Newsweek’s climate change hypocrisy

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 11th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This was originally published by New Internationalist

On the magazine’s cover is a heart-shaped drop of lush forests fringed with yellow sand that meets a sea so turquoise you can imagine spotting turtles and technicolour fish from space – or relaxing with a cocktail before slipping into the warm sea.

But Newsweek wants you to know that all is not as idyllic as it seems. Its special issue, now in the shops, warns that climate change threatens this island paradise, along with 99 other equally magnificent places.

It may seem admirable that a mass-market global magazine has dedicated a photo book to showing what climate change will mean for some of the world’s most beautiful places. As it says: ‘if climate change continues unchecked, many of the world’s wonders are in danger.’ But there’s a catch.

At the same time as declaring its concern about climate change, Newsweek encourages its readers to cook the planet. The magazine doesn’t just document the threatened wonders so readers can learn about them from a distance – it also describes its special edition as a ‘travel guide’.

The issue has been published before and Newsweek was previously more restrained in its promotion of air travel. In 2010 readers were encouraged only to ‘remember’ the threatened places before they disappear. But by 2014 – and again now – it suggested readers should ‘explore’ them.

In the fight to stop extreme climate change, flying is like a steadily growing tumour. For now, international flights only produce around 2 per cent of carbon emissions, but that’s set to change. While nearly every other sector is making plans to slash emissions, airlines are preparing to release more and more greenhouse gases. By 2050, flying could have used up a quarter of the world’s carbon budget – and its share will only increase as the world tries to cut emissions further.

So it’s naivety at best, hypocrisy at worst, for Newsweek to draw on its readers’ love of long-haul holidays to sell a magazine that laments the impact of climate change. But it would be unfair to single out Newsweek – this is a problem with almost all mainstream conversations about the issue.

Most mainstream politicians and media organizations no longer deny the reality of climate change. Yet on the question of what the world needs to do to deal with the threat there is almost complete silence. This is particularly the case when it comes to anything that might require sacrifices, like flying and eating meat. Who, outside the green movement, is prepared to admit that tackling climate change will be difficult?

And so we find ourselves in the bizarre position where a magazine can show off its virtue by encouraging its readers to fly to a drowning island.

 

‘Issue for the left’: how climate change can shake this tab

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on August 8th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

This was originally published on Climate Home.

A new poll shows the view that climate change is mostly a left-wing concern is prevalent and problematic. It’s time to change the conversation.

“Climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left.” From some people that might have been a celebration of how progressives have united in the face of global warming. But US vice-president Mike Pence didn’t mean it as a compliment. For him, linking climate change and the left was a way of delaying action.

The idea that climate change is a left-wing plot should be easy to refute. Concern about rising emissions are visibly not restricted to anti-capitalists. This year alone, warnings about climate change have come from members of the not-left-wing community that include Walmart, US secretary of defence James Mattis, and BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.

But Pence wasn’t shooting in the dark. A new opinion poll shows he was tapping into a widespread belief that people on the left are more worried about climate change. The poll, conducted by the research agency PSB for my book, The Climate Majority, and reported here for the first time, reflects a problem that could stop the world doing what’s needed to avoid dangerous warming.

The survey asked people in the US which type of person is most likely to be worried about various issues. Across the range, climate was the issue most identified with liberals, more than both inequality and housing. Respondents were more than twice as likely to say that liberals are most worried about climate change than that a person’s political views don’t make a difference. It was seen as the most partisan of all the issues tested: the perceived liberal skew of climate change was greater than the perceived conservative skew of immigration, national debt and defence.

This is a problem for efforts to avoid dangerous warming. As long as climate change is thought of as a partisan battleground, it will be hard to persuade enough people that it is a serious threat.

Mike Pence knows this. He was following the strategy that Republicans have used for more than 20 years, of casting doubt on the motives of people who warn about climate change. His immediate audience may be conservatives, but the people who really matter are those in the centre. His aim is to persuade them that climate change is a matter of debate between entrenched partisans, with the truth somewhere in the middle.

The delaying strategy has worked quite well so far. The difficulties of passing a climate deal through the US Congress delayed the arrival of an ambitious international climate deal for years. And while the US has cut its emissions recently – by around 9% in a decade – it started doing so later than many other rich countries and its emissions are still around their mid-1990s level.

But while polarisation has already slowed action, the greatest problems are still ahead. Past emission cuts have mostly come from relatively easy areas like improving efficiency and switching from coal to gas. Eventually these will be exhausted and further emissions cuts will have to come from areas closer to most people’s day-to-day lives like food and transport.

So long as climate change is seen to belong to the left many people will be tempted to think the threat is exaggerated and that such changes can’t really be necessary. In that case, how can the polarisation be ended?

First we should emphasise that worries about climate change aren’t in fact restricted to the left, whatever the perception might be. Respondents in the opinion poll were asked how they themselves see each issue, as well as how they think other people see them. And while liberals were indeed the most likely to be worried about climate change – 82% said they were – moderates were also widely concerned, with 73% saying they were worried about it.

So the challenge isn’t to persuade moderates to worry about climate change: they already do. Instead, the task is to stop them thinking that climate change worries people on the left more than it worries other people. That isn’t going to be achieved with more trench warfare between left and right – that only increases the appearance of partisanship.

Instead, we should change the subject. The question of how the world could deal with climate change is full of controversial possibilities, yet most of these controversies are ignored. Among these ignored debates are: whether the best way to reduce polluting activities like flying is to put up the price, meaning only richer people do them; whether communities should have the right to veto cheap renewable energy projects; whether land should be used to grow energy crops at the risk of increasing food prices; and whether the government has a duty to protect all communities from rising sea levels.

What these many controversies have in common is that they provide conflict about climate change without depending on disagreements about whether global warming is real or on only using voices from the left. The debates would show that people from across the political spectrum consider climate change a serious threat, while being contentious enough to interest non-specialists.

The beauty of this approach is it makes it impossible for Mike Pence and his colleagues to maintain their pretence that climate change is a left-wing issue. Instead of talking about whether the world should deal with the problem, the debate moves on to what it should do about it. People whose only argument is that climate change is a left-wing interest would have nothing to say on the debate. Either they engage with the new controversies or they become irrelevant.

Mike Pence and his allies are slowly losing the fight on climate change. Many of them have already had to abandon the claim that climate change is a hoax. But the issue is still seen as a left-right battleground, which persuades many in the centre that it matters much less than it does. A slow victory isn’t enough if the world is to cut emissions quickly enough to prevent disastrous warming. If we are to speed up action, we should try changing the subject.

New poll: climate change is seen as the most left-wing issue – full results

Posted in Climate Majority on July 31st, 2017 by Leo – 3 Comments

While researching for The Climate Majority I ran a poll with PSB to look at:

  1. Which issues are seen as being concerns of left- or right-wing people
  2. Whether that perception matches the reality

This post sets out the results of the poll. I also have a comment piece today in Climate Home, which discusses its findings.

We conducted two separate polls, in the UK and the US. The questions were essentially the same, except for small differences in language. Full data is available here.

The poll was based around eight of the most high-profile public policy issues. For each issue we asked:

  1. Regardless of your own political views, what kind of person do you think is generally most worried about the following issues?
  2. How worried are you personally about each of the following issues?

In both countries, climate change is one of the issues that worries the most people. Healthcare is comfortably top (the polls were conducted in November-December 2016, so before the latest US healthcare debates but also before Trump increased attention to climate change) but climate is in the next group, along with immigration and crime. It’s a bit higher in the list if we look only at how many people are very worried, but not much lower if we also look at those who are somewhat worried. Either way it sits along issues that are usually considered of national importance.

Focusing now on the US:

Climate change is widely seen as an interest of liberals in the US. Along with inequality, it stands out as being perceived as the issue about which concern is most restricted to liberals. It is also seen as the one with the greatest partisan skew: 46% think liberals are the people most worried about climate change, compared with 41% thinking conservatives are the people most worried about immigration.

Now onto the reality of who actually is worried about each of these issues.

It’s true that climate change (along with inequality) worries liberals more than other people. That’s particularly the case if we look at who’s very worried about each issue – though less if we look at who’s also somewhat worried about each. In terms of the gap between liberals and other groups, climate change is the most skewed… but there’s a crucial caveat to that:

Despite the skew, more moderates are very worried about climate change than are very worried about most other issues. Even if we also look at somewhat worried, it’s still a top concern of moderates – not just of liberals.

So, a reason the skew looks so big is because conservatives are mostly unworried about it. Liberals are more worried about the issues that are heavily associated with conservatives (defense, immigration and national debt) than conservatives are about supposedly liberal issues like climate change. This is arguably more a story about conservatives being notably uninterested in climate change than liberals being unusually interested.

So in the US, climate change is seen as a liberal issue but it’s actually one that liberals and moderates are widely worried about. It’s only conservatives who are generally not worried.

And now looking at the UK:

The most striking result is that polarisation in the UK is much less than in the US. While climate change is often seen as a left-wing issue and immigration as a right-wing issue (and so on) most issues are mostly seen as having no political skew. That is, in most cases a plurality think that people’s political views make no difference to whether they are worried about the issue.

And finally, on what people in the UK actually think about the issues, we’ve got a similar picture to the US, but one that’s less dramatic. Climate change is quite polarised, although a bit less than inequality is and less than climate change is in the US…

… but one reason it’s less polarised in the UK is that left-wing British people are less worried about climate change than US liberals (this isn’t because the poll defined US liberals more narrowly than the UK left – in fact it took 28% in the US as liberals and 18% in the UK as left-wing). Conservatives / right-wing people are similarly relaxed about climate change in both countries. The polarisation seems to be less in the UK because the British left are, generally, somewhat less worried rather than because the US right are so opposed to dealing with it (although that ignores a separate point that the US right includes people who are much more vituperative in their opposition to dealing with climate change than most of the UK right are).

My book, The Climate Majority, looks at the consequences of climate change being seen as a left-wing concern – how that limits action to cut emissions, and how those of us worried about the problem can overcome the polarisation.

The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism

Posted in Climate Majority on July 29th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

I’m really pleased to be able to announce that I have a book coming out.

It’s about how public opinion limits action on climate change and what can be done to overcome climate apathy.

The Climate Majority: apathy and action in an age of nationalism will be published by New Internationalist on 21 September. You will be able to buy it directly from the publisher, from Amazon or of course from your local bookshop.

Here’s a bit more about the book:

“The Climate Majority” is not about the climate deniers or the climate activists. It’s about apathy, about those who don’t talk about global warming – the billions of people who have heard plenty about climate change and acknowledge there’s a problem, but who are just not engaged enough to stimulate the change required to stop it. 

This is the first book to investigate climate apathy, to describe how it prevents action to stop climate change and to show how it can be beaten with an approach developed for political campaigns. Drawing on opinion polls, psychological research and examples of successful campaigns from across the globe the author asks ‘Who are the ‘swing’ voters?’ ‘What do they think and why?’ and ‘How can we talk about climate change in a way that will provoke action?’  

Preventing extreme climate change is one of the hardest tasks humans have ever faced. Rising nationalism and the US plan to withdraw from the Paris agreement are blows to progress. But only by influencing those who have, so far, remained outside the debate will we have a chance of building a climate majority to back the measures required to avoid disaster.  

It’s the product of more than two years of intensive researching and writing – but also of the many more years I’ve been running this site (including Climate Sock before it). I’m immensely grateful to everyone who’s read and commented on the site over the years and those who have told me they’ve found my writing to be useful. Without that feedback it’s unlikely that I would have persevered.

Where UK politics stands at the summer break: Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on July 27th, 2017 by Leo – Be the first to comment

I was on Polling Matters this week for the last episode before the summer break, with Keiran and Rob Vance.

We talked about where things stand in UK politics now, including polling showing that the Tories are now seen as more divided than Labour, Chuka Umunna’s recent tweet that seemingly challenged the Labour leadership’s position on Europe. We looked at what polling on Brexit tells us about public opinion on the subject and indeed whether public opinion even matters on the issue given the relative lack of difference in policy on Europe between Labour and the Tories.

We finished by discussing what we will be looking out for when Westminster returns in the autumn.

You can listen to the episode here:

Jeremy Corbyn is the UK’s most popular politician – Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on July 19th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Jeremy Corbyn is the UK’s most popular politician – Polling Matters

On Polling Matters this week, Keiran and I discussed an exclusive Polling Matters / Opinium poll, which measured the favourability / unfavourability of a series of front-line politicians. The results were very interesting, including that Corbyn was, comfortably, the UK’s most popular politician – but he was also polarising, with many people very unfavourable towards him.

You can listen to us talking through the results here:

 

Do the public think Corbyn is ready to be Prime Minister? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on July 8th, 2017 by Leo – Comments Off on Do the public think Corbyn is ready to be Prime Minister? Polling Matters

I was on Polling Matters with Keiran Pedley and Habib Butt from Political Betting. Among the topics we covered were:

1) What the polls tell us about the state of the parties

2) Who the voters think would make the best Prime Minister and what those numbers mean

3) Polling Matters / Opinium numbers on why people voted as they did in June and whether Corbyn is ready to be PM or not

4) How Remainers and Brexiteers like their steak

You can listen to the episode here:

 

Why Corbyn was crucial for Labour’s election result

Posted in Labour, Politics on June 25th, 2017 by Leo – 3 Comments

I’ve been on paternity leave since the election so haven’t written much about it. But there are a few things I keep coming back to that I find interesting.

First, why was I surprised? Had I predicted the result on the day of the election, I would have said the Tories would have a majority of 60 seats. My mistake was to think opinion wouldn’t shift much during the campaign. That meant I looked for reasons not to believe polls that showed the gap had narrowed. So I wasn’t open to the possibility that Corbyn really could turn out so many young people or that the Tories could alienate so many older people.

Looking at the results I think those two things happened for a few reasons:

1. The Tories made some crucial (and terrible) decisions. The social care policy was predictably suicidal. The fox-hunting pledge was bizarre. But those seem to me to be the consequence of a small group of advisors being allowed to get individual policies into the manifesto.

The thing that I’m most interested by is the strategic decision not to attack Labour on the economy. In 2015 Labour couldn’t get a hearing because most voters still thought the party had wrecked the economy in 2008. When Ed Miliband said he didn’t think Labour had spent too much he was laughed at. When he forgot to talk about the economy in his leader’s speech he was mocked. I don’t believe that, had they been tried in 2015, Labour’s 2017 spending plans would have overcome this problem. What I think changed is that the Tories stopped putting much effort into claiming to be the only fiscally responsible party. In the past, the Tories have won when they’ve been disliked but considered reliable.

I don’t know why the Tories made this decision. It surely wasn’t an oversight. One possibility is they tested out different attacks in polls and focus groups and found that the public no longer believed the Tories’ economic message (even though they did so in 2015). Or perhaps the Tories genuinely thought they no longer needed to bind themselves to pointless deficit-reduction targets and could win without saying much about Labour’s spending plans. Whatever the rationale, I think this decision was crucial.

2. Despite everything, May – as an individual – attracted a lot more voters than Corbyn did… It runs totally counter to how the two leaders are now seen, but Tory voters were much more likely to say they choose the party because of Theresa May than Labour voters were to say they did so because of Jeremy Corbyn. Only 1 in 3 Labour voters said they choose Labour because they thought Corbyn would be the best Prime Minister, compared with nearly 3 in 4 Tory voters for May.

Even now, after more terrible headlines for May and good coverage for Corbyn, the two are tied (within the margin of error) in polls of who would be the best Prime Minister. There’s a danger of reading passionate support for Corbyn among a relatively small proportion of voters as widespread support for him as an individual.

3. … but Corbyn was essential for Labour’s balancing act (part 1, the EU). Corbyn pushed the government to accelerate its Article 50 timetable and the manifesto embraced Brexit yet Labour did particularly well among Remainers who still want to stop Brexit. Corbyn said immigration should fall yet won the support of young socially liberal voters who like immigration. How?

Partly, this must have been about the Tories’ relentless alienation of anyone who embraces internationalism and diversity – with May’s mantra of brexitmeansbrexit and disdain for citizens of nowhere.

But it must also have been down to Corbyn. Any Labour leader could have adopted the pro-Brexit, anti-free movement policies that Corbyn choose. They had the political advantage of stopping the Tories/Ukip attacking Labour from the right. But if a Liz Kendall or an Yvette Cooper had triangulated in this way, they would have alienated pro-Remain socially liberal voters. It needed Corbyn, who could signal internationalist values in other ways, while adopting EU and immigration policies that did the opposite. This took genuine political skill and was crucial for Labour’s result – I don’t believe another leader could have built the same electoral coalition (although other coalitions are available).

4. … Corbyn and Labour’s balancing act (part 2, the economy). I can see how scrapping tuition fees (which benefits graduates, who tend to be richer) and protecting benefits for all pensioners (many of whom are relatively well off) could be left-wing. Universal public services is clearly a left-wing thing. But I don’t think it’s so clear cut that Labour’s 2017 economic policy overall was all that left-wing – the effect of its tax and benefits policy on poorer people was almost exactly as regressive as the Tories’ plan. Under Labour’s plans, you would benefit more (actually, lose less) the richer you are, up to people who earn more than 90% of the rest of the country. Only the top 10% would lose more than people poorer than them. In this context, Labour’s help to graduates and richer pensioners has to be seen as a choice – the party promised to protect them before it offered to protect much poorer people.

This may have been politically smart. Having made these pledges, it was much harder for the Tories to attack Labour from the right. And who was there to attack them from the left? Since Corbyn was Labour leader: no-one.

Again, I don’t believe another Labour leader could have pulled this off. It had to be Corbyn. Despite these regressive tax and benefit policies, Corbyn was widely perceived to be offering a left-wing manifesto and so locked up the support of kind of people who were furious when Labour, under Harriet Harman, abstained on the Welfare Bill.

Right now the public mood is behind Labour. It’s like the reverse of 2008-10, when everything Brown did was seen in the worst possible light and everything Cameron did was treated generously. If there was an election in the autumn I’m pretty sure Labour would win it. Assuming the next election is actually a few years away, I still think Labour are likely to win (now the mud has stuck to the Tories it will be hard to clean off) but there are a few reasons it could go wrong:

1. The Tories can’t run a worse campaign next time. If it hadn’t been for their huge mistakes this time (point 1 above), the Tories were on course for a comfortable majority. Assuming the Tories have a new leader and better campaign managers, Labour will face a much tougher opponent next time.

2. An effect of that could be increased turnout about older people. While more young people voted this year than 2015, fewer older people voted. Either of these might revert to the mean. An increase in turnout among older people (many of whom were presumably put off voting by the Tories’ policies on social care) would probably help the Tories.

3. The tensions between Labour’s policies and many of its voters’ core beliefs (in points 3 & 4 above) could start to undo the coalition. No-one really attacked Labour from the left during the election and this could be a risk to Labour in the future if the tension isn’t resolved (cf the way Trump used unbranded Facebook ads to suppress turnout for Clinton among young voters).

Corbyn did a remarkable job. The more I think about it, the more impressive his achievement seems. The challenge for Labour now is to win an election – and it’s likely they will have to do so against a tougher opponent, who will – unlike May – take Labour seriously and will put more effort into understanding and attacking the party’s weaknesses.

How did that happen? Why the election shows Tony Blair was right (about one thing) and other thoughts

Posted in Politics on June 12th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

This is series of observations about the election result, which I found interesting and seems to conflict with some solidifying interpretations of why Labour did better than expected. It’s largely drawn from other people’s analysis, and I’ve attributed it wherever appropriate.

The Tory and Labour manifestos were pivotal

1. The YouGov MRP model, which predicted the results very well, found the Tory lead fell from 9pts to 3pts in the week after their manifesto launch. It then stayed at that level for the rest of the campaign (h/t Sam Freedman)

2. Ashcroft’s post-election poll shows 65% of Labour voters said the party’s promises were one of the top reasons for their vote. Only 20% of Tory voters said the same.

But the swing in response to the manifestos wasn’t always in the obvious directions

1. The Tories got a kicking for their social care plan, while Labour promised to keep the triple lock. But the Tories retained 90%+ of their 2015 voters aged over 70 (analysis by Benjamin Lauderdale)

2. Labour promised to increase taxes on the rich but lost support with working class voters while gaining them among those with degrees – suggesting many people weren’t switching on the basis of their own economic interest (analysis by Paula Surridge). That said, Labour’s tax and benefit policies were barely any more progressive than the Tories’, according to (h/t Duncan Weldon) the IFS, so this may not have been so surprising.

3. Labour’s Brexit policy felt like it was governed by an Uncertainty Principle: if you knew what it was one day you couldn’t know what it would be the next. There are plenty of articles trying to understand it but beyond a headline of “accept the vote but seek a softer Brexit than the Tories” it’s not clear what the party’s specific positions are. This sounds rather like the kind of “Tory lite” position that many – including Corbyn – mocked Labour in 2015 for taking (the logic of that “Tory lite” attack suggests Remainers would shun Labour for the Lib Dems while Leavers would vote Tory/Ukip). Yet, it seems to have worked – something like 57% of those who want to overturn the referendum voted Labour, as did 42% of Remainers who now accept the result.

It was people aged 30-44, rather than under-30s, that most helped Labour

The Tories particularly lost vote share in seats with a high proportion of 30-44 year olds – more so than those with a high proportion of under-30s. So despite the talk of a surge in turnout of students and other young people, it was those over 30 who seem to have made the most difference to the result (analysis by Paula Surridge).

The choice between May and Corbyn helped the Tories

Corbyn’s personal rating certainly improved during the campaign, but we shouldn’t overstate how popular he became and how unpopular May became. 72% of Tory voters said they voted for the party because the leader would make a better Prime Minister. Only 35% of Labour voters said the same. It may be that Corbyn improved enough (and May did badly enough) to stop Labour-inclined people defecting because of him – but by the time of the election he still wasn’t much of a draw.

The division is increasingly cultural

Much of this is the manifestation of the growing division of the UK on cultural lines – open vs closed in Blair’s nomenclature. Despite Labour’s pro-Brexit position the party had most success in pro-Remain areas and in seats with the most middle-class professionals and rich people (analysis by Rob Ford). I suspect May’s “citizens of nowhere” line was a factor here.

Only a small swing would now give Labour a majority – or, in the other direction, would strengthen/stabilise the Tories. It’s not hard to see where this might come from. The Tories have enormous scope to detoxify their policy offer. Equally, continued improvement in ratings for Corbyn should help Labour – although that could be negated by a better Tory leader.

But much of the change between 2015 and 2017 seems to have been driven by how the parties now increasingly tap into the open vs closed division. This realignment might still be reversed – or it could continue to sharpen, in which case values, rather than policy details, might be the most important factor at the next election.

Is the Labour surge real?

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on May 27th, 2017 by Leo – 1 Comment

The Tories’ lead over Labour has been slashed, from around 18pts to less than 10. The last two polls have put it at 5 and 8 points. Surely the election wouldn’t now have been called if Theresa May had foreseen this.

But is the tightening a true reflection of public opinion, or are the polls wrong?

Let’s start with the argument that the polls are misleading. My last two posts have pointed towards that – showing that leadership rating is usually a better guide than voting intent to the gap between Labour and the Tories at the election. My analysis was drawn from Matt Singh’s work and he’s now published a more comprehensive study which came to pretty much the same conclusion I did (not surprisingly since mine was based on one aspect of his), that the Tory margin of victory looks likely to be around 15pts.

The polls could be wrong because they’re no longer being conducted among a representative sample. The Labour manifesto launch might have motivated the more enthusiastic Corbyn supporters to take part in polls, skewing the sample of those who voted Labour in 2015 towards people who’ll vote Labour again now.

Matt’s written a further piece that adds weight to this, suggesting that Labour’s surge in the polls is dependent on people who didn’t vote in 2015 and on younger people. Both are relatively unlikely to vote. This might suggest that the polls are indeed a bad guide to the election result.

This isn’t just a matter of sifting through the polls. One part of Matt’s analysis was from local election results, so was independent of opinion polls.

And there’s another independent set of evidence to support this: reports of focus groups and doorstep conversations. If Labour really had surged, by around 8pts, and the Tories had dropped off by a couple of points, I would expect people who voted Labour in 2010/2015 – but were recently wavering – to be saying more positive things about Labour and Corbyn than they had been over the last month. But I haven’t seen any sign of this, for example in the Edelman HuffPost focus groups and Lord Ashcroft’s groups.

All of this feels like an application of one of the lessons from 2015: don’t just read the horserace numbers from the polls. Pay attention to the other numbers and other evidence.

But there was another lesson from 2015 (and the EU referendum) – don’t go with groupthink. So, while many poll analysts are sceptical about the size of the surge and think the true gap must be wider than the latest polls suggest, perhaps the lead really is now just single digits.

It feels unlikely to me that public opinion would shift so much on the basis of two manifesto launches – it sounds like it’s relying on a much closer interest in politics among the public than is normally the case. That said, Stephen Bush – who’s usually right – thinks that opinion really has shifted this much as a result of the campaign.

But perhaps public opinion hasn’t really changed so much and yet the polls are right. Maybe the gap between the parties was always much closer than it seemed. An analogy is with opinion of Bill Clinton immediately after the Lewinsky scandal broke. Unexpectedly, Clinton’s approval rating increased – a change explained by this paper by John Zaller as the result of the public paying more attention to politics when the scandal broke, and remembering that they actually like Clinton:

“there is some “natural” level of support for candidates that is determined by political fundamentals  such as the strength of the economy, the candidates’ position on issues and other matters… In non-election periods, the public tunes out from politics… But, when, as in the early days of the Lewinsky matter, Clinton’s capacity to remain in office came into question, the public took stock and reached a conclusion that led to higher levels of support for the threatened leader.”

It’s possible to imagine the same thing happening now in UK politics. For nearly two years most people haven’t been paying attention and polls have been picking up ill-considered responses. But now, many people are thinking seriously about who they would vote for, and, with Ukip largely off the scene and the Lib Dems floundering, many are remembering that they like Labour. This would mean the current polls really could be right.

For what it’s worth I don’t really buy this. It’s not clear to me why this would happen now when it hasn’t in previous elections (the change in the polls now is unusually large). While it’s possible that the shortness of the parliament, the relative newness of both party leaders and Theresa May’s poor performance in the campaign might mean that opinion is particularly volatile, I still find it more plausible that the polls are quite far off and the true gap is currently in the region of 12-14pts. But I’m far from certain.

We will have a better idea from watching polls over the next week – when enthusiasm from the Labour manifesto launch, leading to more poll-taking, could wear off (Ian Warren has some pointers about what to look for) – and focus group transcripts, perhaps showing a change in mood.

I discussed all this on this week’s Polling Matters with Keiran and Matt Singh. It’s one of our most interesting episodes to date and I think well worth a listen.