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.


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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Polling Observatory #37: No Westminster polling aftershock from European Parliament earthquake

This is the thirty-seventh 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.


This month’s Polling Observatory comes in the aftermath of the European Parliament elections and the so-called UKIP earthquake for the electoral landscape. Despite much volatility in the polls ahead of those elections, with a few even putting the Conservatives ahead of Labour for the first time in over two years, underlying support for both main parties remained stable over the course of the month. Labour may have fallen early in the month in the run-up to the European elections, or the Conservative leads may have been the result of random variation. In any event, by the end of the month, we had Labour polling at 33.8%, just 0.2 points down on their support a month ago. The Conservatives are also broadly flat at 30.9%, 0.3 points below their standing a month ago. The Lib Dems have suffered slightly more of a post-election hangover, perhaps set back by infighting over the botched coup by Lord Oakeshott and the widespread ridicule over the Clegg/Cable beer-pulling photo op, on 9.3%, down 0.4 points. UKIP support remained stable at record high levels, as they enjoyed a moment in the limelight around the European Parliament elections. We have them rising 0.2 points on last month to 14.9%, their highest support level to date. Note that all these figures are based on our adjusted methodology, which is explained in detail below.

It is noticeable that while Labour’s support has been in decline for the last six to nine months (having plateaued for a period before that) underlying Conservative support has remained incredibly stable around the 31% level. In fact, setting aside the slight slump around the time of the last UKIP surge at the 2013 local elections, their standing with the electorate has been flat since its crash of April 2012 around the time of the ‘omnishambles’ budget. The narrowing in Labour’s lead over the past year is entirely the result of Labour losing support, not of the Conservatives gaining it. We have written at length previously about how the fate of the Liberal Democrats was sealed in late 2010, and as such it is remarkable that in this parliament there has been so little movement in the polls for the parties in government. The prevalent anti-politics mood out in the country and continued pessimism about personal/household finances has meant that neither of the Coalition partners have yet been able to convert the economic recovery into a political recovery. Instead, both are gaining ground relatively as the main opposition party also leak support, perhaps also succumbing to the anti-Europe, anti-immigration, anti-Westminster politics of UKIP.

As explained in our methodological mission statement, our method estimates current electoral sentiment by pooling all the currently available polling data, while taking into account the estimated biases of the individual pollsters (“house effects”). Our method therefore treats the 2010 election result as a reference point for judging the accuracy of pollsters, and adjusts the poll figures to reflect the estimated biases in the pollsters figures based on this reference point. Election results are the best available test of the accuracy of pollsters, so when we started our Polling Observatory estimates, the most recent general election was the obvious choice to “anchor” our statistical model. However, the political environment has changed dramatically since the Polling Observatory began, and over time we have become steadily more concerned that the changes have rendered our method out of date. Yet changing the method of estimation is also costly, as it interrupts the continuity of our estimates, and makes it harder to compare our current estimate with the figures we reported in our past monthly updates.

There were three concerns about the general election anchoring method. Firstly, it was harsh on the Liberal Democrats, who were over-estimated by pollsters ahead of 2010 but have been scoring very low in the polls ever since they lost over half their general election support after joining the Coalition. The negative public views of the Liberal Democrats, and their very different political position as a party of government, make it less likely that the current polls are over-estimating their underlying support. Secondly, a general election anchor provides little guidance on UKIP, who scored only 3% in the general election but poll in the mid-teens now, but with large disagreements in estimated support between pollsters (see discussion of house effects below). Thirdly, the polling ecosystem itself has changed dramatically since 2010, with several new pollsters starting operations, and several other established pollsters making such significant changes to their methodology that they were equivalent to new pollsters as well.

We have decided that these concerns are sufficiently serious to warrant an adjustment to our methodology. Rather than basing our statistical adjustment on the last general election, we now make adjustments relative to the “average pollster”. This assumes that the polling industry as a whole will not be biased. This assumption could prove wrong, of course, as it did in 2010 (and, in a different way, 1992). However, it seems pretty likely that any systematic bias in 2015 will look very different to 2010, and as we have no way of knowing what the biases in the next election might be, we apply the “average pollster” method as the best interim guide to underlying public opinion.

This change in our methodology has a slight negative impact on our current estimates for both leading parties. Labour would be 34.5% if anchored against the 2010 election, rather than the new estimate of 33.8%, while the Conservatives would be on 31.5% rather than 30.9%. Yet as both parties fall back by the same amount, their relative position is unchanged.  UKIP gain slightly from the new methodology – our new estimate is now 14.9%, under the old method they would score 14.5%. However, the big gainers are the Lib Dems, who were punished under our old method for their strong polling in advance of the 2010 general election.  We now estimate their vote share is estimated at 9.3%, significantly above the anaemic 6.7% estimate produced under the previous method. This is in line with our expectations in earlier discussions of the method in previous posts. It is worth noting that none of these changes affect the overall trends in public opinion that we have been tracking over the last few years, as will be clear from the charts above.

The European Parliament elections prompted the usual inquest into who among the nation’s pollsters had the lowest average error of the final polls compared against the result (see here). We cannot simply extrapolate the accuracy of polling for the European elections to next year’s general election. For one thing, these sorts of ‘final poll league table’ are subject to sampling error, making it extremely difficult to separate the accuracy of the polls once this is taken into account (as we have shown here). Nevertheless, with debate likely to continue to rage over the extent of the inroads being made by UKIP as May 2015 approaches, some of the differences observed in the figures reported by the polling companies will come increasingly under the spotlight. These ‘house effects’ are interesting in themselves because they provide us with prior information about whether an apparent high or low poll rating for a party, reported by a particular pollster, is likely to reflect an actual change in electoral sentiment or is more likely be down the particular patterns of support associated with the pollster.

Our new method makes it possible to estimate the ‘house effect’ for each polling company for each party, relative to the vote intention figures we would expect from the average pollster. That is, it tells us simply whether the reported vote intention for a given pollster is above or below the industry average. This does not indicate ‘accuracy’, since there is no election to benchmark the accuracy of the polls against. It could be, in fact, that pollsters at one end of the extreme or the other are giving a more accurate picture of voters’ intentions – but an election is the only real test, and even that is imperfect.

In the table below, we report all current polling companies’ ‘bias’ for each of the parties. We also report details of whether the mode of polling is telephone or Internet-based, and adjustments used to calculate the final headline figures (such as weighting by likelihood to vote or voting behaviour at the 2010 election). From this, it is quickly apparent that the largest range of house effects come in the estimation of UKIP support, and seem to be associated with the method a pollster employs to field a survey. All the companies who poll by telephone (except Lord Ashcroft’s new weekly poll) tend to give low scores to UKIP. By contrast, three of the five companies which poll using internet panels give higher than average estimates for UKIP. ComRes provide a particularly interesting example of this “mode effect”, as they conduct polls with overlapping fieldwork periods by telephone and internet panel. The ComRes telephone-based polls give UKIP support levels well below average, while the web polls give support levels well above it. It is not clear what is driving this methodological difference – something seems to be making people more reluctant to report UKIP support over the telephone, more eager to report it over the internet, or both. The diversity of estimates most likely reflects the inherent difficulty of accurately estimating support for a new party whose overall popularity has risen rapidly, and where the pollsters have little previous information to use to calibrate their estimates.







Lib Dem




Past vote, likelihood to vote

UKIP prompted if ‘other’







Likelihood (certain) to vote






Lord Ashcroft


Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010)

UKIP prompted if ‘other’





ComRes (1)


Past vote, squeeze, party identification

UKIP prompted if ‘other’





ComRes (2)


Past vote, squeeze, party identification

UKIP prompted if ‘other’







Newspaper readership, party identification (2010)

UKIP prompted if ‘other’







Likelihood to vote

UKIP prompted if ‘other’







Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010)

UKIP prompted







Likelihood to vote, party identification (2010)

UKIP prompted if ‘other’






Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory #36 (April 2014): Farage’s Spring Uprising





This is the thirty-sixth 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.


This month’s Polling Observatory suggests that, not for the first time, Nigel Farage’s UKIP uprising has thrown a spanner into the Westminster political machine. The slow but steady tightening in the gap between the big two parties comes to a halt this month, as both lose ground while UKIP surges. Our estimate for Labour this month is 35.3%, down 0.9% on last month, and continuing the past year’s pattern of slow but steady decline. Labour have now hit their lowest point in the polls since Ed Miliband was elected leader of the party in the autumn of 2010. However, the Conservatives have not been able to capitalise on Labour’s continued decline as their support has fallen even more sharply this month, down 1.4 points at 31.6%. The Liberal Democrats have also seen no electoral benefit from their leader’s high profile combat with Nigel Farage over the EU – we have them down 0.2% this month at 7.4%.

All the momentum, and the media focus, lies instead with Nigel Farage and UKIP, whose surge in European Parliament polling is, as we predicted in earlier posts, being echoed in Westminster polling: UKIP stand at 14.1% this month, close to their highest ever share of 14.4% achieved in the aftermath of their local election success last summer. With UKIP currently favourites to win the European Parliament election, and become the first new party in nearly a century to top the poll in a nationwide election, further advances in the next few months look likely. It is likely that the upcoming Newark by-election will take place with UKIP support in domestic polling at record levels.

The current UKIP surge, however, does owe something to the unusual political context with a European Parliament election looming. In each of the past two European elections, UKIP has advanced in the polls, as their defining issue dominates the political agenda, and they expand beyond their traditional base of disaffected, struggling working class voters angry about immigration by winning over better off, often Conservative-leaning Eurosceptic voters who find UKIP attractive in European elections but less so in Westminster ones. In past election cycles, UKIP has struggled to hold on to these “strategic defectors” – voters who view UKIP as a vehicle for sending a message about the EU, but not a natural political home.

It remains to be seen whether the same dynamic will assert itself in the rather different political climate of 2014 – UKIP’s much stronger poll standing, greater media coverage, and improved financial and organisational resources may make it easier for them to retain new recruits. However, the Conservatives will certainly be hoping that the pattern of 2009, and (to a lesser extent) 2013 repeats itself – with UKIP’s spring surge fading away as voters return to the domestic political agenda and start to drift back to the mainstream parties, boosting Tory vote shares in particular.

Labour will hope that, with UKIP now targeting both main parties for votes, the decline in their support this month also reflects the temporary inflation in UKIP support, and that they too will recover more ground if and when UKIP decline than was true before. This is certainly possible, but it might be unwise to pin their hopes on a Farage fallback. The fall in Labour share this month was the continuation of a now well established trend that has seen the party shed 7 percentage points of support since their peak in the summer of 2012. Those within the party pushing for a “35% strategy” might be a little concerned that Labour support has already fallen back to this level, with over a year to go, and clear evidence of a downward trend in support. It is quite plausible that the remaining Labour backers are more firmly behind the party than those who have leaked away over the past 18 months, but the continued loss of support, and the precarious lead remaining, must give Labour plenty to worry about.

Those within all the parties wondering what today’s polling means for next year’s election will have some additional information to chew on next week when, exactly one year ahead of the general election, we launch the Polling Observatory forecast model, which utilises historical polling trends to estimate the likeliest pattern of results next May based on where things stand today. Tune in on May 7th to find out our current estimate of where support for the parties will be come election day.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #35 : Politics, Fast and Slow


This is the thirty-fifth 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.




This month’s Polling Observatory is the first since the March budget, widely reported to have driven a bounce in support for the Conservatives. There is certainly evidence of a narrowing in the gap between the top two parties: our estimate puts Labour on 36.2%, down 0.8 percentage points on last month, and their lowest share since the end of 2010.  The Conservatives are up on 33.0%, up 0.9 points on last month and their highest share since early 2012. This leaves the gap between the parties at 3.2%, the lowest we have recorded since the parties briefly drew level in the aftermath of David Cameron’s European treaty veto in late 2011. It seems our speculation about a possible “voteless recovery” last month may have been premature. Meanwhile, in the undercard fight, UKIP come in at 12.1% this month, down 0.6% on last month, while the Liberal Democrats post a figure of 7.6%, up 0.4% on last month’s score.

The Conservatives’ renewed strength in the polls may owe something to a well-received budget from George Osborne, but when we take a longer view it becomes apparent that this latest narrowing is in fact the a continuation of a very gradual trend that has been proceeding, in stop-start fashion, for more than a year – as our excellent colleague Anthony Wells noted in his year-end review. In the early months of last year, Labour leads over the Conservatives were in double digits. This fell to under six points in the summer, before rebounding slightly in the autumn. Since November 2013, though, the narrowing has continued, and the lead has fallen from just under seven points to just over three.

Regular readers of this blog will know that we are cautious about identifying trends in what is often stable opinion, and also wary of using figures on polling leads, which are subject to more volatility and random variation. The underlying pattern here is however clear – the gap between the top two parties is steadily narrowing. Our main chart suggests this is the product both of rising Conservative support and falling Labour support, and also suggests that this is happening despite no decline in support for UKIP, who many argue are the main cause of recent Conservative weakness

Labour leads over the Conservatives since January 2013



This slow but steady change in public opinion is not, however, the product of short term shifts in the political weather – the gentle ebbs and flows in public opinion over the Parliament do not have much relationship to the torrent of scandals, gaffes, policy announcements and message battles which constitutes the day to day world of politics for those in the media. This disconnect between the narratives about political events that are popularised by politicians and the media, and the slowly shifting tides of public opinion highlights the two-speed nature of politics. In Westminster, politics is a frantic day-to-day activity, conducted in the merciless glare of a 24 hour news cycle. Out in the country, politics is a marginal interest, on the fringes of attention, and opinions change slowly.

Those who make a habit of following political stories on newspaper front pages – or via highly charged political Twitter feeds easily forget that most voters are paying little to no attention to the events which are filling their days. Even major political set-pieces like the budget, Prime Minister’s Questions, or the Clegg-Farage debates barely register with many voters. Indeed, most of the population are at work during PMQs, unable to tune in to a television or a politics live blog, while the vast majority had much more interest in the latest goings on in Albert Square or Coronation Street than the duelling rhetoric of Nigel and Nick. Even economic news, which is of more immediate interest to many voters, tends to trickle down as a gradual process of diffusion, either in a general sense among the public that things are getting better or worse for the country or more directly as people feel better about the pounds in their pocket, and more eager to spend them. In practice, the fallout from political events is usually slow and sluggish, as it takes a long time for voters to notice and respond to things which are a long way from their everyday concerns.

Shifts in public opinion therefore tend to take place slowly, over long periods of time (with rare, but important, exceptions such as the Cameron veto and the “omnishambles” budget). Political commentators, however, exist entirely in the “high frequency politics” world, and interpret every day’s and week’s events in terms set by this world, projecting them onto the wider public, whose indifference is so far from their own everyday experience that it is hard for them to keep it in mind. Every minor event is expected to produce a sharp public reaction and every momentary twitch in the pulse of public opinion is attributed to the stories attracting Westminster buzz. As we write, much ink is being spilled over the public opinion implications of Maria Miller’s expenses, yet there is no sign that this is having any impact on the polls, nor should we expect it to when most voters have only a sketchy understanding of who Ms Miller is or what she is supposed to have done. This may change as the story gradually diffuses through the electorate, or if it takes a new turn. More likely, however, is that it will simply come and go, like many earlier stories before it, without leaving any lasting mark, aside perhaps from intensifying a little the “pox on all your houses” sentiment which has helped to fuel the rise in UKIP support.

It is important to bear in mind that the important, and lasting, changes in public opinion take place gradually, often too slowly to perceive without the benefit of months of data, because as election fever takes hold in the Westminster village, the focus on “fast politics” will become ever more intense. There will be many moments and many stories that are presented to us as ‘game-changers’ or turning points. In most cases they will be nothing of the sort, while the real action takes place away from the noisy slapstick comedy playing out on the news channels. Millions of voters will begin settling on their choices, nudged this way and that by forces which are, to some extent, predictable. The regularity of the tidal forces which move the “slow politics” of voters’ shifting opinions allow us to make modestly informed forecasts about the direction public opinion will take next, based on the lessons of history. Such forecasts are inevitably limited, particularly this far out – every election is in some respects unique, and we only have polling data for about 15 previous election cycles. Nonetheless, they tell us something useful about the likely direction of public opinion, and do better than guessing the outcome based on where opinion is now. Next month, with exactly a year to go until the general election, we will unveil our first forecast of the most likely state of public opinion on polling day next year, and how this will translate into seats in the House of Commons. There is still a long way to go, but our initial analysis suggests that the narrowing over the past year is in accordance with past trends. Tune in next month to find out if we expect it to continue…


Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory 34 (Feb 2014): A voteless recovery so far but still time to turn the tide?


This is the thirty-third 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.

On Wednesday, George Osborne will get up to deliver what is certain to be the sunniest Budget statement of his Treasury career. All the statistical indicators now point to a robust recovery – steady growth in GDP, falls in unemployment, and rising business and consumer confidence. The cloud on the horizon for Osborne and his Conservative colleagues is that there is, as yet, little evidence that the improving economic climate is improving the government’s political fortunes. With each passing month, the lack of any meaningful movement in the polls increases anxiety about a voteless recovery in 2015, with British voters unwilling to give the government any electoral reward for the much discussed “tough decisions” of the past few years. .

The story from February’s Polling Observatory estimates is much the same as in previous months. Once again, we can report that these suggest no dramatic changes in the status quo that has been in place since last autumn. We estimate Labour support this month at 37.0%, down 0.8% on January. The Conservatives come in at 32.1%, up 0.2% on last month. The overall gap has thus narrowed to under 5%, but both parties’ shares are broadly in line with previous estimates. There is not yet any evidence of sustained movement away from Labour or towards the Conservatives. We estimate UKIP support at 12.7%, up 0.9% on last month, and our highest estimate for the party since their peak after last May’s unexpected local election triumphs. The approaching European Parliament elections should provide a favourable environment for UKIP, so they may see further increases in support in the coming months. The Liberal Democrats have endured another poor month, and our estimates place them at 7.2%, the same as last month. Time will tell whether Nick Clegg’s new strategy of direct engagement with UKIP will help to reverse his party’s long polling slump.

There are, however, some green shoots of recovery in other polling. In YouGov’s regular tracking poll of government performance on the economy, the share saying the government handling the economy well now stands at 41%, up 16 percentage points on its low point in the summer of 2012, and the highest level seen since December 2010. The share rating the state of the economy as “bad” stands at 45% with the same pollster, which sounds pretty awful but is in fact the lowest figure recorded in this Parliament. For most of 2011 and 2012, between 70 and 80% of voters took a dim view of economic conditions. Finally, YouGov’s “feel-good factor” index – the balance of households expecting things to improve minus those who think things will get worse – now stands at -20. Once again, this sounds bad but we must factor in a general Eeyorish tendency in the British public – the last time the figure was this high was in the first half of 2010, when Labour staged a sustained rally in the polls in the run-up to the 2010 election. Other pollsters tell a similar story – IPSOS-MORI’s economic optimism index has shown a sustained run of strongly positive figures, the most positive since the beginning of New Labour’s government in 1997. Osborne can take additional comfort from his sobering experience in 2012 – when his “omnishambles” budget was followed by a sharp decline in Conservative poll ratings – while this was not the public reaction he was hoping for it did at least demonstrate that the budget is one of the rare political events with some capacity to move public opinion. With the public finances improving at last, he may hope to be able to offer enough goodies to voters to move the dial in the other direction this week.

While public opinion remains in a steady state, there are thus reasons for hope for government politicians: voters have noticed the improved economic climate, though they have yet to give the government any credit for it. The government can take further hope from polling history:  our analysis of historical polling trends, suggest that Labour still have plenty to worry about over the next 14 months. Our Polling Observatory forecast model, which analyses  historical polling trends to project the current state of public opinion forward to election day, suggests the likeliest outcome currently is a modest recovery in the Conservatives’ poll share, sufficient to make the next election a statistical dead heat in vote shares. This outcome would likely still translate into a small Labour majority because of biases built into the electoral system, but this projection highlights the very real possibility of another hung parliament if  Labour cannot maintain its poll lead in the coming months. The evidence from past election campaigns suggests that there is currently still plenty of time for opinion to change, and the economic opinion data provides one strong reason to suggest that it may do so. Each month from here on in is crucial for the parties’ electoral fates: the link between current polling and subsequent election results becomes steadily closer with each passing month in the last year of a Parliament, making a 5 point lead harder and harder to overhaul. There is still time for the parties, and their leaders, to change their electoral fates, but it is starting to  run out.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory 33 (Jan 2014): Public opinion steady through the storms


This is the thirty-third 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.

January has been a stormy month in and out of politics. While freak storms have dominated the news agenda, politicos have been more excited by freak polls. Conservative activists took the airwaves and the internet to trumpet a YouGov poll showing Labour’s lead over their party down to 2%, only to be beaten back by Labour activists touting another poll by the same company, just days later, showing the Labour lead back into double digits. The reactions such polls garner are a powerful demonstration of the effect of selective, partisan attention – an outlier poll showing the gap between the parties disappearing or yawning wider than it has for many months, is widely quoted, touted and debated. The many other more mundane readings of public opinion receive little attention. The casual reader is left with the impression that public opinion is chaotic, and everything is up for grabs.

Yet, once we put all the data together, those noisy, attention seeking outliers no longer drive the story. The dull reality this month, as in most months of this parliament, is that public opinion hasn’t moved at all. We estimate Labour this month at 37.8%, up 0.2% on last month. The Conservatives come in at 31.9%, up 0.9% on last month, but merely a return to their steady position in the autumn after a brief Christmas downtick. UKIP stand at 11.8%, down 0.3% on the month, while we estimate the Lib Dems at 7.2%, down 0.6% on last month, one of their weaker showings but not yet evidence of any sustained decline on their long run equilibrium.

While commentators paid to follow the torrent of current affairs full time tend to read meaning into every minor tremor in the polls, in reality public opinion moves slowly, and seldom. The current deadlock in public opinion – with Labour steady in the high thirties, the Conservatives in the low thirties, UKIP around 10-13% and the Lib Dems a little behind them, is by our count the sixth phase in the evolution of the parties’ standing with the electorate over the course of this Parliament. The story to date has run like this:

Phase 1. May 2010 to December 2010: The Conservatives share is high and steady in the initial Coalition honeymoon period, while left-leaning Liberal Democrats angered by their party’s alliance with the Conservatives depart for Labour in droves. Lib Dem support falls, and Labour’s rises, throughout this period. The cumulative swing in support during this period was very large – 12 points or more – sufficient to put Labour ahead of the Conservatives within a year of their worst defeat for a generation. The Liberal Democrats slump to below 10 percent by the end of this period, and has remained steady at 8-10 points ever since.

Phase 2. January 2011 to November 2011: A slow decline in Conservative fortunes as the economy stagnates and the public sours on austerity spending cuts. Labour’s revival stalls as they run out of left of centre Lib Dems to recruit and prove unable to win over disaffected Conservatives. UKIP support begins ticking steadily up in the period, but remains largely below the media radar.

Phase 3. December 2011 to February 2012: A rare example of current events triggering a genuine shift in public opinion, as Cameron’s EU veto, and the widespread positive coverage of it in the Eurosceptic parts of the press bring the Conservatives a short lived win over UKIP, enough to bring their support briefly level with Labour.

Phase 4. March 2012 to December 2012: The Conservatives’ support collapses sharply in the spring, while Labour’s rises. Labour moves from a dead heat to a ten point lead in a few months. While the “Omnishambles” budget, and other political mis-steps such as the bungled deportation of Abu Qatada are possible triggering events, it is also possible that the Conservatives’ Christmas 2011 rally was unsustainable, and that they were bound to revert to their equilibrium position once normal service resumed. Things level off by the summer, and for the rest of the year the Conservatives languish around 10 points behind Labour. UKIP continue their slow but steady rise, and by the end of the year are competing with the Lib Dems for third place.

Phase 5. January 2013 – June 2013: UKIP become the big story as their support surges ahead, and they deliver an impressive and largely unexpected haul of local election victories. The wave of positive media coverage that ensues further propels them upwards, to a peak of close to 15% at midsummer. The UKIP surge is reported largely as a Conservative problem, but the polls tell a different story: both Labour and the Conservatives lose ground as UKIP advance. UKIP are more than just a Conservative revolt, as our sister blog UKIPwatch has explained.

Phase 6. July 2013 – present: UKIP fall back a little as the media move on to other stories, but the insurgents keep much of the new support they have picked up and remain well ahead of the Lib Dems in third. The Conservatives recover their lost ground, but Labour do not, resulting in a narrower lead of 5-8 points over the Conservatives. By the autumn, the pattern is set and has continued to date.

Six phases in four years suggests that, with over a year to go, there is still time for another twist in the tale. While this is true, the scope for large shifts ahead of the election is narrowing every month. Who is going to change their minds? The ten percent bloc of the electorate that switched from the Liberal Democrats to Labour at the start of the Parliament shows few signs of having second thoughts, and, given their hostility to the government and its leading figures is almost equal to Labour’s, there is little reason to think they will in the near future. Labour’s gains from this group look secure.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ten percent chunk of the electorate who have switched their allegiance to UKIP also look tough to convince. These voters are angry, disaffected and deeply hostile to the whole political mainstream. It is possible that concerns about the futility of a UKIP vote in most local constituencies will induce some to drift back to the mainstream, but we wouldn’t bet on it. Given their generally bitter outlook, such voters may prefer staying home than backing one of the hated “LibLabCon”.

The balance therefore lies, as it often does, with the mushy middle and the economy. The likeliest driver of a shift in sentiment over the next year would be if sustained economic recovery started to be felt in the pockets, and the minds, of uncommitted voters. Conservative pundits are fond of likening 2015 to 1992 – an election when a large Labour lead evaporated due to lasting public concerns about the opposition party’s ability to manage the economy. They should also give thought to the sobering possibility that 2015 will instead play out like 1997 – when an unpopular Conservative incumbent waited in vain for a surging economy to deliver a rebound in their support. The same combination of buoyant economic numbers and stagnant poll numbers is playing out again today, and every month it continues, the brows in Conservative Central Office will be furrowing a little deeper.

P.S. In an excellent blog on Lib Dem prospects, Lewis Baston has queried whether our method is a little bearish on the party. We agree with many of his points, and will return to this issue in more detail in a future post. Our modelling choices do look a little harsh on the Lib Dems at present, but this was not so clear when we set up our polling model in 2010, and we are reluctant to confuse our analysis by changing our methods half way through a Parliament. The choice of model does have some impact on overall Lib Dem support levels, but it has no impact on the broad trend: the Lib Dems lost over half their support in their first year in government and have, to date, found no effective methods to bring their national popularity back up again. However, we agree with both Lewis and Stephen Tall that the national poll numbers are misleading for the party, whose fate will be decided, more than those of the other parties, by their local constituency campaigns.



Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory 32: Running down the clock


This is the thirty-second 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.


After a brief Christmas ceasefire, Britain’s politicians have returned to combat in earnest, with the early shots of 2014 reflecting the mood of the times: help for the poorest struggling with eroding wages, more broadsides against Britain’s little loved banks, and a high crescendo of panic about migration leading to crushing disappointment in some parts of the media (and UKIP) when the promised tidal wave of Romanian and Bulgarian benefit seekers failed to materialise.

How have the parties fared over this not-so-festive season? Pretty much as they did in last month’s report. We estimate Labour at 37.6%, down 0.2% on last month and the seventh straight month our estimates have placed them in the 37-39% range. The Conservatives tick up a measly 0.1% to 31.0%, so they also continue to hold steady at the same level seen since the early autumn. The Lib Dems come in at 7.8%, continuing a flat line trend which extends all the way back to early 2011. UKIP move up 0.2% to 12.1%, also in line with the figures for the past five months or so.

The public’s mood currently is settled into a steady state, with support split across four parties and Labour holding a modest, but consistent lead. Neither the economic recovery, nor the A2 migration “crisis”, nor the various much trumpeted policy initiatives floated by government and opposition have yet had any discernible impact.

No news on the polling front is better news for Labour than it is for the Conservatives. With a general election now less than 16 months away, every month without movement on the polling front brings them a small step closer to defeat. Our research into historical polling (with Stephen Fisher of Oxford and Christopher Wlezien of University of Texas-Austin) suggests that British polls become steadily more predictive of election outcomes starting from about 18 months out from a general election, particularly for the Conservatives. With each month that ticks by without movement, the Conservatives’ prospects of turning things around become a little weaker, and Labour’s prospects of holding on to polling day become a little more certain.

As polling day gets closer, the ticking clock will loom larger in the parties’ minds, too. If the Conservatives poll share remains static as evidence of a robust economic recovery continues to pile up, pressure will build on David Cameron and George Osborne. Conservative backbenchers and activists who currently shower them with plaudits for the return of growth will soon turn against them if this growth does not deliver new voters. In particular, the tensions arising from UKIP’s continued double digit polling will only worsen, as the party divides between those who insist success requires imitating Nigel Farage and stealing his proposals, and those who worry that “out UKIP-ing UKIP” is impossible and damaging to the Conservatives’ credibility with moderate voters. Conversely, on the Labour benches, each successive month of steady leads will calm the nerves of those worried about Ed Miliband’s weak personal poll ratings, and anxious that the economic recovery undermines the credibility of the party’s focus on the “cost of living crisis”. Dissenters within the party are unlikely to raise their voices when they risk jeopardising a small but sufficient lead in polling, and each month of relative unity and harmony will help Labour’s image as a credible governing alternative, particularly if the Conservatives are wracked by conflicts over UKIP and Brussels.

Stable poll numbers are not great news for the smaller parties either. If their poll numbers continue to stagnate at alarmingly low level, rank and file Liberal Democrats may start to question the party leadership’s strategy of “divergence” within Coalition and call more loudly for out and out conflict with their Coalition partners or to exit the unhappy political marriage altogether. Stagnant poll numbers also hurt Nigel Farage’s argument that UKIP are the rising force in British politics – rising poll numbers are a key source of the oxygen of publicity UKIP need as an outsider force, and the radical Eurosceptics’ support levels are not yet healthy enough to convince many that their insurgency can be converted to Westminster power under Britain’s unforgiving first-past-the-post electoral system.

Labour can take some comfort from the status quo, which suits them, but they should not fall into the trap of thinking it cannot change. The story of polling since 2010 has been one of long periods of calm weather, interspersed with stormy spells where the political climate changed rapidly: late 2010 – when the Lib Dems slumped and Labour surged; early 2012, when the Tories briefly closed the gap before slumping back following the “omnishambles” budget; and spring 2013, when (as Anthony Wells notes) the Conservatives halved the gap on their Labour rivals. There will be plenty of weather-making political events in 2014 – the spring Budget, the first when George Osborne will be in a position to hand out good news (and maybe some giveaways); summer’s local and European Parliament elections and autumn’s Scottish independence referendum. A busy year is in prospect for politicians, pollsters and pundits.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory 31: No joy from the polls as festive season approaches


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This is the thirty-first 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.

Both of the largest parties have had something to crow about in November – the Conservatives have trumpeted growing statistical evidence of a recovery as vindication of their economic strategy, while Labour have received a shot in the arm from the surprisingly strong response to their proposals to freeze energy bills, which have pushed the government onto the back foot. Yet our most recent look at the polling evidence suggests that, despite all the shouting from their cheerleaders, neither party has yet received any meaningful boost in support as a result of these developments. Labour’s support has fallen half a point to 37.8%, giving up half of the one point bounce we noted last month. Over the past six months or so commentators have claimed that Labour, among other things, is in crisis, is resurgent, is surging ahead, is slipping back and is melting away. Yet when the poll data is considered in the aggregate, there is almost no movement at all: Labour have been dead steady at around 37% to 38% for more than six months. The last significant shift in its support came in early spring, around the time of Margaret Thatcher’s death, when Labour lost 2 percentage points of support that they have failed to win back since. It is not clear if the Iron Lady’s demise really lead some voters to rethink their view of Labour, but it is as plausible a theory as any of the others floating around in the comment pages, and has the notable advantage of actually fitting the evidence.

What little movement there is in blue support is also in the wrong direction – and our most recent estimates find Conservative support at 30.9%, down 0.9% on last month. Support for the Conservatives among the electorate has moved around more in 2013 compared to Labour, largely because of a strong link with UKIP support – when Nigel Farage’s party has been up in the polls, this has tended to hurt the Conservatives. This pattern continues this month – as the Tories fall by nearly a point, UKIP have rebounded by 0.6% to 11.9%. UKIP tend to do better when immigration is high on the agenda and when Nigel Farage is highly visible in the media. Both have been the case this month, with the proposal of new restrictive immigration reforms and escalating speculation about migration from Bulgaria and Romania following the lifting of restrictions on January 1st. Mr Farage has been a regular presence across the media spectrum, weighing in on both these issues, and his party seems to be benefitting in the polls once more. The European Parliament elections in May next year will likely produce a similar virtuous circle of rising poll ratings and increased media attention.

The main source of speculation regarding the Liberal Democrats continues to be whether their performance come election day will really be as awful as the polling suggests. The party lost nearly two-thirds of its 2010 support in the months after joining the government, and this month provides no respite. As in nearly every month since early 2011, the Lib Dems are treading water just under 10% – we have them at 8.0%, up 0.6% on last month.

None of the political leaders will enter the festive season with many reasons to be cheerful – aside from the knowledge that 2014 begins with everything still to play for.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup


Polling Observatory #28: Too Early To Tell/Outside the Westminster bubble

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This is the twenty-eighth 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.

In recent years politicians have been criticised, often with some cause, for being out of touch. But the journalists who are so eager to level this charge may want to examine their own views, and where they come from. Like politicians, national media journalists form a small, tight knit community who talk (and Tweet) to each other much more often than talking to the people whose views they claim to represent. This can cause problems when the judgements of other political professionals are out of kilter with the reactions of the average voter. At least politicians have constituency surgeries to reconnect with the voters. How often does the average Westminster lobby journalist sit in on one of those?

The shortcomings of “Westminster Village” groupthink have been amply on display this summer. The prevailing narrative of the summer was that Labour was divided and weakly led, and that this was harming them with the voters, a judgement which had little basis in the polling evidence. The Syrian crisis has produced a new rush to judgement in the Village, with journalists of differing political persuasions declaring it a death blow for David Cameron, Ed Miliband or both. But in reality it has not changed the political weather outside Westminster much, nor is it likely to. Most voters were against the Syrian intervention, and therefore happy that it is not proceeding. The average voter packing up her barbeque and preparing her kids for the new school year knows little, and cares less, about the obtuse arguments about motions, amendments and Parliamentary authority which have so excited the Villagers. Their judgement about the two leaders’ apparently disastrous performances has been an indifferent shrug of the shoulders.

In the latest figures from the Polling Observatory, we have seen virtually no change since the start of August. UKIP gained no political advantage from their widely trailed opposition to the war: their support is flat at 11.7% (no change). So too has support for the Liberal Democrats remained stagnant, standing at 8.4% (no change), bumping along at a level that has remained stable for more than two years now. In contrast to the main other parties, this inertia must surely start to concern the higher echelons of the Liberal Democrats, as voters seem to have made up their minds on the junior coalition partners, and largely do not like what they see. Our figures for the main parties show a small movement, but hardly enough to justify the many column inches. In the last month, Labour have seen a marginal decline in their support, down 0.4 percentage points at 37.7%. The Conservatives have seen a slight rise, up 0.6 points at 31.8%. Labour thus retain a healthy lead which, given the advantages handed to the party by Britain’s electoral system, would likely be enough to deliver a comfortable Parliamentary majority. The Westminster Village pathology will be particularly evident as the election draws nearer. As an election approaches, journalists tend to veer between regarding the outcome as completely certain and completely unpredictable (often depending on how the polls relate to their own preferences). The trouble is that journalists, like all people, find it very hard to make judgements about uncertain outcomes. People don’t like uncertainty, and struggle with even the most basic probability ideas (the success of lotteries and casinos is proof of this). Often what emerges to help them cope are “rules of thumb”, often based on over-simplified or half-remembered insights from research, or powerful but anecdotal past experiences.

One such rule of thumb is to try and tie the coming election to some past election. Conservatives like to look forward to 2015 as a re-run of 1992, when they won a majority after trailing in the polls for years because (in their view) the public was not willing to back a weak Labour leader. This neat analogy tends to gloss over the 1990 defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, which enabled the party to replace one very unpopular leader with a much more popular one, erasing their poll deficit in the process. It also overlooks the inconvenient fact, rather relevant for the current context, that the Conservative vote share in 1992 was lower than in 1987. It will be very hard for David Cameron to become PM in 2015 on a lower share than 2010, and even harder for his party to win a majority.

A popular analogue on the left and among UKIP-worriers on the Conservative right is the 1983 general election, when the left divided between the SDP and Labour, enabling  Margaret Thatcher to win re-election in a harsh economic climate. Many pundits think a right divided between UKIP and the Conservatives will similarly let Miliband’s Labour in through the middle. Left out of this story is the role of the Falklands War, the fact that the SDP drew a lot of support from moderate Conservatives, and that UKIP is most popular with white working class voters who might be more electorally important for Labour than the Tories.

Another piece of folk wisdom is encapsulated in the immortal slogan coined by Clinton campaign manager James Carville: “It’s the economy stupid!”. If the economy is growing, the rule of thumb says, the government will be re-elected. The political science research shows there is some sense in this: government do perform better when the economy does well, as we might expect. But research also shows that the link between the economy and the vote is complicated: green shoots do not always guarantee re-election, dark clouds do not always presage defeat. In 1997 Britain’s economy was growing under the Major government, but Labour was still elected in a landslide. This time round the economic context is hard to read. Voters are experiencing a squeeze on living standards, and there are concerns that the nascent recovery is being fuelled by credit – leading commentator Ann Pettifor to call it an ‘Alice in Wongaland’ recovery. It is simply too early to tell, then, whether our pocketbook theories of voting will predict the election winner in 2015.

A third rule of thumb tells us “never mind the polls, just look at the leader ratings”. As with the economy, there is some sense in this: the research shows leaders do make a difference. But, as with the economy, it is a misleading simplification to argue that the leaders are all that matters. In 1979, for example, voters strongly preferred the affable James Callaghan to the combative Mrs Thatcher. That did not save the Labour government. In the current Australian federal election, polls have consistently shown the incumbent Kevin Rudd preferred as PM to Tony Abbott, only to be overtaken in the final week of the campaign, with the government on course for a substantial rout. Context is important here too. Miliband clearly has poor ratings by historical standards. But the negatives of all party leaders today are substantial, more than historically has been the case. There is a prevailing “sod the lot” sentiment around, with many voters taking a dim view of all the leaders. Those who focus on Ed Miliband’s leadership ratings as evidence of his impending defeat might want to think about why voters who rate the other leaders just as poorly will be so keen to switch away from him.

Finally, another rule of thumb suggests that voters will punish Labour for lacking a clear message about what it would do if elected to power. After all, how can the public be persuaded to vote for the party if they don’t know what its policies are? Certainly the polling evidence suggests that people are unsure what Labour stands for as it rebuilds from thirteen years in government. While Labour’s tactic of keeping their policy cards close to their chest might not be good news in the newsrooms of the Westminster Village, it may not be bad politics. Oppositions are in an invidious position: release their popular policies too soon and the government will shame-facedly steal them or come up with alternatives; hold them back and be criticised for not having ideas – or be accused of having secret agendas. There is, additionally, much evidence that the verdict of voters is retrospective, punishing or rewarding the incumbent, leading the opposition to win or lose by default. This gives rise to another rule of thumb, that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them,” which would suggest it doesn’t much matter what Labour says at this stage.

Politics is a complicated business, and those commentating on it should remember that every piece of folk wisdom out there has led their predecessors astray at some point. This does not, however, mean that politics is too chaotic to make any meaningful predictions at all. Rather, it suggests pundits would do well to consider a wider range of evidence from outside the bubble, and view the conventional wisdom of their peers in the Village with a more sceptical eye. 

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #27: Labour in crisis? Tories resurgent? Not really.

UK 05-08-13 low res croppedThis is the twenty-seventh 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.

The big topic of national conversation over the past month has been the weather, with the hottest, driest conditions in recent memory. The political climate, however, has returned to normal. UKIP’s surge after the local elections has faded away – Nigel Farage and his party are no longer enjoying blanket media coverage as the press moves on to the traditional silly season fare of cyclists, cricketers, royal babies and expensive footballers. We now estimate UKIP support at 11.7%, down 1.1 points on last month and over 3 points on their June peak. This still leaves support for Farage’s party well above the levels seen at the start of the year, and well ahead of the Liberal Democrats in the battle for third place. We estimate support for Clegg’s party at 8.4%, up 0.1 points on last month.

UKIP’s surge was accompanied by a dip in support for the Conservatives, who have rebounded as the Eurosceptics have fallen back. This month we estimate Tory support at 31.2%, up a percentage point on last month and three points on their June low point. We cannot prove the link with aggregate data, but the mirror image pattern of UKIP and Conservative support in the past few months suggests the burst of publicity for Farage attracted the interest of disgruntled Tories who have drifted back to their traditional home as UKIP have fallen off the front page. This may be a worrying trend for Cameron given the near-certainty of renewed interest in UKIP next year as the European Parliament elections approach.

The recovery in Conservative figures has, however, produced a swathe of negative headlines for Labour : “Labour’s lead tumbles after difficult month for Ed Miliband” (Independent, August 6th); “Labour’s shrinking poll lead increases party jitters” (New Statesman, 23rd July); “Where is Labour?” (, 31st July); “Labour slips in the polls as Miliband aide admits party fears over next election” (Daily Mail, 6th August). Long time Miliband critic Dan Hodges went one further in the Telegraph, declaring “the next election is becoming Mr Cameron’s to lose” A casual reader of such articles would be forgiven for thinking that Labour had lost the support of a significant chunk of the electorate, and that this was somehow related to things the Labour leadership had said or done. Yet there is little evidence for either.

In fact, our estimate, incorporating all the polling data, suggests Labour support is up half a point on last month, at 38.1%. The previous two months’ readings were almost identical: 38.4% in June, 37.7% in May. Labour have barely budged in our figures in four months. So why all the fuss? The problem seems to lie in two longstanding journalistic habits: the tendency to focus on poll leads, rather than shares, and to interpret the poll leads in terms of the prevailing Westminster Village narrative. Labour’s poll lead has indeed fallen, but as we have seen that is more down to the Conservative share recovering, which in turn is down to Tory voters who flirted with UKIP returning to the fold. The most likely explanation for the narrowing Labour poll lead therefore has nothing to do with anything Ed Miliband has said or done, but the dominant political narrative in recent weeks has been “Labour in crisis” following the public spat between Miliband and the leader of the Unite union Len McClusky over the unions’ role in Labour politics, and so journalists have framed the polling shift in these terms.

The mistake journalists make in doing this is to assume that the average voter pays attention to the same issues they do. The union row which so excited the Westminster Village barely registered with voters. Less than a fifth of the members of McLusky’s own union could recognise the man at the centre of the row (many thought he was Sir Alex Ferguson); the figure among the general electorate is surely even lower. Voters seldom base their decisions on internal party feuds that they don’t understand or care about. It is therefore no surprise to anyone except the political media to see that Labour’s poll share has not budged at all in the wake of these supposedly toxic feuds.

The underlying political equilibrium has barely changed in over a year: 35-40% of voters favour Labour, giving them a small but consistent lead over the Tories, who are settled in the low 30′s. This balance of forces won’t be shifted by funding fights, racist vans, NHS rows or any of the other emphemera that excite our columnists headline writers yet barely register with the average voter. Our fellow polling analyst Nate Silver has observed: that “most political pundits are completely useless”, and systematic research in the US suggests he is right. Readers looking for clues on the prospects for the main parties would be well advised to ignore the spin put on the polling by the professional tea-leaf readers in the op-ed section, and just focus on the data itself. The signals are there, but often all the pundits add is noise.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup