There is a new Panelbase Scottish poll for NewsNet Scotland out today, with topline figures of YES 40%, NO 45%, don’t know 15%. Leaving aside that one poll with leading questions, the five point lead for No is the smallest we’ve seen since way back in February 2012. As ever don’t get too excited about any single poll, it’s the trend that counts, but there does appear to be a slight trend towards YES. John Curtice has his say upon it here.

Polls so far are here. Different Scottish polls from different companies tend to produce slightly different figures, especially in terms of don’t know. For trends it’s probably best to repercentage to exclude don’t knows, and one should certainly only compare polls from the same company:

Taking them one at a time, ICM had YES on 40% last September, then 46% in January, then 43% in February – YES appear up on September, but recent trends are unclear.

Ipsos MORI we had YES on 34% last September, 37% in December, 36% in February. Again YES appear up on September, but the recent trends are unclear

Survation we had YES on 38% in January, and then on 45% in February and March… but there was a significant methodology change between January and February, so don’t read too much into that shift.

TNS-BMRB we have what looks like a trend. YES was on 36% in October, 38% in November, 40% in December and January, 41% in February.

YouGov appears to show a similar steady but slow trend – 38% in September, 39% in December and January, 40% in February.

Panelbase have consistently shown better scores for YES than other companies, but until today have not really shown a clear trend: 44% in September, 45% in October and November, 43% and 44% in February. Repercentaged to exclude don’t knows today’s YES figure would be 47%… so higher, but not something that couldn’t be normal margin of error.

Putting it all together whatever trend is present is only small, so in individual poll series it is difficult to distinguish it from normal sample variation. Looking across the board though, the direction of travel in recent months does appear to slightly be towards YES.

We are unlikely to get any proper polling on the budget until tomorrow night, so in the meantime here is some new YouGov polling on the European elections that was published in this morning’s Times. Topline voting intentions for Europe are CON 24%, LAB 32%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 23%, GRN 5%. Labour retain their lead for the European elections, the Conservatives and UKIP are still in a tight race for second place… but with UKIP in a narrow third place.

If we look at just those people who say they are certain to vote then it is better for UKIP, as their supporters are the most likely to say they’d turn out. Taking just those who say they are 10/10 certain puts UKIP up to second place and 26%, ahead of the Tories on 22% and behind Labour on 34%.

How the European elections play out will be very much a game of expectation management. In the event UKIP did get 23% it would be a very strong performance and a solid increase on their 2009 score… but coming third would in practice probably be seen as a huge disappointment when there was talk of a victory. As it happens I still think there is a fair chance of them winning – they will get a lot more publicity in the two months running up to the campaign (especially given that OfCom has ruled they they should be treated as a major party in England and Wales and given equal coverage to the other major parties), and I’d expect their support in European election polls to climb in the coming weeks – also this is just one poll, and others have shown them doing better. As ever, time will tell. Full tabs are here, European election polls so far are here.


Budget 2014

Tomorrow we have the 2014 budget. There have been a few pre-budget polls, but they don’t really show us much we didn’t already know: the public are increasingly optimistic about the state of the economy as a whole, but remain pessimistic about their own personal finances (though less pessimistic than a year ago). The Conservatives have a lead on the economy that has grown as the economy has started to recover, but Labour retain a lead on cost of living issues.

The graph below shows the impact of past budgets on voting intention polls. Up until 2009 they are the government’s lead in the two YouGov polls before and after each budget, after 2010 and the advent of daily polling they are the average government lead in the daily polls in the two weeks before and after the budget.

Unlike most political events, budgets do actually have some cut through to the general public and do have the potential to change voting intention. You can see at least three budgets in the last decade that appear to have had a genuine effect on voting intention. In 2008 and 2009 Alistair Darling had to deliver grim news about the state of the economy and Labour’s poll position suffered, in 2012 was the “omnishambles” budget, with the granny tax, pasty tax and the 45p tax rate. All three of those were negative effects, it’s far rarer for a budget to have a positive effect (the apparent positive impact in 2003 was more likely the effect of the Iraq invasion).

The media often talk about budgets being an opportunity for fancy giveaways, a vote winning opportunity. The past data suggests that’s rarely the case. More generally they seem to be bullets to be dodged. In theory I’m sure it’s possible for a government to win support from a good news budget with popular policies, but in practice the general theme seems to be that a successful budget is one the government gets through without damaging their support.

Over the next few days we’ll get lots of polling on the budget. As ever, treat it with some caution. One point to note is that budgets are often more or less than the sum of their parts: you can get budgets where the public support all the little changes and announcements made, but it still goes down badly overall (and vice-versa). The things to really watch are whether there is any change to people’s economic optimism, to how well they think the government are doing on the economy, to which party people trust more on the economy and living standards, things like that… and, of course, voting intention itself.

Over on the right hand side of this site is a projection of how the current polls would translate into seats at a general election tomorrow, if there was a uniform swing. On twitter and suchlike I sometimes see if referred to as UKPR’s current prediction, but I’m afraid it isn’t. Polls don’t predict the next election, they measure support now, so the polling average here isn’t my best guess for the shares of the vote at the next election, it’s a measure of support in an election tomorrow. Of course, there isn’t an election tomorrow, and if there was, the polls probably wouldn’t be as they are – if there really was an election tomorrow then the last three weeks would have been full of manifestos, policy announces, campaigns and debates which may or may not have had some impact.

It’s also worth noting that while uniform national swing is not a bad guide by any means, it can certainly be bettered. To start with it’s definitely worth dealing with Scotland seperately based on Scottish polling figures, it might also be useful to include some assumptions about incumbency effects in seats with new MPs, and some degree of random variation at the margins.

I deliberately don’t make predictions this far out, given the huge amounts of unknowns. I tend to find most people who do predict this far out with any degree of confidence are – probably unconsciously – merely predicting what they would like to be the case. It’s rare to find someone confidently predicting a Labour victory who wouldn’t like a Labour victory (or who has an ideological axe to grind against the Tory leadership), or vice-versa on the Conservative side. Given the prominence of Nate Silver and other election prediction sites at the last US election I would expect a plethora of more academic and sensible election prediction models come the actual election (hell, I know for certain of several groups of academics working on various models), but so far virtually the only prediction I have seen that moves beyond wish-fulfillment to actually come up with a poll-based model is the attempt by Steve Fisher at Oxford here, with an explanation of the model here.

Steve’s model is a simple one – it is purely based upon voting intention polls and how they have tended to relate to the election result that follows*. We cannot assume that the polls will remain unchanged in the run up to the next election, given that in past Parliaments they have tended to change. Past change has not been a random walk, with equal likelihood of government’s gaining or losing in the polls – this is the key to Steve’s model. In the past the polls have rended to regress towards the result of the previous election (usually in the form of the government recovering). What Steve has done therefore is to take the current polls, and then factor in the sort of size and scale of changes that have typically happened to the polls over the last years of previous Parliaments, then based a prediction on that. At past elections this would have proven to be a more accurate predictor than just taking the current polls. That is not to say that that it is a particularly accurate prediction, only that in the past it would have been more accurate than assuming no change.

On that basis, if the polls over the next year behave like the polls in the last year of previous Parliaments the most likely result come the general election is a Conservative lead of 5 points over Labour, which would produce a hung Parliament with the Conservatives the largest party. The most important word in that sentence is probably the “if”, and perhaps the most important thing to note in Steve’s projection are the large prediction intervals around it. Steve’s model predicts the Conservative vote will be 37%, plus or minus 8.5 (so between 29% and 46%), the Labour vote at 32%, plus or minus 6.4 (so between 26 and 39). These are huge gaps. Of course, results towards the centre of those ranges are still considered more likely, but it underlines the imprecision of the projection, and the limitations on using current polling data to predict a general election a year away. Polls a year out from the election are not a very good prediction of the election. It would be wrong to say that anything could happen (Steve’s model, for example, suggests it is unlikely that Labour would get over 40, or that the Conservatives would fall below 29), but certainly a lot of different outcomes could happen.

It also reflects the sheer variety of elections. One criticism I’ve seen of Steve’s model is that this election will be different because of the coalition, the UKIP factor and the realignment of the Lib Dem vote. That may very well be true, but we could say the same about other elections – 1964 had two late changes of leader, 1966 wasn’t a whole term, 1974 was different because the Liberals started contesting all seats, 1979 was different because of the Lib-Lab pact, or the winter of discontent, 1983 was different because of the Falklands and the SDP split, 1992 was different because of Thatcher’s removal, 1997 was different because of the sheer scale of the landslide. 2001 was different because Labour never really had any mid-term blues to come back from. The infrequency of elections means that almost by definition each one has things that make it unique and different – yet Steve’s out-of-sample predictions shows the model would been a better tool at predicting those past elections from 20, 12 or 6 months out than just looking at what the polls 20, 12 or 6 months out were saying (it also underlines the difficulty for political scientists in coming up with any decent models at all – you only get 16 data points and they are all weird).

That doesn’t mean it would have been a particularly good prediction at those past points, just that it was better than the alternative of just looking at the polls 20, 12 or 6 months out. The polls now are a snapshot of public support now, they are not a prediction of what will happen in May 2015. If polls move in the sort of way they have in the run up to past elections we can expect the Conservatives to significantly recover. If they don’t, then they won’t, simple as that. Polls do not move by magic, drawn towards past election results by some invisible force. If they narrow, it will be because of the economy, because of changing attitudes to the parties, because, perhaps, of different factors weighing upon people’s political choices as an election becomes more imminent… that, however, is a post for another day.

(*I should also add that this is NOT Steve’s personal prediction of the election – it’s an attempt to see to what degree you can predict election results months in advance using just national poll data. I expect if Steve was making a personal prediction he probably would ponder what the impact of the economy, the party situation etc would be, but that would be a very different and more subjective model.)

The weekly YouGov/Sunday Times results are up here.Topline figures are CON 33%, LAB 40%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 12%.

Almost half (49%) of the country now think the economy is showing signs of recovery (38%) or is on the way to full recovery (11%), up from 43% in December. The public remain more pessimistic about their own personal finances, with only 16% expecting them to improve over the next twelve months, 36% expecting them to get worse. This has been the defining feature of polling on the economy over the last year – public optimism on the state of the economy as a whole has been gradually rising, but it’s yet to translate into optimism about their own personal finances.

38% of people give the government some credit for this economic improvement, thinking their policies made the changes necessary for recovery, 24% think their policies didn’t actually make much difference either way, 28% think their policies actually prolonged the recession and made things worse. A substantial proportion also think that things would be worse if Labour were in power – if Labour had won the last election 39% think the economy would be worse, 19% better, 29% much the same.

Looking at potential measures for the budget, increasing the personal tax allowance is overwhelmingly approved of (by 83%). Extra taxes on the rich also meet with majority approval – a mansion tax would be approved of by 61%, putting the top rate of tax back up to 50p gets 58% approval (and cutting it to 40p would be opposed by 64%). Increasing the threshold of the 40p tax rate gets the approval of 55% of people. That’s a policy that could potentially have gone either way (tax cuts that target the poorest or ordinary people are almost always popular, tax cuts for the richest are usually unpopular) so the approval suggests it is something that kicks in far enough down the economic tree to avoid public hostility… but we shall see if it happens.