We approach a general election and we have the first sighting of the traditional “what if the polls are wrong” article. Thankfully, given that sometimes these beasts are extravaganzas of ill-informed and out-of-date tripe, this one is by Julian Glover and is generally sensible.

What Julian’s article boils down to is that all the adjustments made to correct the polls after the debacle of 1992 have worked very well in an environment where Labour are on top and the Conservatives are the underdog, but will they still work in a political environment when the Conservatives are in the lead?

The purist answer is, of course, we don’t know and we won’t know for certain until after the coming General election. I am not, however, expecting any vast error.

Firstly, the polls agree with each other. As Julian correctly points out, this was also the case in 1992: everyone predicted the same result, and everyone was wrong. However, in 1992 the methods used by the polling industry were actually pretty homogenous. Everyone used quota sampling, everyone interviewed face-to-face. They were all wrong because they all made the same mistakes!

In 2010 there is no such uniformity – we have polls using quasi-random phone sampling, and polls using internet panels. We have polls weighted by party ID, past vote, or no political weighting at all. We have different approaches to don’t knows and likelihood to vote – yet they all report much the same figures. It seems unlikely that all these companies are wrong in different ways that by co-incidence happen to produce the same answer.

The caveat to that is, of course, that pollsters tend to produce similar figures because it’s better to be wrong together than risk going out on a limb and being wrong alone. However, for ICM, Populus and YouGov (and ComRes to some extent) there has been no significant shift in their methodology since before David Cameron became leader – yet their voting intention figures have charted the same reaction to the changing political scene.

Secondly, there is the recent record of the polls. In 2005 the polls performed excellently. Neither are the polls entirely untested since the Conservatives moved ahead. YouGov, Populus and ICM all performed well in the European elections (ComRes less so). YouGov got the London mayoral election right (MORI didn’t, but reviewed their methods afterwards). The shift in the balance of support does not seem to have upset their methods so far.

Thirdly, the changes since 1992 are not reliant upon assumptions of which party is in the lead. The political weighting that is applied to most phone polls these days does reduce Labour over-representation, but this doesn’t seem to be a result of Labour’s popularity (or lack of it). The proportion of people saying they voted Labour in the last election used to be more than actually had done… and still is now Labour are trailing behind. Labour over-representation in samples seems to be something to do with lifestyle or attitude, not a result of political popularity.

The other change that sprang from 1992 is the “spiral of silence” adjustment – the reallocation of don’t knows by ICM and Populus to the party they say they supported at the last election. Originally this boosted the Conservatives, and I find a lot of people who assume it still does. In fact “shy Tories” are no more, and for more than five years it has tended to help Labour. Of course, it could be these “Bashful Brownites” behave differently to the “Shy Tories” of yesteryear… but they have already been tested in 2005 and the assumptions seemed to hold firm.

Of course, polls can get it wrong, as 1992 and 1970 will testify – and almost by definition it would likely come from somewhere unexpected. What if turnout rises, for example, or what if there is a high level of support for others – how would you factor in if they aren’t standing everywhere? There is not, however, any particular reason to expect problems this time round.

The SNP have released new figures from a YouGov poll. Constituency voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament stand at CON 14%(-4), LAB 32%(-1), LDEM 13%(+1), SNP 35%(+3). Sadly regional voting intentions were not asked, so it can’t be translated into a projected Scottish Parliament result. (Neither are there Westminster voting intention figures, but I’ve no idea if they were asked or not – sometimes the SNP release their figures over a couple of days).

59% of respondents disagreed that the SNP should be excluded from the televised leadership debates, with 31% agreeing. It suggests the Scottish public would like the SNP included in any debate, but of course if there was a debate being broadcase only in Scotland there probably wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place – the reason there is one is because it to be broadcast across nations with different party systems. My expectation is that the issue will end up being decided in the courts of law, rather than the court of public opinion.


There is also a new YouGov poll out tomorrow for the Sunday Times, which paints a somewhat different trend to that of ComRes. Topline figures are CON 40%, LAB 31%, LDEM 18%.

The previous YouGov poll was that huge 10,000 job for the Sun. The overall voting intention figures for that were CON 40%, LAB 30% – but because the Hoon-Hewitt plot broke right in the middle of the fieldwork it ended up being split into two polls, the first “pre-HH” part showed voting intentions of CON 40%, LAB 31%, LDEM 17%. The final “post-HH” part showed figures of CON 42%, LAB 30%, LDEM 16% – so from YouGov’s most recent measure of voting intention the Conservatives are down 2, Labour up 1 and the Lib Dems up 2.

The suggestion here, therefore, is that Labour’s leadership ructions caused a temporary shift towards the Conservatives while it was in the news, but now the news agenda has moved on it has done no real lasting damage. Of course, with ComRes showing an increased Conservative score we need to wait for more polling before we can be certain.

YouGov polls for the Sunday Times normally include questions on a broad range of issues. This one included some questions on the Iraq inquiry. 52% of respondents thought that Tony Blair has deliberately misled the country, with 32% thinking he “genuinely believed in the threat”. 23% of respondents thought that Blair should “face war crimes charges”.

ComRes have their first poll of 2010 in the Indy on Sunday tomorrow. The topline figures, with changes from ComRes’s previous poll just before Christmas, are CON 42%(+4), LAB 29%(nc), LDEM 19%(nc). Others are down to 10%, from 14%.

This represents yet another post Hoon-Hewitt poll showing an increased Conservative lead, but the fact that Labour have not fallen doesn’t really tally with Labour having suffered permanent damage from the fuss. Instead this poll suggests the Conservatives benefitting from the minor parties being squeezed. It is ComRes’s highest figure for the Conservatives since July, but it also equals their highest Labour figure since March – unlike most of the other pollsters ComRes never showed Labour getting back up to thirty at the end of last year.

On other questions, ComRes asked if people agreed with the statement “The Labour party has the right ideas about how to get Britain out of recession”. 33% agreed, pretty much identical to the proportion who agreed with the same statement about the Conservatives last month (34%) – however, 59% disagreed, compared to only 46% who disagreed when asked about the Tories in December.

Asked if they agreed or disagreed that “The Iraq inquiry is a waste of time”, people were evenly divided – 46% agreed, 46% disagreed.

It’s not confirmed if we have any more polls to come tonight or not – I’ll update when we know.

UPDATE: @vincentmoss twitters that there is indeed a YouGov/Sunday Times poll tonight and it’s going to show a 9 point lead.

There is at least one new poll tonight and there may well be others. As John Rentoul said in his post earlier today, while we had a few polls conducted immediately after the Hoon-Hewitt attempted coup (which mostly showed a small shift away from Labour), today’s poll or polls will be the first conducted after the dust has settled on that, and will give us the first indication of whether it did actually result in a genuine shift back towards the Conservatives or whether it was just a short term blip from bad publicity.