Fifteen Weeks to go

Week three of the year and the regular cycle of opinion polling is back to full speed, with the first ComRes and ICM polls of the year. Almost all the regular polling companies have now reported figures from 2015 (we’re only waiting for Survation and ComRes’s telephone series).

ComRes/Independent on Sun. (15/1/15) – CON 33%, LAB 34%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 18%, GRN 3%
YouGov/Sun on Sun. (15/1/15) – CON 31%, LAB 33%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 16%, GRN 7%
Populus (15/1/15) – CON 32%, LAB 35%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 14%, GRN 6%
YouGov/S Times (16/1/15) – CON 31%, LAB 32%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 18%, GRN 7%
Opinium/Observer (16/1/15) – CON 28%, LAB 33%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 20%, GRN 6%
Ashcroft (18/1/15) – CON 29%, LAB 28%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 15%, GRN 11%
Populus (18/1/15) – CON 35%, LAB 36%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 4%
TNS (19/1/15) – CON 31%, LAB 31%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 16%, GRN 7%
YouGov/Sun (19/1/15) – CON 32%, LAB 32%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 15%, GRN 7%
ICM/Guardian (19/1/15) – CON 30%, LAB 33%, LDEM 11%, UKIP 11%, GRN 9%
YouGov/Sun (20/1/15) – CON 32%, LAB 30%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 15%, GRN 10%
YouGov/Sun (21/1/15) – CON 33%, LAB 34%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 14%, GRN 8%
YouGov/Sun (22/1/15) – CON 31%, LAB 33%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 17%, GRN 8%
Populus (22/1/15) – CON 32%, LAB 36%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 13%, GRN 6%

The horse race remains extremely tight between Labour and the Conservatives, with most polls showing them within a point or two of each other, generally with Labour marginally ahead of the Tories. The UKPR average now stands at CON 32%(-1), LAB 33%(nc), LDEM 8%(+1), UKIP 15%(nc), GRN 7%(nc). The Green party’s rising support got a lot of attention this week because of their double digit figures from Ashcroft and YouGov, but there has not been a sudden step change in their level of support, it’s been on a steady increase since last year.

Scottish polling

This week we also had two Scottish polls from Ipsos MORI and Survation. Both continued to show a solid lead for the SNP in Westminster voting intentions. MORI had SNP on 52%(unchanged) to Labour’s 24%(up one). Survation had the SNP on 46% (down two) and Labour on 26% (up two). Both would still translate into an SNP landslide in Scotland come May.

Week Three

Every general election seems to start with the political parties putting out a flurry of announcements at the start of January, and then running out of steam a bit. This week’s political news has been rather bitty.

  • The reporting of the Chilcot Inquiry has been put back until after the general election, we can expect to see some polling on that at the weekend.
  • Peter Mandleson criticised his own party’s mansion tax proposals. Nationwide the idea of a mansion tax has extremely wide support – in September YouGov found 72% support for a tax on properties over £2million pounds. Criticism of it from within Labour tends to come from London, where it is less overwhelmingly popular, but still gets the thumbs up – YouGov London polling last August found 49% of people in London supported a “mansion tax”, 18% were opposed. Amongst London’s Labour voters 61% supported the idea.
  • The government announced that they would after all introduce legislation on plain packaging for cigarettes before the election, something that has previously been in and out of the long grass, and was seen as one of those policies that the Conservatives had put away as part of “cleaning the barnacles from the boat”. Generally speaking there is public support for the proposal – YouGov polling for the Sunday Times in July in 2013 found 58% of people supported compulsory plain packs, 26% were opposed. YouGov polling for Ash in 2014 that included a picture of an example of a plain pack found 66% of people in support, 10% opposed.
  • Finally the debates debate rumbles on, with the broadcasters making a new proposal to include the Greens in the debates… but also to include the SNP and Plaid, so that the format becomes two debates between seven leaders, and one debate between just Cameron and Miliband. Including all seven leaders was actually the most popular single option in the YouGov/Sun on Sunday polling last weekend, chosen by 35% of people. Between them though 49% of people preferred one or another of the options including fewer leaders.

Projections

The latest forecasts from Election Forecast, May 2015 and Elections Etc are below. All are still predicting a hung Parliament. Note that Steve Fisher has made some substantial changes to his Elections Etc model in order to treat England and Scotland separately, and hence reflect the increase in SNP support in Scotland

Elections Etc – Hung Parliament, CON 283(nc), LAB 278(-3), LD 23(-3), SNP 41(+5), UKIP 3(nc)
Election Forecast – Hung Parliament, CON 278(+1), LAB 286(-3), LD 28(+1), SNP 34(+2), UKIP 3(nc)
May 2015 – Hung Parliament, CON 269(-4), LAB 289(+9), LD 27(+3), SNP 38(-8), UKIP 4(nc)


A quick update on the latest voting intention polls. This morning’s YouGov poll for the Sun has topline figures of CON 33%, LAB 34%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 14%, GRN 8% (tabs) – more typical figures than YouGov’s Tuesday poll.

There is also a new TNS poll with topline figures of CON 31%(+3), LAB 31%(-4), LDEM 8%(+2), UKIP 16%(-2), GRN 7%(+2) (tabs). Up until now TNS have tended to release their polls incredibly slowly, often a week or more after their fieldwork was finished, rendering them out of date by the time we see them. Fieldwork for this one however finished on Monday so it’s more timely than usual. The last couple of TNS polls showed Labour leads of 7 points, significantly and consistently larger than any other company. Today’s looks more like other polls. (UPDATE – thanks to those in the comments section who missed something obvious in the TNS tabs that I overlooked! TNS have always weighted by 2010 recalled vote, but they are now weighting by 2010 recalled vote AND 2014 European vote – whether or not this is responsible for their figures coming into line with other companies’s is unclear.)

Finally Ipsos MORI put out their latest Scottish poll yesterday. Westminster voting intentions in Scotland were CON 12%(+2), LAB 24%(+1), LDEM 4%(-2), SNP 52%(nc), GRN 4%(-2). We’ve now had three Scottish polls conducted in 2015. The first one from Panelbase showed the SNP dropping four points and raised some speculation about whether their huge post-referendum surge was fading away again. The second from Survation also had the SNP down, but only by two points and this one from MORI has the level of SNP support holding steady. (On top of that, when tables for the Panelbase poll appeared it turned out that the voting intention question wasn’t asked first, it was asked after a question about whether or not falling oil prices damaged the economic case for Scottish independence, so the SNP fall in that first poll may be a question ordering effect rather than a genuine change)


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I hope most of my regular readers would assume a Daily Express headline about a “poll” showing 80% of people want to leave the EU was nonsense anyway, but it’s a new year, a new election campaign, and it’s probably worth writing again about why these things are worthless and misleading as measures of public opinion. If nothing else, it will give people an explanation to point rather overexcited people on Twitter towards.

The Express headline is “80% want to quit the EU, Biggest poll in 40 years boosts Daily Express crusade”. This doesn’t actually refer to a sampled and weighted opinion poll, but to a campaign run by two Tory MPs (Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone) and a Tory candidate (Thomas Pursglove) consisting of them delivering their own ballot papers to houses in their constituencies. They apparently got about 14,000 responses, which is impressive as a campaigning exercise, but doesn’t suddenly make it a meaningful measure of public opinion.

Polls are meaningful only to the extent that they are representative of the wider public – if they contain the correct proportions of people of different ages, of men and women, of different social classes and incomes and from different parts of the country as the population as a whole then we hope they should also hold the same views of the population as a whole. Just getting a lot of people to take part does not in any way guarantee that the balance of people who end up taking the poll will be representative.

I expect lots of people who aren’t familiar with how polling works will see a claim like this, see that 14,000 took part, and think it must therefore be meaningful (in the same way, a naive criticism of polls is often that they only interview 1000 people). The best example of why this doesn’t work was the polling for the 1936 Presidential election in the USA, which heralded modern polling and tested big sample sizes to destruction. Back then the most well known poll was that done by a magazine, the Literary Digest. The Literary Digest too sent out ballot papers to as many people as it could – it sent them to its subscribers, to other subscription lists, to everyone in the phone directory, to everyone with a car, etc, etc. In 1936 it sent out 10 million ballot papers and received two point four million responses. Based on these replies, they confidently predicted that the Republican candidate Alf Landon would win the election. Meanwhile the then little known George Gallup interviewed just a few thousand people, but using proper demographic quotas to get a sample that was representative of the American public. Gallup’s data predicted a landslide win for the Democrat candidate Franklin D Roosevelt. Gallup was of course right, the Literary Digest embarrassingly wrong. The reason was that the Literary Digest’s huge sample of 2.4 million was drawn from the sort of people who had telephones, cars and magazine subscriptions and, in depression era America, these people voted Republican.

Coming back to the Express’s “poll”, a campaign about leaving Europe run by three Tory election candidates in the East Midlands is likely to largely be responded to by Conservative sympathisers with strong views about Europe, hence the result. Luckily we have lots of properly conducted polls that are sampled and weighted to be representative of whole British public and they consistently show a different picture. There are some differences between different companies – YouGov ask it a couple of time a month and find support for leaving the EU varying between 37% and 44%, Survation asked a couple of months ago and found support for leaving at 47%, Opinium have shown it as high as 48%. For those still entranced by large sample sizes, Lord Ashcroft did a poll of 20,000 people on the subject of Europe last year (strangely larger than the Express’s “largest poll for 40 years”!) and found people splitting down the middle 41% stay – 41% leave.

And that’s about where we are – there’s some difference between different pollsters, but the broad picture is that the British public are NOT overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU, they are pretty evenly divided over whether to stay in the European Union or not.


We’ve had two new voting intention polls today, and both continue the trend of increasing Green party support. I briefly mentioned the monthly ICM poll for the Guardian earlier on today, which had the Green party up four points to 9%, the highest they have ever registered in an ICM/Guardian poll. Just out is the daily YouGov poll for the Sun which has topline figures of CON 32%, LAB 30%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 15%, GRN 10%.

The ten point score for the Greens is the first time they’ve broken into double figures with YouGov, and in this case it’s pushed Labour down to 30%, the lowest YouGov have shown them at this Parliament. In terms of the Labour position it’s obviously just one poll and all the usual caveats apply, but for the Greens this is clearly part of a broader trend that is being picked up across many different polls. For all the ponderings about what the effect of having the Green party included in the debates might have been, it looks as if they may be getting a pretty good boost from the arguments around their exclusion from the debates. How sticky that support is remains to be seen.


Rob Hayward, the former Tory MP turned psephologist, gave a presentation at ComRes on Monday which has stirred up some comment about whether the polls are underestimating Conservative support.

Historically the polls have tended to underestimate Conservative support and/or overestimate Labour support. It was most notable in 1992, but was a fairly consistent historical pattern anyway. Since the disaster of 1992 this bias has steadily reduced as pollsters have gradually switched methods and adopted some form of political control or weighting on their samples. In 2010 – at last! – the problem seemed to have been eliminated. I hope that the polling industry has now tackled and defeated the problem of Labour bias in voting intention polls, but it would be hubris to assume that because we’ve got it right once the problem has necessarily gone away and we don’t need to worry about it anymore.

In his presentation Rob compared polls last year with actual elections – the polls for the European elections, for the by-elections and for the local elections.

I looked at how the polls for the European election did here and have the same figures as Rob. Of the six pollsters who produced figures within a week or so of the election five underestimated Conservative support. The average level of Tory support across those polls was 22.2%, the Tories actually got 23.9%. The average for Labour was 27%, when they actually got 25.4%.

Looking at by-elections, Rob has taken ten by-election polls from 2014 and compared them to results. Personally I’d be more wary. By-election campaigns can move fast, and some of those polls were taken a long time before the actual campaign – the Clacton polls, for example, were conducted a month before the actual by-election took place, so any difference between the results and the polling could just as likely be a genuine change in public opinion. Taking those polls done within a week or so of the actual by-elections shows the same pattern though – Conservatives tend to be underestimated (except in Heywood and Middleton), Labour tends to be overestimated.

Finally in Rob’s presentation he has a figure for polls at the local elections in 2014. I think he’s comparing the average of national Westminster polls at the time with Rallings and Thrasher’s NEQ, which I certainly wouldn’t recommend – the Lib Dems for example always do better in local election NEQ than in national polls, but it’s because they are different types of election, not because the national polls are wrong). As it happens there was at least one actual local election poll from Survation.

Survation local election: CON 24%, LAB 36%, LDEM 13%, UKIP 18%, Others 10%
R&T local election vote: CON 26%, LAB 36%, LDEM 11%, UKIP 16%, Others 12%

Comparing it to the actual result (that is, the actual total votes cast at the local election, which is what Survation were measuring, NOT the National Equivalent Vote) these figures were actually pretty good, especially given the sample size was only 312 and that it will be skewed in unknown ways by multi-member wards. That said, the pattern is the same- it’s the Conservatives who are a couple of points too low, Labour spot on.

So, Rob is right to say that polls in 2014 that could be compared to actual results tended to show a skew away from the Conservatives and towards Labour. Would it be right to take a step on from that and conclude that the national Westminster polls are showing a similar pattern? Well, let me throw out a couple of caveats. To take the by-election polls first, these are conducted solely by two companies – Lord Ashcroft and Survation… and in the case of Survation they are done using a completely different method to Survation’s national polling, so cannot reasonably be taken as an indication of how accurate their national polling is. ICM is a similar case, their European polling was done online while all their GB Westminster polling is done by telephone. None of these examples includes any polling from MORI, Populus or ComRes’s telephone polling – in fact, given that there were no telephone based European polls, the comparison doesn’t include any GB phone polls at all, and looking at the house effects of different pollsters, online polls tend to produce more Labour-friendly figures than telephone polls do.

So what can we conclude? Well, looking at the figures by-election polls do seem to produce figures that are a bit too Laboury, but I’d be wary of assuming that the same pattern necessarily holds in national polls (especially given Survation use completely different methods for their constituency polling). At the European elections the polls also seemed to be a bit Laboury… but the pollsters who produced figures for that election included those pollsters that tend to produce the more Laboury figures anyway, and didn’t include any telephone pollsters. It would be arrogant of me to rule out the possibility that the old problems of pro-Labour bias may return, but for the time being consider me unconvinced by the argument.

UPDATE: Meanwhile the Guardian have published their monthly ICM poll, with topline figures of CON 30%(+2), LAB 33%(nc), LDEM 11%(-3), UKIP 11%(-3), GRN 9%(+4) – another pollster showing a significant advance for the Green party.