and ought to go.’ (Perhaps another post but, if you visit the archive for only one reason, do so for Ian Gow’s (Thatcher’s first Prime Ministerial Principle Private Secretary) notes of which this is one.)

5) And so, how to relax? An episode or two of ‘Cannon’ of course!

Cannon

Matthew Bailey