After the long summer drought we finally have a voting intention poll. It’s been almost a month since the last one, during which time we’ve had the ceasefire in Lebanon and, probably more significantly for British domestic politics, the arrests of several suspected terrorists in connection with a plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic.

Despite the positive effect upon John Reid’s standing, as seen in YouGov’s tracker polls, the terror threat certainly doesn’t seem to have caused people to rally round the government – ICM’s latest poll for the Guardian shows the Labour party down by four points. The topline figures, with changes from ICM’s poll last month, are CON 40% (+1), LAB 31% (-4), LDEM 22% (+5).

The PA report claims that Labour’s 31% figure is the lowest for 19 years – in fact they did fall as low as 31% in an ICM poll for the News of the World just after the Brent East by-election, but presumably this is based on ICM/Guardian polls. I can’t say more, since I don’t have ICM polling numbers that go back that far! The 40% level of support for the Conservatives is the highest they have recorded in an ICM poll since August 1992 – on a straight uniform swing, it would still leave the Tories slightly short of an overall majority, but a uniform swing is a bit of a fiction anyway, and it will certainly do the Conservatives’ morale no damage to get through the psychological barrier of 40% in the polls.

The big beneficiary though of Labour’s summer decline has been the Liberal Democrats, up five points on last month, putting them back above the 20% level.

On other questions, 72% of people think the government’s policy in the Middle East has made Britain more of a target for terrorists (perhaps explaining the increase in support for the Liberal Democrats, who have criticial of much of the government’s policy in the region). In a separate question 21% of people think that the government has actively exaggerated the terrorist threat.

UPDATE: Earlier on today the BBC’s website was reporting this as “Tories surge ahead, poll suggests”. Presumably someone must have pointed out that a one point increase does not a surge make, since the headline is now “Tories lead grows, poll suggests”, which is more factually accurate, if less grammatically so. They still haven’t beaten the Mirror during the 2005 election, whose headline “Labour surge 5% ahead of Tories” related to a poll that showed the level of Labour support completely unchanged. The Evening Standard meanwhile claims that the poll is “the first time since 1992 that any mainstream poll has put the Conservatives far enough ahead to suggest they could get an overall majority” – MORI, who did so in May, probably won’t be too chuffed to find that the Standard no longer consider them a mainstream pollster!

With MORI’s monthly figures, I often find myself adding a caveat that their polls do tend to be rather more volatile than their competitors. In the past twelve months MORI has shown two shifts of 11 points in a party’s poll rating, one 9 point shift, one 8 point shift and two 7 point shifts. No other pollster has shown a single change of this size in their regular monthly polls. The average change in each party’s support in MORI’s monthly poll since the General Election has been 3.3 points, compared to 1.8 for ICM, 1.9 for Populus and 1.6 for YouGov. It’s pretty undeniable that MORI’s figures are more volatile. The question is why.

Until now I have put this down to two factors. Firstly MORI do not weight their sample politically and secondly they filter their headline figures based on likelihood to vote.

All the pollsters weight their samples by demographic factors, things like age, gender, employment, social class and so on. Hence all samples will contain, for example, 52% women and 48% men – just like the adult population as a whole. Therefore if, for example, more women than men voted Liberal Democrat, the poll wouldn’t be skewed against the Lib Dems by having too few women. The problem is things like gender don’t correlate very well with how people vote. For this reason all the pollsters except MORI try to weight their sample politicially, using something that does correlate well with how people vote. In the case of YouGov this is how people identify politically – 25% of a YouGov sample will be people who say they are Conservatives, 34% will be people who say they are Labour, 25.5% are people who say they don’t indentify with any party and so on. Because people might change their political identification, YouGov weight to the shares they found in May 2005, using the data people told them at the time.

YouGov use a panel, allowing them to use data people gave them a year ago. Pollsters who sample from the wider population don’t have that luxury – instead ICM and Populus weight according to how people voted in 2005. At the last election we know what proportion of people voted Labour, voted Tory and so on. ICM and Populus ask people how they voted last time, and weight their sample so it matches…or they would do, except that people aren’t very good at remembering how they actually voted. People who didn’t vote claim they did, people say how they would have liked to vote with hindsight rather than how they actually voted, people forget they voted Lib Dem in protest and so on – it’s known as “false recall”. ICM and Populus take account of this by using formulas based on their average results and the actual vote. In contrast MORI view the problem of false recall as intractable, and therefore do not use any political weighting.

What this difference means is that, while we cannot know for sure if ICM and Populus have got their respective weightings correct, the political make up of their samples is at least stable. If 40% of ICM’s sample in April say they voted Labour in 2005, about 40% of their May sample will also people who say they voted Labour in 2006, ditto in June and July (ICM and Populus’s weightings do adapt and change over time, but it is a very gradual process). In contrast, without such weighting the political make up of MORI’s samples will differ within standard margins of error from month to month. One month 25% of the sample might be past Labour voters, the next month 29% and so on. Assuming there is a correlation between past and present voting intention, this means that in theory at least, MORI’s polls should be slightly more volatile.

The second reason is the way MORI factor in likelihood to vote. In reality turnout at the last election was about 61%. However in polls very few people say that they won’t vote – hence opinion polls are including the views of some people who, in reality, won’t actually vote. MORI, ICM and Populus all seek to deal with this by asking people to rate themselves on a scale of 1-10 on how likely they are to vote. The difference between their approach is that ICM and Populus weight by the resulting figure – i.e. if someone rates their chances of voting at 10/10 they are included as is (given a weighting of 1.00), if someone says they are 8/10 likely to vote, they only count as 8/10 of a person who is 10/10 likely (given a weighting of 0.80), and so on. In contrast MORI use an all-or-nothing approach, including only those people who say they are 10/10 certain to vote and excluding other people entirely. The impact this might have on volatility is clear – using ICM or Populus’s approach if people who were 10/10 certain to vote Conservative one month are now only 9/10 certain to vote, the affect on Conservative support in the poll’s headline figures would be relatively minor. Using MORI’s methodology, it would result in an apparant slump in support.

At the weekend Dr Roger Mortimore at MORI has put up his own explanation for the volatility, with some surprising figures. According to Dr Mortimore, it is all down to the turnout filtering, and nothing to do with the different approaches to weighting. So people can continue to look at long term trends from before MORI adopted their turnout filter, MORI continue to publish their monthly figures without the filter they apply to their headline figures. Dr Mortimore has taken the average changes from those unfiltered figures during 2006, and finds that MORI’s average change there is only 1.9 points. Comparing this to ICM’s and Populus’s figures over the same time period and their average changes are 2.3 and 1.9 respectively – in other words, if you ignore their turnout filter MORI are less volatile than ICM and just as stable as Populus.

The clear implication of Dr Mortimore’s figures is that the volatility of MORI’s monthly figures has everything to do with how they deal with turnout and nothing to do with past vote weighting. I have to say that I am not convinced. There have only been seven polls so far this year (and therefore six changes) and it is not a huge sample to base conclusions upon. Those 6 bits of data include the polls around the local elections when everyone recording big changes in the vote, obscuring volatility behind genuine change. If you take a longer data series, you start getting different results and MORI go back to being more volatile than the other pollsters, even using unfiltered figures. If you look at all the data since September 2005 the average change in YouGov’s polls is 1.6, Populus’s 1.9, ICM’s 2.00 and MORI’s unfiltered polls 2.56. If you look at all the data since the general election, YouGov’s average change is 1.6, ICM’s 1.8 and MORI’s unfiltered polls 2.4.

If you look back at the last Parliament – not such a good measure because YouGov and Populus only started half-way through – MORI’s unfiltered figures still seem to be more volatile than ICM and YouGov, with average changes of 1.9, 1.5 and 1.6 respectively. Populus were on 1.9, the same as MORI’s unfiltered figures, but their past vote weighting at the time was based on a formula that changed their weighting targets from week to week, meaning that their past vote weighting did not serve to dampen down volatility at all.

It looks to me as though the last 6 months have just happened to contain some comparatively stable unfiltered MORI results, while ICM have been uncharacteristically volatile. Of course, it could be that MORI have changed their sampling or weighting regime in someway we don’t know about and have hence become more stable. If so, well done! Unless that turns out to be the case though, I see no reason to take January as a cut-off period and I’m inclined to put Dr Mortimer’s figures down to just a statistical blip. Of course, everything is subject to change – it will be worth coming back to this in six months time and seeing if MORI’s figures have become more stable for some reason. Until then, looking at a longer data sequence even MORI’s unfiltered figures are more volatile, which in my own personal view still suggests that their volatility is a result of both their turnout filter, and their approach to political weighting.

And finally, where does that leave us on how to treat MORI’s topline figures? MORI’s harsh turnout filter is based on the fact that actual turnouts are even lower than the percentage of people who say they are 10/10 certain to vote. Regardless of whether the reason for the volatility in MORI’s headline figures is a result of political weighting or the turnout filter, the fact remains their headline figures are more volatile, and will presumably continue to be so. That doesn’t mean the more stable unfiltered figures are preferable, as Dr Mortimore says “the proportion of a party’s supporters that turn out is as much a part of the equation that makes up a final election result as the number of supporters the party has in the first place, we believe it is also a more meaningful measure.” So keep on looking at the topline figures, but bear in mind they are a bit more volatile.

(While I’m on the article – I heartily endorse Dr Mortimer’s opinion of “polls of polls” which he says “are akin to measuring England’s sporting performance by averaging the most recent scores of the football, rugby and cricket teams”. If all pollsters used exactly the same methodology polls-of-polls would be very useful in effectively creating one great big sample with a lower margin of error. All pollsters don’t use the same methodology though, some are factoring in turnout, some aren’t, some are accounting for how they think don’t knows might vote, some aren’t, etc, etc. Therefore while some of the difference between them is normal sample error, a lot of it is that different polling companies are measuring slightly different things).


In the absence of Tony Blair it was John Reid, not the Deputy Prime Minister, who was the public face of the government after the police foiled a plot to smuggle liquid explosives onto planes last week. Since then various media commentators have speculated that Reid’s calm handling of the terrorist arrests has increased the chances of him becoming a serious alternative to Gordon Brown when Tony Blair stands down.

The figures from YouGov’s daily tracker polls released today suggest Reid has indeed improved his reputation – in fact dramatically so. The net impression figures for John Reid – the percentage of people who say they have a positive impression of him, minus the percentage of people who say they have a negative impression of him – has risen from minus 17 the day before the arrests, to minus 2 last Thursday.

graph of John Reid's net impression rating

To put this in context this now makes John Reid the most popular of all the politicians tracked by YouGov – including the Conservative leader David Cameron, who currently scores minus 5, other cabinet members who have been touted as potential leadership contenders, such as Alan Johnson on minus 8, and way above Gordon Brown on minus 21.

Reid is seen far more positively by the public than Gordon Brown. If – and it’s a big if – there does turn out to be a contested leadership battle and if – and it’s another big if – John Reid has permanently improved his public image and it doesn’t drop straight back down against once the news agenda moves on, then he appears to gone a long way towards positioning himself as the best alternative to Brown.

pdf Download full report HERE.

The War on Terror

A new YouGov poll for this week’s Spectator suggests that British people believe that we are in a world war against Islamic terrorism and we aren’t winning it. They are are deeply pessimistic about both how long it will last and how bad it will get.

The overwhelming majority (73%) of respondents thought Britain was in a global war against Islamic terrorists who threaten the West’s way of life, as opposed to 8% who though Islamic terrorism was a regional problem that did not genuinely threaten the West. Asked how long they expected the conflict against groups like Al-Q’aeda to last, there was very little optimism – only 6% thought it would be over within 5 years, with 44% of people thinking it would last more than twenty years. The majority (60%) expected the risk of terrorist attacks to increase in coming years, with 22% of people saying they expected “the risk of terrorist attacks to get much worse, with frequent atrocities and constant terrorism alerts.” Only 8% of people said they thought we were winning the “war on terror”.

34% of people thought that a major terrorist attack upon Britain was “very likely” to occur within the next 12 months, with a further 52% thinking it was “fairly likely”. Despite thinking there was going to be a further terrorist attack, people didn’t believe it when they heard it from politicians – 35% thought politicans were exaggerating the threat of terror, either deliberately (23%) or through their own ignorance (12%).

Asked about possible safety measures, 64% said the extra security on planes made them feel safer. 55% of respondents said they would support the further introduction of passenger profiling and 69% said they would support the extention of the period for which terrorist suspects could be held to 90-days (despite what Alistair Heath says in his report in the findings, this figure isn’t particularly extraordinary – it’s pretty much the same level of support for the 90-day option that polls showed prior to the orginal vote on the then Terrorism Bill).

On Britain’s future foreign policy there was a contradiction in the answers given. Asked if, in response to the threat from terrorism, Britain should change her foreign policy, 53% said yes – it should be more aggressive (12% said we should be more concillatory and 24% said no). However, asked in general whether Britain should continue to align herself with the USA on foreign policy, or move closer to Europe, 14% said the USA with 45% saying Europe. If one – reasonably enough – characterises US foreign policy as far more aggressive and “gung-ho” than that of most of the countries of the EU, these two answers seem contradictory. I think what is happening is that the answers are the result of two different emotional responses – on the first hand, peoples’ natural response to terrorism is to fight back and not give in to the terrorists. On the other hand, previous surveys have shown that President Bush and current American foreign policy are deeply unpopular in the this country. People want an agressive response to the terrorist threat…but clearly not the particular brand that President Bush is offering.

Monday’s Telegraph carries some details from a new YouGov poll for the Telegraph and RSA. The poll suggests that over 90% of people think that drugs are a serious problem today, although 39% of people think that the problem is largely confined to certain neighbourhoods and kinds of people.

Asked to compare the amount of damage done by legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco to that done by illegal drugs respondents thought that alcohol (78%) and tobacco (60%) were more damaging to a larger number of people than illegal drugs (55%) – not a surprising finding given the widespread use of alcohol and tobacco compared to hard drugs. Asked how much damage drugs do to the individual alcohol and tobacco were also relatively highly placed. At the top of the list 97% thought that injecting heroin was likely to do a lot or some harm to users, followed by crack cocaine on 96%, solvents on 93%, ecstacy on 92%, followed by tobacco on 90%. 86% thought that LSD was harmful, 83% alcohol and only 64% cannabis. Of course, these figures do not dintinguish between the amount of harm people think each drug does – if anything, tobacco’s high placement in the list is less surprising than the fact that 10% of people apparently don’t think tobacco is harmful.

Asked about the legal position of hard drugs, 73% of people thought they should remain illegal as at present. 17% thought that possesion of hard drugs for personal use should be downgraded to a lesser offence, while 6% thought possession should be legalised. On soft drugs like cannabis, only 38% of people thought their sale and possession should be treated as criminal offences, 30% thought that the sale of them should be a criminal offence, but possession should be a lesser offence, 13% thought possession of soft drugs should be legal and 15% thought both the sale and possession of soft drugs should be legalised.

On both these questions there was a sharp difference between age groups – 82% of those born before 1945 thought possession of hard drugs should remain a criminal offence, compared to only 67% of those born after 1960. A majority (51%) of those born before 1945 thought that possession of soft drugs should be a criminal offence, compared to 34% of those born after 1960. Only 8% of those born before 1945 thought soft drugs should be entirely legalised, compared to 18% of those born after 1960.

Asked if alcohol and tobacco should be classified in the same way as illegal drugs are, 62% agreed – though presumably 62% of people are not supporting prohibition of them. 56% of people said they would support a D classification for drugs like alcohol and tobacco, to indicate they were harmful.