A cold bath of polling figures

I don’t like talking about polls much. Looking at monthly polls is like looking at the essays of Oxford students in the three years before their finals. They tell you lots of useful things about the weaknesses, strengths and abilities of the tyro gown wearers, but looking at any one piece of work, or even a series of essays, can’t tell you how they’ll do in Exam Schools.

Maybe the kid revises hard, or discovers girls, or becomes complacent. I should know. I was destined for a third, and emerged with a 2:1. Revision FTW.

Interim information helps you see trends, and know what to do about them, but until the exam or election, nothing is settled. (In both cases, the predictive capabilities of interim tests get a lot more useful the closer you get to the finals, obviously).

Over the last two years we’ve seen enough dramatic polling changes to show that very little is permanent. We had consistent Conservative leads for a year, then three months of Labour leads when Gordon Brown took over, then a huge collapse in Labour support for nine months, then a Labour recovery to within striking distance followed by another Labour collapse in support. It’s been emotional.

Here’s all that recent history in graph form:

Voting Intention 2005 onwards (From Anthonw Wells' UK Polling report

Voting Intention 2005 onwards (From Anthony Wells' UK Polling report

Within the next year we could see equally striking and dramatic changes, or we could not.

Looking at that graph, there appear to be two periods where an informed observer could see a settled will of the people emerging. In both cases, a disruptive event transformed the political situation. The emerging trends became irrelevant as peoples views of the parties changed. In other words, people change their minds about you when you do things they like or hate.

Few people view polls as much more than a sort of running scoreboard for the Government of the day – a way for us to understand how well the government is doing, how appealing the opposition is and whether our leaders have the confidence of the populace.

All of which is interesting enough, but not helpful in crafting an electoral strategy.

Polls tell you how hungry people feel right now, not how they’re going to feel after they eat tonight. A wise chef uses what they say to find out what they’re looking for from their next meal, and what they hated about the last lunch you cooked. Don’t assume that because someone craves a McDonalds now, they’ll feel the same after you feed them Steak frites.

Having used that inspiring metaphor, I now want to spend an inordinate of time talking about how to approach polls. Then in another post, I’ll try to use all that to explain why I think the views I already hold are the best strategic option for the Labour party. If you’re not interested in polls, best avoid the rest of this and wait for the fun stuff.

You hate to accept reality to change it

The polls are really bad right now.

A combination of a decline in the trust of the Government to handle the economy, a series of embarrassing scandals that have tarnished the parties reputation, voter concerns about the economy and the direction of the country and a more acceptable opposition alternative have combined to reduce both Labour vote share and the likelihood to vote of Labour supporters.

Although there’s been little detailed polling, I expect we’ll see a significant decline in the PMs personal rating (after a rebound from Oct 08-March 09) as well.

These are really, really bad numbers. We’re losing supporters to both apathy and other parties in disturbing numbers. So should we just give up, maybe play for a respectable defeat or some such?

Don’t think it can’t be changed.

Nothing’s inevitable. Nothing. We’ve caused Labour supporters to feel less likely to vote and lost the support of a number of key voters. To win the next election we have to get significant numbers of both of those groups back.

We’ve done that successfully once, and semi-successfully twice in the last two years alone.

When you think about what you need to do, put the voters concerns first and last

In politics, it’s tempting to get caught up in debates about leadership, strategy, initiatives, personality and so on. Yet when voters are asked about these things they’re less important to them than big hairy issues. Economy, Crime. Public Services (though interest in the latter has declined as the economy has worried people).

So in thinking about what political strategy to follow, it’s important to focus on what voters are telling you they think matters, giving them a powerful argument as to why they need to support us on election day.

Right now, one issue bestrides everything

70% of the population think the economy is a key issue facing the country. That’s more than the number who thought defence was important after September 11. It’s more than the number that thought the economy was important after Black Wednesday. 23% say unemployment is a key issue. That’s more than say education.

It shouldn’t be any suprise therefore that when the government looks like it’s in command of the economy,  it benefits, and when it looks like it’s struggling to cope it falls behind.

Here’s a chart that plots Labour’s lead (or deficit) against the number of people who think the economy will improve or stay the same. The trends are pretty clear. The more people feel economically secure, the smaller Labour’s defecit.


Think about Labour identifiers first

As the recent comres poll shows, there’s a fairly narrow gap in Labour and Conservative party identification. 27% of voters think of themselves as Conservative, 25% as Labour. When looked at by identifiers alone, the election looks pretty close in every age and social class group other than the over 65s.

We get slaughtered by two things. A number of our identifiers say they’re unlikely to vote or are uncertain about it and a significant number are voting Tory. Motivating them to vote and peeling them back are crucial.

There’s another group I’d link to these – 2005 Labour voters who now identify as conservatives. My hunch is that this group is very similar in attitude to those who  identify as Labour but are voting conservative, but come from less traditional Labour backgrounds.*

Pay more attention to voters than to non-voters

This might seem really stupidly obvious, but it’s a useful corrective. Date shows that older people are more likely to vote. It shows that people who voted last time are more likely to vote this time. It shows that people who say they’re going to vote are amzingly enough, actually going to vote.  So pay careful attention to trends in these categories and think about how your policy agenda is going to apeal to them.

Speaking of which: Don’t use polls to justify your own pre-existing policy prejudices.

We all do this, me included. But it’s a useful reminder. Use polls to challenge your beliefs about public preferences not re-inforce them.

Is there evidence that scrapping Trident would be popular?  Well, you’d need to factor that public opinion is divided on Nuclear weapons, with 49% saying we don’t need them now, and another 20% calling for a delay. You’ also remember the salience of the issue. Defence is not regarded as a topline issue for many people. You also need to balance between the fact that people are receptive to spending cuts arguments in general, but also that there’s significant concern about unemployment.

To me at least, cutting a programme that will create tangible manufacturing jobs amongst skilled manual workers strikes me as one of the less likely spending cuts to appeal to the public, right now. But that’s just an opinion, not a data point.

You might also look at the fact that despite a sustained media onslaught, the proposal for a 50% Tax rate is very popular, with nearly 60% of voters saying they support it. Considering the reaction of virtually every major newsapper and most of the TV coverage, that’s a pretty remarkable number. Those on the right of the party who are uncomfortable about 50% tax rates for electoral reasons need to take that on board.

There’s a good example of this in the Populus post budget presentation that shows that a plurality of people think that the 50% tax rate is both the end of New Labour and a good thing for the country.

A lot of people think increasing Rich peoples tax is fair. Source: populus

A lot of people think increasing Rich peoples tax is fair. Source: populus

Another example:  Some people, many on the right of the party, have occassionally murmured about Gordon Brown’s leadership, just as people on the left of the party murmured about Tony Blair’s. Yet satisfaction ratings for Gordon Brown have been significantly above that of the Government for some time.

Government Satisfaction Ratings vs Gordon Brown Satisfaction ratings (Mori Monthly Monitor)

Government Satisfaction Ratings vs Gordon Brown Satisfaction ratings (Mori Monthly Monitor)

So those are the principles I’m operating under when I look at polls.
Next time I’ve got a few hours spare I’ll look at what the polls suggest about viable Labour political strategies. Now that will be fun.


*This is just a guess as the numbers in polls are too small to be meaningful. 

Which reminds me. When looking at relatively small groups of people (weak labour identifiers, Labour identifiers who are considering voting Conservative, etc), Qual work (like focus qroups) is more helpful than quantitative – an opinion poll that finds 20 or 30 Labour weak identifiers isn’t a great way to understand their concerns and worries. You need the quant to tell you how important a group they are and the qual to understand them.

The value of qualititaive work, done well, is that voters are not voting Labour for their own reasons, not the reasons we wish to project upon them. Understanding those reasons is key to changing them. Bad Qualitative work leads people opinions, and is downright dangerous.

13 Responses to “A cold bath of polling figures”

  1. CharlieMcMenamin

    “To me at least, cutting a programme that will create tangible manufacturing jobs amongst skilled manual workers strikes me as one of the less likely spending cuts to appeal to the public, right now. But that’s just an opinion, not a data point”

    Trident has to go. The money could certainly be spent on investing in more productive industrial capacity – green industries for instance . But the only case for spending so much dosh on a weaponis that it protects us. & Trident doesn’t.

  2. roger alexander

    The two previous poll improvements for Labour were when Brown took over with many voters thinking anyone was better than Blair and the secondly last Autumn when we had the Brown saves the world routine.

    Since then we have had:

    — Jacqui two plasma TV’s, porno films and the bathplug.
    –McNulty paying for his parents house via the taxpayer.
    –Ministers abusing their grace and favour homes.
    –McBride,Draper smeargate.
    –A budget telling us that the government needs to borrow (at the very minimum) a staggering £ 600 billion over the next 4 years and a refusal by the government to tell us how the deficit will be funded.
    –Within 48 hours of the budget the numbers start to fall to pieces with the actual qtr 1 decline 1.9% & not Darling’s 1.5%.
    –The new 50% (in real terms 60%) tax rate in the budget was yet another core electoral pledge binned by the government.
    –June will of course offer a real life poll and the opportunity for the government to explain why they reneged on their referendum pledge.
    –Brown decides to by-pass parliament over MP’s expenses only to be forced into a humiliating climdown less than a week later.

    Meanwhile we await the publication of MP’s expenses in July.

    I know you must be searching hard for some crumbs of comfort,but other than that, you really don’t need to analyse the polls to realise that Brown New / Old Labour whatever it is called these days is finished,ended,the only unknown is the scale of the defeat.

  3. hopisen

    Roger, I have been reading the newspapers over the last few months, but thank you for sharing the events with us once again.

    I’m intrigued though. Given that in July 2008 the opinion polls were almost exactly where they are now and between then and now we saw a resurgence of Gordon Brown and Labour’s polling figures (though after the awful last nonth or so they’ve slumped again), why do you believe that the current polls represent the final verdict of the British people?

    I fear you are projecting your own certainty onto others.

  4. hopisen


    We don’t need Trident today. Who is it even targetted against? But that’s not the question.

    The question is might we need a Nuclear force in 20 years time?

    I don’t know what the geo-political situation will be in 20 years time, when new Trident will come into play.

    When Trident was being commissioned, anyone who said that the Soviet Union wouldn’t exist, that Eastern Europe would be part of the EEC, that China would be the worlds fastest growing capitalist economy and the biggest threat to British security would come from the ideological descendents of the Anti-Soviet Mujihideen and their allies in Pakistan would have been dismissed as fantasists.

    The future is too murky to be able to say with confidence that the UK will have no need of a nuclear deterrent. that being the case, I prefer to err on the side of caution.

    That has nothing to do with the polling, mind you.

  5. newmania

    Of course it could also get worse …. and there are good reasons to think it will.
    I am attending to “life” right now but could not resist popping in. I think its hard to get much out of polls beyond raw voting intentions and you are always likely to over extrapolate weak preferences
    Perhaps understandably you do not discuss the Old Labour`s biggest problem people want a change and confronted with five more years of Brown they will vote that way . Its instinct of course , but I make a habit of asking non combatants what they think and thats what they have said to me in Croydon and Lewes. Lets try the other lot , … simple as that

    The higher tax rate is of course popular .The reason we have not had one is because it is damaging and loses revenue .The undertaking not to slam the rich was not made to appeal the electorate but to the international business community . Brown would have done it if there was money in it , he gained revenue when he dropped the top rate ( Got that ?) so he undoubtedly agrees with the IFS who say it will lose cash. Pretty cynical eh tsk tsk . It is a irrelevant to balancing the books and when taxes people have to pay are mentioned the effect on the Polls has been noticeably violent.

    People have still got the big mortgages they used to have and most did not do well in the “Boom”, only the public Sector and a small number in the Services gained disposable income and when Labour ask for them to clear up after a Party they did not attend then you will see the low point we are not there by a long shot . I wonder myself if this may be the end of Labour alone as the opposition. I daresay you would be just as happy in a Lib Lab progressive thingummy doo dah wouldn`t you Hopi ? No-one has ever really loved the Conservative Party of course but they used to love Labour . New Labour do not seem to me to go with the old songs and the old yearning . I don’t think as a brand it would be missed and it is not impossible we may see wider changes than you have yet imagined over the next few years .

  6. newmania

    PS I think on Trident while you are right if you cannot afford it you cannot afford it .Many on the right who unquestioningly supported our coninued ability to punch above our weight now wonder if we want to finance international posturing any more.

    Its an old sort of politics but Blair Obama , and austerity are bringing back to life

  7. CharlieMcMenamin

    Hold onto Trident ‘just in case’ things change? I struggle to believe someone of your obvious intelligence can believe the policy case for such an huge investment of resources. I wonder if, rather, you’re sensitive to the obvious political knocking copy any party which advocated getting rid of our nuclear weapons might attract? It would be a hugely symbolic act and easily presentable as ‘surrender’ or a formal recognition that Britain is no longer in the first rank of nations and should, for example, surrender it’s UN Security Council seat.

    But Britain isn’t in the first rank of nations any more. Will Hutton was very plain on this matter in the Observer this weekend:
    “Britain is going to feel very different in the years ahead. …. the pound has suffered a devaluation since 2007 that is bigger than those in 1931, 1949 or 1967. The British economy, in dollar and euro terms, is now emphatically smaller than those of France or Germany, and our new peers are Italy and Spain. ….. Like the empires of Venice, Spain, the Netherlands and Austria before us, Britain no longer has an economy large enough to finance our ambitions and overseas commitments.”

    Somebody in politics has to face up to this. Holding onto hugely expensive and ultimately useless weapons is like refusing to give up the Lexus whilst your house is being re-possessed.

  8. Brian Hughes

    Well done, producing evidence that “the views [you] already hold are the best strategic option for the Labour party” is a very worthwhile exercise especially because they seem to be not a million miles from my own.

    Would you like to learn some of my thoughts re Trident? My heart says no but my head says yes.

    In overall terms its cost is a drop in the proverbial ocean (but I recognise that that’s a dangerous game; the same can be said about nearly every bit of public spending) and that a lot of the spend would end up in the UK economy and thus help the boost (but I recognise that that’s a dangerous game; the same can be said about nearly every bit of public spending).

    Without it Europe could become the only power block without nuclear capability or completely dependent on the French – much as I love and admire our close neighbours and historic enemies, who could sleep easily were either of those the case?

    It would be good if the costs could be shared amongst our EU partners but that would mean giving up absolute control and accepting a much more substantial common foreign policy. All Britain’s significant developments wrt the EU have happened under Tory governments; perhaps they’ll sign us up to one just after they take us into the euro zone.

    With such a fertile imagination perhaps I should be writing fantasy fiction rather than expending my time on other people’s blogs…

  9. duncanseconomicblog

    Looking forward to your follow up post.

    But, in the meantime, I am curious about the 50% rate and public reaction. Do you think the public are only prepared to accept it given all the banker bashing of the last year? Or could it have been done with public support at any time since 1997?

  10. hopisen

    Duncan, I suspect it would always have been popular, (or at least be more popular than the parties headline polling figures, even if not over 50%).

    The political (as opposed to the economic) case for not raising the upper rate was always that it was symbolic of something wider having changed about the Labour party, that it would lock in media and commentariat support and so on. There’s also the thought that while increasing tax n high earners is short term popular, it’s not nesc long term popular – three years of a sun campaign can have interesting effects.

    The other point I’d make though is that raising tax because you “have to” is a question of sharing the burden of recovery, as we’ve discussed before. Raising tax because you want to in economic good times would likely provoke a far stronger negative reaction. That’s a guess though.


  11. hopisen

    Charlie, I just don’t think we can be confident we won’t be facing a security threat in which a nuclear deterrent would be helpful over the 20-40 year timescale, and that being the case a lack of investment now strikes me as overly risky.

    Think of it in terms of probability ranges. Say there’s a 33% chance we’ll face a security threat of that type – would the risk of not a deterent then be worth over 60 billion or so? quite possibly…

  12. CharlieMcmenamin

    Not being confident of the shape of any likely threat in 30 years time is fair enough – but it is also an argument for every medium sized country in the world acquiring nuclear weapons ‘just in case’, and to ignore other spending priorities in doing so. That way madness lies I suspect you’d agree.

    But then I never did think Trident protected us, even in the Cold War. So I suspect I’m not the audience you’re really aiming at with your arguments.


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