12 months to go, historical polls suggest a knife-edge election result

Posted in Politics on April 9th, 2014 by Leo – 5 Comments

In two previous posts, I looked at how we can use past polls and elections to shed light on what current polls tell us about the next election. Today, I’m publishing an update, on how to interpret polls one year before the election: less than a month from now.

The interesting bit

According to the historical trend, election results relate to polls 12 months before as:

Opposition lead at the election =

(0.5 x Opposition lead a year before the election) – 3.5pts

That is, on average, polling leads halve (whichever party is leading) and move 3.5pts in favour of the government in the 12 months before an election (the real-world logic of requiring these two steps isn’t obvious and there’s no suggestion they actually happen in this order – but it’s what the regression produces).

This means, a Labour lead of 6-8pts 12 months out would point towards a tie in vote share at the election – making Labour the largest party and probably just short of a majority:

'79 and '87 had seriously odd 12 months before the elections

This would suggest Labour’s current poll lead – 4pts – points towards a narrow Tory win on vote share at the election, of around 1.5pts. Again, this would probably put Labour as the largest party.

Should you pay any attention to this graph?

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The polls that show we’ve all misunderstood the political impact of the Budget

Posted in Politics on March 27th, 2014 by Leo – 2 Comments

Occasionally it turns out nearly everyone’s wrong. Fortunately, I’m here with a spreadsheet to put us all right, like some kind of irritatingly pedantic superhero.

Last week, Osborne’s Budget revolutionised pensions. Immediately, the Tories narrowed the gap on Labour from around 4-5pts to around to 1-2pts.

The Tories’ poll boost was the product of a careful plan to target pensioners who’d switched to Ukip. Older people not only vote far more than young people, but they’re also Ukip’s strongest group, so are crucial for the Tories to regain. The growth in the Tories’ support reflected their focus on winning back their older former voters – and the success of that plan.

At least, so said political editors, analysts and commentators across the spectrum:

The odd thing is, this is not only untrue, it’s actually the opposite of what happened.

The Tories didn’t gain ground among over 60s after the Budget: Labour did. The age group that the Budget swung most towards the Tories was the under 25s.

This may be the most surprising poll result I’ve ever seen.

On the basis of the useful polling heuristic that anything interesting is probably wrong – Twyman’s Law – I’ve checked it with 8 YouGov polls (4 before the Budget, 4 after); 3 Populus polls (2 before, 1 after); and 2 Survation polls. They broadly tell the same story: since the Budget, the Tories have gained ground among younger people and Labour have held steady, or even won support, among older people.

The YouGov results, combining 8 polls to give some good sample sizes, are fairly typical:

I can see some logic for why people who’re already retired wouldn’t love the Budget. The pension changes help people who’re yet to retire, doing nothing for those who’re already retired.

Still. Firstly I’m surprised that the result has been an increase – at least relatively – in Labour’s support among older people (why would it? what have Labour done this week to earn it?). And secondly, I’m amazed that there’s been such a change among under-25s (how many of them are thinking about their retirement?).

The reality may be that these changes aren’t actually the result of rational policy calculation in response to the pension changes. Perhaps they’re more about the feeling people have had from the Tories projecting a sense of direction and accomplishment. I would also expect them to unwind within another week.

But it’s a reminder that the (near*) universal opinion about what’s going on in politics is sometimes completely wrong.

* It would be unfair not to point out that Survation did make this point earlier this week. It didn’t seem to have stopped everyone else getting it wrong.

The climate debate is changing: this is what the next fight will be about

Posted in Climate Sock, Media on February 16th, 2014 by Leo – 2 Comments

Listen carefully and you might hear the climate debate shifting. The floods may not have a dramatic effect on public opinion about climate change, but they have revealed what the next stage of political arguments might look like.

Most of the UK public have long thought that we need to act on climate change. Only about 1 in 7 people think climate change is some kind of hoax; the overwhelming majority think it’s a serious problem, if sometimes a bit exaggerated.

Of course you wouldn’t know that from the media. Particularly since Copenhagen and the UEA email release, much of the media debate about climate change has carried on as if doubt about its reality and severity are widespread. In general, the media haven’t been interested in other kinds of climate stories.

But with the UK floods that may now be changing. The usual denier voices are still given airtime, and they’re still claiming that climate change isn’t real, or isn’t manmade. But now they’re trying their next fallback: if this is climate change, we need to stop wasting money on cutting our emissions and focus on preparing the UK for what’s coming.

Nigel Lawson used it on the Today Programme; Tim Montgomerie, editor of Times Opinion, has been making the same case today:

If the media now lose interest in debates about whether or not climate change is real, this might be the next big fight.

There are at least three parts to the counter-argument:

The UK isn’t irrelevant

We’re accountable for only around 2% of the world’s emissions. If we shut down the country overnight it would have only a small direct effect on climate change. So, it’s argued, there’s no point us busting a gut to reduce our emissions, when what matters is what the most polluting countries do.

But it’s a straw man. No-one’s suggesting we can single-handedly stop dangerous climate change. The point is if global emissions are to be cut, those countries that can afford to cut their emissions need to do so. If the UK wasn’t pledging big emissions reductions, why should the rest of the EU do the same? And if the EU isn’t, how can we hope to persuade China to act?

Which leads to the next argument:

We haven’t failed to reduce emissions

Since 1990, emissions have fallen sharply in the EU: in France by 17%, in Germany by 24%, and in the UK by 29%. US emissions rose over that time, but since 2000 have fallen by 9%.*

China’s emissions are still rising, but even they are probably moving in the right direction. In ’09, out of all the wind power capacity installed globally, 35% was in China – making it the world’s third largest user of wind energy. This may partly be about cutting local pollution from coal plants, but in a world where everyone else is cutting their emissions, it will be hard for China not to follow.

Part of the blame for this perception of failure may lie at the door of climate campaigners. Every time a climate deal is slammed as a failure by an NGO, the impression is strengthened that nothing is being done. And so it becomes a bit easier for critics of all global deals to say we should stop wasting our time with these negotiations and start preparing for the worst.

And so the third, and most neglected part:

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Linking the floods with climate change – and why it’s important

Posted in Climate Sock on February 11th, 2014 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Perhaps I’m sensitive, but there doesn’t seem to have been much debate about whether the current UK floods are linked with climate change. The connection has appeared for a day or two but has never been the story for long.

I’m going to look at this in two ways: firstly, what it’s meant for public opinion, and secondly, why it matters.

When the media aren’t talking about an issue, it generally doesn’t get polled about – so we don’t have much data on opinion about the floods and climate change. But we can cobble together a few different polls and get some sense:

1)      People think the UK will suffer more flooding as a result of climate change

A Defra poll last year found people overwhelmingly think that flooding has got more common, and will continue to do so*.

2)      People tend to see weather extremes in general as climate change-related

The last Carbon Brief energy/climate change poll tested how far record-breaking weather of the last few years is seen as linked with climate change. It found just under half think they’re linked: a plurality but hardly decisive.


3)      These floods in particular haven’t really been linked with climate change

The only poll I know of asking whether people connect these floods with climate change, by YouGov, found a roughly even split, with slightly more saying they’re probably not linked.

This was done before the Met Office published their report making a link, which got a bit of coverage. But as Carbon Brief have shown, only a small proportion of news articles about the floods have mentioned climate change, so it would be surprising if opinion has changed hugely.

Why does it matter?

It’s contentious to say that climate campaigners should be declaring that these floods are the result of climate change.

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Public opinion on energy and climate change

Posted in Climate Sock, Energy sources on January 27th, 2014 by Leo – 2 Comments

I was asked recently to do a short briefing on public opinion about energy and climate change. What I’ve written will be familiar to this site’s regular reader – but may be of interest to anyone else who wants a quick summary and doesn’t like charts.


  • Widespread belief the climate is changing and is a threat to Britain
  • Most claiming to be undecided about climate change are soft sceptics responding to the polarisation of the debate – they still want government to tackle climate change
  • Very few think no need for action
  • Flooding seen as easily the biggest threat
  • Little appetite to pay directly for green measures, though acceptance of use of tax system
  • Green energy popular despite anti-wind campaigns; opinion on fracking not settled


Just over half think the climate is changing with humans responsible – very few outright reject the idea of climate change.

  • 56% say climate change happening and mostly caused by humans
  • 33% say climate change happening and mostly caused by natural processes
  • 6% say climate change not happening (Opinium)

This has stayed roughly constant over the last five years, though shows greater doubt than there was at the peak of concern about climate change around 2005.


Most of the change on ’05 is the rise of those in the middle – soft sceptics – who are responding to the polarisation of the debate. They think action on climate change is needed ­but don’t identify with values of green activists.

Responses to questions about climate change are often about political identity – not about understanding of climate science. Of those who say global warming is mostly caused by natural changes, 69% were still satisfied that Copenhagen aimed to cut global emissions by 50% by 2020.


Beyond the polarised debate about whether climate change is real, there is a widespread view that climate change is a threat to Britain and action is needed.

  • 48% say climate change is a major threat to Britain
  • 35% say climate change is a minor threat to Britain
  • 13% say it isn’t a threat (Pew)
  • 67% say climate change could be a serious problem and we need to act now to try to prevent it happening in the future
  • 13% say climate change could be a serious problem but we don’t need to worry about it for now
  • 12% say climate change will probably never be a serious problem (Opinium)


The overwhelming majority think flooding has already become more frequent and will be even more common by 2050. This is much more than for other climate impacts like heatwaves.

  • 83% say flooding has become more frequent in their lifetime
  • 81% say flooding will become more common by 2050
  • 33% say heatwaves will become more common by 2050 (Defra)

Flooding is intuitively understood but other impacts need more explanation. For example to make the case for adapting to heatwaves, communications need first to explain the health effects of extreme heat, particularly for the elderly.


Consumers resist being made to pay directly for green measures, but accept that measures can be funded through general taxes

There is general support for green taxes in principle, but opposition to specific charges on bills:

  • 40% support green taxes in general; 29% oppose (Survation)
  • 60% oppose £128 charge on energy bills for green measures (Survation)

But the most popular solution is for green and social measures to be sustained and funded through general taxes:

  • 39% say should be funded from other taxes instead of people’s energy bills
  • 15% say should be funded by a levy on people’s energy bills
  • 34% say should no longer by spent (YouGov)


Renewable forms of energy are easily the most popular, including locally

Wind, solar and tidal power consistently have the highest approval – far higher than fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Though support for wind turbines is lower when built locally, they still have twice the approval (52%) of any other form: gas (25%), coal (22%), nuclear (20%) (Opinium).


Shale gas fracking is still unpopular – but opposition is not yet settled and may reduce if safety concerns are overcome

Fewer than one in five would be happy to have a shale gas well within 10 miles of their home. But opposition to shale is based on fears about earthquakes and contaminated drinking water. Few people object to shale on the grounds they think it would reduce investment in renewables or lead to an increase in carbon emissions. If these safety concerns are overcome, we may see an increase in the numbers supporting fracking (Opinium).

Has the media stopped linking floods to climate change?

Posted in Climate Sock on January 5th, 2014 by Leo – 13 Comments

UK flooding has been a top news story for the last few weeks – but it’s felt to me like climate change hasn’t been in the picture. So I ran the numbers to check.

I searched on Nexis for news stories about flooding across UK newspapers, filtering out stories about floods of migrants, floods of tears and Toby Flood (details at the bottom*). I then looked at how many of those stories also mentioned climate change or global warming.

The results were interesting. Until 2008, 12-18% of articles about flooding also mentioned climate change. That then leapt to 25% in 2009 – but since then has fallen to 7-11%.

This is pretty much what I might have guessed. Up to late ’09, the media seemed increasingly interested in climate change, but after the Copenhagen conference and the UEA email hack the only climate stories they were interested in were those about scientific disagreements, public scepticism and political inertia (even in the face of scientific consensus, stable public worries and political progress).

This should worry climate change campaigners.

For the UK to have decent climate change policies (limiting it and adapting to unavoidable changes) that have public support and so can survive spending cuts, there needs to be a widespread public view that climate change will be a problem. One of the best ways of fostering this is to show how climate change will affect the UK, using examples that reflect what the future would look like if we don’t take action**.

Flooding is the climate change impact that is seen as most likely (and indeed already happening) and most worrying. If the media aren’t talking about flooding in the context of climate change, campaigners are missing an opportunity to get more people to care about it and punish governments that don’t act.


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Greenpeace’s Christmas campaign and my utter irrelevance

Posted in Climate Sock on December 17th, 2013 by Leo – Be the first to comment

For a few years, I’ve been arguing that the best way to win more support for action on climate change is to:

  • Stop fretting about climate denial. Only tiny numbers doubt the climate is changing – most people think it’s because of human activity. Campaigners shouldn’t get stuck talking about belief: they should get conversations going about what we can do about climate change.
  • Explain how climate change will directly affect the people you’re talking to. That might mean talking about floods and heatwaves in the UK – not animals and people in far-off places.

I might also have said it can be best to avoid jokes where climate change ads come in.

And then there’s the thing that your audience have almost certainly paid way less attention to the issue than you have, so best to be really clear about what you’re talking about and why it matters.

Anyway. Just goes to show how irrelevant I am.

You can join Greenpeace’s campaign here.


The chart that spells election trouble for the Tories

Posted in Politics on December 2nd, 2013 by Leo – Be the first to comment

The last election was about the economy: the macro, hard-to-understand stuff like the debt and the deficit, the credit rating and quantitative easing. The Tories did a brilliant job of framing the debate so it became about Labour’s recession and how they would get the car out of the ditch.

That framing still shapes how people think about the economy. Even this far since the election, more people blame Labour for the spending cuts than blame the government. More than twice as many people say the cuts are necessary as say they’re unnecessary. If the next election is fought on those terms, the Tories will have a real advantage.

But the Tories’ lead on the economy is less important if people stop worrying about it. And that’s what seems to be happening.

MORI’s issues index (most important issues facing the country) shows the proportion who say the economy is one of the top issues has fallen by over a third since 2011. Only 2 in 5 now say it’s one of the main issues, while worries about unemployment have remained steady.

At the same time, poverty/inequality and inflation/prices have been rising as issues for the last couple of years:

The Tories still lead Labour on being best at handling the economy in general (currently 30% to 25%).

But among people who aren’t currently planning on voting Tory, nearly two thirds say they only represent the interests of the rich.

If the election is about living standards, rising prices and inequality – and not the debt and the deficit – it’ll be Labour who have the advantage.

Politicians think the public don’t want a deal to stop climate change. They’re wrong.

Posted in Climate Sock on November 23rd, 2013 by Leo – Be the first to comment

I made this BuzzFeed thing about what people think about climate change.

It’s got graphs and a gif. But no cats. Sorry.

It’s here.


Labour’s 2015 firewall is former Lib Dem voters

Posted in Politics on November 10th, 2013 by Leo – Be the first to comment

With 18 months to the election, the latest skirmish has broken out in the geeks’ war to predict the result. But fun though the battles are, history really is bunk for this one. There is, though, one way we can understand how the war will be won.

The fresh round of the debate was started by a projection by the Oxford academic, Stephen Fisher, that the Tories have a 57% chance of winning a majority, and Labour just 15% chance. In the 28% chance of a hung parliament, he projects the Tories being the largest party 88% of the time.

This contradicts most other projections. Bookmakers currently have Labour as favourites (6/5 at the shortest odds), followed by a hung parliament, and then the Tories on only around 3/1 to win a majority. When I last wrote about 2015, I concluded that past elections pointed roughly towards an electoral tie – which would put Labour as the largest party and just short of a majority.

The trouble is, all these projections (including mine) use past election to predict what will happen in 2015 – and this doesn’t work.

On the one hand, governments tend to lose votes after they’ve served a full term: suggesting Labour should win the election. On the other, oppositions generally lost support as an election gets closer: which, in the context of current polls, suggests the Tories should win.

It’s not hard to see why precedent doesn’t stand up at the moment. The major parties are historically unpopular so there’s not the usual zero-sum game of one gaining at the other’s unpopularity. The coalition confuses three-party switching; and the rise of UKIP has split both the vote of the right and of anti-government protestors. Anyway, as Randall Munro has pointed out, electoral precedents are there to be broken.

So forget using past elections to predict May 2015. Instead, let’s look at how the election will be decided*.

There’s a simple question we can ask, that over time will tell us who’s going to form the next government: what’s happened to the people who voted Lib Dem in 2010?

In the six months after the 2010 election, the Lib Dems’ support fell from 21% (YouGov, May 13th) to 9% (YouGov, November 11th). Labour’s vote intent went from 34% to 40%. Since then, the two parties’ support has stayed roughly at the same level.

Looking at the latest poll of each of the major firms**, about a third of 2010 Lib Dem voters now say they would vote Labour:

With the Lib Dems getting 23% at the last election, this means Labour has gained about 8pts from 2010 Lib Dems. It’s the biggest transfer of votes between any parties – easily eclipsing the loss of Tories to UKIP. So I conclude:

Unless Labour loses these post-2010 Lib Dem defectors, it will win the election. This is Labour’s firewall.

Ok, that needs a couple of strings attached.

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