Archive for May, 2015

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

Posted in Politics on May 27th, 2015 by Leo – 1 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 – Comments Off on To make climate change an election battleground, start now

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 – Comments Off on The pollsters have to show they take this disaster seriously

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:


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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