Polling news round up

Labour leadership

Regular polling remains sparse given the ongoing inquiry and that we’re in that odd sort of political interregnum with Labour yet to elect their new leaders, but there have been a couple of polls on the Labour contest and the EU. A new ORB poll on the Labour leadership earlier in the week showed Andy Burnham was seen as the candidate most likely to help Labour’s chances at the next election (36%), followed by Liz Kendall on 25%. Full tabs are here.

I would be extremely cautious of polling about the Labour leadership election. Essentially there are two real questions about the Labour leadership – who is going to win, and who would be best at winning votes for Labour. For the first one, we need a poll of Labour party members, and we don’t have a recent one (there is some data from a YouGov poll of party members for Tim Bale & Paul Webb, but that was done straight after the election before the candidates were clear). For the second, I suspect any data is fatally flawed by the public’s low awareness of the candidates – right now, polls about the Labour leadership are little more than name recognition contests. Looking at the tables for the ORB poll it looks to me as if the main reason the prospective leaders scored so highly is that the question didn’t offer a don’t know option, if it had, I bet the don’t knows would have had a runaway victory.

Worth looking at as a corrective is this ICM poll on the Labour leadership that asked people to identify photos of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn. 23% were able to identify Burnham, 17% Cooper, 10% Kendall and 9% Corbyn. Essentially, if 90% of the respondents to a poll can’t even recognise a photo of Liz Kendall or Jeremy Corbyn, how good a judge are they going to be on what sort of Labour leader they’d be? “I’m a particular fan of the one I’ve never heard of and know nothing at all about” said no one, ever.

Sky poll on the EU

SkyNews have released a poll they have carried out themselves amongst a panel of BSkyB subscribers. The poll itself shows nothing particularly new (people think the EU is good for the British economy by 39% to 31%, etc, etc), but the concept itself is interesting – it’s a proper effort to get a representative sample from their subscriber database, weighted by age, gender, past vote, Experian segment (as an alternative to class), ethnicity, tenure and so on. It is, however, unavoidably only made up of Sky subscribers, which will bring with it its own biases. The question is to what extent those biases can be cancelled by their weighting and sampling. We shall see. The tables for this first poll are here.

Parliamentary debates

Last week there were two Parliamentary debates on regulating opinion polls. The first, last Thursday, was prompted by Lord Lipsey and concerned whether polling companies needed regulating to prevent them asking leading and biased questions – though it was largely made up of the specifics of one single poll on mitochondrial donation. The other was the second reading of George Foulkes private members bill regulating opinion polls, which includes a good response from Andrew Cooper of Populus. Lord Bridges for the government stated they had no plans to regulate polls. Lord Foulkes’s bill was nodded through to the committee stage, so will trundle on for a little longer.

Herding pollsters

Finally there’s a great piece by Matt Singh on pollster herding here. Matt mentions some of the possible reasons for herding, but more importantly actually does the sums on whether there was any herding… and finds there wasn’t. The spread between different pollsters in the final polls was very much in line with what you’d expect to find.


Opinion polls are a little light at the moment, and probably will be for the next few weeks. Even at the best of times there is little polling in the weeks immediately following a general election – we’ve just had an actual general election to judge people’s voting behaviour, attention is elsewhere and newspapers will generally have blown their polling budgets in the campaign. I’d expect even less polling over the next few weeks because of the errors in the polls at the general election. Some of the long running trackers like the ICM/Guardian series and MORI political monitor will likely continue just to avoid a gap in the data series, but generally speaking most of the regular polls will probably pause for a bit while they work out what went wrong and sort out solutions to it.

As it is, the next political events we have too look forward to aren’t about Great Britain anyway, but the Scottish, Welsh and London elections next year – I’m sure polling on them will start firing up in the next few months. The other, more immediate, race is the Labour leadership election.

We have had a little polling on that already – the YouGov/Sunday Times poll at the weekend (results here) asked the general public their preferences for Labour leader. Chuka Umunna came first on 17% (fieldwork was conducted before he withdrew), followed by Andy Burnham on 14%, Yvette Cooper on 8%, Tristram Hunt on 3%, Liz Kendall on 2% and Mary Creagh on 1%. Amongst Labour’s own voters Andy Burnham was ahead on 22%, with Chuka Umunna on 19%.

Obviously the key conclusion here isn’t really who is ahead… it’s how low anyone’s figures are. 55% of the general public said don’t know, 40% of Labour voters said don’t know. YouGov also asked separately about if people thought each of the contenders would make a good or bad leader, and in each case a clear majority of respondents said they didn’t know or didn’t know enough about the person to say. This is a race where the public simply aren’t familiar with the personalities of the candidates to have any clear opinion yet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the next Labour leader – the public having no clear image of you is better than having negative baggage – it just means they need to be pretty careful to make sure people’s first impressions are good ones, as they are difficult to shift once the public have formed an impression.

On the other outstanding issue – what caused the polling error – I’m beavering away at looking at what caused the errors and how to put them right, as I am sure are the other companies. I’m not planning on giving a running commentary, though I gave some thoughts at the end of last week on Keiran Pedley’s Polling Matter’s podcast here.


-->

After the first leaders debate there was a single poll showing Ed Miliband with a better approval rating that David Cameron. It produced a typical example of rubbish media handling of polls – everyone got all excited about one unusual poll and talked about it on news bulletins and so on, giving it far more prominence than the far greater number of polls showing the opposite. Nevertheless, it flagged up a genuine increase in Ed Miliband’s ratings.

I talk about leader ratings, but the questions different companies ask actually vary greatly. Opinium, for example, ask if people approve or disapprove of what each leader is doing, YouGov ask if they are doing a well or badly, ICM if they are doing a good or bad job. To give an obvious example of how these could produce different figures, UKIP have quadrupled their support since the election, so objectively it’s quite hard to argue that Nigel Farage hasn’t done well as UKIP leader…but someone who supported EU membership and freedom of movement probably probably wouldn’t approve of his leadership.

The graph below shows the net ratings for David Cameron and Ed Miliband from the four pollsters who ask leader ratings at least monthly (ComRes, ICM and Ashcroft all ask their versions of the question too, but not as frequently).

leaderatings

You can see there is quite a lot of variation between pollsters, but the trends are clear. Ed Miliband’s ratings have improved over the course of the campaign, though on most pollsters’ measures he remains significantly behind David Cameron. The main exception is Survation’s rating – I suspect this is because of the time frame of their question (Survation ask people to think specifically about the last month, other companies just ask in general – my guess is that the difference is people thinking Ed Miliband has done well in the campaign). Cameron’s ratings too have improved from three of the four pollsters, but not to the extent of Miliband’s.

What’s the impact of this? Theoretically I suppose it makes the potential for voters to be deterred from voting Labour by their lack of confidence in Ed Miliband that bit smaller. Whether that’s any real difference or not is a different matter – on one hand, while it is one of the Conservative party’s hopes that Miliband’s poor ratings will drive people towards voting Tory at the last minute, that’s very different to it actually happening. This could be the case of a window closing upon something that didn’t see to be happening anyway. The alternative point of view is that no one realistically expects some vast last swing producing a Tory landside – we are talking about grinding out a few percentage points at the margins. Hence Miliband’s ratings overall don’t necessarily make much difference – much of the increase is amongst Labour’s own voters anyway – it’s how he is seen amongst those small groups who are undecided whether or not to vote for Labour, and those who undecided whether or not to vote Tory to stop Miliband.

As we come to the final weeks of the election campaign, that’s a key to understanding a lot of polling. Most voters have already made their minds up (and even many of those who say they haven’t, are probably less likely to switch than they think they are). As postal votes have started to go out, an increasing number of people will have actually voted anyway. Most things that happen over the next two and a half weeks will have no impact on public opinion anyway – for those that do, it’s not national opinion that will make a difference, it’ll be the impact on that dwindling group of people who may yet be persuaded.


Time for a round up of Sunday’s polls, with new stuff in the Sunday papers from YouGov, Survation, Opinium and ICM.

YouGov’s weekly poll for the Sunday Times has topline figures of CON 33%, LAB 33%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 16%, GRN 6%. The poll also asked a series of questions about how people would vote with different Labour leaders. In a control question asking how people would vote if the leaders remained Cameron, Miliband and Clegg the answers were CON 33%, LAB 31% (so the effect of reminding people of the current party leaders still seems to produce a slight positive Cameron effect or negative Miliband effect). If Yvette Cooper were Labour leader the position would be the same, a two point Conservative lead. If Ed Balls was the leader it would be worse, a three point Conservative lead. In contrast with Alan Johnson as leader Labour would be two points ahead (CON 31%, LAB 33%.

I’ll give my usual caveats about questions like this – people are answering them when on very little information, they don’t know what policies or priorities those alternative leaders would set, how the media would react to them and so on. In the same poll, YouGov found that only 42% of people think they could recognise Yvette Cooper from a photo… if you don’t even know what Yvette Cooper looks like, I’m guessing you don’t have a thorough understanding of what she would prioritise as Labour leader. It’s a response based on a very crude impression of those potential leaders based on what tends to be the very limited public awareness of opposition politicians. Nevertheless, those crude first impressions count, so it’s a good sign for Alan Johnson.

Survation also had a new poll with topline figures of CON 29%(+2), LAB 34%(+3), LDEM 6%(-3), UKIP 23%(-1), and they too asked a series of hypothetical voting intention questions with different Labour leaders. In the Survation poll they displayed a biography and played a video clip of each potential leader and asked people questions about them before the questions. This allowed them to include people with extremely low public awareness like Chuka Umunna, though does of course rely upon the choice of biogs and video clips (given bias is often in the eye of the beholder, choosing clips that even those who don’t like the eventual results think are fair is incredibly tricky). The control question with Ed Miliband had a Labour lead of 4 points. In the Survation poll Yvette Cooper did worse than Miliband (neck and neck with the Tories), Andy Burnham just the same (4 point lead), Alan Johnson and Chuka Umunna did best – both extending Labour’s lead to 8 points. A voting intention question asked after video clips of Labour leaders is obviously skewed towards Labour, but it’s the relative performance between the different leaders that counts, and again it’s good for Alan Johnson, and now also for Chuka Umunna.

Meanwhile the fortnightly Opinium poll for the Observer has topline figures of CON 29%(-4), LAB 32%(-1), LDEM 9%(+3), UKIP 19%(+1).

Finally there was an ICM poll in the Sunday Telegraph. As usual with ICM/Sunday Telegraph polls, this asked the public to predict vote shares rather than ask people how they would vote themselves. The average response now has the Conservatives getting slightly more votes than Labour.


The weekly YouGov poll for the Sunday Times is up on the website here, topline figures are CON 32%, LAB 38%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 14%. Tabs are here

A large part of the poll covered perceptions of Ed Miliband, something that we’ve seen in other polls lately and seen covered a lot in the media. There is nothing particularly new in the Ed Miliband figures in this poll – a majority (51%) think he’s weak leader, 56% think he’s out of touch with ordinary people, 60% think he wouldn’t be up to the job of PM. Nothing here we didn’t already know, though they are still worth asking to see if opinion changes. At this point though I doubt they will unless Ed Miliband actually becomes Prime Minister. Once the public have taken against a politician, whether that perception is fair or unfair, it’s mighty hard for them to shift(the exception tends to be when they actually become PM, then people can see them in a new light.)

The Ed Miliband paradox is something I’ve come back to several times here, partly because it’s one of those things that I think has the potential to make a difference at the next election, partly because I see such partisan idiocy written about it. I see some people writing about it as if a popular or unpopular leader is the utter be-all and end-all of politics, a guarantee or victory or defeat, and see others writing as if it’s a total irrelevance. Both are utter nonsense.

I wrote about it at length here and while the figures have changed, the essential situation hasn’t, in summary:

  • People’s perceptions of party leaders ARE an important factor, the key driver analysis of British Election Study data at recent elections demonstrates it, some respondents will consciously say it is that a primary concern, many others it will be a factor in the mix. It would be almost perverse if the main public face of a party and its policies and principles was not a factor.
  • But it is by no means the ONLY factor. Perceptions of party competence on the issues people consider important are of critical importance, so are party identities. By extension (since they drive those factors) government performance and wider perceptions of the parties and their values are also extremely important. Hence it is perfectly possible for a party with a duff leader to win if it is outweighed by other factors like competence and party identity. Thatcher won in 1979 despite trailing badly to Jim Callaghan, presumably because other factors outweighed the minus of her leadership.
  • Labour have been in the lead in the polls for a couple of years, despite the public being well aware of Ed Miliband and having a negative view of him. That does NOT mean that he is not a drag on Labour’s support (we don’t how whether Labour’s lead would be larger under a different leader), but it does mean that his negative ratings are already “priced into the market”.
  • The questions is whether the importance of the opposition leader grows in the immediate run up to an election. There is the potential for people’s opinions to be driven mainly by unhappiness and disapproval of the government mid-term, but to view it increasingly as a choice between two alternative governments and Prime Ministers as the election actually approaches (thus contributing to the familiar pattern of “mid term blues”). That brings the potential for the “Miliband issue” to matter more as we get closer and closer to the election… but it is impossible to reliably test.
  • In short – are Miliband’s ratings bad? Yes. Is it damaging Labour? Probably. Is it preventing Labour being ahead in the polls? No – even if it is a factor, others are outweighing it. Will it increase in importance come the actual election? We can’t tell.

Anyway, looking at the rest of the poll, since we touched on party image and competence as other big issues further up, YouGov re-asked a question from last February essentially exploring the contrast between parties being “nice” and being “effective”. They asked if parties were seen as “nice but dim”, “mean but smart”, “mean and dim” or “nice and smart”. The Conservatives clearly still have “nasty party” issues – 40% think they are smart, but only 26% think they are nice. For Labour it’s the other way around “their heart is in the right place, but…”; 48% think they are nice, but only 20% think they are smart. It might get less attention than Miliband, but right there you’ve got two big issues for the two main parties: people still don’t think the Tories’ hearts are in the right place, and still doubt Labour’s competence in government.

The poll also had a batch of questions about education in England – essentially showing appetite for reform in general, but opposition to the specifics of Michael Gove’s reforms. 43% think schools are doing well, 46% badly and people tend to think they provide worse education than in comparable European countries. 64% think schools need reforming to a large or moderate degree. Asked about Michael Gove though 55% think he’s doing badly as education secretary, people are opposed by 41% to 31% to schools becoming academies and by 53% to 23% to the idea of free schools.