The Known Unknowns

There was some speculation in the last couple of days about whether the Queen’s Speech will shift the political terrain. We won’t know until the next round of polls arrive, but I would be very surprised if they were the beginning of any significant change for the reasons Danny Finkelstein set out this morning: the Queen’s speech and the government’s legislative plans for the coming months will have completely passed by the vast majority of the electorate.

As the months go by we keep seeing things that might have potentially changed the situation slipping past without any obvious change in the big picture: one was the party conference season, then the Conservative response to the ratification of Lisbon. I’m doubting the Queen’s Speech will be the one either. Looking at what’s left before the campaign itself, I think there are only about four “known unknowns” left in the months ahead that might be noticed by enough people to make a significant change to the political terrain (though of course, there could be any number of unknown unknowns that we can’t predict).

1) The budget
Not many events in the political calendar really get noticed by by the wider public. The exceptions are probably the conference season (most people don’t watch the actual conferences of course, but some of the saturation coverages gets through), and the budget, which people pay attention to it because it directly affects their wallet. Certainly before elections governments use them to curry public favour with good news stories and tax cuts, but they are not an automatic positive if they are perceived as dishonest, unfair or incompetent, nor if the government is forced to hike taxes or deliver bad news. In the present situtation, Alistair Darling is likely to have very limited room for manoeuvre: he won’t have money for tax cuts, and if he does scrape something together it risks backfiring when questions about repairing the public finances are asked. Still, there is potential here, especially if Darling can deliver some good news. This brings us to…

2) The end of the recession
Economic optimism has already returned. There are several different trackers following people’s expectations on the economy, they have all come back strongly since 2008 and early 2009, with some in positive territory. However, it does not seem to have produced any meaningful recovery for Labour. However, I’m still not ready to conclude for certain that it’s not going to have an effect – if an improved economy is going to improve Labour’s position in the polls, I think the trigger may be when the recession formally comes to an end, when the good news will no doubt be plastered across the media and the government will be primed to capitalise. That was expected in the last lot of quarterly economic figures, but never arrived. With the rest of Europe emerging from recession it must be very likely that the next lot of figures will show the formal end of the recession.

3) The last chance for a Labour change of leadership
The endless media speculation of whether Brown will stay or go is gradually drawing to a close, we will get to a point where it is so close to an election that Labour really cannot change their leader. We’ve long since passed the point when there could be a formal challenge, we may be past the point where an open rebellion by MPs to oust Brown is feasible. It’s probably still just about possible that a cabinet delegation go to Brown at the start of January and quietly tell him that he no longer has the necessary support to continue and should stand down for the sake of the party. It is looking increasingly unlikely, but if it does happen it obviously has the potential to change everything.

4) The leaders’ debates
They’ve never happened before, and if they happen this time we can be fairly certain they will get huge attention and viewing figures. With the attention they receive they certainly have the potential to change things around. However, realistically the chances of them helping Labour must be very low. When it comes down to it polls constantly show that people like David Cameron and dislike Gordon Brown – increased focus on the choice between the two men will likely help the Conservatives. David Cameron is seen as charismatic, he is an interesting speaker with emotional intelligence and ability to connect with the public. These are not, to put it kindly, Gordon Brown’s strengths. One thing in Gordon Brown’s favour is expectations – polls show that people overwhelmingly expect David Cameron to win any debate, so the pressure will be on him to deliver, and Gordon Brown won’t have to do much to surpass expectations.

I think the one with the most potential to change things is a change of Labour leadership, but I think it is now very unlikely. I would be surprised if the budget made much difference, and the debates (if they happen) are more likely to help the Conservatives. From my four known unknowns I think the one with the most chance of changing things is when the end of the recession is announced. Who knows what effect any unknown unknowns might have, but the number of opportunities for Labour to turn things around are rapidly dwindling.

We’re overdue an Ipsos-MORI voting intention poll, which Mike Smithson has suggested may be published today. In the meantime there is a new poll on the death penalty up on their website here, commissioned by Channel 4 as a tie in with a drama last week.

MORI gave people a list of crimes and asked which, if any, people thought the death penalty should be the maximum penalty for in the UK. Altogther 70% of people thought the death penalty should be available for at least one of the crimes, somewhat higher than other recent polls on capital punishment. However, only 51% thought it should be available for the murder of an adult, which is what most polls on the subject tend to ask about.

I’m sure you’re wondering what crimes people did think the death penalty should be available for if 70% supported it, but only 51% thought it should be available for murder. As you’ve probably guessed from me specificing “adult” murder, the largest proportion of people supported the death penalty for the murder of a child (62%), followed by murder, then the rape of a child (39%), terrorism (37%), paedophilia (31%), child abuse (19%), rape (18%), treason (11%) and armed robbery (8%).

Looking at the cross breaks there was an interesting class divide – 81% of respondents in social class DE supported the death penalty compared to 56% of respondents in social classes AB. Respondents under the age of 25 were also more likely to support the death penalty and much more likely to support it for sexual crimes – 37% of under 25s thought the death penalty should be available for rape, compared to only about 12% of over 45s.


ICM’s monthly poll for the Guardian is now available here. The topline figures with changes from the previous ICM poll at the end of October are CON 42%(nc), LAB 29%(+4), LDEM 19%(-2).

The Conservatives are unchanged but there is a significant boost for Labour at the expense of the Lib Dems and others (Others are collectively on 10%, one of their lowest scores in any poll since the expenses scandal broke. Certainly there is no echo of ComRes’s big increase for minor parties here. The Greens, UKIP and the BNP are all on 2%).

This is the first poll since the Glasgow North East by-election and I’m sure some will attribute the boost in Labour’s support to that, certainly it is one of their better poll ratings in recent months. Personally I think there is also something of a reversion to the mean here after some outliers – as I’ve said a couple of times in recent weeks, there was no obvious methodological reason for the great big gap between Populus showing a 10 point Tory lead and ICM showing a 17 point lead, suggesting that all along the real figure was somewhere inbetween.

The Guardian’s coverage is rather pessimistic for Labour, focusing on the other questions in the poll which dealt with perceptions of Brown and Cameron’s character. The full details are not there yet, but David Cameron apparently leads Brown by 16 points on having what it takes to be a good Prime Minister, by 33 points on having changed his party for the better and 11 points on being decisive, once upon a time one of Gordon Brown’s strengths.

42% of people would be pleased or excited if David Cameron won the next election, with 36% either angry or disappointed. The figures for Gordon Brown were 27% pleased/excited and 53% angry or disappointed. The Guardian’s interpretation is that this shows there is more to the Conservative lead than just Labour unpopularity. I’m not so sure, after all, one could be pleased about a Conservative victory because it would mean Labour had lost!

According to the Press Association (and Vincent Moss!) there is a new YouGov poll in the Sunday Times. The topline figures, with changes from YouGov’s most recent poll just over a week ago, are CON 41%(nc), LAB 27%(nc), LDEM 18%(+1).

Clearly there is no real change here, with the Conservative lead sticking at 14 points. There is also a ComRes poll due out tonight. I don’t have the full figures yet, but Henry Macrory has twittered that it too shows a Conservative lead of 14 points (their last poll had a 13 point Tory lead).

UPDATE: The ComRes poll is now up on their website. The topline figures are CON 39%(-1), LAB 25%(-2), LDEM 17%(-1).

The same 14 point lead as YouGov, but all three parties are slightly lower and “others” are up by 4 points to 19%, the highest level of support for smaller parties in any poll since June (and significantly higher than anyone but Angus Reid – other than them no one has had them above 15 since September). It breaks down to Green 6%(+1), UKIP 5%(+2), BNP 3%(+1), SNP 3%(nc), PC 1%(+0.5%), so the biggest increase was UKIP, but all the minor parties have increased.

ComRes asked some questions on Afghanistan, showing the now normal lack of public support, but more interestingly they asked whether people thought the Sun was unfair in its treatment of Gordon Brown’s letter to the mother of Jamie Janes – 60% of people thought it was.

The Guardian today has an interesting report about Tessa Jowell pushing for a referendum on electoral reform on election day, backed up with some polling findings from some private polling by the Electoral Reform Society. By the wonders of the BPC disclosure rules the actual polling is no longer secret, and is now up on the YouGov website.

The Guardian’s article suggests giving a referendum on election day could put Labour on the verge of being the biggest party. There really is very little in the actual polling to suggest such a massive impact.

There was clearly a voting intention question asked in the YouGov poll, since it gives a split by it. Depending on how much support they found for others though, it equates to a Conservative lead of 12 or 13 points. The projected seat shares given in the Guardian article are bonkers – if nothing else, they add up to 649, leaving just 1 seat between the SNP, PC, independents and all the Northern Ireland parties. The most likely explanation I can see is that someone has mislabeled “Lib Dem and others” as just Lib Dems – if so, this is roughly the equivalent of a Conservative lead of 9 points, so doesn’t seem related to the shares in the YouGov poll.

The first question mentioned in the report is about a referendum on AV making people more likely to vote Labour appears to be the question YouGov asked for the Electoral Reform Society back in August, which I dealt with back here.

In short are you more or less likely to vote for X if they do Y questions are of very little worth. “More likely” is very undemanding, it doesn’t mean you are definitely going to switch, and people tend to use it just to express support or opposition to the thing being tested. It also gives false prominence to an issue which in reality would be thrown into the mix with other (normally more salient!) issues like the economy, crime, unemployment and so on.

Moving onto the new questions published today, YouGov asked whether people would prefer FPTP, the alternative vote system (which was explained in the question) or a system of proportional representation. The answers were actually pretty balanced – 39% of people preferred the status quo, 22% each backed AV and PR.

YouGov then asked a list of questions on how people would react to the way David Cameron responded to a referendum. Boiling it down to the key figures, if David Cameron opposed holding a referendum on election day, 1% of Labour and Lib Dem voters would be much more likely to vote for him. 5% of Tory voters would be much less likely to. If David Cameron opposed changing the voting system, 1% of Lib Dem voters would be much more likely to vote for him. 6% of Tory voters would be much less likely to.

So 5% or 6% of current Conservative voters say they would be much less likely to vote Tory if they opposed the referendum, or the change in the electoral system. With the Conservatives on 41% or thereabouts, that’s 2.5% of the vote – definitely not to be sniffed at. In reality though questions like these overemphasise one particular policy, not everyone who says likely would actually change, and since only the Conservatives were asked about we don’t know how many voters Labour might be losing in response to their stance.

Regular readers will know that my view is that party image matters far more to voting intention than specific policies, so from my view far more interesting were the next set of questions. These asked how people would view David Cameron if he opposed or supported a referendum/change in the electoral system. In short people associated supporting the referendum and a change in the system with being “forward thinking”, but also with being “opportunistic”. People associated opposing the referendum and a change in the system with being “resistant to change” and “stuck in his ways”.

Again, what we can’t see here is the other side of the coin, how would people view Gordon Brown if he called a referendum on the electoral system on polling day? Even so, I think it tells us enough to see what the balance would be – Labour would call a referendum hoping it would make Gordon Brown appear forward thinking and David Cameron appear backwards looking and resistent to change, and this polling suggests it would do so (though of course, we can’t tell to what degree). The counter to it though would be to what extent it made Gordon Brown look opportunistic or self-interested.

= = =

(As an aside, I’m still surprised that those in favour of electoral reform are supporting the idea of a referendum on election day so energetically. It will not be an easy referendum to win at the best of times – there isn’t a large majority in favour of AV as we can see from this very poll. With this timing it would be extremely vulnerable to a narrative that it is Labour gerrymandering the system before they lose office.

Furthermore, it will get tangled up with the election campaign itself – the referendum will influence the election, but the election will influence the referendum too, and the election is by far the bigger game. A YES vote will be associated with a moribund and unpopular Labour government, a NO vote with an energised and resurgent Conservative party. My view is that it would be very difficult for the YES campaign to win the referendum if was held on election day, probably killing the issue for a generation.

The image questions in the poll show why it is a attractive idea to the Labour party, but I’m surprised the ERS are pushing for a referendum under what would probably be very disadvantageous circumstances for the YES vote. Then again, I suppose the alternative is what the Guardian says John Denham is suggesting – passing legislation now for a referendum on PR in a year’s time, I think the YES campaign would stand a much better chance of winning it then, but the ERS would face the the risk that David Cameron would win power and cancel the referendum (politically damaging, but it might be a price he was willing to pay to keep FPTP).)

UPDATE: Before anyone gets excited about the voting intention figures, the poll was conducted at the end of October/beginning of November, so there’s nothing new here on that front.