Polling Observatory conference season update #4 – Conservatives

This is the twenty-ninth 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 this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

Conservatives

The summer saw a slight revival in the fortunes of the Conservatives, clawing back some ground lost during the UKIP surge of the spring of 2013. At their low ebb, immediately after UKIP’s local election breakthrough in May, we estimated the Conservatives at around 28% – they have picked up about 4 points since then.

Although support for the Conservatives has recovered slightly in the last few months, the longer term trend is much less encouraging, as our chart of support since the last general election makes clear. There are short term rises and falls, but the long term trend is clearly in a downward direction. Each slump in support hits new lows, and each rally peaks below the last. In particular, it is clear that the Conservatives lost a large chunk of support following the “omnishambles” budget of March 2012 that they have been unable to recover. Prior to this budget, we estimated Conservative support in the high 30’s. Since it was delivered, the Conservatives have struggled to reach 30%, and even after their latest rally they are still below 32%.  Over the past 18 months, Conservative support has fluctuated between 28% and 32%, well below the level of support they need to be the largest party in parliament at the next election, let alone win a majority. Where might hope of a political recovery lie for the Conservatives?

One of the areas where the Conservatives are widely agreed to be in a position of strength is their leader, David Cameron, who consistently out-polls his party and his fellow party leaders with the electorate. Much political science research has highlighted the importance of leaders in electoral success, but the impact on voters is very often over-stated – and is often factored into current support for the parties anyway. Further, while Ed Miliband’s poor ratings with the public signal a vulnerability that the Conservatives might seek to exploit, taking advantage of this is not always straightforward. With recent measures such as the proposed freeze on energy prizes, Miliband has staked out a brand of economic populism that may be difficult to counter – requiring the Conservatives to decide whether to paint him as either weak or dangerous, where the latter may perversely serve to improve his reputation for strong leadership with voters – on issues where the Labour leader also appears to have public opinion on his side. Meanwhile, the self-imposed constraints of austerity budgeting will make it difficult for the Conservatives to offer popular but expensive gifts to the electorate themselves, without undermining their argument that tough budget cuts are economically essential.

Unable to offer voters many gifts in the current economic climate, the Conservatives must therefore place their bets on a recovery before polling day. Economic optimism has been on the rise in recent times, which suggests the government is at least less likely to be punished for its austerity agenda than looked the case when the UK economy was flatlining. With Labour continuing to be blamed by a large section of the public for the state of the economy, the battle for economic credibility will be important as 2015 nears. Indeed, the economy seems to offer most scope to the government for selling a constructive story to voters about its achievements: a recovery will enable the party to claim vindication for its austerity policies and perhaps even offer a few goodies to the electorate. Without recovery, the Conservatives will struggle for a compelling message to win new support. It is not clear that a continued focus on right wing social issues like welfare and immigration can deliver many gains. The electorate has long known where the party stands on these issues, and growing discontent from their Liberal Democrat coalition partners will make further right wing reform in these areas difficult to accomplish, and if the Conservatives campaign on these issues without being able to act on them they risk increasing the appeal of UKIP to frustrated voters. The Conservatives will be looking to set out a clear agenda for a second term, starting with this year’s conference, but the nature of this agenda and their chances of being in government to implement it are now very much in the gift of economic forces beyond their control.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory conference season update #3 – Labour

This is the twenty-ninth 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 this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

Labour

A year ago, when we reported on the party conference season, Labour’s vote share stood at around 42.2%. Our estimates now put it almost five points lower, at 37.3%. As we noted at the time, Labour suffers from the same problem as any party in opposition – not being master of its own destiny, but instead depending on the favourable wind of events and government cock-ups. It is not so much anything that Labour has done recently that has led to this easing of support. Indeed, Labour’s level of support has hardly shifted at all in the past five months, despite the kerfuffle over Syria, the seeming fallout with the unions over events in Falkirk, and mutterings about Miliband’s leadership. The slump happened in the spring of 2013, and may reflect UKIP’s surging popularity and the newfound celebrity of its leader, Nigel Farage. The Eurosceptic populist party has attracted a lot of the voters dissatisfied by the government, particularly older working class voters, who might otherwise (reluctantly) be backing Ed Miliband’s Labour.

The public has not been paying much attention to Labour or its leader. But this is quite normal for a party that was in government so recently, despite a quite pathological obsession of some commentators with Miliband – the public were tired of Labour in 2010 after thirteen years of government, and these negative memories have not faded sufficiently for voters to think they deserve another turn in Number 10. For an opposition, it is difficult to define yourself when you lack control of the daily news agenda – and the communications machinery of government is not at your fingertips.

In a number of important political battles, Miliband has shown himself to have some mettle and a calm strategic mind where other opposition leaders would have folded. Labour is seeing a gradual loss of fair-weather supporters gained during a period when the economy was struggling, it had the Prime Minister on the run over the phone-hacking scandal, and the Chancellor had delivered the infamous omnishambles budget of March 2012. Where Miliband and Labour are struggling, is to define what they stand for. It needs to provide a clear alternative, but there are risks attached to revealing their cards too far before the next election. One should also be careful interpreting the numbers. People know what David Cameron stands for, but many of them do not like it – with 48% thinking he is ‘out of touch’ compared to 15% for Miliband. In assessing the popularity of party leaders, one has to be careful making historical comparisons, too – as the public are increasingly negative about the political class in general. Indeed, the ratings of all the party leaders have been in decline during the current parliament, with both Labour and the Conservatives seen as ‘rather old and tired’ by voters.

There are dangers, too, in Labour dancing to the tune of an unfavourably disposed media that is never likely to be won over – as illustrated by the journalistic appetite for leadership crisis stories during the summer silly season, and its overreaction to Labour’s position on Syria, which was in line with public opinion. Labour’s strongest attributes with voters are its reputation for its heart being in the right place and caring for the more vulnerable in society. Despite the evidence that social attitudes have become increasingly unsympathetic towards issues such as welfare, much of this comes down to the dominant framing of these issues – which have immense power to shape public opinion. The Conservatives have suffered from this too – where attempts to deliver more hardline policies on Europe (the veto) and immigration have only served to prime public opinion to demand more and more undeliverable reforms – and hence fuel  UKIP, who are happy to promise the impossible as they will never have to deliver it. Both parties are being dragged in different directions – and need to stop trying to appeal to the short-attention spans of commentators pushing their own visions of what the parties should be doing. Labour needs to stop trying to appeal to the hardcore Blairite fringe (Dan Hodges et al) that wants to treat 2015 as a re-run of 1997, and pretends nothing has changed in between. The Conservatives need to be wary of commentators using the threat of UKIP to drag them to the right and into unelectable territory – in the same way that the Tea Party has done serious damage to the long-term electoral prospects of the Republican Party in the US.

While Labour could be performing better, it could also be performing a lot worse. The political landscape has changed considerably in recent times – meaning there should be great caution in historical comparisons. The often referenced past elections when oppositions built up towering leads at mid-term were in the days when the combined Labour and Conservative share of the vote regularly exceeded 80%, so voters unhappy with the party in charge had only one place to go. Today, British politics has become fractured, and voters more polarized in their assessments of party leaders, driven by widespread disillusionment with politics, and fed up voters can switch to UKIP, the Greens or other minor party options rather than lending their support to the opposition. Today, the combined three-party vote of the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour barely reaches the 80% figure habitually achieved by the two main parties in the past – and their combined share has been in steady decline over the course of this parliament. Between 1945 and 2010 it averaged 95% of the vote. It now stands below 80%. No party can expect to have the sorts of leads that Blair or even Kinnock saw in opposition particularly when 10-15% of the most dissatisfied voters are opting instead for UKIP’s “none of the above” option.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory conference season update #2 – UKIP

This is the twenty-ninth 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 this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties are receiving an increasingly low share of the vote, and electoral geography has become so substantially distorted, that comparisons with leads from past elections are potentially misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time unsecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

UKIP

When we reported on UKIP at the time of its annual conference in Birmingham in September 2012, the party had just emerged on the scene as a serious political force – first following growing public attention to the EU and Eurozone bailouts and second in the aftermath of desertion of Conservative voters after the Omnishambles budget of March 2012. Since then, UKIP have shown they are more than just a flash in the pan, adding a further four points to their support, which now stands at 11.3%, well above the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats. This represents something of a fall on their May peak of more than 14% in the Polling Observatory estimates, but it nevertheless looks like UKIP will be a significant factor in the 2015 election. Most significantly, research commissioned by Lord Ashcroft shows it is having an impact on support for the party in marginal constituencies that will likely decide the result, and may deliver the election (and a parliamentary majority) on a plate to Labour and Ed Miliband. UKIP, and its talismanic leader Nigel Farage, have already started to face the message that ‘a vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour’ – as Conservatives and sympathetic media commentators have started to realise the threat posed by Farage and his party. There has also been a surge of interest in the background of Farage and the records of UKIP candidates, as attempts to undermine the credibility of the party have been stepped up as Conservative fears have grown – with the PM’s former PR adviser, Andy Coulson, advocating highlighting the “less pleasant and stranger utterances” from Mr Farage. Both strategies have the potential to backfire: Conservative attempts to get UKIP supporters to vote strategically risks underestimating its supporters’ hostility to the political system in general, and to David Cameron in particular, while efforts to paint the party as extreme or incompetent risk looking like a smear campaign, which could increase UKIP’s populist appeal.

But UKIP have already changed the political landscape for 2015, and may yet cost the Conservatives votes, even if not directly at the ballot box – but in driving the party off the centre ground that David Cameron had managed to inhabit in the run up to the 2010 election. UKIP are putting serious and sustained pressure on the Conservatives to tack to the right to take up traditional Tory territory – much to the (secret) delight of commentators in the right-wing press who have enthusiastically been drumbeating over the need to move more towards the political agenda set by UKIP (see here, here and here). Boris Johnson has described UKIP supporters as the ‘lost tribe’ of Conservatives, but there is still much confusion in Conservative ranks over how to handle the UKIP challenge – simply because they are dragging the party back towards its ideological roots, away from most voters. It therefore has revived the fundamental tension in the post-Thatcher Conservative Party – with the main hope for the party being that the British public has shifted rightwards in the past decade.

Ultimately what UKIP supporters are unified by is dissatisfaction with politics and the ruling class, revealing a much deeper underlying discontentment with democracy in Britain that can’t be solved by parties trying to position themselves further to the right.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory conference season update #1 – Liberal Democrats

This is the twenty-ninth 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 this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

Lib Dems

One of the polling bookies has put the Liberal Democrats at evens to poll over 14% with YouGov by end of the year. This is a bet that nobody would be advised to take. The last time that the Lib Dems polled 14% with YouGov was in September 2010. They have been flat-lining ever since. Our most recent estimates put the Liberal Democrats at 7.7%. This is down 0.7 points on their support at the end of last August, a dismal position which a strong conference season is unlikely to do much to improve.

In many ways, the electorate’s roller-coaster relationship with Nick Clegg – from the love-in of debate-fuelled Cleggmania to formation of the coalition, the tuition fees betrayal and other policy compromises in government – resembles the rise and fall of Tony Blair on fast forward. Blair’s decline from progressive hero to hate figure – from the flag-waving days of May 1997 to the mass demonstrations of 2003, was six years in the making. Clegg managed to alienate almost as many voters in just five months. There is no sign that these voters are near to returning, and the Liberal Democrats can only hope that their local/personal vote saves them.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest this is simply the cost of doing business in a coalition setting. The Lib Dem’s electoral success from the early 1990s was built on making a pitch to middle class, left of centre voters – unwilling or unable to vote Labour, but turned off by the “nasty” Conservative Party. More recently, since the 2000s, its gains have largely come by positioning it to the left of Labour on key issues – Iraq, Europe and the environment most notably. Indeed, in 2005 the Liberal Democrat’s election platform was to the left of Labour, and in 2010 it was largely level. It can hardly be any surprise, then, that this electoral coalition has been decimated by the steady flow of compromises fashioned with their right wing coalition partners.

There is perhaps too much emphasis among commentators, then, on the degree to which Labour’s hopes for 2015 are ‘heavily reliant on the continued disenchantment of former Liberal Democrats’. Many of these voters are most likely not lifelong Liberal Democrats, but Labour supporters who quit the Labour coalition during the Blair/Brown years, and have returned to the fold under the Coalition government – ending the twenty year experiment of a social democratic Liberal Party. As we can see from the Polling Observatory figures, many of the supporters who left did so immediately after the Coalition was formed, and many soon after. The Liberal Democrats’ bleeding was complete by the end of 2010, and they have not really moved in the polls since. It is not just that British voters are not particularly keen on coalition government. Those who joined the Liberal Democrats from the left were not keen on a centre-right Coalition from the outset. For the Liberal Democrats, the current pattern represents a return to the post-war level of support for the old Liberal Party. The resurgence of the Liberal Democrats as a third way in British politics had been built up by the efforts of Ashdown and Kennedy, only to be dismantled by the project of the orange book Liberals — most notably Clegg, Alexander and Laws. One prominent member of the party’s left wing – Sarah Teather, representing a poor, former safe Labour seat, has already announced her intention to quit at the 2015 election. It will be no surprise if, as 2015 approaches, more prominent left-of-centre Liberals join her, jumping ship before the impending electoral Tsunami hits. Complete electoral disaster may be spared, however, through the personal vote that individual MPs have managed to cultivate in their local constituencies – recent evidence suggests voters in Liberal Democrat seats like their MP better than those living in Labour or Conservative seats, and that such voters remain more willing to back a local Liberal Democrat than the national polling suggests.

Perhaps the only question that remains is this: will the Liberals have sufficient MPs in the next parliament to play kingmaker? Clegg would be better advised to stop manoeuvring the party in preparation for the next coalition and instead focus on finding a way to expand a support base that has been on life support for more than three years now.

Rob Ford, Will 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?” (politics.co.uk, 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

Polling Observatory #25: UKIP surge, but who do they hurt?

Polling Observatory 25This is the twenty-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.

The big story of the month was the surge in support for UKIP, who secured close to a quarter of the vote in the local elections at the beginning of the month, and scored a similar share in the by-election to replace David Miliband in South Shields on the same day. This was by far the best national performance by a minor party in modern British politics, and as a consequence Nigel Farage and his party dominated the political agenda for much of the month.

UKIP’s local elections triumph, and the wave of positive media attention which followed it, was reflected in a series of record breaking performances in opinion polls over the past month. Some of these were dismissed at the time as outliers, but the Polling Observatory aggregate, which pools all the polling information, also shows a record breaking surge in UKIP support, up 2.9 percentage points to 14.4%. This is the third successive month we have UKIP at an all time high, and with some pollsters showing the party at closer to 20%, and Nigel Farage continuing to dominate the airwaves, the party has by no means exhausted its potential for growth. As we argued last month, the local elections provided a key test of UKIP’s capacity to mobilise voters and hence accumulate political influence. They passed the test with flying colours, and now look set to play a big role in the political debate for the rest of this Parliament.

With UKIP on the march, there is naturally much speculation about who among the main parties is hurt most by their advance. There is a case to be made that they hurt all three: UKIP voters are more likely to report previously supporting the Conservatives than the other parties (though less than half express a prior Tory allegiance), but their social profile more closely resembles the traditional Labour voter: poorer, blue collar, low income men with few qualifications. The Liberal Democrats are also in the firing line as UKIP have usurped their traditional role as the repository of mid-term protest.

The capacity of UKIP to do damage across the board is reflected in this month’s estimates, with all three mainstream parties seeing drops in their support. The Conservatives come off worst, dropping 2.2 percentage points to 28.1%, their worst showing of the Parliament so far. However, not all of this drop may be down to UKIP – we noted last month that the Tories appeared to be enjoying a rebound in support following Margaret Thatcher’s death. This month’s slump may partly reflect the fading of the Thatcher bounce.

Labour have little to cheer, though, as their support has also dropped substantially for the third month running, down 0.7 percentage points to 37.7%. While Ed Miliband and his party retain a healthy lead over the Conservatives, their popularity is also now close to the lowest seen since Miliband took over the leadership. Recent polling showing voters comparing Miliband’s leadership unfavourably to that of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown will hand further ammunition to critics arguing that Labour’s position remains vulnerable.

It was also a demoralising month for the Liberal Democrats. While their losses in local elections were relatively modest, this was more to do with the Conservatives’ weakness than their strength. Their poll ratings fall 1.1 percentage points to 8.0%, undoing a modest recovery over recent months and putting them close to last year’s low ebb. As UKIP continue to advance, it will become more difficult to argue that Nigel Farage and his party should be excluded from political events, such as leader’s debates, which feature the less popular Lib Dems.

The pattern for coming months looks set: UKIP continue to advance, upsetting the political equilibrium and forcing reactions from all the main parties. This is likely to continue as the European Parliament elections, UKIP’s favourite competition, approach. Yet it remains unclear how much support UKIP will be able to retain at the next Westminster election. Serious UKIP seat gains still look unlikely, and the first past the post system is brutal on parties that voters think have little chance of winning. While currently the Westminster village is debating whose voters UKIP are recruiting, UKIP’s ultimate impact may depend as much on which voters it can retain when the tide turns. There is reason for Labour to worry on this front, as previous research suggests that in the last election cycle, “strategic defectors” who switched to UKIP at mid-term and then return at the general election are often more middle class and Conservative leaners than core UKIP loyalists, who are often poorer and more working class. If this pattern repeats itself in 2015, the Conservatives may recover some of their lost support while Labour voters tempted by Farage may prove harder to win back.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

The public are warming to shale gas

Image by KA via geograph

Image by KA via geograph

Shale gas, the ‘unconventional’ form of natural gas that is accessed through the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’), received a boost in the Chancellor’s recent budget. The production of shale gas will be granted a ‘field allowance’, which is expected to reduce the effective tax rate on shale gas production from 62% to about 30%. The government also intends to work on the planning regime around shale gas, and to find ways to ensure that the local communities most affected environmentally by shale extraction will also benefit from it economically. In the light of these developments, it is worth asking what the UK public thinks of the prospect of shale gas production. A team at the University of Nottingham has, with Pollsters YouGov, been tracking public attitudes to shale gas for over a year now, and they have recently produced a paper on the shape of public opinion in this area. Their report shows that:

  • On the back of increasing media coverage, a growing proportion of the UK public are aware of shale gas as a potential energy source. In March 2012 38% of respondents could identify shale gas from a question about fracking, and in March 2013 that figure was 52%.
  • Over 60% of those who can identify shale associate its extraction with ‘earthquakes’
  • A plurality of respondents associate shale gas with contamination of drinking water, and a plurality do not think it is a ‘clean’ fuel. However, the proportion of survey respondents associating shale gas with contamination of drinking water is declining, and an increasing proportion do associate it with ‘clean’ energy.
  • An increasing number of respondents think shale gas will bring ‘cheap’ energy. This figure rises from just over 40% in March 2012 to 53% in March 2013
  • In March 2013 55% of respondents believed that shale gas extraction should be allowed in the UK. 24% responded that it should not.

The trends in the data over one year appear clear. There is now a higher level of public awareness around shale gas. Despite ‘earthquakes’ in Blackpool, the release of Gasland, and concerns about drinking water contamination and other pollution, the UK public seems to be warming to the idea of shale gas, seeing it increasingly as a relatively cheap alternative to other energy sources, with a majority in favour of allowing its extraction in the UK.

You can see the full report here: Public Perceptions of Shale Gas Extraction In The UK: How People’s Views Are Changing

Mathew Humphrey

Polling Observatory #21: is David Cameron picking the wrong fights?

Nott 01-02-13 low res smallThis is the twenty-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.

What do gay marriage and the European Union have in common? They are both issues which the Conservative leadership have brought to the top of the political agenda in the past few weeks. And both are issues which interest the average Conservative MP a great deal more than the average voter. David Cameron’s long awaited, and heavily promoted, “Big Speech” on Europe won near universal praise from Eurosceptic politicians and journalists despite proposing no concrete reforms to the EU and no concrete change in Britain’s relationships with Brussels this side of the 2015 general election.

In the aftermath of the Big Speech, which its supporters claimed settled the issue of Europe once and for all for Conservatives, all eyes turned to the polls for evidence that Cameron had reversed the leak of votes to UKIP which most likely helped push the issue on the agenda in the first place. This ploy had worked before, after all: Cameron started 2012 with a spring in his step, after his largely meaningless “veto” at the December 2011 EU summit produced a substantial “bounce” in his party’s poll ratings (and his personal ratings as leader). For a short while, the Conservatives and Labour were neck and neck. It didn’t last though – within a few months normal service resumed, with the Tories slowly deflating, UKIP drifting upwards and Labour back in a comfortable pole position.

In 2013, the benefits of Brussels bashing look even more meagre. Our estimate has the Conservatives at 31.9% this month, up a mere 1.3 point on early December. Labour have shifted even less, down 0.7% at 40.7%, while UKIP have proved resilient to the Big Speech, coming in at 8.8%, exactly where we had them nearly two months ago. This isn’t a big surprise, as a growing body of research and polling shows that, unlike Conservative backbenchers, UKIP voters don’t see Europe as the burning issue of the day. Their support for Nigel Farage’s party is more to do with anxiety about immigration and a general negativity about the current government. The Conservatives should know this, as their largest funder Lord Ashcroft provided a detailed and convincing report on the concerns of UKIP voters just a few months ago. Nor have the Tories benefited at the expense of their pro-EU coalition partners – the Lib Dems’ are at 8.8%, up 0.3 points on our December reading. Some Conservative MPs seem to believe making the next election a referendum about the EU is a winning strategy. On this point, the polling evidence is pretty clear: it isn’t.

How about gay marriage? We will have polling evidence on that next month, but again there are strong reasons to be sceptical that it will help the Conservatives. As with Europe, this is an issue where voters broadly agree with the Conservatives’ policy proposals, but also regard it as a pretty low priority. YouGov polling suggests only around 7% of voters think the introduction of gay marriage will influence their vote, and as Anthony Wells points out even that low number is likely to be exaggerated, as voters tend to have an inflated sense of the impact passing issues will have on their political choices. Legalising gay marriage won’t win armies of new voters to the Tory banner.

Will it help the image of the Conservative party, as a progressive, inclusive, modernised organisation? The idea that it might was surely a strong motive for bringing the issue on to the agenda, but there are good reasons to suspect Cameron may have scored an own goal on this front. Voters already think he is more liberal than his party, and the gay marriage debate has provided ample evidence to support this view. Conservative opponents have had a great deal of media airtime, which they have used to broadcast some rather antiquated views about marriage and gay relationships. In Tuesday’s vote more than half of Conservative MPs voted against the proposal, or abstained, even as the other parties voted overwhelmingly in favour.

The image of “senior local Conservatives” – all men, all grey haired, in suits and Barbour jackets – delivering a petition in opposition to gay marriage at No 10 on Sunday is not likely to encourage voters to see the Conservatives as a modernised, inclusive party. Rather than convince voters the party had changed, the gay marriage debate looks set to reinforce the perception that a socially liberal PM has tried, but failed, to bring the grumpy old men in his party into line with mainstream British public opinion.

The gay marriage debate may also worsen a second image problem for the Conservatives. As MPs and prominent media figures queue up to assail their Prime Minister, the issue is likely to reinforce perceptions that the Conservatives are divided. There is no shortage of other evidence for this – backbench plots against the leadership on the front pages of newspapers, and a regular drumbeat of criticism of the government over all manner of policies from discontents who blame Cameron for failing to win a majority, or failing to stand up to the Liberal Democrats, or failing on the deficit, or economic growth, or welfare reform. The list goes on and on.

The endless criticism and internal strife has started to register strongly with the electorate – in a YouGov poll on 5th February 71% of voters said they regarded the Conservatives as divided – the highest figure YouGov have recorded since starting to ask the question in 2003, and 54 point up on 2008. This is an ominous figure: public perceptions of government competence are a key driver of vote choice, and divided parties are generally regarded as less competent than unified ones. News reports showing a large cast of Tory MPs attacking their leader over gay marriage will not help rebuild an image of unity. Meanwhile, UKIP stand ready to welcome socially conservative voters opposed to the change with open arms, having expressed strong opposition to gay marriage (an interesting position given their professed “libertarian” ideology).

Our polling suggests David Cameron’s first big idea of 2013 – the Big Fat Euro Referendum – did nothing to boost his party’s prospects, while his second big idea – gay marriage – may damage them. The prospect of a pasting in the 2014 European Parliament elections will loom ever larger as 2013 wears on. If Cameron wants to turn around his party’s fortunes, and stem the leak of voters to UKIP, he needs to find some proposals that are popular with his MPs, his activists and the electorate at large, and acceptable to his coalition partners. No one ever said being Prime Minister was easy.

Rob Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #12: Impact of the NHS Reforms?

This is the twelfth of 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 noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and 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.

British politics in February has been dominated by debates over the Coalition government’s proposed NHS reforms, which have attracted furious opposition from many groups within the NHS. Such opposition was probably expected by Cameron and his health minister, Andrew Lansley. More surprising was the intervention by ConservativeHome.com editor Tim Montgomerie, who argued in a widely read editorial that an unpopular NHS bill could cost the Conservatives the next election. In his article, Montgomerie focuses on the long term impact of the reforms, but we may wonder if a month of media dominated by attacks on the proposed reforms have depressed support for the Coalition. Several commentators have pointed to shifts in individual polls to claim the Conservatives are being hurt by the NHS, but often such small shifts simply reflect random variation.

Our aggregate polling estimate brings together all the polling information, and provides a more reliable guide.

We find some limited evidence that the protracted debate is exacting a toll in polling. We estimate Conservative support at 37.2% at the end of February 2012, down 0.5 points from last month. The Liberal Democrats are also down, by 0.4 points to 8.2%.  However, these estimates place both parties pretty much back where they were in late autumn, so it is too soon to tell if this is the start of a decline in Coalition support rather than a reversion to a previous equilibrium. A plausible alternative story in the Conservative case is the waning of any polling “bump” from Cameron’s veto of the new EU treaty proposal in December. There is also no evidence of any gain for Labour from the past month’s events, in fact they are also down 0.6 points to 37.2%.

The main winners from February would thus seem to be minor parties or “none of the above”. We do not currently estimate minor parties’ vote shares, so we do not know which, if any, are currently gaining. In future months we will examine this issue is a consistent trend becomes apparent.

 

Robert Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup

When (French) Polls Go Wrong

Ballots and Bullets is delighted to be publishing several guest blogs from the two minds behind 500 signatures. Professor Jocelyn Evans and Dr Gilles Ivaldi offer expert insight into the forthcoming Presidential elections in France. Prof. Evans is currently working with Matt Goodwin from Nottingham on a study of far right supporters, launching on March 8th.

Since the infamous 1936 Literary Digest poll misforecasting a famous victory for US Republican Alf Landon over the Democrat incumbent Franklin Roosevelt, people have had good reason to be skeptical about pre-election polls. Even by 1948, a more methodologically refined approach to survey research championed by Angus Campbell and Robert Kahn had proved its worth in correctly backing Harry Truman (unlike pollsters, who had all their money on Thomas Dewey). In France, the more conceptual critique of mass opinion polling as a “science without a scientist” by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has nurtured immense distrust in what American political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg alternatively referred to as a “subtle instrument of power”.

Even below the heady heights of critical sociology, pre-election polls have constantly been the subject of sharp criticism in French politics for simple empirical failure. In 1995, pollsters came under fire for pre-emptively crowning centre-right candidate and outgoing Prime Minister Edouard Balladur as the new Head of State. Seven years later, scathing criticism was directed at polls once again for not having anticipated Lionel Jospin’s elimination from the 2002 presidential race. It is only because things went “according to plan”, i.e. a straight Left-Right run-off in 2007 that the enduring lack of accuracy in the polls – most notably, the over-estimation of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s eventual score – went almost unnoticed.

The current presidential campaign is not immune to this type of debate. We have already addressed some of these issues in two previous posts on ‘house effects’ and the discrepancies that can be observed across pollsters. Two recent developments in the campaign have turned our attention back to the significance of pre-election polls and the need for some transparency in the methods employed by polling institutes.

First, the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) has confirmed the right of French pollsters to keep their methods for poll adjustment and data weighting under wraps. In their decision, the administrative jurisdiction deemed such practices equivalent to business ‘trade secrets’. This has infuriated left-wing harbinger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who initially brought the case to the Council following a controversial Harris Interactive poll allocating him a measly 3 per cent of the vote, and after urging the institute to disclose their calculation methods. Mélenchon has indicated he will lodge his case at the European Court of Human Rights.

The absence of transparency has not escaped the politicians. This very question was central to the provision of a cross-partisan bill proposed in February 2011 to amend the 1977 law on polling, but to date is still pending a vote by the National Assembly. Whilst understandable for commercial reasons, the reluctance of French pollsters to disclose their in-house processes of post-survey weighting contrasts sharply with best practice elsewhere.

For example, the British Polling Council – the counterpart to France’s Commission des Sondagesrequires that pollsters make available all weighted and unweighted figures. A half-way house is Italy, which legally requires polling institutes to reveal their sampling methods, non-response rates and post-collection adjustments – but in a survey by Dr Graziella Castro of the University of Salford, only around 7 per cent of institutes actually did so.

Another controversy has been triggered by the publication of a series of polls testing vote intentions on the basis that Marine Le Pen does not appear on the ballot paper. Each of these polls provided a different picture of what the first round of the presidentials would look like should the FN candidate fall short of the precious 500 signatures (see chart below).

IFOP, for instance, anticipates a tie in the first round between Hollande and Sarkozy, should Le Pen not be present. BVA and IPSOS see a rise in Sarkozy’s vote, but not sufficient to reach his Socialist rival. As Le Monde’s polling blog notes, one reason for IFOP’s more favourable score for Sarkozy is its omission of the smaller candidates, many of them on the Right. But that still does not explain a number of other disparities.

 

Summary of Polls “without Marine Le Pen”*

 

 *Candidates’ gains under the hypothesis that Marine Le Pen would not be able to run in the first-round

What emerges from this latest discussion is disagreement among pollsters over the use of internet panel surveys (the so-called ‘CAWI method’) in electoral polls. Interestingly, a similar debate had already taken place in March 2011 after Harris Interactive released a much commented internet-based poll showing Marine Le Pen leading the first round of the presidentials with 23 per cent of the vote.

The argument made by detractors of internet samples is that of the specific mode of recruiting panel members via commercial sites, often in exchange for blatant economic incentives such as shopping vouchers and the like. Whilst they might at a pinch be representative of the social structure of the French population – although again, without transparent reporting of sampling frames, quotas and non-response, even this has to be taken on trust – the attitudinal profile of those respondents might differ.

It might also be the case that highly motivated far right sympathizers will seize the opportunity to express their views – a phenomenon that is not limited to the Internet. Witness, for instance, the attention-grabbing headline from Le Pen’s campaign site that Marine leads the polls amongst iPhone owners. Lastly, it is often argued that internet polls might help overcome the traditional ‘shameful vote’ problem, voters being more prone to reveal their true preferences when seated in front of their computer screen, rather than engaged in conversation with a human being in a CATI setting. One cannot help but draw parallels with individuals’ apparent willingness to engage in the sort of vicious outbursts and slander common to all web discussions that they would shy well away from in less anonymous interactions.

There is empirical evidence that the internet polls consistently bias scores relative to telephone polls. Taking all election surveys since June 2011 asking for vote intentions, and controlling for the time-period in which they took place, our calculations based on 56 polls published since June 2011 indicate that Hollande tends to score around 2.5 per cent less in internet polls, and Marine Le Pen two-and-a-half points higher. Similarly, the gap between Le Pen and Sarkozy – that crucial score that defines whether the run-off becomes another referendum on democracy, as in 2002 – is around 2.5 points narrower amongst internet polls. Going on internet polls, then, the race is tighter, with Marine Le Pen threatening to overtake the incumbent president. Telephone polls suggest at this stage a more likely two-candidate run-off with Le Pen trailing.

Of course, these differences are relative. It is possible that the internet polls represent the ‘true’ (pace Bourdieu) system of social forces at play in the French electorate, and the telephone polls are overselling Hollande at the expense of Le Pen. Furthermore, such a net trade-off is simplistic – the shifts by candidate aggregating to this position are likely more complex, and again due to differences in sampling rates and latent bias.

But this again highlights the current problem. If we cannot know exactly who is answering the question, “If the election were held tomorrow, how would you vote?”, and with what weighting, it is impossible to begin even to assess which scores are factual, which are artefactual, and which are outright fiction.

France may not yet be characterised as a sondocrazia like its Southern neighbour, where polls are seen as explicit tools for electoral manipulation and a “guide” to voters; but to the extent that polls do influence voters in their suggestion of the likely winners and losers, the political information which pollsters provide as a public service should at least come with their own instruction manual.

Jocelyn Evans and Gilles Ivaldi