Two new polls today – the daily YouGov poll for the Sun and the monthly Survation poll for the Daily Mirror.

Survation in the Mirror have topline figures of CON 28%(-3), LAB 34%(+4), LDEM 10%(+3), UKIP 19%(-4), GRN 4%(+1). Lots of sharp changes there since their previous poll, but usual caveats apply – the Tory lead in Survation’s previous poll was rather unusual in itself, today’s large Labour lead also unusual, hence the large changes from one to the other. Note also the drop in UKIP support – Survation consistently show the highest UKIP support, so while 19 is large compared to other pollsters’ figures, its a notable drop from Survation.

Meanwhile the daily YouGov poll for the Sun has topline figures of CON 35%, LAB 33%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 14%, GRN 7%. A two point Conservative lead from YouGov, the first time they’ve shown that for just over a month.

The bigger picture remains the same. The Conservatives probably haven’t moved ahead, or we’d be seeing that across most of the polls, when actually they are averaging out at a tiny Labour lead. Neither is there is big swing to Labour, or we’d be seeing that across most of the polls, when actually they all just seem to be showing normal variation around the margin of error. In terms of the Labour vs Conservative race, 2015 so far has been largely static. The only trend that may be meaningful is the drop in UKIP support.

ukipdrop

Now that Survation have published their monthly poll we can compare UKIP’s January and February scores across all the pollsters (I’ve taken an average for those companies who publish more than once a month). There does seem to be a pretty consistent fall in UKIP support, perhaps slightly obscured by the fact that the most frequent pollster, YouGov, shows one of the more modest drops and the second most frequent pollster, Populus, changed their methodology at the start of February in a way that increased UKIP support.


The Lib Dems have been out and about briefing journalists about what their polling shows. This morning the Guardian, May 2015 and The Spectator have all written about it.

Private polling always has a certain allure when spoken of in the media, there is that whiff of forbidden, insider knowledge. It really shouldn’t – beyond asking whether such private polling actually exists, the first major caveat to any claims that private polling shows something different to publicly available stuff is “why should it?”. Political polling doesn’t really make much money, it’s normally done as a shop window to get a polling company’s name known and to create a reputation for accurate research. It is in polling companies’ interest for their voting intention polls to be as accurate as possible, so the publicly available stuff really is the best we can do, there is no more accurate version of the data held back for private clients. Therefore, most of the time when political parties claim their private polling shows them doing better than the public polls it suggests they are making it up, or they have been commissioning stuff that asks things in a skewed way for propaganda purposes (what Lord Ashcroft has called in the past “comfort polling”).

Even if the full details of private polls are released, with all the methodology and tables available for scrutiny, you should still view them sceptically. Parties decide which polls to release or brief journalists on, if any. One thing you never see is a political party releasing a poll that is not helpful to them, so even if the polling itself is above board, there is a strong publication bias; only the stuff that helps the party is published.

To illustrate that, cast your mind back to the polling of Lib Dem seats conducted by Lord Ashcroft. One of the most obvious findings was how much the Lib Dem performance varied – in some seats like Eastborne, Birmingham Yardley or Sutton & Cheam the party is doing very well indeed. In other seats like Somerton and Frome, Chippenham and Brent Central they are doing atrociously. Imagine the very different narratives that could be created by selectively releasing polls from those first three seats, as opposed to selectively releasing polls from the latter three.

So what should we make of the Liberal Democrat claims? Well, the polling does genuinely exist – Survation are a proper company and while the newspaper reports don’t include specifics, several journalists have assured me they were shown the actual figures. For once, there is also a legitimate reason why the Liberal Democrat polling might show them in a better position than the published polling – the articles suggest they prompted using candidate names. We know that a lot of Lib Dem support is reliant upon tactical voting and personal votes, so it seems reasonable that polls that include the candidate names in Lib Dem held seats might show the Lib Dems doing better. Until we see tables we can’t tell what other methodological factors may have been at play.

The articles claim that the Lib Dems have done about 100 constituency polls, while it seems journalists were shown results from about a dozen or so, so it is impossible to know how representative this group were, or whether they were cherry-picked to create a good impression of the Lib Dem performance.

Even if you take the claims that the Liberal Democrats make at face value, they don’t actually show much that contrasts with existing publically available data that much. According to the Guardian the party “is on course to remain “competitive” in seats that would fall if there was landslide against the Lib Dems, such as Cheltenham, St Ives, Cardiff Central, Eastbourne, Solihull, Cheadle, Leeds North West, Cambridge and Bermondsey.” From talking to several other journalists who were there, I’m told they were also shown figures from St Austell and some other Labour facing seats, so perhaps a dozen in total.

The word “competitive is vague” – it could mean both a little ahead… or a little behind. As it happens, Lord Ashcroft has conducted polls in nine of those seats, and in most of them the Lib Dems are indeed “competitive”. In three of them (Cheltenham, Cheadle, Eastborne) Ashcroft found clear Lib Dem leads, in two others (Bermondsey and St Ives) he found the Lib Dems just ahead (though I’m told the Lib Dem polling shows them doing better than that). In Cambridge Lord Ashcroft he found them a point behind… but that counts as “competitive” in my book. The other three are St Austell & Newquay, Solihull and Cardiff Central, where Ashcroft found the Lib Dems trailing. If the Lib Dem data was kosher, then it may well show the Lib Dems doing better in those seats… but polls vary, and perhaps there are other, unmentioned, polls that show the Lib Dems doing worse than in Ashcroft’s polling.


-->

Some interesting non-GB polls today. First up Lord Ashcroft has released four constituency polls in Conservative held seats targeted by UKIP. The four seats are Boston and Skegness, Castle Point, South Basildon and East Thurrock and North East Cambridgeshire.

  • North East Cambridgeshire seems like a rather odd choice to begin with, it doesn’t look like an obvious place for UKIP success and while Ashcroft doesid find UKIP in second place, the poll gives the Conservatives a very solid 21 point lead. (detailled tabs)The polls in the other three seats were much closer though…
  • In South Basildon and East Thurrock Ashcroft found a clear, but not entirely comfortable, Tory lead of 6 points – Conservatives 35%, UKIP 29%. Labour were in an extremely close third place on 28%, so it’s a fairly even split between the three parties with plenty of potential for tactical voting to change the result (detailled tabs)
  • In Boston and Skegness Ashcroft found a close race, with the Conservatives just ahead. Topline figures are CON 38%, LAB 17%, LDEM 5%, UKIP 35%. (detailled tabs) Note that this was one of the seats that Survation had previously polled for Alan Bown, the UKIP donor, back in September. Ashcroft’s three point Tory lead is in complete contrast to the Survation poll which showed a twenty point UKIP lead.
  • Castle Point was closest of all, essentially neck and neck between the Conservatives and UKIP. Topline figures there were CON 37%, LAB 16%, LDEM 3%, UKIP 36% (detailled tabs)

Meanwhile the latest Survation poll of Scotland was in this morning’s Daily Record. Topline figures for Westminster voting intention are CON 15%(+1), LAB 28%(+2), LDEM 5%(-2), SNP 45%(-1), UKIP 3%(-1), GRN 3%(nc) (tabs here). Compared to Survation’s other post-referendum polls it suggests a slight narrowing in the SNP lead (their previous three polls had SNP leads of 22, 24 and 20 points) Looking across Scottish polls from other companies though there’s no obvious consensus on whether the lead is narrowing or not… and even if it is narrowing a bit, a seventeen point lead is still firmly in landslide territory.


Survation have a new poll out in Sheffield Hallam which gives a ten point lead to Labour. Naturally this has produced a lot of crowing from people who don’t much like Nick Clegg and some possibly unwise comments from Nick Clegg about the poll being “bilge”, commissioned by the Labour affiliated Unite (which is was, but it shouldn’t make any difference to the voting intention figures). Tabs are here.

The poll has been compared to Lord Ashcroft’s one last year which showed Nick Clegg ahead in his seat, albeit, only narrowly. The reason for the difference is nothing at all to do with who commissioned the polls though, and everything to do with differences between the methodology Ashcroft uses and the methodology Survation use for all their clients (Unite, and anyone else).

One difference that people commented on yesteday is that Lord Ashcroft uses political weighting in his constituency polls, but Survation do not. This has the potential to make a sizeable difference in the results, but I don’t think it is the case here – looking at the recalled vote in Survation’s poll it looks fairly close to what actually happened, weighting by past vote would probably have bumped up the Lib Dems a little, but the reason the Lib Dems are so far behind is not because of the weighting, it’s because more than half of the people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 aren’t currently planning on doing so again.

However, there are other methodology differences that probably do explain the gap between the Ashcroft poll and the Survation one. If we start off with the basic figures each company found we get this:

In Survation’s poll the basic figures, weighted by likelihood to vote, were CON 22, LAB 33, LD 23, UKIP 9
In Ashcroft’s poll the basic figures, weighted for likelihood to vote, were CON 23, LAB 33, LD 17, UKIP 14

Both had a chunky Labour lead, in fact, Ashcroft’s was slightly bigger than Survation’s. Ashcroft however did two things that Survation did not do. He asked a two stage question, asking people their general voting intention and then their constituency question, and he reallocated don’t knows.

When Lord Ashcroft does constituency polls he asks a standard voting intention question, then asks people to think about their own constituency. This makes a minimal difference in most seats, where people’s “real” support is normally the same as how they actually vote. In seats with Lib Dem MPs it often makes a massive difference, presumably because tactical voting and incumbency are so much more important for Lib Dem MPs than those from any other party.

This is a large part of the difference between Survation and Ashcroft. In Ashcroft’s second question, asking people to think about their own constituency, he found figures of CON 18%, LAB 32%, LD 26%, UKIP 14% – so the two-stage-constituency-question added 9 percentage points to the Lib Dems. Survation actually asked people to think about their constiuency in their question, probably explaining why they had the Lib Dems 6 points higher than Ashcroft in their first question, but I think the constituency prompt has more effect when it is asked as a second question, and respondents are given a chance to register their “national choice” first.

The other significant methodological difference is how Survation and Ashcroft treat people who say don’t know. In their local constituency polls Survation just ignore don’t knows, while Ashcroft reallocates them based on how they voted at the previous election, reallocating a proportion of them back to the party they previously voted for. Currently this helps the Liberal Democrats (something we also see in ICM’s national polls), as there a lot of former Lib Dems out there telling pollsters they don’t know how they will vote.

In this particular case the reallocation of don’t knows changed Ashcroft’s final figures to CON 19, LAB 28, LD 31, UKIP 11, pushing the Lib Dems up into a narrow first place. Technically I think there was an error in Ashcroft’s table – they seem to have reallocated all don’t knows, rather than the proportion they normally do. Done correctly the Lib Dems and Labour would probably have been closer together, or Labour a smidgin ahead, but the fact remains that Ashcroft’s method produces a tight race, Survation’s a healthy looking Labour lead.

So which one is right?

The short answer is we don’t know for sure.

Personally I have confidence in the two-stage constituency question. It’s something I originally used in marginal polling for PoliticsHome back in 2008 and 2009, to address the problem that any polling of Lib Dem seats always seems to show a big jump for Labour and a collapse for the Lib Dems. This would look completely normal these days of course, but you used to find the same thing in polls when Labour were doing badly nationally and the Lib Dems well. My theory was that when people were asked about their voting intention they did not factor in any tactical decisions they might actually make – that is, if you were a Labour supporter in a LD-v-Con seat you might tell a pollster you’d vote Labour because they were the party you really supported, but actually vote Lib Dem as a tactical anti-Tory vote. The way that it only has a significant effect in Lib Dem seats has always given me some confidence it is working, and people aren’t just feeling obliged to give as different answer – the overwhelming majority of people answer the same to both questions.

However the fact is the two-stage-constituency question is only theoretical – it hasn’t been well tested. Going back to it’s original use for the PoliticsHome marginal poll back in 2009, polling in Lib Dem seats using the normal question found vote shares of CON 41, LAB 17, LDEM 28. Using the locally prompted second question the figures became CON 37, LAB 12, LDEM 38. In really those seats ended up voting CON 39, LAB 9, LDEM 45. Clearly in that sense the prompted question gave a better steer to how well the Lib Dems were doing in their marginals… but the caveats are very heavy (it was 9 months before the election, so people could just have change their minds, and it’s only one data point anyway.) I trust the constituency prompted figures more, but that’s a personal opinion, the evidence isn’t there for us to be sure.

As to the reallocation of don’t knows, I’ve always said it is more a philosophical decision that a right or wrong one. Should pollsters only report how respondents say they would vote in an election tomorrow, or should they try and measure how they think people actually would vote in an election tomorrow? Is it better to only include those people who give an opinion, even if you know that those undecideds you’re ignoring appear more likely to favour one party than other, or is it better to make some educated guesses about how those don’t knows might split based on past behaviour?

Bottom line, if you ask people in Sheffield Hallam how they would vote in a general election tomorrow, Labour have a lead, varying in size depending on how you ask. However, there are lots of people who voted for Nick Clegg in 2010 who currently tell pollsters they don’t know how they would vote, and if a decent proportion of those people in fact end up backing Nick Clegg (as Ashcroft’s polling assumes they will) the race would be much closer.


We have a bumper crop of opinion polls today – as well as the regular twice-weekly Populus poll, weekly Ashcroft poll there is the first of a series of monthly Survation polls for the Mirror. Still to come tonight is the daily YouGov poll and a ComRes telephone phone for the Indy, both due at 10pm-ish.

The three have been published so far are:

Populus – CON 34%, LAB 35%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 13%, GRN 6% (tabs)
Ashcroft – CON 32%, LAB 32%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 15%, GRN 9% (tabs)
Survation/Mirror – CON 31%, LAB 30%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 23%, GRN 3% (tabs)

All three polls have Labour and the Conservatives within one point of each other – Populus with Labour one ahead, Survation with the Tories one ahead, Ashcroft with them equal. There is more difference between the reported levels of support for the Greens and UKIP – Survation traditionally give UKIP their highest levels of support and have them up on 23% (this is clearly not just because of prompting, given ComRes, YouGov and Ashcroft also now include UKIP in their main prompt), in contrast Populus have UKIP on 13%. Green support is up at 9% in Ashcroft’s poll, but only at 3% in Survation’s. Unlike ComRes’s online polls (harsh turnout filtering) and Populus’s polls (disadvantageous weighting) there is nothing particularly unusual about Survation’s methods that would explain the low Green vote.

I will update later with the ComRes and YouGov polls.

UPDATE: The monthly ComRes telephone poll for the Independent is out and has topline figures of CON 31%(+2), LAB 30%(-2), LDEM 8%(-4), UKIP 17%(+1), GRN 7%(+2) (tabs). It’s the first time that ComRes have shown a Tory lead in their telephone polls since 2011, and a fourth poll today to show the two main parties within a single point of each other. YouGov is still to come…

UPDATE2: The last of today’s five GB polls, YouGov’s daily poll for the Sun has topline figures of CON 34%, LAB 33%, LD 6%, UKIP 15%, GRN 7%. That’s five polls today, all showing Labour and the Conservatives within 1 point of each other. As we hit the hundred days to go mark we have the closest possible race in terms of vote share, if not necessarily in seats.