End of year round up

When commentators write about polls they often fail to resist reaching for the cliche of saying the polls are extremely volatile, or even that there is unprecedented volatility. Often what they actual mean is that differences between pollsters or normal random sample error are spitting out apparently contradictory figures. Polls are not normally particularly volatile over the short term, the pattern of public opinion is normally pretty steady with occassional step changes in opinion. In that sense I was almost tempted to say that this year was particularly volatile… until I looked back at last year, compared to the sharp reverses of 2007, 2008 was pretty staid.

Nevertheless, There were two big step changes in support during 2008. The first happened in the spring and, while it is never possible to pin these things down exactly the polls seemed to turn around the budget. There were no particularly unpopular measures in the budget and the polls showed that the majority of people supported the measures in the budget. I suspect the reason it was followed by a drop in Labour support is that it made the economy troubles real for the first time and, as I argued in this post last week, Labour’s summer travails and autumn recovery do seem to have gone hand in hand with the public’s hopes and fears on the economy.

The turnaround in the spring was not, however, all about Labour. The local and London elections also contributed to that shift – the halo effect around the Conservative victory in London and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election saw their ratings jump upwards. Heading into the summer we saw some huge 20 point leads in the polls as the government’s dire position was compounded by leadership ructions breaking into the open. In Populus’s annual conference poll the percentage of people who thought Labour were united had fallen to 23%, thirty points lower than a year before. There were bigger opposition leads in the mid 1990s, but they were from pollsters who had yet to make adjustments after the 1992 debacle. If you look at ICM, the only pollster who uses more or less the same methods now as they did back in 1993-1997, the Conservative leads in summer 2009 bore comparison to the Labour leads when John Major was in office.

Then everything changed.

When I did my round up last year I said I doubted that it was possible for Labour to regain a lead in the polls under Gordon Brown unless there were “events [that] changed the whole world around”. Strictly speaking, Labour haven’t regained a lead in the polls, but an “event” did happen, and it did indeed turn British politics around.

The bail-out of British banks resulted in a miraculous turn around in Gordon Brown’s ratings and Labour support in the polls. If you look at the polling figures it appears that Labour’s recovery dates from conference – but I think that’s merely a result of how granular voting intention data is. If you look at the only daily data that’s available, the Phi5000 tracker on PoliticsHome, you can see that Labour and Brown’s conference bounces were already receeding from their conference increase when the bank rescue came along and up they went again, and have kept on upwards since then.

Since the bank rescue all the polling trends have been positive for Labour. The party’s share of support in voting intention polls has risen, Gordon Brown’s own ratings have shot upwards, with growing proportions of people once again seeing him as strong and capable. The Conservative lead on the economy has vanished. Labour’s rebels have melted away and, while I haven’t seen it asked, I would be amazed if polls didn’t show that people think the Labour party are united again. We shouldn’t overestimate the change – Labour are still behind in every poll, government approval ratings are still negative, but the turnaround is still stunning.

So, what about the way forward? Anyone who has read my article before Christmas about the economy will be able to guess what I expect to happen next year. There are several ifs, but if the recession bites hard next year, companies continue to fold and unemployment and repossessions rise, my expectation is that this recovery in Labour’s support will reverse. Labour’s increase in support corresponds with an increase in economic optimism over recent months – as Britain falls into official recession and the bad news keeps on coming, that will fall and those people who have supported Gordon Brown in the hope that he can limit the damage will be disappointed.

That’s just my guess. I wouldn’t have guessed that Labour would have recovered to the degree they did after the bank bailout, and this is very much uncharted territory, so while I think next year will be bad for Labour, here are two alternate ways that it could play out that are more positive. Firstly, while I expect Labour’s support to fall again in the face of economic bad news, I don’t know how long that might take. The last two YouGov polls indicate that perhaps the trend is already reversing, but it not Labour could continue to gain. Temporary blip or not, if they start to record poll leads over the Conservatives then the pressure really would be on the Tories and the media narrative would be even more in Labour’s favour. Say the economic bad news takes months to sap Labour support, say for the next few months Labour continue to go up in the polls, say they are still ahead at the end of April and Gordon Brown goes for it, calls and wins a general election. It’s possible.

Another alternative would be if the government’s economic policies actually do work better than everyone expects. Everyone seems to be predicting that the economy will be very bad indeed next year, but I’m no economist. If there aren’t lots of companies folding, unemployment is kept to reasonable levels, the economy really does return to growth in the third quarter of 2009 – more importantly, people are never given cause to lose their newly-regained faith in Gordon Brown’s handling of the economy. As I said before, the passing of the crisis isn’t an automatic win for Labour – it could mean people are more willing to risk a novice – but that’s far from a given.

My own opinion remains that this is a brief recovery in the government’s popularity and that bad economic news will grind their support away next year. What I think is clear however is that things are far less certain than they appeared a year ago.

ComRes have released what is probably the final poll of the year (though I’m conscious I was rather premature saying that last year when a final YouGov poll emerged after Christmas!). The topline figures, with changes from ComRes’s last poll, are CON 39%(+2), LAB 34%(-2), LDEM 16%(+2).

I’m always a bit wary of weekend polls conducted this close to Christmas – there is the potential for the unusual shopping patterns to produce an unusual sample. Still, if we take it at face value then, like YouGov last week it shows a shift back towards the Conservatives, though given that ComRes were showing the smallest Conservative leads this only brings them back into line with the other companies. Until we see the polls in January I still think it’s a bit early to be declaring – as the Independent are doing – that the poll definitely shows the second Brown bounce is over.

Still, with all the polls now showing Conservative leads between 4 and 7 points, we can at least end the year with a good idea of where the parties stand, even if we can’t be quite so sure which way the trend is going.

UPDATE: The ComRes poll also including questions about how people would vote under various scenarios. Sadly, I don’t think they tell us very much.

Firstly, they are not comparable to the standard voting questions. A voting intention question in a poll is normally quite an involved business – when ComRes do it involves three questions – how likely people are to vote, how they would vote, and how they would vote if forced to by law (plus the past vote and party ID questions used for weighting and reallocation of don’t knows). When alternative voting intention questions are used there is a tendency to skip bits and just do it with one question, rather than go through that whole rigamarole again, therefore making them non-comparable. In this case, likelihood to vote is assumed to be constant throughout (and, in fact, the extra voting intentions aren’t weighted by turnout), so if the Conservatives or Labour promising something energised or alienated their base and made them more or less likely to vote it wouldn’t show up in these questions.

More importantly, they don’t really get at what they are trying to. The argument that people may vote differently in or after a recession is largely based on psychological factors and loss aversion. If that argument is true then these would be psychological biases that people are not necessarily consciously aware of – we wouldn’t expect them to show up in a survey like this. Secondly, people are rubbish predictors of how they will react to future events anyway. It was easily predictable that there would be a big boost in Labour support after Gordon Brown became leader, yet people consistently said they would be less likely to vote Labour with him there – they failed to forsee that they would want to give him a chance, or would be caught up and won over by his honeymoon in office. We can have no confidence that they will or will not be able to predict how they would react to a government calling an election mid-recession, or how they will look at politics after one.

The other questions, about how people would vote if the Conservatives did X, don’t show us much either. If you give a prompt that only mentions one party and says something positive they would do, then miraculously it greatly increases the proportion of people who say they would vote for them. My favourite example is this one from MORI back in 2004, commissioned by UKIP. It found UKIP support in the European elections at 2%. They then asked “At the European Parliament elections the UK Independence Party will be campaigning nationwide for Britain to leave the European Union and put an end to unlimited EU immigration. Assuming the UK Independence Party were the only moderate party campaigning for this, which party would you vote for?” and found support for UKIP at 35%. Magic!

Going back to ComRes, the fact that putting the question from a Conservative angle (the Conservatives will spend less and not increases taxes) and a Labour angle (Labour will spend more, but will increase taxes) results in almost identical answers would be fascinating… if the questions were put independently to different people using a split sample. As far as I can tell, they were asked one after the other to the same people. Asking different groups of people the same question using slightly different wording can give you fascinating results. Asking the same people the same question using slightly different wording normally gives you the same answer.

YouGov’s final poll of the year for the Telegraph has topline figures, with changes from their last poll, of CON 42%(+1), LAB 35%(nc), LDEM 14%(-1). It was conducted between the 16th and 18th December.

Clearly there is no significant change on the last YouGov poll, though collectively their last few polls have been showing a slight trend back to the Conservatives. That trend is not, however, supported by any of the other polling companies, so I’d be slightly wary about reading too much into that just yet.

The polls are now showing levels of support that would result in a hung parliament that would, given the maths, almost certainly produce another Labour government. However, expectations continue to be that Labour will lose the next election. As I type the bookies still have the Conservatives as the heavy odds-on favourite, betting spreads have a Tory majority, the last time the PoliticsHome panel of MPs, political journalists and so on were polled 40-odd percent still thought there would be a Conservative majority, even left leaning pundits like Michael White in the Guardian are saying they still don’t expect Labour to win. Why?

I can’t claim to know the mind of punters or pundits, they may all simply be in denial, but I suspect the reason is because they expect the economic situation to eventually sap the government’s support. Unless they expect a substantial recovery in the economic situation next year, they are probably right to do so: let’s look at the figures.

The simplest thing we can say is that people are very pessimistic. Asked if the economy is getting better or worse people are overwhelmingly negative – in MORI’s lastest poll 66% expected the economy to get worse next year. This is, however, a bit of a statement of the bleeding obvious. To get any thing useful we need to look a bit beyond that, and that reveals two interesting gaps between expectations and what is likely to happen.

Firstly, there is a sharp contrast between people’s expectations of their own families finances and that of the country as a whole. The difference is sharpest in Populus’s questions – the net score for expections of the economy as a whole is minus 35, for “me and my family” it’s plus 7 (51% think they personally will do well in the next 12 months, 44% badly). In TNS’s regular surveys of consumer confidence for Nationwide the net score for the public’s expectation of the economy in 6 months is minus 23, but for people’s own household it is exactly neutral (16% think they’d be doing better, 16% worse).

Some people of course won’t suffer, mathematically its theoretically even possible that most people won’t, if a few big losers outweigh many small winners. Realistically though we have a gap between expectations and reality here – people think the economy is headed for disaster, but they and their family will manage to buck the trend. While some will be right, the chances are an awful lot of them won’t be. Reality check one.

The second is the upturn in economic optimism. While all polls show people very pessimistic about the economy, almost all the trackers of public confidence in the economy show it heading upwards since the summer. Specifically, many show a big spike around the time of the bank rescue plan (see, for example, MORI at the end of this pdf, or this TNS data).

This also, of course, co-incides with the Labour government’s recovery in the polls. This isn’t as obvious as perhaps it sounds, when polls have asked specifically about whether the PBR, say, will improve the situation very, very few say it will make a big difference. The recovery in economic confidence though tells the underlying truth; people may not be able to point at a specific policy and say it will solve things, but collectively the government’s actions have served to convince some people that things are getting better. It suggests that Labour have recovered in the polls not just because people have seen Gordon Brown looking more capable, purposeful and at ease with himself, the Labour party more united, or have looked to experience in a crisis. Support for Labour has increased because people think the action they’ve taken is actually working.

Here then, is the problem. If the government’s increased popularity is due to people thinking their policies will work, what happens if they don’t? And on what criteria will that judgement be made?

If the criteria for success was avoiding a recession or major job losses this would be an easy exercise with a very bad answer for Labour. Thankfully for Gordon Brown, that’s not the yardstick he’ll be judged by. We know the public expect a recession, we need to judge how deep their expectations are – for that we need to look at questions asking what people think about the economy in the future. Going back to the TNS data for Nationwide, asked about the current economic situation 76% think it is bad, 15% normal and 9% good – this has been on a steady downwards trend since 2007. When TNS ask how people think the economy will be in 6 months time 45% think it will be worse, 30% the same, 22% better – significantly up from a few months previously. In other words, a majority of people now think we’ve hit the bottom and a significant minority of them think we’ll be on the up in 6 months time. In Nov 08 Populus too found a significant chunk of people taking a more positive view: 31% of people told Populus they thought the economy would do well in the next year, up from 22% in July. MORI’s last figures are less optimistic, but the optimists are there – 18% think things will get better, 14% the same, so almost a third think we’ve reach the bottom (again, significantly higher than in the Summer).

I’m not an economist, I’ve no particular way of knowing what will happen to the economy next year, but I am not seeing any predictions that next year will be anything but horrific economically. If that does happen the chances are – though it is not a foregone conclusion – that this will push economic confidence down again as reality hits home. The thing that will do it is not the raw economic figures, but experiences of friends and family, and the stories that make it real, things like the immentient closure of Woolies and the job losses that will entail, and the further companies and employers that we can expect to go to the wall next year if the predictions are correct.

Will this necessarily be bad for the government though, surely the recession has been good for Labour so far? There is a perception that, whereas governments normally lose popularity when the economy goes horribly wrong, Gordon Brown and Labour have bucked the trend. That perception is wrong. Confidence in the economy started going after the run on Northern Rock – roughly the same point that Labour’s lead vanished and the Conservatives moved ahead. Labour’s position completely tanked in the months after the budget, at the same time as economic confidence really began to fall through the floor. The recent recovery in Labour’s position in the polls dates from the bank rescue in October 2008, which has also seen a recovery in economic confidence. The graph below shows the public’s net expectations for the economy in 6 months time, from TNS’s monthly survey for Nationwide (in blue), compared to Labour’s average lead in the polls over the last 18 months or so (in red).


It speaks pretty much for itself. Brown’s government’s fortunes are not defying gravity, they are tied to perceptions of the economy. Since the bank rescue plan significant numbers of people have become more optimistic about the economy and Labour’s fortunes have gone hand in hand with that recovery in economic optimism. If that falters I suspect Labour’s support might go the same way, and at the moment all the predicts are that it will. That is the reason to think that the forcecast for Labour isn’t as rosy as the actual voting intention figures we are seeing at the moment would suggest.

The worst thing for Brown is that even if the economy actually does do well, the economic pundits are all proved wrong and the British economy bounces back strongly before any expects, he still isn’t out of the woods. At that point, as Danny Finkelstein wrote earlier this month, the public suddenly have much less reason to be risk adverse and the “experience vs novice at a time of crisis” argument ceases to work. It’s worth remembering that while polls now universally show that Gordon Brown is more trusted than David Cameron to deal with the present crisis, Populus still have Cameron leading as best to “lead Britain forward after the next general election”. Similarly, YouGov show Labour miles ahead on dealing with the economy in the present crisis, but the Conservatives ahead on the economy per se.

So, while the current polls are good for Labour, at least in the sense they would probably end up the largest party if there really was an election tomorrow, the problems ahead are daunting. Obviously anything can happen, but the chances of a Labour victory are probably lower than the raw voting intention scores would suggest – hence the pundits and punters opinions I started the article with. However, even if the economy does drag Labour’s support down again, it doesn’t follow its going to happen straight away, or indeed that Labour won’t rise further before economic reality hits home. If Labour do get closer to the Conservatives in the polls (or indeed overtake them) in the new year, then Gordon Brown really should call an election there and then. Under the circumstances, he could win it.

No2ID, the campaign against ID cards, have commissioned an update to their regular ICM polls on ID cards, which shows no change whatsover in the pretty even split in favour and against the idea (48% support it, 46% opposed).

As I’ve said before, polls commissioned by pressure groups are the ones I’d normally advise people to be the most wary of – the very worst skewed questions and selective approachs to polling tend to turn up in polls commissioned by pressure groups. No2ID are an exception to the rule – they have been asking the same question, using exactly the same wording, carried out in exactly the same manner and – vitally – releasing the data even when, like this month, it doesn’t show anything of particular interest or help to their cause. The question isn’t perfect since they can’t update it to take into account any newer estimates of cost without changing the question, but it does give rock solid trend data on attitudes towards ID cards.

Past polls on ID cards are here.