The problem for Labour isn’t toxicity, it’s credibility

Posted in Politics on May 27th, 2015 by Leo – Be the first to comment

This piece first appeared on LabourList

Polly Toynbee writes today that it would be a mistake for the next Labour leader to ditch the party’s most recent policies.

In her view, the party lost the election not because of its policies but because of its reputation and leader.

If that were the case, the party could win the next election with similar policies – so long as it addressed its other weaknesses.

But can you separate the policies from Labour’s weaknesses? That is, did Labour lose because of its policies or despite them?

recent GQR poll for the TUC looks at these questions – but appears to give contradictory answers.

The poll unmistakably shows that the gap in perceived economic competence was crucial. It was the biggest factor helping the Tories (the top two reasons for voting Tory were that the economy was recovering, and the deficit was being cut); and hurting Labour (the top reason for not voting Labour was that they couldn’t be trusted with the economy).

And only 1 in 4 respondents think Labour had a good track record in government, compared with 1 in 2 for the Tories.

Popular policies

But, it also suggests that many of Labour’s policies were popular.

Labour made the NHS a major part of its campaign. It was the issue that respondents – including people Labour lost from 2010 to 2015: ‘Lost Labour’ – say most determined their vote, out of 13 tested. The poll also found Labour had a 57pt lead over the Tories on the NHS among Lost Labour.

And Labour’s economic policies seem to have been popular.

By comfortable majorities, voters – and particularly Lost Labour – say Labour should prioritise people in poverty over those on middle incomes; should be tougher on banks; should increase taxes on the rich; and should cut public spending more slowly.

The poll found strong support for each of the economically populist policies it tested: increasing the minimum wage and pensions, banning zero-hour contracts, cracking down on tax evasion by the rich, and building more houses.

There’s even a clear lead for predistributive economics: increasing low wages rather than reducing inequality through the tax system.

We also know from other polls – like this by ICM for the High Pay Centre – that Ukip voters are typically fiscally left-wing, suggesting a way for Labour to win back many of them.

So this interpretation suggests Labour could do well with an economically populist position. Essentially, it says Miliband’s instincts were electorally popular; he just failed to be heard or to convince people he could deliver.

Sum of the parts

But you could quite reasonably look at the poll and conclude it shows that those policies made it impossible for Labour to shake off the reputation for economic incompetence.

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To make climate change an election battleground, start now

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics on May 16th, 2015 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Climate change barely featured in the UK election. No surprise there: it wasn’t big in previous ones.

We’ve become so used to this it largely passes unremarked. But perhaps it’s not inevitable.

Climate change doesn’t come to mind when most people think about the issues facing them or the country. Apart from briefly after the 2013/14 winter floods, it’s barely registered in the various tracking polls.

But when prompted, people overwhelmingly say they’re worried about it.

A new Opinium poll for the Observer reminds us how overwhelmingly people see climate change as real and a threat:

So, if nearly 2 in 3 people think climate change will be a serious threat to global stability, why don’t any major parties try to use it to their electoral advantage?

Perhaps it’s because climate change is something that people don’t think about much: it’s not visible in day-to-day life, so there’s little clamour for political action.

But if that were all, the potential would still exist for it to be more salient since, when they’re reminded of it, so many people are worried about climate change.

The problem is, there doesn’t seem much for a politician to gain by banging on about the climate.

The major parties’ positions look broadly similar to a non-specialist. They all agree climate change is a big problem and say they’re committed to cutting emissions and supporting adaptation.

Unless you’re really into the detail, it’s hard to see why worry about the climate should lead you to vote for one party rather than another.

So from a party strategist’s perspective, there’s not much reason to make climate an electoral issue, when the other parties can shut it down by saying they’re equally worried.

Dividing lines

What parties need are dividing lines – to put themselves on the ‘right’ side of an issue and their opponents on the ‘wrong’ side.

The Tories did this in 2015 on relations with the SNP, and in 2005 on immigration. In 1997 Labour used public services.

Are there climate change dividing lines?

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The pollsters have to show they take this disaster seriously

Posted in Bad polling, Politics on May 8th, 2015 by Leo – Be the first to comment

The pollsters have had a shocker. A calamitous, humiliating, sector-threatening humdinger of an epic fail.

An uncanny consensus that Labour and the Tories would be within one point of each other – a closely hung parliament, with Ed Miliband in Number 10 – was proved to be utterly wrong (only one pollster put a wider gap, and that had Labour 2 points ahead).

Ahead of this election, some commentators pointed to the errors pollsters made in predicting the ’92 election, suggesting that the polls could be wrong again. I didn’t take it too seriously for a few reasons: ’92 was caused in part by old census data, which wasn’t a problem now; this time the pollsters had taken into account the ‘shy Tory’ effect that caused the ’92 mistakes; and there are more pollsters around now to check one another’s results.

I was wrong, and so were the pollsters.

It’s important they realise how damaging this might be for the polling industry. As it stands, I don’t see why we should treat future election polls as more than a rough guide.

If that’s the case, why should journalists continue to pay for so many political polls?

Some pollsters seem to recognise this, like Stephan Shakespeare at YouGov:

But others, like Ipsos MORI, don’t appear to do so. In a statement, they’ve focused on what they got right (including their exit poll, which, to be fair, was excellent) as if that will divert us from the fact they called the election completely wrong.

I suggest the following approach from pollsters would be more productive:

  1. Acknowledge they got things completely wrong and that they’re disappointed in their performance.
  2. Set it in the context of how much pollsters usually get right, eg every major UK election after ’92 (broadly right, anyway).
  3. Show what they’re doing to fix it. The British Polling Council has announced an inquiry into the results: this is good news as long as it’s done well and agencies support it.

I’ve seen various possible explanations for the pollshambles, including lower-than-expected Labour turnout (though I don’t see why that couldn’t have been picked up by polls), and a fresh ‘shy Tory’ effect.

The inquiry should also look at the converging of the final polls. If the polls had finished a week earlier, two of them (Ipsos MORI on 28/4 and Ashcroft on 26/4) would have got the Labour-Tory gap pretty much right. Instead, they converged on the same answer. The fact this answer proved to be completely wrong makes me even more suspicious about the process behind this convergence.

Intriguingly, Damian Lyons Lowe at Survation has broken cover to say they suppressed a poll on the eve of the election that had nearly got the result right, as they didn’t want to be an outlier. I wonder whether any other agencies did the same – or tweaked results to fit with the pack.

Unless the pollsters show they’re on top of this, they may struggle to persuade people to take them seriously and commission polls from them in future.

 

Update 1: Andrew Hawkins at ComRes has joined Ipsos MORI in proclaiming how well his agency did. Not a good look, I suggest.

 

Update 2: Andrew Cooper of Populus has written in the FT about pollsters’ failure and the need to understand and explain what went wrong.

 

Update 3: This is, roughly speaking, how some of the pollsters are trying to put it:

flesh-wound

And this is how everyone else sees it:

Update 4: Opinium have joined YouGov and Populus, as have ICM, in apologising for the wrong prediction, while the view is becoming established that polls in general can’t be trusted:

 

and perhaps it will strengthen Lord Foulkes’ efforts to regulate the polling industry:

The strange case of the converging election polls

Posted in Bad polling, Politics on May 7th, 2015 by Leo – 1 Comment

The pollsters have submitted their final judgements of public opinion before the election.

They’ve disagreed for months about how people say they will vote: less than a month ago two polls on the same day put the Tories on 39 and 33 respectively and Ukip on 7 and 15.

But now the final polls are in, the results are strikingly similar.

A quick analysis shows how the variance has collapsed between previous polls and this weeks’. Variance in pollsters’ scores for Ukip fell from 7.6 in mid-April to 3.4 now, while the variance for Labour fell from 4.7 to a tiny 0.8 now (all but one of the final polls put Labour on 33 or 34) (* methodology below).

 

They’re so similar, in fact, that it’s tempting to be sceptical. After months of polls that no-one could test, the polls converge on the day when they’ll be assessed against a real ballot of public opinion.

A pollster that got it completely wrong, when no-one else did, would look very silly. But one who gets it wrong when everyone else does? There’s nothing to single them out. The incentive for following the herd is clear.

I can think of several ways of rigging a poll to get the answers you want, though none seem easy or safe.

You could fiddle with the weights (including based on their 2010 vote), though that could be detected by poll nerds; you could change the criteria of who you select to question, though that would be a fairly crude tool for a single poll; you could even manually change some of the results after fieldwork to give the answers you want, though that’s so obviously fraudulent it would be a disaster for any pollster that got caught (if anyone wants to whistleblow drop me a line!).

There are other possible, legitimate, explanations.

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Why hasn’t Milifandom led to a Labounce?

Posted in Politics on April 23rd, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

Views of Miliband have improved sharply but Labour’s vote share hasn’t changed. Given Miliband was often supposed to be a drag on Labour’s vote, this seems surprising.

Since February, responses to questions on Miliband have shown a consistent increase in his ratings. This doesn’t just come from people already planning on voting Labour: for example the proportion of Lib Dem voters who say he’s doing well in YouGov’s polls increased from 17 to 34.

But in those polls, there’s been no corresponding increase in likelihood to vote Labour. Looking at February and April Ashcroft, Mori and YouGov polls, there doesn’t seem to be any relationship between increase in rating of Miliband and likelihood to vote Labour:

The 2010 Lib Dems* are particularly important: for the Labour/Tory marginals like Ealing Central and Acton, the votes of 2010 Lib Dems will be crucial, and will determine which party gets the most seats.

Their lack of movement is interesting. The Tories planned to run a campaign focused on leadership – assuming that, when pushed to think about who they’d prefer to be Prime Minister, people with doubts about Miliband wouldn’t vote Labour.

There clearly was (and still is) a relationship between rating the leader highly and likelihood to vote for the party: in February, Labour voters were 2.5 times as likely as average to think Miliband was doing well; Tory voters were a little over twice as likely. But for Labour this relationship seems to have weakened.

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Polling Matters podcast: Ed Miliband, the SNP & what the Tories do next

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on April 21st, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

I returned to Polling Matters to discuss with Keiran Pedley and Rob Vance what’s changed since the campaign started, what hasn’t and what David Cameron can do to hang on.  Are we on course for a Labour Government propped up by the SNP?

The constituencies where Green votes threaten Labour

Posted in Politics on April 15th, 2015 by Leo – 8 Comments

Since the Green vote share started picking up there’s been a series of articles on the constituencies where they apparently threaten Labour. I’ve looked at the numbers to see how likely the Greens really are to stop Labour gaining seats.

Across three articles I’ve seen 19 seats where the demographics are supposed to be favourable for the Greens. Ashcroft has polled 11 of them and we can make a pretty good guess about most of the rest.

In four of these seats, the Greens are indeed likely to threaten Labour*. In the other 15, the Green vote doesn’t look like it’ll affect the winner:

First there’s Brighton Pavilion, which looks like a safe Green hold. In December they were 10pts up.

The Ashcroft polls point to Labour gains in:

  • Cardiff Central (12pts up in September)
  • Cardiff North (11pts up in July)
  • Manchester Withington (34pts up in June)
  • Norwich South (15pts up in June)
  • Stroud (11pts up in August)

They suggest Labour currently has narrower leads in:

  • Brighton Kemptown (4pts up in October; Ukip on 13%, Greens on 10%)
  • Hove (6pts up in April; Ukip on 5%, Greens on 9%)
  • Norwich North (1pt up in Feb; Ukip on 15%, Greens on 20% – I’d expect the Green vote to fall and largely go to Labour here, but it’s still close)

The Lib Dems look safe in Cambridge (9pts up in March).

Ashcroft hasn’t polled the others where the Greens are expected to do well. Of these, four look like safe Labour holds:

  • Newcastle-upon-Tyne East (4.5k majority over Lib Dems)
  • Sheffield Central (165 majority over Lib Dems – newly elected Labour MP in 2010, so may benefit from incumbency)
  • Tooting (2.5k majority over Tories)
  • York Central (6.5k majority over Tories)

The Tories will probably hold Wimbledon (11.4k majority) and the Lib Dems will probably hold Leeds North West (9.1k majority).

That leaves three constituencies, out of the 19 where the demographics are supposed to be favourable to them, where the Greens might do well and could threaten Labour gains:

  1. Bristol North West, where the Tories have a 3.2k lead over the Lib Dems and a 6k lead over Labour. This could well be a Labour gain, though that could be prevented if enough 2010 Lib Dems go to the Greens.
  2. Bristol West, the main Green target for a gain. The Lib Dems are defending a 11.4k lead over Labour (26.6k to 15.2k); the Tories are third on 10.2k. Without constituency polling it’s hard to know who will win.
  3. Colne Valley, where the February Ashcroft poll put the parties on: Con 33; Lab 32; LD 12; Ukip 11; Green 10. The latest wave of constituency polling has showed both Greens and Ukip losing disproportionate support in marginals across the country, as the bigger local parties focus the message that only they can win there. That doesn’t clarify things much in Colne Valley though, where Ukip and the Greens are so close.

So of these 19 seats, the Greens will probably win one of them, and may threaten a Labour win in the other three.

But these are just the seats where the Greens are expected to do well; they aren’t the only ones where the Greens could swing the result.

There are a far larger number of other marginal seats across the country, where Labour are in contention. For example, looking just at the 20 Labour-Tory battlegrounds that Ashcroft polled for April:

In about half, the Tories are on course to hold the seats with leads bigger than the Green vote, so I don’t think the Green vote will change much there.

However in others, the race is close enough for Green votes to make a difference. In Pudsey, the poll shows a Labour-Tory tie, with 6% planning on voting Green. The same applies in both Rossendale and Darwen and South Ribble (2% Green in both). In Cleethorps, the Tories are 2pts up (3% Green); in both Finchley and Golders Green and Milton Keynes South, Labour are 2pts up with the Greens on 4%.

And George Monbiot today listed 16 constituencies where he warned a Green vote could stop Labour beating the Tories or Lib Dems.

We’ve seen five of them already. Of the others, Ashcroft’s polls suggest Labour is comfortably ahead, by more than the Green vote, in two (City of Chester; Plymouth Sutton and Devonport). Labour also look to be far ahead in Hornsey and Wood Green, though Lib Dem polls that identify the candidates by name put it much closer, so the Green vote could still be important.

In three, Ashcroft’s polls point to a narrow Labour lead (Ealing Central and Acton; Southampton Itchen; Wirral West); and three are essentially tied (Halesowen and Rowley Regis; Sheffield Hallam; South Swindon).  The remaining two (Watford; Worcester) look like safe Tory holds.**

Upshot is, this quick search has found around 19 seats (depending on where you draw the line) where Green votes might stop Labour winning – only four of which are those that have been pointed out as demographically strong seats for the Greens. The threat to Labour isn’t just in the liberal and students seats.

As comments to this article have pointed out, there are plenty more than the seats I’ve mentioned here – essentially every seat that’s very close, where Labour’s in with a shot and the Green vote isn’t insignificant. But to give a flavour, Labour gains look to at risk from the Greens in:

  • Brighton Kemptown
  • Bristol North West
  • Bristol West
  • Cleethorps
  • Colne Valley
  • Ealing Central and Acton
  • Finchley and Golders Green
  • Halesowen and Rowley Regis
  • Hornsey and Wood Green
  • Hove
  • Milton Keynes South
  • Norwich North
  • Pudsey
  • Rossendale and Darwen
  • Sheffield Hallam
  • South Ribble
  • South Swindon
  • Southampton Itchen
  • Wirral West  (15 Apr: Peter Cranie has pointed out that the Greens have decided not to field a candidate here, along with in 4 other Labour targets)

Note: this article was updated on 16 April to emphasise (in response to comments) that most of the seats where the Greens threaten Labour are generally not those where the demographics favour the Greens, but rather, those that are marginal anyway – and that this isn’t an exhaustive list of those seats.

 

* This rests on the assumption that Green voters would generally prefer Labour in a choice between them and the Tories. It certainly isn’t the case for all of them. But, for example in the latest Colne Valley constituency poll 60% would prefer Labour in government (majority or coalition) vs 40% for the Lib Dems and 23% for the Tories. In the Norwich North poll, it was 73% Labour; 41% Lib Dems and 22% Tory. So in a Lab-Con marginal, roughly 40-50% of the Green vote could be considered net ‘lost’ Labour votes; while in a Lab-LD marginal, it would be about 20-30%.

** The Ukip vote in nearly all of these seats is larger than the Green vote (excluding those where the Greens are expected to do well). And in three of the marginals (Harrow East, Kingswood and Stockton South), the Ukip vote is greater than the Labour lead.  So for most of them, you could more easily make the case that Ukip voters are stopping the Tories winning than that Green voters are stopping Labour winning.

The Greens’ vote is declining, but were they underperforming anyway?

Posted in Climate Sock, Politics on April 10th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

While recent attention has been on the Labour and Tory numbers – with some discussion about whether Ukip’s support’s falling (it did a bit at the end of March but it’s back up now) – a slide in support for the Greens seems to have gone un-commented on.

The latest ten polls, as recorded by May2015, have given them an average of 4.1%: down nearly 40% from their support of 6.7% in mid-February.

The decline seems to have started around two weeks after Natalie Bennett’s calamitous LBC interview and has worsened since the TV debate.

I don’t have evidence the decline’s connected to her media performances, though I’d be surprised if it’s not. While part of the decline might be the squeeze from Labour and the Lib Dems as voters start wanting to make their vote count* – but Ukip face the same threat and their vote hasn’t fallen (at least not by 40%). So we need another explanation, and the leadership looks a likely one.

But, even before recent decline (which is only in a few polls and they might recover from), I’d been starting to wonder, are the Greens underperforming?

It might seem strange to even wonder this. They’ll get their best ever result in May and their membership has overtaken the Lib Dems’.

But, as their supporters like pointing out, their policies are apparently the most popular of all the parties’; they have more people say they’d vote for them if they could win than either the Lib Dems or Ukip; there’s an unusually large number of left-wing protest voters up for grabs; and their leader has been on TV and radio far more than ever before, including being treated as an equal with the Prime Minister.

Yet, they don’t seem to be fulfilling this potential. They’re doing much worse than Ukip, a party who they’re more popular than in terms of both policies and brand.

As I showed before, their media coverage is consistently lower than their support should justify: that’s probably part of the reason for the support gap between the Greens and Ukip. But the campaign has certainly given them far more exposure than they had before, and their support doesn’t seem to have responded.

So rather noting how well the Greens are doing, should we be wondering whether they should be doing better?

 

* Their new boyband video, weirdly, emphasises several times that [for reasons] a vote for the Greens isn’t a wasted vote. Given how popular George Lakoff is among environmentalists at the moment, I’m amazed no-one spotted that, by repeating their opponents’ accusation, they’re activating the frame of “wasted vote”.

11 climate change election non-issues

Posted in Climate Sock on April 4th, 2015 by Leo – 2 Comments

Inspired by an excellent Stumbling and Mumbling post of economic questions that aren’t big election issues but should be, here are some difficult climate change questions that aren’t featuring in the election but perhaps should be:

 

1. Are we prepared for everyone to pay more for less obtrusive sources of renewable energy like offshore wind farms, so that a relatively small number of people don’t have to look at electricity plants they don’t like, particularly onshore wind farms?  If so, how much more should everyone pay?

 

2. How can we continue to expand airports while meeting our emissions targets? If we do continue with expansion where would we make up for the increased emissions? If we don’t, what does that mean for jobs and investment in the UK?

 

3. Do we need to reduce the amount we travel, internationally and within the UK? If so, how can we do that in a way that doesn’t disproportionately restrict poorer people who’ve benefited from budget airlines?

 

4. Do we need to discourage growth in particular sectors to achieve our climate targets? If so, which sectors and what will we do to create alternatives for the people affected? And would doing so actually reduce global emissions or just move them to other countries?

 

5. Are we prepared to make some inconvenient changes to everyday life to reduce emissions, like keeping our homes at lower temperatures, switching to electric central heating and having cars that’re less powerful and with shorter ranges? If so, how can we make sure the burden doesn’t fall most heavily on poorer people and particularly people who would be most affected by lower room temperatures?

 

6. When we build new homes, should we avoid areas that are more likely to flood when the climate changes? If so, what level of overall global warming should we plan for when we do this? And how can we overcome the increased difficulty this would put on building enough new homes? If not, who will cover the cost when we build in areas that become frequently flooded as the climate changes?

 

7. What shall we do with existing communities, agricultural land and infrastructure that are flooded more often as climate change increases?  Can we afford to always improve defences and clean up after floods, or will we need to abandon some areas? Who decides?

 

8. Who is responsible for preparing for the effects of increased heatwaves on the elderly and vulnerable? Do we need to take measures to reduce overheating in housing? Should we be preparing community shelters? Who pays?

 

9. Where should the UK be in terms of its emissions reductions? Should we be at the front to encourage other countries to make bigger cuts, or should we be somewhere in the middle of the high-emitting countries even if that means global cuts are slower?

 

10. If the UK’s emissions appear to be falling because we make less and import more, are our emissions cuts meaningful? Should we be accountable for the emissions from the production and transport of what we import?

 

11. Are we – and other countries that have emitted the most greenhouse gases – responsible for the damage caused by the climate change we’re already committed to? If so, do we need to make amends, eg by paying compensation, paying for non-emitting countries to adapt to climate change, taking in refugees where adaptation is impossible?

 

I’m sure there are plenty more. What have I missed?

The public are wrong about wind power. Why it matters (and why it doesn’t)

Posted in Energy sources on March 2nd, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

There’s a current fashion in polling to ask questions designed to show that the public are wrong about particular issues. MORI got lots of coverage for a poll in 2013 revealing how badly people misperceive facts about UK life; they did a similar poll last year, replicating the results internationally.

A poll for RenewableUK has today done the same thing for wind power. It showed people overestimate 14-fold the amount consumers are charged through their electricity bills to subsidise wind energy. It also found a large majority under-estimate the popularity of wind power among the public overall.

Neither of these is particularly surprising. Wind farms have a reputation for facing local opposition, while some newspapers spend much of their time emphasising subsidies for green energy.

But in terms of their significance, I think the two questions are very different.

Finger in the wind

The apparent overestimate of the subsidies given to wind farms doesn’t feel that important. I’m sceptical that the average response of £259 subsidy in a £1300 bill is a meaningful answer, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there may have been an anchoring effect in the poll. The question referred to a figure (£1300) as the average bill. Plenty of studies have shown that doing this skews responses towards that figure. I suspect the answer would have been much lower if the figure hadn’t been quoted in the question.

Secondly, people don’t seem that influenced in their views of wind power by the perceived level of government subsidies. We know from many polls that wind is among the most popular sources of power, even when built locally. We also know that people are far more likely to blame rising bills on energy company profiteering than on green levies.

So I suspect the finding on subsidies isn’t that significant. It’s artificial in that people largely haven’t thought about a figure before; when prompted they pluck a figure from the air (possibly anchored upwards); but their dominant view is that rising prices have been the fault of energy companies, and they still like wind power.

Spiral of silence

But the meta-question – what do you think people think about wind – is much more interesting and worrying to me.

This is partly because it provides a possible basis for what some have described as the Climate Silence: the way most people are worried about climate change, yet largely seem reluctant to talk about it because they think it’s an unpopular issue. Thinking that most people don’t like renewable energy might feed this silence; it might also feed a view that personal efforts to reduce emissions are wasted when others aren’t interested in doing so.

And specifically on wind power, the result fits neatly with what other polling has shown about some MPs’ views of wind power. Despite the popularity of wind power, just 16% of Tory MPs support onshore wind. Perhaps part of the reason may be that they, like most of the public, think wind power is much less popular than it really is*.

This seems important to me because decisions about whether or not more wind power plants are to be built may be shaped by this continued misunderstanding of the popularity of wind turbines.

 

*I suppose another option is they also think it’s much more subsidised from energy bills than it really is.