ICM’s monthly poll for the Guardian shows the same sort of recovery in Labour supports as the other polls conducted since Tony Blair’s announcement of his resignation – Labour are up 2 points since last month with overall headline figures of CON 34% (-3), LAB 32% (+2), LDEM 21% (nc). In contrast to the recent YouGov and Populus polls though, the gain in Labour support is at the expense of the Conservatives rather than the Liberal Democrats.

ICM’s poll also suggests there may be some thawing of opinion towards Gordon Brown. In the hypothetical question of how respondents would vote with Gordon Brown as Labour leader the Conservatives still have a far greater lead – in this case 38% to Labour’s 30%. However, the 8 point lead is actually less than the 12 point lead and 15 point lead that the Conservatives secured in comparable questions in the last two ICM polls, so perhaps the Brown PR offensive is beginning to bear some fruit.

As ever, these questions aren’t really compable since normal questions don’t include the names of the party leaders and the mention of David Cameron and Ming Campbell might also be affecting the result – it will be a relief when Gordon Brown does finally become Prime Minister and such questions are no longer necessary! In the meantime I’m really unsure what voting intention polls signify, if anything – are people imagining an election tomorrow with Tony Blair staying on after all, or an election tomorrow with Tony Blair there, but about to resign, or an election tomorrow with Brown already in situ. We don’t know. We’ll have a slightly better idea when Gordon Brown actually becomes Prime Minister and we don’t have to worry about such things, and a much better picture once the initial boost he is likely to get has settled.

There is still a month to go until then though, and little demand for Blair to step down sooner. ICM found that 55% of people wanted Tony Blair to remain until the 27th June as intended, with only 38% wanting him to step down now.

The poll was conducted between the 18-20 May.

Political Weighting

MORI’s most recent political monitor included a question asking about how people voted at the last election. Since they don’t use it for weighting purposes, it isn’t a question that MORI regularly ask (or at least, it isn’t one they regularly publish) and it’s a good opportunity to see just how much difference political weighting makes to a poll.

I mention political weighting in polls a lot here, but it’s been a long time since I’ve looked at what it is, why it is done and what difference it makes. In short all polls use methods that are supposed to generate representative samples, i.e. they have the correct number of people from each region in the country, they have the right spread of people in different age brackets, the right mix of men and women and so on. No method is perfect though, so weighting is used to use to iron out the differences. For example, amongst UK adults 52% of the population are female and 48% male. If you had a sample that was 55% female and 45% male you’d have too many women in your sample, so would would weight them down – specifially, you’d make every female respondent count as 0.95 of a person, and every man count as 1.07 of a person, then when you totalled everything up it would be the equivalent of having 52% women and 48% men.

Political weighting is more controversial and more difficult to do because it isn’t clear what the correct proportions are. On age and gender we have figures from the census so we know what the real demographics are. People’s politics we don’t – the best we have is the last general election. We know that in May 2005 around 33% of those who voted backed the Tories, around 36% of voters backed Labour and so on. In theory a pollster should be able to ask respondents how they voted in the last election and then weight the sample so it matches. The problem with this is “false recall” – if you take a panel study, i.e. ask the same group of people how they voted at the last election, and then ask them the same question 6 months later, and then another 6 months later, they should give the same response each time: we can’t, after all, go back and change how we voted. In practice though it has been tried, and the results do change over time. People who didn’t actually vote start pretending they did, people who voted tactically give the name of the party they really supported, people say how they’d have like to have voted rather than how they really did, people who voted for minor parties forget, and so on. Because past recall isn’t fixed in stone and changes in this way it arguably makes it unsuitable to be used as a weighting variable – we never know what the correct picture we should be aiming at is.

So why do all the main phone pollsters still do it? Because they think it’s better than the alternative of just doing nothing. When it comes to actual elections polls without weighting (or some other major adjustment) grossly overestimate the level of Labour support. Without political weighting, if you ask how people voted at the last election you will tend to get answers around CON 26%, LAB 48%, LDEM 17%. Given that this is 7 points below what the Conservatives got at the last election and 12 points above what Labour actually got it seems self evident that such a sample is grossly over-sampling Labour supporters and grossly under-representing Conservative supporters. Some of that discrepancy though is not due to a biased sample, but to false recall, so it isn’t as simple as weighting to the actual result of the last election. Instead the pollsters who use weighting by past vote need to estimate what levels of recalled vote a truly representative sample would produce, and then weight to that. Populus do this by assuming that the difference is roughly 50/50 between sample bias and false recall, and weighting to a point half way between the actual result and the average recalled vote in their unweighted samples. ICM do similar, but put the point closer to the actual results.

Weighting by past vote (or other political weighting) also has the advantage of stability – the make up of the political sample each month is, in theory at least, the same, so if Labour go up 4 points from last month we can be confident that they have actually gone up, rather than us just having a sample with more past Labour voters in it (within the normal bounds of sample error and so on of course).

So where does MORI come into this? MORI don’t weight by past vote because of the concerns about the volatility of past vote recall. They are concerned that past vote recall itself can change from month to month – ICM and Populus’s figures suggest that it is relatively stable over time, but that doesn’t mean it can’t shift in the future. MORI don’t normally use phone polling, they use quota sampling, so there is actually no reason to think their raw samples will resemble the phone samples used by ICM and Populus. Last month’s figures though suggest that they do – MORI’s sample hed recalled vote of CON 27%, LAB 47%, LDEM 19%. Populus’s last poll had unweighted figures of CON 29%, LAB 47%, LDEM 16%; ICM’s last unweighted figures were CON 27%, LAB 47%, LDEM 21%. As you can see, in terms of past vote, all three samples were pretty similar. The difference is that ICM and Populus then both weighted their samples to reduce the proportion of past Labour voters and increase the proportion of past Conservative voters so it was closer to what actually happened at the last election. Specifically, Populus weighted to shares of CON 32%, LAB 39%, LDEM 21% and ICM weighted to shares of CON 32%, LAB 39%, LDEM 22%. Hence ICM and Populus ended up using samples that contained far more Conservative supporters and far fewer Labour supporters than MORI’s sample did.

The topline voting intention figures published in the newspapers by the three pollsters weren’t that different – MORI and ICM both gave the Tories a 7 point lead, Populus a lower 4 point lead – though that was after Blair’s resignation. The reason for this is that MORI add a very strict filter by likelihood to vote – ignoring everyone who doesn’t say they are 10/10 certain to vote – which vastly boosts the Conservatives. Without that filter Labour would have had a 2 point lead.

Via various different adjustments and filters the pollsters all arrive at roughly similar figures for voting intention. The thing to remember here is the effect on all the other political questions – there is no filtering by likelihood to vote on things like approval figures for party leaders, or whether X or Y would make a good Prime Minister. So remember, when you are looking at MORI figures on David Cameron’s approval ratings, or which party would be best on pensions or whatever, they are the opinions of a sample in which around 47% of people who say they voted claim they voted Labour. When you see the same questions in an ICM poll they are the opinions of a sample in which only 39% of respondents who say they voted say they voted Labour. It’s also worth keeping a beady eye on quicky questions done by the phone pollsters on omnibus polls – in ICM and Populus’s monthly polls for the Guardian and the Times with questions on voting intention the sample will always have been weighted by past vote. In polls without voting intention questions they might not have been weighted as such, and they too might have rather more Labour supporters than you’d normally expect.


YouGov/Telegraph – 49% of respondents think that a mixture of grammar schools and secondary moderns is most likely to produce the best education for the most people, 40% think either a fully comprehensive or mix of comprehensive and city academies would be best.
YouGov/Economist – usual picture of perceptions of Brown and Cameron. Brown is seen as more competent and more trusted in a crisis; Cameron as more honest (or more accurately less dishonest!) and more likely to understand people’s problems.
Populus/Times – 45% of people think the Lib Dems would do better if they dumped Sir Menzies Campbell, including 54% of Lib Dem supporters. Normally questions like this produce quite a partisan response with supporters of opposing parties giving hostile answers, but in this case it was Lib Dem supporters who were most negative about Campbell!
Populus/BBC – overwhelming (81%) support for the public smoking ban, although the question asked about enclosed public places and work spaces, it didn’t specifically refer to pubs and restaurants. There was also 62%
support for a ban on smoking while driving and 91% support for a ban on smoking near children.
Finally, in the world of dodgy analysis and reporting of polls, the BBC relays claims from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education that their survey shows that the number of adults taking part in education has fallen by 500,000 last year. It’s based on the proportion of adults saying they were participating in education falling from 42% last year to 41% this year – the sample size was 5,000 people, so the change isn’t actually statistically significant. They’d have been better off focusing on a significant drop in the number of part time workers in education.

Populus’s May poll for the Times shows a similar pattern to YouGov’s poll last week – Labour have received a boost from the positive publicity following Tony Blair’s resignation, up four points on last month (and as with YouGov, this gives them their highest level of support since the boost after Tony Blair’s final conference speech as leader). The topline figures with changes from last month CON 37%(nc), LAB 33%(+4), LDEM 17%(-3).

As with YouGov though, the hypothetical question of how people will vote with Brown as leader is largely unchanged – the Conservatives under David Cameron retain a ten point lead over Labour under Brown. As I regualrly say, these questions aren’t really comparable to normaly voting intention questions since they have to include the names of all of the leaders, and some of the difference is the effect of naming Cameron in question rather than an anti-Brown effect. Still, the narrowing the Conservative lead in the standard question while the hypothetical question remains largely static does suggest that this is a “Blair boost”, not a Brown one.

Meanwhile the poll showed the usual public perceptions of Brown and Cameron. Brown was seen as stronger than Cameron by 34% to 19%, but Cameron outpolled him on the ‘fluffier’ measures – on charisma (28% to 9%), likeability (30% to 13%) and being in touch with modern Britain (31% to 15%).

The Sunday Times has the first poll of voting intentions since the announcement of Tony Blair’s resignation. The YouGov poll has headline voting intentions, with changes from their last poll, of CON 38%(+1), LAB 34%(+2), LDEM 15%(-3). The poll was carried out between the 10th and 11th of May.

The 34% level of support is the highest Labour have achieved in a YouGov poll since last September, and that was the spike in support following Tony Blair’s final conference speech. You have to go back to before last year’s local elections before Labour were consistently above 33%.

Exactly what voting intention figures at the moment mean is difficult to say. The uplift in Labour support is presumably because of an uplift in Tony Blair’s popularity – it certainly doesn’t appear to be in response to Gordon Brown’s now practically inevitable accession to the leadership, since YouGov also asked how people would vote in an election after Brown became Labour leader and found the Conservatives at 42% to Labour’s 32%.

I’ve often pondered how people respond to opinion polls when the leadership of one of the main parties is in flux – are they imagining an election tomorrow with Blair staying on, or with Blair in situ but resigning in a few weeks, or with Brown already as PM? The sharp contrast in this poll between the normal figures and the figures with Brown certainly suggests that that people aren’t already answering the question imagining Brown as leader, but at some point the figures have to converge to some extent (though not entirely, since the very act of mentioning the party leaders’ names in the question changes the results to some extent). Realistically we aren’t going to have a firm idea of how the parties stand relative to one another until Gordon Brown has not only become Prime Minister, but – assuming he gets a boost in the polls from the surge of positive publicity his accession will envitably provoke – until his immediate honeymoon has died down.

Elsewhere in the poll YouGov found increasingly warm reactions towards Tony Blair now he is standing down. 49% of people thought that, overall, he had been a good Prime Minister, with 46% thinking he had been a poor PM. In his farewell speech in Sedgefield Blair said that he had always done what he thought was right – YouGov found that 66% thought this was true.

UPDATE – Lots more from the Sunday Times poll.

On the record of the last government, 37% of people think they are worse off than 10 years ago, with 34% of people thinking they are better off – so a slight net negative. On crime however 54% of people think they are more at risk compared to only 7% who think they are safer. 58% of people think Britain is a worse place to live in, with only 17% thinking it has improved. People may well have warmer feelings towards Tony Blair now he is standing down, but their perceptions of how well Labour have delivered over the last ten years don’t seem to have improved.

On Gordon Brown, the Sunday Times highlighted that 50% of people thought he was unlikeable, with only 31% liking him. Actually the poll contained a few other questions which painted Brown in a more positive light. 49% thought he was principled, with only 24% thinking him unprincipled, and 46% thought him honest, compared to 26% who thought him mainly dishonest. This re-inforces the picture of Gordon Brown we normally find in polls – people think he is strong, competent, principled and efficient….they just don’t like him.

Finally, 51% of people said they thought Gordon Brown should call an immediate election after taking over. This is down compared to some of the overwhelming majorities picked up in previous polls and responses remain very partisan – 82% of Tories would like a general election, only 21% of Labour voters would. The “Brown as leader” hypothetical question reported in the Sunday Times was actualy asked in this context – how would people vote if Gordon Brown did call an immediate election – the full figures were CON 42%, LAB 32%, LDEM 13%. Most of the churn is actually people who said Labour or Lib Dem on the main voting intention question changing their intention or, more often, saying don’t know.