At exactly 2200 on May 7th UK politics totally changed in the biggest shock election since 1970

July 6th, 2015


An invitation to PBers to join an academic/Ipsos-MORI post GE15 conference next week

After every election since 1979 there’s been a joint academic and MORI (now Ipsos-MORI) conference to look by at what happened and the lessons for the future. The 2015 one takes lace next Monday and Tuesday in London.

The organisers tell me that PBers are very welcome to apply for tickets. The only cost might be a small catering charge.

Full details and links can be found here.

I’m speaking on the Tuesday and it would be great to meet up with any PBers who can attend.

Mike Smithson


On Twitter in the LAB leadership battle the Corbyn campaign has most to be pleased about

July 6th, 2015

But can we read anything into these numbers?

Following their entries into the race all four contenders set up dedicated campaign Twitter accounts and the numbers in the chart above show how many followers they have attracted.

All of these were created at about the same time so comparisons are valid. The question is what can we read into the numbers?

What I find interesting is that the contenders perceived as being the most left and right wing are the ones that have done better. What this might indicate is that their support base base in more enthusiastic. Certainly the Tweeting by their campaign and by Corbyn and Kendall themselves has appeared to be the most effective. They are using the medium well. Cooper and Burnham, meanwhile, appear to be a lot less sure-footed in their messaging.

There’s a long way to go. Ballot pack start going out in more than five weeks.

Mike Smithson


The final Greek vote: YES 38.7%: NO 61.3%

July 6th, 2015


So what’s the next move? We really are moving into the unknown


Greece: It’s looking like NO

July 5th, 2015


Nick Sparrow, the pollster who did most to change post-1992, on poll averaging, herding and the pressure to conform

July 5th, 2015


Why Polls End Up Saying The Same Thing

Following the General Election, the pollsters have been accused of having herd instincts.  How else do so many polling companies, acting independently, get to the same – wrong – answer?

In the final days of the campaign, the polls mainly agreed on the likely outcome, and even a late movement to Labour.  Polls of polls ironed out small differences and gave an even greater feeling of certainty.  But the natural belief that the average of independent observations is likely to be most accurate does not apply to vote intention polls.  Almost all the final polls in all general elections since the Second World War show bias and not error.  Put simply, they almost always err in one direction or the other, mainly underestimating the Conservatives.  In short, beware the average, it is only better than the worst and worse than the best.

    Nevertheless, apart from a few days, or at the most weeks after a general election, pollsters are judged by media commentators mainly on the proximity of their predictions to the average, whether that average is calculated or more vaguely expected.  That pressure is steady and, as polling day approaches, increasing. 

    A pollster with results diverging from the average will be asked by their client and others to examine every aspect of the methods for anything that might be “wrong”.  A pollster with results on the average can relax.

Those soft but sustained pressures, over the years, will tend to give greater prominence to those perfectly justifiable methods that tend to lead in the direction of conformity, and less attention may be paid to methods that lead to a greater degree of divergence.  So, the average is not only where the pollsters feel most comfortable, clients and political commentators believe the average is likely to be most right.

However, the pressure to conform to the average of the polls in turn restricts the tone of political commentary.  Common sense might have told us that the Conservatives would do very well in the General Election.   Nowadays it is more similar to a presidential election, with decisions by ordinary voters based only or primarily on the look of the leader, his aspirations for Britain, goals and ambitions.  Cameron vs Miliband was a mismatch.  Inasmuch as party and policy matter, Old Labour was so last century; the policy proposals lacking resonance in modern Britain.  The polls did not have the right smell about them.  Why did so few say so at the time?

Rather than herd instinct, the process by which pollsters and commentators influence each other may be better described as an informational cascade.  Over the long term, the publication of vote intention polls adds to the expectation of what any new poll will predict, sometimes irrespective of any other signals pointing in a different direction.  The theory would suggest that the publication of vote intention polls, strongly promoted as being reliable by the media owners who pay for them, suggesting certainty both for the overall prediction as well as small fluctuations, can rapidly influence a much larger group to accept the likelihood of a particular outcome.  At some point, the theory goes, any person with a correct prediction (however it is obtained) can be convinced, through social pressure, to adopt an alternative and incorrect view of the likely outcome.

Following a 1992 sized polling debacle, pollsters now need to take a hard look at the methods. Still relevant are the recommendations made by the Market Research Society in the report published after 1992:

“We would encourage methodological pluralism; as long as we cannot be certain which techniques are best, uniformity must be a millstone – a danger signal rather than an indication of health.  We should applaud diversity; in a progressive industry experimentation is a means of development.  No pollster should feel the need to be defensive about responsible attempts to explore in a new direction …”

Now that is a lot easier to suggest than to do.  Between 1992 and 1997 I changed from quota face-to-face interviewing to random telephone polls (“you can’t do that not everyone has a telephone”) started weighting by past voting (“you can’t do that, people imagine they voted for the party they now support – Hemmelweit et al”) and adjusted for the likely votes of those who could not or would not say who they would vote for (“you are making up the answers”).

Defiantly, and with the backing of The Guardian, as the General Election in 1997 approached I produced very different predictions to the rest, and in the process had my ear well and truly bent by many political commentators who had come to believe the average of the polls, most of which used methods in 1997 unchanged from 1992.

As it turned out the ICM prediction was most accurate, but in the run up to polling day the pressure to adopt the alternative, less accurate average of the rest, was intense.

Now, as then, pollsters should be seeking new solutions, and be unafraid of producing results very different to each other.  The average is clearly not to be trusted.  Sadly, I suggest, the likelihood is that come 2020 both pollsters and political commentators will again be converging on the average.

Nick Sparrow – former head of polling at ICM


The LD leadership race where NOT being anti-immigration could be a vote winner

July 5th, 2015

With the Lib Dem leadership race drawing to a close the favourite, ex-party president Tim Farron, according to the Observer, has said that the UK should take 60,000 immigrants to help deal with the current crisis. According to Toby Helm’s report:

“..“We should support this because we are decent people. Our party should not have a mixed message about this. We should not turn people away,” he said.

The former Lib Dem president has written to David Cameron to say the UK should be proud of its record on taking in refugees, citing the admission of many thousands of Ugandan Asians who were expelled by President Idi Amin in 1972… “

In my judgement this is a wise move by Farron which will resonate well with the 60,000 party members who are currently voting on who should succeed Nick Clegg.

All the polling suggests that Lib Dem voters have a different view on immigration from those of other parties and my guess is that this will be more so with actual party members.

This call will help Farron reinforce his liberal credentials which have come under attack from some quarters in the campaign.

Mike Smithson


Liz Kendall: The 2015 LAB version of what Ken Clarke was for the Tories 1997-2005?

July 4th, 2015


For EU supporter read “Blairite” or “CON-lite”

As I was returning from holiday a couple of days ago the News Statesman’s, Stephen Bush posted the above Tweet which I’ve been pondering over ever since – for there might be a grain of truth in it.

After the appalling Tory defeat by Tony Blair in 1997 the Tories had a couple of chances when they could have chosen Ken Clarke as their leader but on each occasion he was just too much. His undiluted support for Britain in the EU was never going to resonate in a party that had been torn asunder by the issue in the mid-1990s. Yet I’d argue that he would have done far better job leading his party against Blair in the 1997-2001 and 2001-2005 periods than any of the three who were carrying the blue flag over that nine years.

Many found the big Clarke personality very appealing and CON members in a YouGov poll in September 2005 had him some way ahead of both David Davis and one David Cameron. This, as we know, was not to be.

Bush’s comparison with Liz Kendall has quite a lot of merit although she has far less name recognition than Clarke had. She’s been dismissed by her opponents as the “Blairite” candidate – the one who wants to bring in Tory policies. Yet as a recent survey of CON councillors showed she is the one who is most highly rated by the party’s main opponents.

    My view is that LAB might just possibly fare better under her than any of the other three. More than anything she is the change candidate and, who knows, could reach voters that Burnham, Corbyn and Cooper could not.

After the devastation on May 7th Labour needs to signal a fresh direction. Electing Kendal would certainly do that.

Mike Smithson


Tsipras’ own goal is Cameron’s gain

July 3rd, 2015


David Herdson on a crucial weekend

If there were any doubt that David Cameron is a lucky politician, events in Europe this last week have again made the point. No sooner had he suffered a setback at the European Council, failing to win a chance of treaty reform, than the Greek government gives him (inadvertently, no doubt), a huge helping hand.

The decision of Alexis Tsipras to commit his government to destruction by a method to be determined by the Greek voters tomorrow might be somewhat unorthodox by normal standards but then this is no orthodox government. The act of a snap referendum was, however, perhaps predictable as the equivalent of a student sit-in or protest march, which is the kind of politics Syriza is familiar with: the belief that a demonstration of solidarity and causing enough of a fuss will force opponents to grant concessions.

Those tactics work rarely enough in the workplace or the university, never mind the conference chambers of government, which is why Syriza has signed its own government’s death warrant. If the vote’s a Yes then its resignation follows, leading inevitably to new elections which one presumes the centre-right New Democracy would win. Alternatively, if it’s a No then it’s a more drawn out and bloody affair with an inevitable stand-off effectively between Yanis Varoufakis on the one hand, Wolfgang Schäuble on the other and the Greek banks and population in between.

By that point, irrespective of the economics, political factors would be paramount and the overriding consideration of the creditors would be to avoid setting an easy precedent – and the creditors, who in the context of an uncontrolled bank run have the trump card of effectively controlling Greece’s money supply and hence its ability to import food, petrol and other essentials – will therefore win providing they keep their nerve. Quite how the government would fall remains an open question but that it would fall is not.

Which way the vote will go is hard to call. The betting markets have Yes at a consistent 4/9 with SkyBet offering No at 7/4 (all other bookies quoting 13/8). That seems to me to considerably overestimate Yes’s chances; sufficiently so to recommend No at those odds.

No is clearly the loud campaign – who rallies for austerity? – and the government clearly believes its own delusions as to what the outcome will mean. And voters believe in the truth of that which is plainly strongly believed. Furthermore, at the last election, the main parties actively, if independently, advocating No polled 52.8% between them (you can’t call as disparate a group as the communist KKE, the radical leftist Syriza, the populist-nationalist ANEL and the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn a ‘coalition’ or ‘alliance’). By contrast, those advocating Yes, the conservative New Democracy, centrist Potami and social democrats Pasok only polled 38.5%. (The rest of the 2015 vote went to parties who failed to make it to parliament). The polls, with one exception have all shown the two sides within 4% of each other but with upwards of 15% undecided. That doesn’t feel to me like a solid Yes.

Of course, a loud campaign isn’t necessarily a winning campaign and Yes voters have plenty of reasons to be shy about their intentions. The likelihood is that No will struggle to reach most of the undecided: if they were inclined to vote that way they’d already be there. The question is whether Yes can motivate them instead.

What does all this have to do with David Cameron? Domestically, it again reinforces the message of responsible spending, of fixing the roof while the sun shines or at least making a start once the storm’s passed. Within the EU, it means the UK is no longer the most awkward member. True, the notion of opting out of ever closer union might be heretical to some but at least Britain wants to do it by changing the rules and staying within the rules. Greece’s game-playing, by contrast, is disruption of a different order. There’s an incentive for the Euro-elite to differentiate between the two approaches. Furthermore, there’s a real risk of Greece not only leaving the Eurozone but the EU itself. To lose one member may be unfortunate but to lose two would risk starting a fashion. There is therefore a strong incentive to cut a deal.

But it’s not just about appeasing the Brits. The Eurocrisis has been the beginning of the end of the Delors-era EU: the Europe of the Social Chapter and the federalising-through-regulation. The austerity programme, forced on many members in part via the Euro, has meant a rolling back of the social agenda. Put simply, it’s shifting the EU to the right. And that’s the positive case for Cameron to put to the sceptics in his own party.

David Herdson