Time’s arrow and the pre-election polls

Time’s arrow and the pre-election polls

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Imagine, for a moment, that there was no Fixed Term Parliaments Act. How would we be assessing the political situation in the late spring of 2014? By past standards, we are very late in the parliament, and everything would be seen in the light of election timing. Would the prime minister go for it in June, October or take a punt on delaying until 2015? We can be reasonably confident that May 2014 is a year away from a general election, because the term is fixed and the coalition agreement precludes an early end to this parliament. But this is very different from a lot of previous parliaments; it was impossible to tell in May 1978 or June 1986 that there was a year to go until an election. The date of the election was itself partly determined by the state of the polls in the late midterm. We often tend to assume away this uncertainty and take the election date as given, and work back from it. Leo Barasi has analysed the last years of parliaments. Steve Fisher has produced a statistical model based on pre-election periods, with interesting – and, for Labour, depressing – results, but I wonder how much can be read into them. Let us, for a moment, look at the matter from the other end of the telescope. It will take a better statistician than I am to see how much it will affect election predictions; I suspect it would, but at this stage I am just asking the question. The following table shows the state of the polls 46 months into a parliament, the point at which many prime ministers will have been pondering whether to have a general election or not, and the point for which we have the most recent full set of polling data in 2014. Month 46 voting intention Con % Lab % Lib/ LD % Opposition lead % Election timing Winner Opposition margin at GE %* Swing back to Gov’t % May 1949 46 40 11 +6 Feb 1950 Government -3 +4.5 March 1959 46 47 7 +1 Oct 1959 Government -6 +3.5 August 1963 35 49 15 +14 Oct 1964 Opposition +1 +6.5 Jan 1970 48 41 8 +7 June 1970 Opposition +3 +2 August 1978 44 47 6 -2 May 1979 Opposition +7 -4.5 March 1983 41 29 28 -12 June 1983 Government -15 +1.5 April 1987 41 31 26 -10 June 1987 Government -12 +1 April 1991 41 40 15 -1 April 1992 Government -8 +3.5 Feb 1996 27 54 16 +27 May 1997 Opposition +13 +7 March 2001 31 50 13 -19 June 2001 Government -9 -5...

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The last big test

The last big test

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Labour should be aiming for steady progress rather than huge gains in next month’s local elections The European and local elections next month will be the last big test of UK-wide public opinion before the general election in May 2015. The headline result from these polls will be who wins the largest share of the national vote in the European parliament election. The contest appears to be between Labour and the United Kingdom Independence party, with the interesting situation that the conventional Westminster wisdom is that Ukip will win, but every poll so far showing Labour in the lead. The Conservatives are expected to come third and the Liberal Democrats to suffer a near-death experience. The climate is very different to what it was at the last European election in June 2009, where the expenses scandal and economic collapse produced an extremely bleak situation for Labour with a humiliating vote share of 15.7 per cent and 13 members of the European parliament. Things, as the song goes, can only get better. In the 2014 elections, a three-way tie with Ukip and the Tories with about 24 per cent of the vote would yield Labour 20-22 seats – and Labour should be able to hope for more than that, although the party will not get the sort of 38-40 per cent support it enjoys in national polls because some normally Labour voters tend to support smaller parties such as the Greens in European elections. The two members of the European parliament elected in 2009 under the banner of the British National party will almost certainly be defeated, so whatever else happens there is some good news to come from these elections. The results in Scotland will no doubt be analysed (probably overanalysed) for what they might tell us about the independence referendum. When looking for the political message from a set of local elections there are two key measurements. One is the area where the elections are taking place, and the other is what happened the last time the seats were contested. The 2013 county elections took place disproportionately in Tory England, while the battleground in 2014 is more on Labour’s turf in London, the metropolitan boroughs and a scatter of unitary and district councils (there will also be local elections for Northern Ireland’s 11 new local authorities). Labour’s performance in 2010, in contrast with the 2009 elections, was not too bad. The higher turnout caused by having the general election on the same day as the local elections meant that Labour did not suffer from differential turnout because its supporters are harder to get to the polls. The party’s local election gains...

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Avoid psephological apophenia!

Avoid psephological apophenia!

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. One of the problems of writing about opinion polls is that the more startling, extraordinary and news-worthy a poll finding is, the more likely it is to be wrong. The fact that most of them are commissioned by the media accentuates the tendency to highlight the sensational results, particularly the ones your own media organisation has commissioned. Twitter may have amplified this trend, with partisans eagerly tweeting results that look good for their party and downplaying the ones that bear bad news. Variations in headline numbers usually reflect the inevitable workings of the science of sampling rather than real movements in public opinion; it is as well to wait a while and look at more than one poll to see if there is a real trend. Good writers on polls such as Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report and the Nottingham team who run Polling Observatory often find themselves writing variations of ‘nothing much to see here, Labour still a bit ahead’. I’ll try to go a little beyond that here, but first a word on the national polls. There might still be nothing much to see in the national polls at the moment; Labour remains ahead by a fairly small but extremely stubborn margin. There have been several polls in the last few days suggesting that Labour’s lead is at the low end of its recent range, with IPSOS-MORI, ICM, Populus and YouGov all finding Labour leads in the 1-3 point zone, but last weekend there were some with rather large Labour leads of 7 and 9 points. We can’t tell yet whether Labour’s lead has really slipped from 6-ish to 4-ish, but it certainly can’t be ruled out either and there is increasing evidence that Labour might have suffered a further erosion in support from around 38 per cent to around 36 per cent. It is quite possible that if Labour’s lead really is around 3 points, a good poll well within the standard sampling variation could put the Conservatives a point or two ahead. The chances of at least one doing so are heightened by the frequency with which polls are conducted. There do not seem to have been any specific events that might have triggered a slippage, but it is possible that it reflects a slowly increasing level of personal economic optimism – the proportion YouGov have found expecting better times has edged up to around 17 per cent (although it is still less than most polls in the run-up to the 2010 election). Conservatives, as one might expect, are most optimistic but interestingly UKIP supporters are the most pessimistic. One can have all sorts of fun with time...

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On Labour’s tail

On Labour’s tail

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Labour had considerable cause for satisfaction in the result of the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election last month. There had been some jitters at the start of the campaign about the potential for the United Kingdom Independence party to do well in this strongly Labour, mostly white working-class constituency, but in the end it was a solid Labour hold. Ukip fell short of the psychologically important 20 per cent mark, which they had cleared in comparable by-elections in Rotherham and South Shields and needed to maintain momentum. As north-west member of parliament Jonathan Reynolds observed, it was the first time Ukip had gone into an election with something to lose – and it lost it. Although Wythenshawe is a setback for the party’s grander hopes, 18 per cent of the vote was still enough for second place and is a performance that would have been regarded as extraordinary until fairly recently. The potential for Ukip to emerge as the second party of the urban north is still apparent, as the Liberal Democrats were humiliated and the Conservative vote slid badly.   Wythenshawe therefore confirmed the trend of recent local authority by-elections in metropolitan areas. Council by-elections are not prime-grade material for electoral analysis: the turnouts are low and the results sometimes affected by local and personal factors. But if there is a consistent series in which similar things happen, there will be some interesting nuggets to extract from the ore. The chart opposite shows what has happened in the seats Labour has defended in by-elections in the metropolitan boroughs since the Ukip surge in the May 2013 local elections in the shire counties. The picture is extremely clear. The Conservative vote has declined steadily since its peak in 2008, while the Liberal Democrat vote fell sharply in 2011 and has not recovered. Labour’s vote rose steadily until 2012, but has dropped significantly in recent by-elections (although the swing to Labour since 2010 is still large). Ukip has surged from next to nothing to take a strong second place, with 21.2 per cent in the seats it fought. The coalition parties have nearly ceased to exist in this strongly Labour slice of urban England and have been replaced as the main anti-Labour party  by Ukip; had it not been for the singular success of persistent Conservative candidate Gary Sambrook, who gained Kingstanding ward in Birmingham on the same day as Wythenshaw voted, the trend would look even worse for the Tories. Ukip’s performance in the by-elections since May 2013 is much better than in the year from May 2012 to May 2013, although that year did show the party picking up a bit. Of...

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Labour’s road to victory

Labour’s road to victory

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Labour’s target list in the 2015 election includes 106 constituencies that the party aims to add to the 258 seats it won in the general election of 2010. If the party were to hit all the targets, it would have 366 seats and therefore a comfortable overall majority of 83 in the House of Commons – more than in 2005 but less than in the next most comparable election, Harold Wilson’s landslide of 1966. This is an ambitious target, but not an impossible one – it is almost identical to the number of gains the Conservatives made in 2010. One has already been made, in the Corby by-election of November 2012, and two seats that were Labour in 2010 no longer are because of a member of parliament losing the whip (Falkirk) and a by-election loss (Bradford West). There are two intermediate staging-posts on the way to that comfortable overall majority. It would take a gain of 27 seats – this list only as far as Brentford and Isleworth – in order for Labour to become the largest single party in a hung parliament and therefore most likely to lead a government. To win exactly half the seats in a 650-seat House of Commons, a party needs to win 325 seats, which means 67 net gains. If Labour gets to 325 MPs, it will in practice have a tiny overall majority because Sinn Fein MPs do not take their seats and the speaker does not vote unless there is a tie. However, such a bare majority is insufficient to ensure that a Labour government has the authority to overcome potential obstacles and implement its policies. A solid grip on power requires breaking into the ‘Frontline 40’ that lie beyond the first 66 gains. Even if Labour wins the election with a good majority, there will probably be one or two of the first 66 constituencies that fail to come over because regional and local variations are becoming more important in election outcomes. By crafting an effective national message, selecting good candidates, listening to voters and running intelligent and locally appropriate campaigns, Labour can do a lot to maximise its gains among the first 66 target seats as well as the Frontline 40. Target seats are to be found in every one of the 11 electoral regions of mainland Britain, from Plymouth in the south-west to Dundee in Scotland and from Preseli Pembrokeshire in Wales to Waveney in the east. Even among the 27 needed to just overtake the Conservatives, there are seats in every electoral region other than Scotland. The richest concentrations of marginal seats, however, are to be found in the...

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How will the Lib Dems actually do?

How will the Lib Dems actually do?

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Public opinion, at least in terms of voting intention, has been unusually stable during this parliament. There has barely been any change in the main parties’ ratings since the middle of 2013, when Labour’s lead over the Conservatives narrowed and Ukip support subsided a bit from its peak just after the county council elections in May. But for the Liberal Democrats the line has been completely flat since the end of 2010 when tuition fees alienated many of their remaining left-of-centre supporters who had stayed despite the formation of the coalition. The polls at the start of 2014 have been completely consistent with the pattern of the last three years – Liberal Democrat support is between eight and 13 per cent. There are some ‘house effects’ from each pollster: Populus is consistently the most generous and the lowest numbers tend to come from YouGov. There appears little that the scandals over Mike Hancock and Chris Rennard can do – so far – to drive their ratings any lower. Every month, a detailed analysis of polling trends appears on the Nottingham University website – the work of Rob Ford and his co-authors at Polling Observatory. Every month, Liberal Democrats – including reality-based ones such as Stephen Tall – object to how the Polling Observatory numbers treat their party. For instance, Liberal Democrat support in the Nottingham data series for January 2014 is recorded at 7.78 per cent, which is less than any opinion poll has found. The reason for this is that in adjusting for house effects and variations in sample size and design, the 2010 election is the baseline: To estimate ‘house effects’, we make use of the 2010 election result – our model treats the 2010 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. As Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley note in the Nuffield study of the 2010 general election, polling error was highly unusual when compared to its predecessors. The final polls of an election campaign usually overestimate the Labour share of the vote (with particularly bleak effects in 1992) but in 2010 Labour did better than the final polls. All the pollsters overestimated the Liberal Democrat share, too. YouGov, despite producing low figures for the Lib Dems now, overstated the Liberal Democrats by more than average in May 2010. The first televised party leader debates and the brief eruption of ‘Cleggmania’ created a particularly unstable polling environment during the 2010 campaign even if the eventual result (and an exceptionally accurate exit poll) suggested that opinion ended up pretty...

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