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. Looks like “Workfare” is going to take a further bashing, following the arrests at A4E, one of the companies managing the scheme, and their being forced to repay huge sums of money after accusations of fraud.

  2. @ Colin

    “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.”

    I don’t know the background stories of any of these men. But I’d be careful from inferring too much from their first summer jobs as a predictor of success for others. If you’re raised in comfortable background and given a high quality education by your parents, the fact that you worked a high school summer job as a poolboy or desert specialist at Coldstone Creamery for minimum wage and now work as a successful CEO of a major company doesn’t mean that all who start in their paths will end up in their paths.

    And that’s not to say that there aren’t those who do rise to the top from nothing or that there’s anything wrong with being privileged either. Just that I’m careful to read too much into starting salaries and starting jobs.

    @ Robin

    “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.”

    Is there a link to this story anywhere? I tried searching for it on the Guardian’s website and couldn’t find anything. I’m curious to read about the court challenge (I wish I knew labor law and employment law better).

    @ Amber Star

    “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.”

    You sound like a businesswoman. :)

    I’ve noticed that more recently a number of large businesses have done some fairly egregious things only to be forced to back away from it because of customer outcry. See, e.g., Bank of America’s attempt to charge $5 a month for debit cards.

  3. Labour lost the motion on the NHS risk register by 53 votes. As one poster in another paper commented what is in the Risk Register that makes so many MPs turn out in such force to vote? Are the public and the medical professions being kept in the dark because the report is dire?

  4. Tingedfringe

    I can’t see him doing it – it’d be a massive u-turn for Clegg and would give Cameron a big political boost.

    How would this give Cameron a boost, as an labour activist I would be on the door steps telling voters that if you give the Tories an OM they will Privatise the NHS just like tried in 2012.

  5. SOCAL

    @”I don’t know the background stories of any of these men”

    Then may I suggest you read about them before commenting on their achievements.

    Actually I think you will find that the career achievements of all three, when set against their upbringing & backgrounds will appeal to the American ethos of initiative, self help & entrepreneurship.

  6. @Colin
    “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.”

    I bet they all got paid whatever was the going rate at the time and not JSA allowance plus expenses.

  7. BBC reporting that the Tories have received a donation of £600k from the National Conservative Draws Society.

    The comedic potential of this is so obvious that it would seem childish to exploit it. Are these the sort of conservative draws that would be worn by old maids cycling across cricket pitches towards Victorian values?

    The NHS bill, then this: sounds like a right pair of bloomers to me.

    `I can’t see him doing it – it’d be a massive u-turn for Clegg and would give Cameron a big political boost.`

    I think Clegg is making encouraging noises about amendments to the `Competition` section of the bill…As this is the most contentious section of the bill,they believe they can make it more palatable to everyone.

    The Lords made a big noise against the Welfare Reform which was very popular with the public…Can see them making more noise against the unpopular NHS bill

    Workfare may be a good scheme if people earn more when they work and companies contribute a proportion of the allowance paid

  9. @tingedfringe – “… a massive u-turn for Clegg”

    Evening Standard reporting: When asked on ITV Daybreak today if he backed the Bill 100 per cent, Mr Clegg paused before replying: “I am behind reforming the NHS to improve care for patients.”

    LDs in HoL are tabling more ammendments, activists tabling a conference motion to drop section 3 of the bill, LDs boycotted the Downing St summit on Monday – it doesn’t look as if Clegg has any choice. Cameron isn’t prepared to back down atm.

    It would let Clegg off the hook – and in the long run would help Cameron – if significant parts of the bill were dropped. But the price for Cameron might be too high within his own party.

    Farron and Reckless (an unlikely double act) on PM. Farron seemed especially pleased… making remarks about how wonderfully well the coalition is working – compared to the “nasty Brown/Blair coalition”.

    A strange remark, which makes me think things could get interesting for the coalition over the next three months.

  10. Colin

    Rather silly examples if I may say so. Andy Clarke, for example, worked as a shelf stacker as a Saturday job while at school.

    Leahy similarly worked while at school before going to University.

    Many of us, myself included, have done that. It was to earn a bit if pocket money – it wasn’t a deliberate career move.

  11. LEFTY

    What you think is silly & what I think is silly will always be different.

    I can just see you in your “done that” Tshirt.

    You should wear it next time you go to Tesco, Asda, or M&S.

    I’m sure they will all be impressed.

  12. No Sun tweet

    Maybe Labour is not ahead :)

  13. It’s cheap labour pure an simple. I’d like to know how much Tesco’s has profited from this is lower wages.

    JSA is meant to help youn find work, not be the renumeration for the work found. In effect the taxpayer is subsidising the UK’s largest supermarket chain. More public money.being paid to the private sector.

    ” But I’d be careful from inferring too much from their first summer jobs as a predictor of success for others. If you’re raised in comfortable background and given a high quality education by your parents, the fact that you worked a high school summer job as a poolboy or desert specialist at Coldstone Creamery for minimum wage and now work as a successful CEO of a major company doesn’t mean that all who start in their paths will end up in their paths.”

    Colin very rudely put you down but it seems you were right after all in your surmise of the background of these CEO’s.

  15. @SMukesh
    “No Sun tweet
    Maybe Labour is not ahead.”

    Or they have reached their 10% lead. :-D

  16. On another matter, how long before the Risk Register leaks?

  17. @RAF
    “On another matter, how long before the Risk Register leaks?”

    I hope there is someone brave enough out there to do it.

  18. Good Evening All.
    Just in from teaching and then Ash Wed liturgy, crowded it was.

    Radio 4 Moral Maze is discussing class, privilege and education. Interesting debate.

  19. Colin

    I’m not belittling shop workers. Far from it. I’m merely pointing out the facts that undermine the cherished myth of the Right that hordes of people work their way up from shop floor to becomes bosses of FTSE companies. It happens, but very, very rarely.

  20. Sometimes it takes me weeks of negotiation to persuade a local retailer, or a small engineering company, to take someone on a work placement, they can only work for a maximum of 6 weeks anyway, so now I’m having to overcome the negative publicity as well as the natural resistance. I’m dealing with ex-offenders, people with mental health ‘issues’, people with dependency, ‘issues’ , to be honest, I’m ready to pack it in and decamp to Blackheath golf course, I’m semi-retired and don’t need the hassle of fighting, and the aggravation……….I’ve just returned home from a meeting with Reed, they have a programme helping families with serious social problems, and they asked me to help, finding companies willing to take on otherwise unemployable people on temporary placements to re-connect to the world of work, exploitation ? :-)

  21. @TingedFringe

    “I can’t see him doing it – it’d be a massive u-turn for Clegg and would give Cameron a big political boost.”

    One of the more bizarre assertions I’ve read on these pages, I have to say. How would a Clegg u-turn on the Health Reforms be a big boost for Cameron? It would destabilise the coalition, invoke the wrath of the Tory backbenches, kibosh the reforms, embolden the anti-coaltionists within the Lib Dem Party and probably revive their fortunes a little amongst the wider electorate. Where on earth is the boost for Cameron in that little lot unless you think it would give him the opportunity to divest himself of the coalition and force an election? But why would he want to do that at this stage in the Parliament?

    The real winner if Clegg did a u turn would be, wait for it, Nick Clegg and a large slice of the British electorate who would dearly love to see this spatchcocked jumble of incoherent reforms consigned to the dustbin.

  22. @Ken

    Not if you pay them at least minimum wage.

  23. NHS.
    Nick Robinson on BBC web page is saying that the Lib Dems were glum at PMQ’s and that Nick Clegg is saying he is losing more activists on this issue than on fees.

    They voted tonight for the Government on the Risk Register Amendment though.

    ED has some traction here I think.

  24. RAF…………If an ex-offender needs to re-connect into the the world of work, try convincing a local garage owner to take him on on the minimum wage, when the only job is shadowing a mechanic, you just don’t get it do you ?

  25. Does anyone know how I can find out how each MP has voted on various issues in HoC? I had a look at the site but it doesn’t give the full picture. Thanks.

  26. Our wonderful, caring, vocational institutions, have had a letter today from the National Pensioners Convention, and signed by the heads of, Age UK, RCN, TUC, Care Minister Paul Burstow, Labour Shadow Liz Kendall, charities, Unions and academics, telling them to stop abusing and dis-respecting old people, a code of conduct, called the dignity code, has been drawn up, nice to know that you’re safe with the NHS. :-)

  27. Crossbat.

    Difficult to see Clegg getting any long term benefit from a volte face on the NHS bill. He might get some short term thanks, but in the long run, yet another policy flip would be another nail in the coffin sealing up any credibility that he has left as a politician with sincerely held beliefs.

    Any remotely competent opponent will already be rubbing their hands at the fun they’ll have at his expense in the 15 GE campaign. Two 180 degree policy changes on the NHS in 12 months would be yet more ammunition.

  28. LEFTYLAMPTON………All the public will see at the 2015 election, is a successful recovery from the usual Labour economic disaster, and a much more efficient NHS, Overall Tory majority methinks. :-)

  29. @Ken

    That’s a bit presumptious of you. I did some work for the National Association for Voluntary Hostels (as was then) some years ago, dealing with similar issues. So I fully understand what you are talking about.

    But the facts remains that if people are working – as in the Tesco example, they should be properly paid. If they are merely shadowing or doing similar activities for a short period, then other criteria may apply.

  30. RAF………….Point taken, but as you know, organisations don’t need to help us, and the sort of publicity generated by, ‘the peoples grocer’ doesn’t help.

  31. Ken

    I don’t think many people are objecting to the sort of short work placements you’re involved in, trying to reconnect (or even connect) people to the world of work or give them experience in a new sector. But clearly this isn’t what we’re talking of here – it’s quite clear that a lot of these cases those assigned already had the experience and the work record.

    In some of these cases the abuse was probably due to work advisers trying to make themselves look good by upping their numbers even if it meant by placing the wrong people. There may even have been collusion with local employers or branch managers looking to increase profits. I suspect in some large employers the desire for free labour may have gone further up.

    Of course the employers who did such things would be last ones you would want to deal with because they wouldn’t provide the right sort of experience for the people you are trying to place.

    What really annoys me is how so many have turned this sort of abuse into a partisan matter – especially those defending the incorrect placements. If the same sort of thing had happened under Labour (and I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar did) then there would howls from the same people about evil socialists undermining businesses by doing deals with their buddies.

    For others who seem to be in favour of the slave labour, the main motivating factor seems to be hatred of the unemployed or indeed anyone less fortunate than themselves. Mind you, given that those who feel like this mainly seem to be press columnists, you can see why. In their position it can’t be easy to find people to look down on – you have to invent them.

  32. C 38
    LD 8

    App -23

    ‘Drums. :-)

  33. 40: 38: 8 in the You Gov Poll.

    My view is that the Conservatives are doing better than 38% and the Lib Dem 8% is a high ‘outlier’, with most of that strikingly high figure going to them instead

  34. Con 38 Lab 40 LD 8

    Looks like a bit of reversion to the means. YG yesterday look a bit like at the top of MOE – tonight’s is more closer to the averaging we are seeing, and have been seeing for nearly a month now. The overall trend, of closeness between the two parties back to December.

  35. Con 38
    Lab 40
    Lib Dem 8
    UKIP 5
    SNP / PCY 4
    Green 3
    BNP 1
    Respect 0
    Other 1

    Approval 31 – 54 = -23

    Non-voters 23%

    Tables are here:

    In the trackers ‘Don’t Know’ is winning the ‘best PM’ stakes again with 39%. The most interesting thing is that support for A coalition between Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ at 14% is at its highest since after the election. I get the impression that the tensions in the coalition are beginning to be noticed by the public, maybe this makes Lab-LD more acceptable.

  36. I have two simple question for those on here mainly Labour voters complaining about the so called workfare placements under this government.

    I must point out under the Neal Deal that ran from 1998 to 2008 people were required to work upto 40 hours a week for upto a whole year for no more than JSA and travel expenses.

    Under the Flexible New Deal (nothing flexible about it) that ran from 2008 till late last year people were compelled to work upto 30 hours a week for upto 3 months again for no more than JSA and travel expenses.

    Under both of these schemes people were also sent to places like shops, supermarkets as well as DIY stores.

    So I have to ask two questions…What difference is this programme to Labours programmes? and why was there no such complaints of exploitation and slavery about these schemes for the 12 years that they ran for?

    I speak from experience by the way and the sudden change in attitude from the Labour voters out there smacks of hypocrisy or at best ignorance of what went on before.

  37. @Roger Mexico

    Agree your comments, but what is the motivation of those who are formulating these policies?

    The placements for those on JSA are limited to 8 weeks – but:

    “Some long-term sick and disabled people face being forced to work unpaid for an unlimited amount of time or have their benefits cut under plans being drawn up by the Department for Work and Pensions.

    … those [in] the work-related activity group (Wrag) include those who have been diagnosed with terminal cancer but have more than six months to live; accident and stroke victims; and some of those with mental health issues.

    In official notes from a meeting on 1 December last year, DWP advisers revealed they were not intending to put a time limit on the work experience placements.”


  38. ROGER MEXICO…………Well said. Outsourcing strategic functions has its risks, especially when incentivising outcomes. We criticise the, ‘bonus culture’ in banking but introduce said culture to employment programmes, was anyone surprised by the arrests at A4E yesterday ? Anyway, I’m a volunteer so no risk here. :-)

  39. “Con 38 Lab 40 LD 8”

    I’m going to try and find something remotely interesting to say about the current spate of polls. Difficult, I know, but here goes. Of the 16 YouGov polls we’ve had since the end of January, Labour has led in 11 of the them, the Tories in 4, with one tie. The range of the Labour lead has been between 1 and 5 and the Tory lead between 1 and 2. The Labour lead has averaged 2.7% and the Tory lead 1.25%. During the same period, four other pollsters have reported and these have shown 2 Labour leads (ave. 1.5%), 1 Tory lead of 1% and a tie.

    So, what are we to make of it all? In so much that we can make anything of it, I think we can deduce that Labour are ahead, narrowly, with the possibility, considering that they’ve led in 7 of the last 10 YouGovs, with three 4% leads appearing amongst that clutch, that they might be opening up a widening lead, maybe nearer 3%. Miliband might be able to to conclude soon that the dark days of December and January could well be behind him and that he’s bought himself some much needed time.

    All politicians need luck, especially beleaguered Leaders of the Opposition, and I wonder if Cameron’s seeming determination to press on with Lansley’s botched health reforms has landed a juicy apple in Miliband’s grateful lap.

  40. leetay

    Actually under New Deal they were paid JSA plus £40 per week plus expenses and every placement had to have value, with the job placements leading to an interview at the end. It wasn’t perfect and it was at a time when the economy was good but it worked.

    Night shifts at Tescos for JSA only. Hardly comparable.

  41. @Crossbat11
    “During the same period, four other pollsters have reported and these have shown 2 Labour leads (ave. 1.5%), 1 Tory lead of 1% and a tie.”
    Of those, the poll showing a 1% Conservative lead (from ComRes) remains under a cloud because the data in their re-released tables should still produce a 1% Lab lead under their usual turnout weighting methodology. Either there’s been an error in the headline table or a major unannounced ComRes methodology change. Pending any further update from ComRes, I suggest you ignore their February IoS poll altogether.

  42. @ Phil

    That was nice work re. the ComRes poll check. I guess we’ll have to wait until their next poll; I hope we can rely on you to check whether or not they continue with their unexplained ‘methodology change’. :-)

  43. @Crossbath

    I appears your calculator isn’t working because the last 16 yougov polls have an average Labour lead of 1.5% with average figures of CON 38.5625% LAB 40.0625%.

    Not sure how you arrive at a 2.7% average and deducing a 3% lead as you have is in my view wishful thinking on your part epecially with all the other pollsters to take into account which you seem to ignore from your overall analysis.

    A 1-2% lead is more like it in my view.

  44. Some bizarre cross breaks there. 1% Con>Green transfer (tactical in Brighton/Norwich?) and transfers from Lib Dem to UKIP and BNP.

  45. Crossbat

    I think you are right that the NHS debacle- and attendant public disapproval- has bought EdM some much needed breathing space.

    Cameron should have squashed the bill- and Lansley- this time last year.

    It is also looking like the LD spring conference will vote the bill down which would provide the coalition ‘quad’ with a huge dilemma.

    At the same time I.e. over the next 2-3 months, employment and output data are likely to add a negative economic backdrop.

    Similarly the slow burning angst of the Tory right over the fizzling out of the summit walkout, and realisation that all was not what it seemed that glorious sunny December Friday morning.

    So various themes and issues that are likely to mean IMHO that we will have a few months of gently increasing Labour leads: though I cannot see a regular lead of more than 4-5 points.

    Aside from above we also of course have the essential maxim of “events”.

    But mood music has definitely shifted the last couple of weeks.

  46. @ Chris Lane (8.54)

    “Nick Robinson on BBC web page is saying that the Lib Dems were glum at PMQ’s and that Nick Clegg is saying he is losing more activists on this issue than on fees.”


    Is it a surprise that more activist are leaving because of NHS bill than on tuition fees. While tuition fees were important and a major own goal by the Lib Dems, they pale in comparison to the NHS. Many, myself included, had to take close stock of their position after tuition fees and while many stayed with the party then, they would not be pepared to accept another insult to our intelligence.

  47. @Rob

    If it comes to the Conference with this unsettled, that isn’t just bad for the coalition, there’s a fairly significant chance of the LibDems tearing themselves apart. Who knows what happens if the dam of held back bad feeling breaks.

  48. @Hannah – “… and transfers from Lib Dem to UKIP and BNP”

    This has been a consistent feature (for the last year or so)… and was discussed here some time ago. Howard (an LD veteran of many campaigns) said that from his expirience on the doorstep, it is no big surprise.

    Some polling evidence that LD supporters are marginally more eurosceptic than Labour supporters for example.

  49. @NICKP

    As I said I speak from experience and I’m afraid you are wrong.

    I had to work in a warehouse for a whole year for 40 hours a week for just £48 JSA and £8 a week bus fare in 2000/1 and I had to work at B&Q for 3 months for 30 hours a week for just JSA in 2009.

    I sure didn’t get this £40 a week you speak of.

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