David Herdson wonders how much we can trust the referendum polls

August 22nd, 2014

How effective are the pollsters with such a one-off event?

Knowledge, information and judgement: the past, present and future of effective prediction.  The problem, as far as the Scottish referendum is concerned, is that all three are badly affected by the paucity of precedent.  There have been referendums before, both in Britain and elsewhere, but all have their drawbacks for comparative purposes.  (Prediction is of course only one half of effective betting; the other being able to spot value).

From overseas, we can study the independence referendums in Quebec, the EU Treaty polls in various countries, and the Australian vote on the monarchy; closer to home there were the 1979 and 1997 votes on Scottish devolution, the EEC referendum and most recently the AV vote.  All, however, have their drawbacks in making direct comparisons, whether that be the nature of the electorate, the size of the turnout and intensity of the campaign, the divisiveness of the issue in question, or the broader political and economic context in which each one was fought.  Put simply, each one is a one-off to a much greater extent than a general election is.

That fact not only makes it harder for analysts to work out the implications of the polling numbers but it makes it harder for the polling companies themselves to produce accurate data.  How do you weight responses to reflect what they say about their likelihood to turn out, for example?  The general rule on turnout is that it’s driven by two key factors: how close the vote is perceived to be and how important the result is perceived to be.  September’s vote scores so highly on both counts it may pip the 81.1% Northern Ireland recorded in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum.  Ensuring the polls accurately represent those voters on the very fringe, who often will not be general election voters never mind other elections, will be no easy task.

Similarly, the methodologies used to try to ensure a balanced political sample become much more complex where there are apparently such disparities between how men and women are planning to vote, between those born in Scotland and those from outside.  Weightings can be and are applied but producing accurate figures is still akin to hitting a moving target, while standing on the back of a moving pickup truck, at dusk – which may account for the widely differing figures being published.

“Aha”, you might say, “then I’ll balance them out and take an average”, which is all very well except that there’s no guarantee that the average will be particularly accurate.  1992 remains the most famous example, but it’s not just a historic problem.  In 2010, every pollster overstated the Lib Dems and virtually every one understated both the Conservatives and Labour; five of the last six London mayoral polls in 2012 gave too low a share to Ken Livingstone, four of them by more than 3%; the Scottish election in 2011 saw the SNP under-reported for the regional vote in almost every poll, some by a considerable margin, even while those same polls got the SNP almost spot-on in the constituency section; most pollsters overstated those in favour of AV by 7-10% in the two weeks before the vote.

Put another way, even in elections for which pollsters have had a fair bit of practice, the methodology is still not perfect.  Worse, there’s been a tendency for all the various methodologies to be out the same way, if by different amounts.  In the Scottish referendum, they’ve had virtually no practice.

What does this mean for the vote?  My instinct would be to allow for a much wider range of possibilities than the polls are currently showing (and for once, perhaps because they can’t benchmark against their peers, there’s quite a spread already).  It may be that No has an even more commanding lead than the 22% YouGov found earlier this month; alternatively, it could be neck-and-neck, beyond even Survation or Panelbase’s findings.  We are in unchartered waters.  To that end, the value bet is with Yes – there is too great a degree of certainty in the odds at the moment.

David Herdson


Local By-Election Preview: August 21st 2014

August 21st, 2014

Wroxham on Broadland (Lib Dem defence)
Result of last election to council (2011): Conservatives 34, Liberal Democrats 11, Labour 1 (Conservative majority of 21)
Result of last election in ward (2011): Emboldened denotes elected
Liberal Democrats 985, 829
Conservatives 741, 537
Labour 227
Greens 197
Candidates duly nominated: Malcolm Kemp (Lab), Malcolm Springall (Lib Dem), Fran Whymark (Con)

Broadland, the council that seperates the urbanness of Norwich from the coastal Norfolk North, has been a right old Conservative heartland from the get go but unlike other Conservative heartlands it’s not been Labour or the Liberal Democrats who have been coming off the worse from the Conservative advance, it’s been the Independents. Back in 2003, there were eight of them, that tally fell to three in 2007 and at the 2011 elections they were completely wiped out whilst in that same time scale, the Conservatives made seven net gains, the Lib Dems made one net loss and Labour made one net loss suggesting as as this by-election doesn’t have an Independent (nor a UKIP candidate which in the current climate seems a little strange) it might well be a case of “Which coalition partner is stronger less than a year from a general election?”

West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner (Lab Defence)
Result of last election (2012): Labour 100,130 (42%), Conservative 44,130 (19%), Independent 30,778 (13%), UKIP 17,563 (7%), Independent 17,488 (7%), Liberal Democrats 15,413 (6%), Independent 12,882 (5%). Labour lead of 56,000 (23%). No candidate polled more than 50% of the vote plus one so second preferences counted. Labour gained 17,258 second preferences polling 117,388 votes (68%), Conservatives gained 11,555 second preferences polling 55,685 votes (32%). Labour WIN with a majority of 61,703 (34%).
Candidates duly nominated: David Jamieson (Lab), Les Jones (Con), Ayoub Khan (Lib Dem), Keith Rowe (UKIP)

To describe the PCC elections of November 2012 as “a triumph for local democracy” would be akin to calling the European Elections a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. The reason for this? Well, in the West Midlands in November 2012, a total of 238,394 voters cast a ballot (which on the face of it doesn’t sound too bad) until you put it in the context of an electorate of just shy of 2 million (a turnout of 12%) and as by-elections (generally speaking) see a turnout half that of the general election, the prospects of a new British record for the worst turnout in a by-election (currently held by the South Poplar by-election held in August 1942 where just 9.3% of the electorate voted) is almost bound to happen.

So if the turnout is as bad as it could be, who could come out on top? Well, we are able to make a fairly educated guess because we have had this election before (in the form of the European Elections, which were held on the same local areas). In those elections, Labour topped the poll with 35% of the vote, UKIP came second with 29%, the Conservatives on 19% and the Liberal Democrats on 5%. Now, as there are no other candidates (who in the Euros clocked up 12%), we can estimate that in this situation Labour would have won 40%, UKIP 33%, the Conservatives 22% and the Liberal Democrats 6%, therefore as no candidate would have crossed the 50% +1 line, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat second preferences would come into play and here’s where it gets interesting. In a large number of by-elections of late where UKIP have the potential to win they do not because of clear tactical voting against UKIP, so I think there is a very strong chance that just as we have seen in Newark and Rotherham, UKIP fail at the final hurdle.


If the swing-back theorists are right the proportion of 2010 LD who’ve switched to LAB will decline

August 21st, 2014

There’s absolutely no sign of that happening yet

The chart shows the monthly average proportion of all 2010 LDs in the twice-weekly Populus polls since the series started in July 2013.

So far, as the chart shows, this group of switchers (“Labour’s electoral clutch” as they’ve been described) are remaining solid and are propping up the red team’s poll ratings.

In yesterday’s Ashcroft polling of the marginals the level of switching was higher than in national polls and, interestingly, it increased when the second, seat specific, question was asked.

There are so many uncertainties about GE2015 – that LAB in the key marginals will be buttressed by large numbers of 2010 LD voters is not one of them.

Mike Smithson

Ranked in top 33 most influential over 50s on Twitter


Take LAB majority odds at 2-1 or longer – this is now a great value bet

August 21st, 2014

Ed-with-No-10-collage (1)

Yesterday’s batch of Lord Ashcroft polls of key CON-LAB marginals is further evidence that the betting price on CON majority is far too tight and that on a LAB one too long.

It is very hard looking at all the voter dynamics to make any case whatsoever for a CON majority. Time is passing quickly and there’s nothing at all from the seats that will decide this election that the Tories are going to better their 2010 performance. Rather it is completely the reverse.

One of the seats polled, Bedford, was won by the Tories at GE2010 by a 3% margin. It is a seat where I stood 22 years ago and which I know well. My own reading before the poll was that the LAB lead would be in double figures – Ashcroft had it at 10%.

    This is a massive margin for the Tories to make up and if they cannot hold onto Bedford then there will be no majority for the blues.

As things stand at the moment there are only two possible outcomes to GE2010 – a LAB majority or a hung parliament. Once you rule out a CON majority then betting on the other options looks very attractive.

I’ve now started for the first time putting money on a LAB majority simply because at odds of 2/1 or longer it is a great value bet.

I am well covered on a hung parliament.

Mike Smithson

Ranked in top 33 most influential over 50s on Twitter


CON hopes that UKIP returners will eventually swing their way are undermined by this Lord Ashcroft finding

August 20th, 2014

CON government just 2% ahead of LAB one amongst UKIP voters

After the July round of Ashcroft marginals polling I highlighted the “preferred GE2015 outcome” polling which surprisingly had a CON government only 1% ahead of a LAB one.

Well another month and data from different group of CON held marginals to look at and we find almost the same pattern – only the CON government preferred outcome lead is 2% and not 1%.

    What strikes me is that as UKIP has gone out to reach for the white working class vote the nature of its support is changing and is far less prone to the appeals of the Tories as maybe in previous times.

The biggest problem for for blues, I contend, is that too many people don’t see it as the party “for people like us” – which is the negative perception which it always gets the worse numbers.

Baroness Warsi’s commnents about the party the other week ring true.

Mike Smithson

Ranked in top 33 most influential over 50s on Twitter


LAB doing better against the Tories in key marginals than in national polling

August 20th, 2014

CON being killed in the marginals by UKIP & LD-LAB switching

The full details from Lord Ashcroft can be found here.


Salmond says he’s ready to put his job on the line and even disband the SNP to help secure a YES vote

August 20th, 2014

Just ten days before the first postal ballots arrive

In the wake of polling suggesting that Alex Salmond himself might be hurting the YES case it has been made known that the First Minister is saying publicly that if the price of winning independence is his job then he’s ready to step aside.

This comes after YouGov found that 45% of Scottish voters polled thought he was the wrong man for the job and just 57% of YES voters backed him.

This is how the Scotsman is reporting Salmond’s comments this morning.

“Referring to Greek mythology and the 17th-century Scots prophet the Brahan Seer, he said: “If I had the Delphic oracle, or a soothsayer, the Brahan Seer, was sitting in this audience and the Brahan Seer said to me, ‘Listen, you retire from politics tomorrow and I guarantee you Scotland will be an independent country in the spring of 2016’, I would shake hands on that right away – absolutely….If the Brahan Seer said to me, ‘And the other cost of getting independence is the SNP has to be abolished’, then I would agree to that as well, because this is about the people of Scotland for the first time in democratic history having the ability to determine the government of their choice.

“It’s the choice of the people of Scotland that’s the important thing.”

To me this is a smart move because inevitably the campaign is being portrayed in personal terms between Salmond for YES and the Alistair Darling for NO. To many observers Salmond’s big mistake in the first TV debate was to make personal attacks on Darling and I think the SNP leader realises that. This will help defuse it.

Yesterday’s YouGov/Times Scotland poll found that as Darling’s stock is rising Salmond is falling. Just 35% of those sampled said they trusted the First Minister with 58% saying they didn’t – a net negative of minus 23.

Darling’s figures were 38% “trust” to 52% “not trust” a net negative of minus 14.

There is a lot left in this election and time is running out.

  • IndyRef betting. Prices have barely moved since my post yesterday afternoon. Twice as much has been matched on Betfair on the IndyRef in the past 24 hours as the total since the market was established on UKIP GE2015 seats.
  • Mike Smithson

    2004-2014: The view from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble


    Nighthawks is now open

    August 19th, 2014

    Home of the web’s best political conversation

    Why not relax, and converse into the night on the day’s events in PB NightHawks.

    If you’re a lurker, why not delurk tonight.

    The round up of recent events (click on the links below, and it will bring up the relevant link)

    1. How Harry Potter has influenced the political values of the Millennial generation. Reading the books correlated with higher political tolerance, less predisposition to authoritarianism, greater support for equality, and greater opposition to the use of violence and torture.
    2. Boris Johnson wants Westminster return so he can become Tory leader, say voters
    3. Swivel-eyed loons unite. Boris fails the character test for social conservatives
    4. Britain abandons foreign policy. And abandons debates about foreign policy too
    5. Are migrants good for the UK economy?
    6. Not so relaxed about the filthy rich
    7. Inflation down, Osborne up
    8. Kippers’ squeals show we are a more liberal country
    9. Unite leverage squads turn attention to private sector providers in the NHS
    10. John Swinney admits no Bank of England talks over currency union. The Scottish Finance Minister performs an about-turn after the Bank issues a press release denying his claims talks on sharing the pound have taken place. 
    11. John Birt: Scottish independence would have a devastating impact on the BBC
    12. Prison lights-out policy could worsen mental health crisis, campaigners say. Plans by Chris Grayling to turn out lights and televisions in cells at 10.30pm are claimed to be dangerous to young offenders
    13. Labour and transport campaigners step up rail fares fight as prices rise again. Average increase expected to be 3-4%, meaning average ticket price has gone up 25% under coalition government
    14. The Caliphate Delusion: the political construct that bears no relevance in the modern world
    15. Egypt Urges U.S. Restraint Over Missouri Unrest
    16. We can terraform Mars for the same cost as mitigating climate change. Which would you rather? 
    17. Do not tweet when naked, drunk or eating, police warned
    18. For the love of God, someone buy David Cameron a new shirt
    19. Elton John distances himself from UKIP after Nigel Farage claims he ‘got on well’ with singer
    20. Tomorrow is the 1,097th anniversary of The Battle of Acheloos