The Guardian’s report on their poll this month has made the assumption that a drop in Conservative support is due to NHS policy, various other commentators have this morning jumped to the same conclusion.

The truth is, as ever, rather more complex than that. Firstly we should set aside the ICM poll apparently showing a 4 point drop in Tory support as the NHS row continues. This is a classic case of making the outlier the story, the media’s constant failing in reporting polls – the underlying trend in polling is ignored while the rogue poll (and the reversion to the mean afterwards) gets a headline. Looking at the broad range of polls the Conservatives have not lost four points of support: they have gone from a position in December when, after the European veto, they appeared to be slightly ahead of Labour in the polls to a position this month when they appear to be a point behind or so, a drop of one or two points.

Many commentators today have also fallen victim to a fallacy I often see in the comments here – ascribing whatever movement happens in the poll to whatever subject they personally feel strongly about. Hence the Guardian and many bloggers feel strongly about the NHS, there has been a slight drift downwards in Tory support, therefore the former is probably the cause of the latter (it’s also a sort of availability bias – the poll contained questions about the NHS, they are bad, therefore that’s the cause. What if the other questions in the poll had been about, say, crime?)

However, this ignores other possible explanations, which could actually be better evidenced. Here are a couple, though I certainly wouldn’t claim these are exhaustive – there are no doubt other possibilities, including those that are less well served with tracker polls.

The first hypothesis is the unwinding of the European veto effect. You will remember that in November Labour had a lead of four or five points. The Conservatives then pulled level after David Cameron’s veto at the European summit. We should be expecting the effect of the veto to gradually unwind and, indeed, there is evidence to suggest that is what we are seeing.

The proportion of people thinking that Europe was an important issue facing the country peaked at 38% just after the veto, but has since faded away again, and is now back down to 23%. Similarly we saw some sharp increases in perceptions of David Cameron on the back of his veto. The percentage of people thinking Cameron “sticks to what he believes in” rose from 26% to 39%, decisive went from 20% to 29%, good in a crisis went from 13% to 18%. Since then most of these figures have fallen back down a bit (“stick to what he believes in” back to 31%, decisive back to 24%, good in crisis back to 18%).

One straightforward explanation therefore is just the fading of the leadership boost that Cameron received from the veto.

A second hypothesis is less negative coverage of Ed Miliband. In January the media narrative was dominated by criticism of Ed Miliband’s leadership, and the media impression was increasingly that he was a no hoper. In February that has faded a bit, the attacks have mostly stopped coming, he’s had a few good PMQs under his belt and the media narrative has largely moved on (to a great degree to the NHS!). This is reflected in Miliband’s own ratings. In January he hit record lows in his approval ratings, reaching a nadir of minus 53 points. In February he has recovered a but to the low minus 40s. His ratings are still significantly worse than they were last year… but he has risen off the canvas.

A third hypothesis is the NHS. The recent coverage has certainly pushed the NHS up the agenda – going back to the YouGov issues tracker, the proportion of people naming the NHS as an important issue is up to 32% from 22% a month ago. We also have lots of questions that have shown the government’s policy is unpopular and that people don’t trust the Conservatives on the NHS, but these don’t necessarily indicate change – it could’ve been unpopular all along.

The ICM poll yesterday shows that people trust the Conservatives less on the NHS now than in 2006, which is an interesting finding in itself, but it doesn’t follow that the drop in trust has come in the last few weeks or is a result of the current policy. If we look at YouGov’s regular tracker on which party people trust the most on the NHS there is a distinct lack of any recent drop in the proportion of people who prefer the Conservatives on the NHS.

In fact, the Conservative trend in the last year is pretty flat – what drop there was happened in late 2010 as the government’s honeymoon faded. What is also worth noting in this graph is that the Conservative detoxification on the NHS is something of a myth – it never really worked very well, and Conservative leads on the NHS were small and transitory.

This, I suspect, is one of the reasons the NHS hasn’t damaged the Conservatives that much – most people never trusted them on it in the first place. The other reason is that most people have no clue about the reforms and what they are or are not likely to do – take this recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times which, rather than tell people about the reforms and ask about them, just asked people to say if they supported or opposed them based on what they’d seen or heard about them. 48% of people were opposed… but over a third (34%) of people said don’t know, a comparatively high figure for any question.

That is not to say that the NHS reforms are not politically dangerous for the government – I think Tim Montgomerie’s point that any future problems with the NHS (and there will always be some problems with the NHS, even if there were not budget squeezes and reorganisation) will be blamed on the policy is well made. Equally, just because it hasn’t made a big impact so far doesn’t mean it couldn’t do so in the future.

However the claim that it is already doing significant damage the Conservatives in the polls is weak. The drop in Conservative support in the polls is small and there are alternative and perhaps better evidenced explanations for it.

307 Responses to “What causes poll movements”

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  1. @Syzygy

    The Daily Mail article was quoting from a 2005 interview with the Independent (which has now disappeared, but bits and peices have been retrieved).



  2. Latest YouGov/Sun results 21st Feb CON 37%, LAB 41%, LD 9%; APP -28 See the survey details and full results here??????? ? ? ? ? ? ?

    That looks very close to the 36/41/10 that was polldrums last year.

  3. NICK P.
    Do you think the 9% Lib Dem figure is a bit high?
    Happy Lent by the way

  4. Looking at Anthony’s NHS chart, I think the decline in Tory VI is probably just the ‘veto’ wearing off.

    Which means we may have an NHS effect still to come.

  5. @Mike Hartley

    “In other words, the damage the Health and Social Care Bill has caused is primarily that it makes it even more likely that Cameron will struggle to get over 40% of the vote at the 2015 election. In this sense, the damage is a lost opportunity to gain the crucial votes needed to win outright next time.”

    I agree with you and it’s a point that I made a few weeks ago. I don’t see the furore knocking many points, if any, off the current 37-39% Tory VI share, but I think it will be another factor in boxing them more firmly inside this ever decreasing pool of potential voters. Recent polling suggests that of the three major parties, the Conservatives have the smallest potential pool of support and I have a feeling that they’re in danger of draining the pool yet further with the NHS Reform Bill.

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if their recurring self-inflicted problems with the NHS did them damage at a time when they may have a rather more positive economic story to tell?

  6. @Amber Star
    “Which means we may have an NHS effect still to come.”

    We wont have to wait long. I predict our lead will go up tomorrow.

  7. “Happy Lent by the way”

    Not quite ;-).

  8. Excellent write up Anthony. I’ve always said that the Conservatives’ fortunes rest with the deficit and the recession. That will pretty much make or break them at the next election.

  9. Hopefully, the good news on the economic front will balance the hysteria and self-righteous indignation emanating from the Port side, as their tired old sacred cow gets prodded into life and stops holding up the traffic. This NHS obsession is enough to make one ill, thank goodness for private health insurance ! Anyway, at least Tesco is ponying up a few quid for the voluntary shelf stacking community, how long will that last I wonder, obviously another route back to work is, thankfully, closed off to the economically deprived, they’ll just have to get used to the sofa again. :-)
    On a more serious note, I have been working with people who have genuine barriers into work and the, placement ‘ has been a very valuable tool in enabling them to re-adjust back into the world of work, it would be a pity if genuinely generous employers were frightened off the programme for fear of a visit from the anti- everything squad.

  10. @ John B Dick (11.02)

    “You are right. If that is so obvious to you, what do you think is the chance of it happening?”


    Very low I suspect. I have been dismayed by the lack of negative comment from LD MPs.

    If my understanding is correct that there will be a vote on the bill at the spring conference then I am certain that the rank and file will vote against the bill. However, this may be too late. I believe that there is another parliamentary vote on the bill next week and unless this is defeated it will be another step forward towards implementation.

    Perhaps a final hope is that the e-petition continues to gather pace and the resulting commons discussion results in a vote against the bill which while not binding may become the final nail in the coffin of the bill.

    If the bill is passed then I believe that ChrisLane will be saying that he suspects the LD VI of 5% is too high. :)

  11. Sorry, that should be Nick P not Chris Lane.

  12. I suspect this is just a reversion to the mean, rather than any particular event; I still think most people are sitting on the sidelines regarding the NHS, waiting to see what happens.

    Personally I wish we’d just left the NHS alone during the first term, akin to the way Blair stuck to Ken’s budgetary discipline in his first years, thus ‘detoxifying’ their perceived weakness on spending.

    I do expect that if Lansley isn’t quieted down, then we really will see a backlash in the polls. Montgomerie is on the money with this issue.

  13. Did you guys see this?

    Can your Prime Minister do that?

    (Well I’m sure David Cameron is a better dancer).

  14. Hannah Good Morning.
    It is Lent now!
    With a 4% lead as well, even with ED.

    (Sundays are not technically included in the 40 days, which allows me to go to the pub after sunset on saturday evenings)

  15. @ChrisLane1945
    “(Sundays are not technically included in the 40 days, which allows me to go to the pub after sunset on saturday evenings)”

    Presumably you will NOT be partaking of any forbidden foods, practices etc, especially on Saturday nights. The importance of this should not be underestimated if one is to understand the whole rationale for giving up these items, as the following quote from Wikipedia shows:-
    During the early Middle Ages, meat, eggs and dairy products were generally forbidden. Thomas Aquinas argued that “they afford greater pleasure as food [than fish], and greater nourishment to the human body, so that from their consumption there results a greater surplus available for seminal matter, which when abundant becomes a great incentive to lust.”


  16. FRANK G.
    Good Morning to you! (I can’t do smiley faces here)

    I am reminded of St Augustine of Hippo: ‘Please God make me good, but not yet!


  17. “If the bill is passed then I believe that ChrisLane will be saying that he suspects the LD VI of 5% is too high.”
    I don’t think the NHS reforms will really hurt the LibDems in the long term – perhaps we’ll see some 7s or 8s after the bill is passed and it’ll make it difficult to recover lost votes.
    But it seems to me that the only way is up for the LibDems.

  18. @ChrisLane1945

    “Good Morning to you! (I can’t do smiley faces here)”

    Yes it is sometimes difficult to do smiley faces at this time of the morning! However here in Cyprus it is a lovely day, the sun is out, blue cloudless skies etc. so a smiley thing is much easier.

    “Please God make me good, but not yet!”

    I think that keeping up with certain practices from the ‘Middle Ages’ would be very good for the youngsters of today, especially as to many of them the term ‘Lent’ is more often only regarded by the financial observance from others.

    From your ‘handle’ I presume you were born in 1945, as was I. Thus such practices for the ‘Middle Ages’ have now since passed us by. It is now a case of gratitude for anything you can get, with our penance being a few “Hallelujahs” rather than “Hail Marys”.

    Regards and Good Morning too!

  19. chrislane

    I should warn you that, as a Catholic, I am about as lapsed as it is possible to get.

    A question: despite your Blairite leanings, when it comes to an election, I assume you would put an x in the Lab box even if Ed M is still leader?

  20. If you were Ed Miliband today, what subject(s) would you go on for todays PMQ’s ?

    Whilst it is only 6 questions, they can feature on the midweek news and I think they do feed into the polls, if they are newsworthy in some way.

    I can’t see Ed going on the NHS reforms again as he did that last week. The welfare reforms are also being held up by Lords amendments, but again this is tricky for Labour.

    I suspect Ed will ask about Euro area issues, in particular Greece and also about the current situation in Syria. Some weeks he has to be seen as more of a statesmen and therefore I don’t think he will attack the governments position.

  21. OLDNAT

    @I fear you misunderstood (or perhaps didn’t read) the research. ”

    You didn’t ask me about “the research”. You asked me about the Block Grant reduction.

    I asked you why the devolved administration had not maintained NHS Scotland’s real terms spending power as a priority available to them ( presumably)

    I did use your link. I did read the research. I found Dr. Samuel’s area of study interesting, together with the general tenor of his public statements, and the involvement of TUC in his work.

  22. KEN @ 12.02 am

    Hate to read your lone voice so will respond with the help of three interesting reports from today’s Times:-

    The misnamed “Workfare” programe ( not compulsory/no penalty for not joining) has been a huge success. It is oversubscribed -40,000 youngsters have been through it. Almost half of those who do placements have since come off benefits. Tesco has taken on a third of the people who were on placement with it.
    The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
    showed that employers take on less than a quarter of applicants under 25 who have no experience in the workplace.
    Meanwhile, of course our employers continue to complain about the poor attitude & deficient numeracy & literacy in local job applicants.
    So well done to The Right to Work crowd who have persuaded Tesco to give it’s remaining trainees on the initial programme a job-the feeling being that they will not sign up again for the scheme.

    I think The Right Not to Work seems a more appropriate name.

    Tell you who I would like to hear more from :-
    Terry Leahy-former CEO of Tesco-who washed supermarket floors at age 16.
    Andy Clarke-CEO of Asda-one time shelf stacker at FineFare.
    Stuart Rose, former CEO of M&S-who began his working life folding men’s jumpers.

    None of those guys were snobbish about their lowly start in working life-they didn’t think it menial-but a stepping stone to something better.
    They didn’t expect to be given a living on a plate.

    Sir Stephen Bubb, CEO of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations writes about the NHS-18 million people with long term conditions-& growing.Over 20% of the population over 60-and growing.
    70% ( yes-SEVENTY) of NHS funding spent on treating long-term conditions -usually in the most inefficient way possible-in hospital.
    Bubb urges the case for integrated health & social care-by ignoring “the phantom” of privatisation, breaking open the centralised bureaucratic monopoly of the NHS-and letting the third sector specialists in a providers of tailored care in home/community for those long term conditions .

    Finally -Lansley has told GPs to prescribe smartphone apps to patients suffering from certain conditions.
    500 apps have been chosen after consultation covering :-
    barcode scanning for food allergy.
    Glucose & Insulin monitoring for Diabetes.
    Link to GPs medical records & communicating with GP.
    Early onset Cancer & Heart disease diagnosis.

    In trials, visits to GP have been substantially reduced by these apps.

    The NHS is said to be very slow to take them up -I still get appointment confirmation & change by letter-sometimes two letters-they just don’t use email.

  23. I think Ed will suggest Cam drop the bill and put his head together with Andy B and healthcare professionals to sort out GP procurement. Which would be a good idea but cos Ed M suggests it it more or less forces Cam to refuse.

    Cam could really spring a surprise by agreeing! Probably do his polling some good too, in the short term at least.

  24. @SSimon

    I suspect this is just a reversion to the mean, rather than any particular event; I still think most people are sitting on the sidelines regarding the NHS, waiting to see what happens.
    Personally I wish we’d just left the NHS alone during the first term, akin to the way Blair stuck to Ken’s budgetary discipline in his first years, thus ‘detoxifying’ their perceived weakness on spending.
    I do expect that if Lansley isn’t quieted down, then we really will see a backlash in the polls. Montgomerie is on the money with this issue.


    good to see thoughtful comments on the NHS debacle from a Conservative supporter. That’s what this site should be about! 8-)

  25. @ Nick P @chrislane

    I should warn you that, as a Catholic, I am about as lapsed as it is possible to get.

    Me too. Join the club! 8-)

  26. @Valerie/Nick P

    “Me too. Join the club!”

    The Lapsed Catholic Club on UKPR is a large one and I claim membership too! Interestingly, it would appear to be made up of exclusively Labour sympathisers!

    As for the title of this thread, when Anthony first launched it yesterday I thought I’d mistakenly accessed a medical blog. Admittedly, I only glanced at the heading in my lazy speed reading way, but I thought it said “What causes Bowel Movements?”. Mind you, as I read some of the subsequent posts, it occurred to me that it might well have been a more appropriate heading anyway!! lol

  27. @Colin

    We already have heard from Tesco’s top brass… They pulled Tesco out of the scheme, because they recognised that getting free labour from people coerced into below minimum wage ‘work experience’ made them look kind of “evil”.

    I would support the Workfare program *only* on the condition that it paid minimum wage, or was *entirely* voluntary. As is, people are coerced into signing contracts for these work placements under threat of sanctions for not taking opportunities offered.

    Right now it is neither voluntary, nor does it pay minimum wage. Why can’t they *subsidise* paid employment, I’d be perfectly happy if Tescos were employing people referred to them who they would not other wise employ, so long as the employee gets at least minimum wage and preferably a living wage. There would be no difference to the cost to the tax payer.

    The only reason to defend “Workfare” over subsidised employment placement, is the companies who want totally free coerced labour they can ‘fire’ at will, and hold their unemployment benefits to ransom over their work conditions.

    I also wonder how many people who “came off benefits” came off benefits because their “work placement” abused them and they couldn’t continue, or they were “fired” for some minor work place infraction that resulted in benefits withdraw. I would not count those as successes.

  28. @ Colin & Ken

    You raised the subject so… If the work scheme is fair & entirely voluntary, why aren’t the participating businesses saying loudly & proudly: ‘We are delighted to be part of this program.’?

    They are not; they are unilaterally changing the terms under which they engage with the individual volunteers or withdrawing from the program entirely.

  29. @NICKP

    “Cam could really spring a surprise by agreeing! Probably do his polling some good too, in the short term at least.”

    I thought the people wanted less short-term populist decision making from government?

  30. Also, a lot of people missed the significance of the Tesco’s Work Placement being advertised on the JSA work postings.

    It’s part of the JSA ‘Contract’ that you can be sanctioned for failing to take up an offer found during the ‘guided work search’, which selects offers from the JSA work postings.

    So if during your fortnightly formal JSA interview and ‘guided work search’, you were given the Tesco’s “Volunteer” work posting… You either took that position, or would be sanctioned for failing to take up an opportunity given during a “guided work search”.

  31. AMBER

    If you are a Tesco Manager-and you weigh up the relative advantage /disadvantage of :-

    Taking on workplacement youngsters, fitting them into your routines, spending time training them, kitting them out etc, but getting n hours work from them


    Receiving the attentions of Right to Work protesters if you do ; pledged to “occupy” your store & drive your customers away

    …wonder how you will play it?

  32. Lots of people on benefits have their income topped up to minimun wage or more by their employer.

    One kindly employer even gave them time off and a lift to the Jobcentre to sign on and waited for them to take them back to work.

    Making it legal should encourage more employers to do this.


    There seems to be a deal of uncertainty about the degree of coercion.

    On DP this morning it was stated that the scheme is voluntary.

    For my part-I see nothing wrong with asking unemployed youngsters to do something, rather than nothing, in return for their JSA-provided the scheme genuinely gives them experience in the workplace.

    THe latter is vital for job prospects of young people-particularly when they are perceived as less attractive options for employment, than their eastern european equivalents.

    I think the objections to the scheme are focused on entirely the wrong features.

  34. Colin – I have posted before that imo the hospital sector of the NHS is appallingly ineffiecient and used the lack of email as one of my examples.

    GP’s, whilst not as efficient as I would like, are clearly better than hospitals and I guess that is why the Government (and opposition) want them involved more in commissioning.

    I do not know enough about PCT but it does appear to me that there could well be negative consequences from atomiosation or else over bureaucratic intruments to offset the lack of coordination due to atomisation.

    I think managed use of the private sector is sensible and effiecient but needs to be staged before a free for all develops and cherry picking occurs ; and, am not sure that legislation was needed to extend at an OK pace.

    Politically what imo is hurting the Gov’t most it that ‘no top down reorgansation’ has clearly been broken; hence when people are not sure they are more likely to accept other opinions rather than believe the guy who broken his promise.

    On the other matter – I think there is a suspicion that some employers, no names (not Tesco) have been using the scheme as a way of getting a few weeks free labour when they needed to take someone on anyhow.
    If Tesco have enough people in a store (say 20 in the warehouse) but can give some work experience and CV detail to a youngster who does not lose her/his benefit, plus a good chance of a job if one of the 20 moves on I think the scheme is good.

  35. @Colin

    The problem with Workfare is that the ‘wrong features’ are pretty significant! And that *in practice* it is anything but voluntary. It is voluntary in the same way applying for any job is voluntary. But the JSA contract can make it compulsory to apply for any job if it’s chosen out for you at your “Guided Work Search”.

  36. @Colin

    “On DP this morning it was stated that the scheme is voluntary.”

    How are they using the term ‘voluntary’? Do they mean “Would you like to do this, it’s up to you, no pressure?”, or is it voluntary in the sense of “You don’t have to do this, but if you don’t you’ll lose benefits.”

    It certainly seems to be the latter. The woman who is challenging the scheme in the courts was already getting work experience that was relevant to her previous education and training and to her future career aspirations, but was compelled under threat of loss of benefits to stop that and to instead work for benefits only as a shelf stacker.

  37. JIM JAM

    I found a lot with which I can agree in your post.


    We are coming at this from different angles with different priorities in mind.

  39. ROBIN


    I,m not familiar with that case-would need to read the detail before I can comment.

  40. Robin/Colin

    You have to remember that Job Centre Plus staff vary greatly in their ability to use judgement. Clearly this is a case of some petty minded individual following procedure as they see it to noones benefit.

    Pretty much modus operandi for the job centre if you ask me, the whole thing needs a giant kick up the arse.

  41. @ Colin

    If you are a Tesco Manager-and you weigh up the relative advantage /disadvantage of…
    Firstly, I would never want somebody working on my team who didn’t want to be there. You can look back & you will find that I have made this point, consistently, in the past.

    Secondly, it’s not a Tesco manager who is making the decision. It is Tesco’s most senior management. They can command a huge team of PR people to make their case to the public – if they believe they are doing the right thing.

    Instead they chose to change the terms of engagement – they want to continue with hiring unemployed young people but Tesco say they want to do it fairly, pay them for their time & try to ensure there is an actual job at the end of the trial period.

    Businesses do not crumble in the face of a few activists causing disruption; they crumble when faced with the knowledge that they are doing something which a considerable number of their customers don’t like.

  42. AMBER

    I hope Tesco don’t pull out.

    That’s the key point.

  43. ROBIN

    The girl suing the government :-

    Her museum volunteering seemed fine to me-don’t see why her local Job Centre made her come off it.

    Her court action is a Human Rights Act thing-which I think is bonkers.

    I don’t quite see why she couldn’t have done the two weeks at Poundland as required .

    All seems a bit OTT to me.

  44. One hour in Poundland would be too much for me.

  45. It is ironic and delicious that Tesco’s slogan is “every little helps”.

    Wrok epxeriene is one thing, forced labour is another matter entirely.

    And we should perhaps keep in mind that if employers are using welfare recipients as a source of free/cheap labour it us the taxpayer who is funding their profits.

  46. @Mike N
    “And we should perhaps keep in mind that if employers are using welfare recipients as a source of free/cheap labour it us the taxpayer who is funding their profits.”
    ….which are not inconsiderable.
    “Leading workfare companies have combined profits of £10.8billion”

  47. @Mike N
    Wrok epxeriene?

    Is that work experience in Greece?

  48. Phil
    “Is that work experience in Greece?”

    In Greek, certainly.

  49. Very few opportunities for work in Greece me thinks…

  50. I wasn’t able to see it, so I am going by second-hand accounts, but Nick Robinson (on BBC News) has apparently said that Nick Clegg is considering withdrawing his support for the NHS reforms.
    I can’t see him doing it – it’d be a massive u-turn for Clegg and would give Cameron a big political boost.

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