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Polling Observatory #24: Blue revival, purple advance

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This is the twenty-fourth 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.

It seems that, even in death, Margaret Thatcher retains the power to move the British voter. We now have a full month of polling data gathered after Baroness Thatcher’s death, and our new estimate shows the first significant Conservative rebound in many months, with Cameron’s Tories up 1.4% at 30.3%. It is impossible at this stage to say whether this is a temporary blip, perhaps relating to the largely positive media coverage of the Thatcher funeral, or the start of a more lasting move. But at this stage, with the economy in dire straits, the backbenchers restive, and heavy local election losses anticipated on Friday, Cameron and his team will take any good news they can get.

The Conservatives will be doubly cheered to see that Labour have declined steeply for the second month running, down 0.9% to38.4%. Labour are now down almost four points from their peak, and approaching their lowest scores since Ed Miliband took over as leader. They retain a healthy 8% lead over the Conservatives, but the recent softening in numbers must be a concern, particularly as it comes during a period without any significant positive economic news to bolster the government. Miliband will be hoping for a strong local election performance to boost morale and quieten critics. He will be helped in this regard by his predecessor’s appalling performance in 2009 – on the night when Hazel Blears and James Purnell launched their abortive putsch against him, Gordon Brown led Labour to their worst local election slump in decades. Even a modest rebound in support should be sufficient to capture hundreds of council seats, and enable Ed Miliband to declare steady recovery.

UKIP’s Nigel Farage will also be scouring the local election returns closely. He has already delivered one significant organisational victory for his party, fielding a record slate of candidates for Thursday’s polling, surpassing the struggling Lib Dems. He can now truly claim to lead a party with national reach, though as yet one without even local power. Farage will hope for major gains in the deep blue county councils elected on Thursday, but to achieve this he must overcome a foe more formidable than the political establishment he rails against: Britain’s first past the post electoral system. UKIP support is very evenly spread geographically which, as the Lib Dems know very well, makes converting votes into seats and power extremely difficult. While his party scored another record rating with the Polling Observatory this month, up 0.3% to 11.5%, Farage’s candidates may find themselves with little to show for this on Friday evening if UKIP candidates surge to second place across the nation. Only a disciplined and coordinated targeting and mobilisation effort is likely to change this script. As yet, we simply do not know if UKIP possess this kind of organisational capacity. Thursday’s poll therefore provides us with a key indicator about UKIP’s ability to move from soaking up protest to wielding real influence.

The Lib Dems will be hoping to avoid another local election bloodbath, having endured two already since joining the Coalition. Their poll ratings provide little cause for solace, slipping back to 9.1%but they will hope that deep local roots and the predominance of competition with the Conservatives rather than Labour will help them hold on in many seats on Thursday night. Nigel Farage may even help them by cutting into the vote of their national partners and local rivals, the Conservatives.

It seems highly likely that, however the results pan out on the night, Nigel Farage will be the big story this weekend. UKIP continue to chalk up record poll numbers for a fourth party challenger, and are almost certain to win at least some council seats, while also providing a challenge to the established parties over a wider range of territory than ever seen before. The momentum looks set to continue: UKIP fascinates media pundits and party apparatchiks in equal measure. Farage himself is a talented performer who can always be relied upon to deliver good copy, so the media look certain to keep him in the spotlight so long as his polling remains strong.

There are those who think UKIP will melt in the media spotlight, undone by their candidates’ eccentricities or the contradictions in their policy ideas. This misunderstands the nature of UKIP supporters, who are less interested in finding a reasonable, responsible government than in delivering a kick to the shins of a political class they deem unreasonable and irresponsible. There is always a section of the electorate which is fed up with the incumbent, hostile to the principle opposition, and eager for any outlet for their frustration. In stagnant, struggling austerity Britain, this sentiment is more widespread than ever, and, thanks to the Coalition, UKIP have this vote all to themselves. Add to this continued public hostility to immigration, socially conservative voters who, like Lord Tebbit, no longer consider the Conservatives a friendly home, and Nigel Farage’s personal charisma, and you have a recipe which looks set to deliver the goods for some time to come, particularly in UKIP’s big home fixture: 2014′s European Parliament elections. So get used to the mustard trousers, the tweed jackets and the pints of bitter: we will be seeing plenty more of them during this Parliament.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #22: Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP on the up, but Conservative support has fallen

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This is the twenty-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.

As the dust settles from the Eastleigh by-election, our latest polling estimates provide confirmation of the continued troubles of David Cameron and the Conservative Party, the continued rise of UKIP as a political force, and a slight revival in the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. As the months tick away, and this spring’s budget providing another ‘final chance’ for the government to deliver a game-changer, is it time to ask: is the 2015 election already lost?

Following the downgrade of the UK’s triple-A credit rating and a humiliating third place in Eastleigh, with an ill-disciplined and unhappy backbench (and the quiet murmur of leadership rumours), and with the government facing potentially more bad economic news on the horizon, it is no surprise that since the last Polling Observatory report on February 1st, Conservative support has fallen from 31.9% to 29.9%. This is one of the largest single month shifts we have recorded since the 2010 election. In contrast, Labour has further strengthened its position despite an underwhelming performance in Eastleigh (where party expectations were much lower), with an increase in support from 40.7% to 41.2%. This leaves Labour with a lead of 11.3% in the polls, continuing a run of double-digit leads which has persisted for almost twelve months and must start to cast doubt on popular wisdom that this is ‘soft’ support that will crumble as soon as an election is called.

Indeed, there is evidence that Labour’s reputation is recovering from when it was thrown out of office in 2010. Specifically, it has been steadily been polling around level with the Conservatives as the party best able to handle the economy in general, and has, in fact, been leading on taxation in most months since George Osborne’s calamitous omnishambles budget statement of March 2012 (see the YouGov issue tracker here). How is this even possible after the financial ‘mess’ that the last Labour government is so frequently accused of leaving the public finances in, and Labour’s struggle to develop a convincing economic narrative against the Coalition’s shock doctrine of austerity? Much of the reason is the simple fact that the debt crisis was the result of a global financial crisis only of limited making of the British government (with British voters typically being more pragmatic and nuanced than either their politicians or the media). Research by Ray Duch and Randy Stevenson has found that voters tend to punish governments less for poor economic performance in contexts that are more exposed to economic shocks from outside: in other words, voters can find it difficult to evaluate the competency of policy-makers in open globalised economies where external factors can influence macroeconomic outcomes. However, as economic waters have calmed across the Eurozone area it has become increasingly difficult for George Osborne and David Cameron to blame the excesses of southern European governments for the economic difficulties being endured at home. The label of ‘a recession made in Downing Street’ may be the most damaging for the Conservatives come the 2015 election, if the British economy does not pick up but things are improving on the continent.

Despite what has been a tumultuous month for the Liberal Democrats, a steady performance in Eastleigh, based on a strong ground campaign and popular local candidate, combined with a rise in support from 6.9% to 9.1% suggests their electoral fortunes for 2015 may not be quite as bleak as some have predicted.

Last, but not least, our estimates provide yet more evidence of the continued rise of UKIP, with its support increasing from 8.5% to 9.3%. Combined with the by-election result in Eastleigh pushing the Conservatives into third place, this points to the continued challenge to Cameron’s party: UKIP tends to attract older voters who perceive social and demographic change as threatening to their sense of British identity, voters who remain strongly concerned about immigration and have become deeply disaffected from the mainstream political elite. The rise of UKIP, and the roots of its support, needs to be put in the context of several decades of public policy. In recent times, governments have tended to favour the quickest path to economic growth above all other considerations, in particular focused on financial services and London. This economic imperative arguably was one of the factors behind Labour’s relaxing of migration policy after 1997, and its decision to allow unrestricted access to migrants from Eastern Europe in 2004. As a consequence, there has been a widening gap between the social and economic experiences of Britain’s cities – where economic growth has harnessed immigration and ethnic  diversity  is a well established and accepted part of social life – and experiences in suburban and rural “shire Britain”, which remain ethnically homogenous and attached to  a nostalgic 1950s ideal – a world of leafy suburbs, small businesses, country pubs, village greens, strict classrooms, obsequious deference to authority, and the friendly local policeman. Nigel Farage is a man of this world, and has proved effective at harnessing anxieties about contemporary developments – immigration, diversity and Brussels – and marrying them to a sepia-toned vision of the “common sense” society of times past. Anxiety and nostalgia combined is a potent mix, particularly for older voters, who turn out in droves. We expect UKIP to continue to play a high profile, disruptive role on the political scene over the rest of this Parliament – particularly at the European Parliament elections next year.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

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

This 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.

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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 #20: final look at the parties in 2012, Osborne’s standing and the ‘house effect’

This is the twentieth 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.

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The Chancellor’s Autumn statement marks the midpoint of this parliament, delivered against the backdrop of a stagnating economy and with the tough medicine of austerity now prescribed until 2018 at least (with OBR’s poor track record in forecasting leaving doubts there too), well after the next election. But with conference season now a distant memory and winter upon us, has there been any real shift in the political weather?

In our latest estimates, Labour are at 41.4% (down 0.5% from last month) and the Conservatives at 30.6% (down 1.3%), meaning that the Labour lead has widened to almost 11% despite downward movement in support for both the main parties. The beneficiaries of this have been the Liberal Democrats at 8.5% (up 0.6%) and UKIP at 8.8% (up 1.1%), who have both gained support. Our polling data runs up to the start of this week, so does not capture any post-Leveson fallout for the Cameron government over its rejection of statutory underpinning of press regulation, or immediate reactions to the budget. Certainly things are not looking good for the main coalition partners, the Conservatives, who have hit an all-time low in our estimates.

The budget statement of April 2012 will go down in history as one of the most politically disastrous in history, leading it to be tagged the ‘omnishambles’ and severely damaging the reputation of the Chancellor and the government for competence as well as reinforcing the perception (deserved or not) of the Conservatives as the party of the rich. Support for the Conservatives has never recovered from this crash in April 2012. While the Autumn statement has received nothing like the bad press, there are few rabbits for the Chancellor to pull out of the hat in austere times. Significantly, Osborne continues to suffer from poor standing with the public. Depending on your choice of pollster, he has an ‘unfavourable’ rating of 58% (Ipsos-MORI, April 2012), 56% (ICM, August 2012) or 53% (Opinium, October 2012). These figures are high by historical standards, though do not quite reach the dissatisfaction rating of 70% reached by Norman Lamont (Gallup, March 1993) or Nigel Lawson’s 61% (Gallup, January 1989), each of whom were soon given the axe. They are not far off though. If Osborne is to avoid being a drag on Conservative support at the next election, he is going to have to reverse this state of affairs soon.

The continued rise of UKIP has attracted a great deal of discussion, not least with regard to the relative intolerance of its supporters (see articles by Rob Ford here and here). It has also stimulated debate over the methods pollsters use to survey vote intention for ‘other’ parties, discussed by Damian Lyons Lowe of Survation and Anthony Wells. Our method enables us to put a figure on the degree to which each pollsters’ estimates of UKIP support are above or below the underlying industry average. These are consistent with Anthony Wells’ findings, with the internet pollsters Survation (+3.0%), Opinium (+2.1%) and Angus Reid (+1.3%) reporting the highest share for UKIP on average, and the telephone pollsters TNS-BMRB (-1.1%), Ipsos-MORI (-1.4%), Populus (-1.5%) and ICM (-2.1%) reporting the lowest share. As UKIP seem to be a political force to reckon with, at least for the time being, the question of such polling ‘house effects’ (i.e. the systematic tendency for a polling firms to report higher or lower support for a particular party) is going to be increasingly important in assessing the state of support for the parties.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #19: British polling after the conference…and a look across the pond

This is the nineteenth 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.

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The conference season is now over for another year, and our latest polling estimate gives us a chance to gauge whether any of the main parties enjoyed a boost. The answer is a clear “no”: our estimates suggest that each party’s support was static through the conference season. Labour ended October on 41.9%, up 0.4% on their pre-conference position, the Conservatives continue to trail on 31.4%, down 0.3% while the Liberal Democrats fall slightly, down 0.6% to 7.9%. The overall political landscape remains much as it has since the Conservatives’ post budget “omnishambles” collapse in the spring. Nothing which has happened since has altered voters’ views, which is ominous for the Conservatives as it suggests the opinions of those who deserted the party earlier this year may have hardened against the government.

We have now introduced a fourth party, the UK Independence Party, to our estimates. UKIP have advanced steadily in the polls over this election cycle, although pollsters vary widely in their estimates of the party’s support, with internet pollsters tending to give them stronger results. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Our model takes the view that the pollsters’ performance in the 2010 are the best guide for current estimates, and ends up splitting the difference to some extent, assuming that some of the strongest UKIP pollsters are over-estimating the party, while some of the weakest are under-estimating it. Our overall estimate suggests a slow but steady advance for the Eurosceptics, from a low of about 1.5% in the summer of 2010 to 7.6% in our current estimates. There are few bumps in the shallow upward trend, except for a sharp uptick around the time of “omnishambles”, when UKIP support jumped from 5% to 7.5%. This would suggest that much of UKIP’s support is coming from disgruntled Conservatives, a view backed up by other work.

So this conference season, like the last, was a disappointment for parties and pundits, as despite gallons of ink spilt over speeches and strategies, the electorate was unmoved. The other big story of the past month was, of course, the Presidential election in the United States, where polling analysts found themselves unexpectedly caught in the partisan crossfire. After a strong first debate performance, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who had been trailing, closed much of the gap on President Barack Obama. Over the final three weeks of the campaign, many pundits (particularly on the right) declared that Romney had “momentum” and – based on “savvy”, “gut feeling” or “inside information” declared that he was overtaking the President and would win come election day. Polling analysts such as Simon Jackman at Huffington Post-pollster.com, Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium and most prominentlyNate Silver of the New York Times’ fivethirtyeight blog poured scorn on this theory, pointing out that the polls had barely budged after their initial first debate shift and consistently pointed to a narrow victory for the President, eked out through strong performance in the crucial swing states. This lead to an extraordinary barrage ofvehement, ill-informed attacks from journalists and commentators who felt that such polling analysis was wrong-headed, partisan, or no substitute for journalistic wiles. A few Brits even decided to join in,such as cultural historian Dr Tim Stanley, a man with no experience in polling analysis, who nonetheless felt amply qualified to dismiss polls and analysis which he deemed had devolved “from an objective gauge of the public mood to a propaganda tool: partisan and inaccurate”.

The unusual thing about this dispute is how easy it was to settle: the polls were either going to be right or not come election day. Tuesday’s election returns can therefore be declared a resounding victory for polls and polling analysts – who called every state successfully – and a resounding defeat for “gut feeling”, “insider information” and Dr Tim Stanley. We hope that Dr Stanley will at least consider a course in elementary statistics before venturing into polling commentary again.

We can draw a few lessons from this little controversy for British politics and polling. Firstly, poll averaging can be a very powerful tool, and an important counter-weight to journalistic narratives which are often constructed based on very little solid evidence. Many media commentators were convinced Mitt Romney had momentum, but the polling clearly said he did not. The polling was correct. Secondly, many journalists and commentators have a very sketchy understanding of polling and statistics in general, and regard it with suspicion, particularly when it doesn’t agree with their partisan or professional biases. Journalists wanted a fight to the finish, and Republican partisans wanted a Romney victory, so both groups dismissed evidence which did not agree with these preconceptions. Thirdly, thanks to the rise of the internet, polling data is freely and easily available to all and so interested and numerate citizens no longer have to accept the campaign narrative constructed by the media commentariat. They can download the data, draw their own conclusions, and write these up for the world to see. Several young Americans made a name for themselves doing just that, including The New Republic’s Nate Cohn and the Guardian’s Harry Enten.

So the 2012 US election was a “triumph of the nerds”. This is encouraging for the Polling Observatory team, as we look to apply similar methods of polling aggregation and analysis to clarify the political picture on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, we tried our hands at forecasting in Britain ahead of the 2010 election, producing a seat by seat prediction model which performed pretty well in the end,  getting the Conservative seat total exactly right andsubstantially outperforming a model constructed by Nate Silver, with whom we had an entertaining “nerdfight“. It is too early in the election cycle to begin producing forecasts for the 2015 election, but we feel that our polling analysis – and others such as the excellent UK Polling Report blog authored by Anthony Wells – still serves a valuable purpose, helping to separate the genuine shifts in the public mood from the random bumps and bounces produced by sampling error. As the election approaches, though, we will dust off our old forecasting model, spruce it up and put it to work figuring out how the next Parliament is likely to look. Watch this space.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling the Parties in April 2011 – Labour 40.4% (-0.8%), Conservative 34.5% (nc), Liberal Democrat 9.8% (+0.9%)

This is the second in a regular series of posts reporting 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. Our method is preferable to taking the average of all available polls in a ‘poll of polls’ because it also takes into account the estimated biases of the individual pollsters (“house effects”), the effects of sample size on the likely accuracy of polls, and the effects of the sampling decisions pollsters make, which mean their samples are not truly random (“design effects”). 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.

Our most recent update on public support for the parties, taken on May 1 just four days before voters across the UK go to the polls in national and local elections as well as the referendum on AV, suggests a slight weakening of the Labour lead over the Conservatives during May, and a slight upturn in support for the Liberal Democrats over the last month. Our current estimate for the Conservatives stands at 34.5%, around the same level as we identified last month. Support for Labour, at 40.4%, is around a percentage point down on the end of April. The Liberal Democrats have experienced a slight improvement from the lows of last month, with our estimated poll share now putting them at 9.8%, more than a percentage point higher than in April.

Polling the Coalition: the story so far

Vote Intention April 2010-April 2011

 

This is the first of a regular series of posts that will 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

Given that this is our initial post, we thought we should look back on how things have developed since 6th May 2010 when the British public delivered their mixed verdict on the Brown government.

While obviously keen to get rid of Labour – which suffered the largest fall in its vote since 1983, to 29.7% – voters were less clear on who should replace Brown’s party in office. The Conservatives increased their support to 37% of votes cast, but this was the lowest share with which the party had ever entered government, and far below the 40% plus it had consistently achieved in the Thatcher-Major years. The Liberal Democrats managed a small increase in support to 23.6%, but were bitterly disappointed that ‘Cleggmania’, which some  polls predicated would see the party overtake Labour, ultimately came to so little.

With all three main parties finishing the election weaker than they had hoped, the only unambiguous winner on the night was ‘none of the above’, with record vote shares for the UK Independence Party and the British National Party, and a first-ever seat at Westminster for the Greens. In total, parties beyond the big three took a record 9.7% of the vote.

So, what has happened since the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition? The chart above shows our estimate of the trends in support for the main three parties. The solid line charts the weekly trend estimate while the dotted lines show the confidence intervals around this estimate. These dotted lines reflect the fact that we can never be entirely certain of the true state of public opinion. Pooling all the polling data together, and modelling it appropriately, we can however be 95% confident that true public opinion falls somewhere within these bounds.

The Conservatives started life in power well, with their estimated polling share rising about three points in the first few months of government. Our estimates peak in the early summer at around 40%. Since then, the continuous stream of stories about tax rises, spending cuts and poor economic performance has slowly eroded support for Cameron’s party. This decline seems to have accelerated somewhat since the Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010, when the full gory detail of the public spending cuts became clear. Our current estimates place them at around 35%, that is two points below where the party stood in May 2010.

The Liberal Democrats have also not blossomed in coalition, although their trajectory has been rather different to that of the Conservatives. Our estimates suggest that support for the party declined consistently throughout 2010. The fall is particularly steep soon after the government was formed, perhaps as a result of the angry departure of left-leaning voters who have since 1997 tactically supported Liberal Democrat candidates to keep out the Conservatives. Support continued to decline throughout the rest of the year, however, as Clegg’s party found itself in the firing line over a variety of issues. The nadir was reached towards the end of 2010, around the time of the university tuition fees votes and associated protests. At this point, our estimates suggest Liberal Democrat support was around 7%, that is less than a third of the party’s showing in the general election. Since the start of 2011 the party’s position has slowly improved, perhaps because they have been less prominently associated with unpopular policies. Our current estimate suggests the party now stands at around 9%.

The story for Labour has been one of continuous advance, with its poll ratings rising continuously throughout the second half of 2010, picking up on average about 1.5 percentage points a month. By the autumn of 2010 our model estimates Labour was in a statistical dead heat with the Conservatives, with both parties in the mid-to-high thirties. Labour’s advance has since continued, and with the Conservatives now declining rapidly, Labour pulled into a clear lead. Since January 2011, our model suggests that Labour holds a polling advantage over the Conservatives. The party’s poll numbers have levelled off in the past month or so at around 42%, but with the Conservatives continuing to decline Labour now holds a seven or eight point lead over their main rivals. In other words, in less than a year, Labour has gone from trailing the Conservatives by over seven points to leading them by over six points. This is a remarkable transformation.

The story these trends tell is one familiar to students of  recent British political history – a tale of voters gradually losing faith in the governing parties and turning to the opposition – although the speed and depth of the process is highly unusual. Perhaps this is due to the context. Voters don’t much like ‘austerity politics’: spending cuts, tax increases and economic stagnation are not an appealing package.

The challenge for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in the next year will be to win back support despite having little to offer but more of the same.  Future reports will keep you updated each month on their progress.

 

Welcome to the Polling Observatory

Welcome to the Polling Observatory, a blog by Rob Ford, Will Jennings and Mark Pickup that provides analysis and discussion of the vote intention polls. At any given point, there are many polls in the public domain, which paint different, often contradictory pictures of public opinion. It is sometimes difficult and confusing to sort out the true pattern of public opinion and to separate real change in the views of voters from movements that are a consequence of random sampling error or the result of differences in the methods that different pollsters apply to estimate public opinion. We aim to extract the signal from the noise by employing statistical techniques that can combine different sources of polling information while acknowledging and accounting for their differences.

Our method produces an estimate of current electoral sentiment by pooling all the currently available polling data, while taking into account the estimated biases of the individual pollsters (“house effects”), the effects of sample size on the likely accuracy of polls, and the effects of the sampling decisions pollsters make, which mean their samples are not truly random (“design effects”). To estimate “house effects”, we make use of the most recent 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.

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