Tonight’s YouGov poll for the Sun has topline figures of CON 32%, LAB 34%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 15%, GRN 7%. All looks normal by YouGov’s recent standards (the two polls showing UKIP up at 17% and 18% that we saw immediately after the attacks in Paris seem to have gone away again – perhaps it was a Paris effect, perhaps it was just a random blip).

A word about the debates and polling on them. If the debates go ahead, they obviously have the potential to have a big impact upon public opinion and the election result – we saw that in 2010 and the boost they gave the Liberal Democrats. Think in particular of the potential impact for Nigel Farage or (if she ends up being included) Natalie Bennett – it’s the challenger candidates they are a real opportunity for. If the debates end up going ahead, but without David Cameron, that will probably have an impact too. It would really highlight his non-participation.

I’d be more wary of whether there will actually be much impact if they end up NOT going ahead, if it ends with them not happening. We’ve seen several polls on how people think it’s bad that David Cameron might not take part and so on… but regular readers will be very familiar with the flow of polls showing that people don’t like David Cameron doing this and don’t like Ed Miliband doing that which make not an iota of difference to voting intention or to people’s attitudes towards the leaders. Most Westminster stories make no appreciable difference to anything in terms of public opinion. A lot of the time, most people probably don’t even notice the story – they give an opinion because we pollsters have prodded them with a question, it doesn’t mean they care.

In this case, I think people are at least aware of what’s happening, it’s not a pure Westminster bubble story. Without giving any information about what stance the leaders had taken YouGov asked a question on Sunday on whether people thought each leader did or did not want a debate. Obviously lots of people said don’t know, but on balance people thought Miliband, Clegg and Farage did want a debate, and by 51% to 22% people thought Cameron was trying to avoid one. So, it has got through to the public.

Whether it makes any difference to their opinions of David Cameron is a different matter though. The measure to look for here – if it happens – won’t be the sort of questions saying “Does blocking the debates make Cameron look bad?”, “Is Cameron a coward?” and so on. You’ll get people cynical about politicians or hostile to David Cameron saying yes anyway. It will be whether David Cameron’s actual ratings go down – does not taking part in a debate damage his lead on being Prime Ministerial? Does it make his approval ratings worse and make him look less of a leader? Does it make his (already bad) ratings on being out of touch worse? Does it damage the Conservative party’s voting intention at all? Those are the things that count and the things to watch, if they don’t go down then, frankly, the bullet will have been dodged.

ComRes had a poll yesterday which got some attention because it showed the NHS as the issue people thought was most important facing the country, up eleven points since they last asked. This followed a YouGov poll last week which showed the NHS in third place in the list of salient issues, but also increasing by 13 percentage points since December, putting it 6 points behind the economy and immigration.

These look like contrasting findings (first place and third place) but they really aren’t – both show big increases in the salience of the NHS and similar proportions of people picked out the NHS as a major issue (50% in ComRes, 46% in YouGov). There is a significant difference in the proportion of people picking the economy in the two polls, but that’s because of the way the question is asked: YouGov offer a single option for the economy in general (picked by 52%), ComRes offer three or four different economicy sort of options that responses were split between (promoting growth (20%), distributing benefits of growth (20%), reducing the deficit (19%), keeping down costs (25%)).

This highlights one of the challenges of asking “important issues” questions like this – they are really influenced by the options you offer. The other regular important issues tracker by Ipsos MORI doesn’t suffer from this problem as it is asked face-to-face and completely open ended – people are asked to say what issues they think are important in their own words… but Ipsos MORI still have to decide how to code them up. In December MORI found the most important issues were immigration (42%), economy (33%), NHS (33%). We haven’t had their January figures yet and if they pick up the same trend as YouGov and ComRes we should expect to see a big jump for the NHS, but it’s up there in the top three already anyway.

Exactly which issue comes “top” isn’t really that important anyway unless you are a headline writer. It’s not like an election, there is no prize that is won by being considered important by one more person than the next issue, and which issue comes “top” in a poll is largely determined by how pollsters divide up the options or categorise people’s responses. The point is that immigration and the economy have been considered important issues by very large proportions of the British public for a couple of years and, for now at least (for the ComRes and YouGov polls were taken in the immediate aftermath of some very negative headlines about the NHS), the NHS has become an issue of comparable importance.

On that issue, we should have a big lovely lump of Ashcroft polling on the NHS out tomorrow.


Tony Twyman, who died last year, was the man behind much of the mechanics of TV and radio viewing figures, most notably as technical advisor for BARB viewing figures. In broader market research he is more widely known for coining Twyman’s Law – “Any figure that looks interesting or different is usually wrong”. The point is, of course, that strange and unusual things in a single poll are more likely the result of sample variation or error than some amazing shift in public opinion, and you should be cautious of them before getting excited (My colleague Joe Twyman likes quoting it without attribution in the hope people will jump to conclusions… not so fast!).

Anyway, today we have a classic case. Two polls that look interesting when compared to recent averages, but which are both probably no more than the result of normal sample error.

Today’s twice weekly Populus poll had figures of CON 32%, LAB 37%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 13%, GRN 4% (tabs). The five point Labour lead is the biggest Populus have shown since November, their 37% share the largest any company have shown since November. Labour resurgence?

Lord Ashcroft’s weekly poll however had figures of CON 34%, LAB 28%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 16%, GRN 8% (tabs.) A six point Conservative lead, by far the best poll for the Tories from any company for several years (the largest Tory leads up to now were the last two MORI polls, which had them three points up). Tory surge?

Of course the actual answer is that there is probably neither a Labour nor a Tory surge, that both of these changes are probably just down to sample error and that people should watch the overall trend across multiple polls, not get overexcited about individual polls. If the figures in one poll look strange or unusual, it’s probably wrong.

In some ways it’s quite nice they come on the same day, as it should stop people getting too excited over an outlier in just one direction. On the other hand, it does tend to produce lots of confused comments about how polls can be accurate when they are showing both a five point Labour lead and a six point Tory lead. Bottom line for those who are confused, part of it is down to pollsters using slightly different methods (in this case, the way Populus weight their polls tends to produce a bigger share of the vote for the main two paries than does Ashcroft). A bigger chunk will be simple margin of error – polls are not precision instruments and no one who understands them would claim they are. They are randomish samples of about 1000 or so people. The quoted margins of error are about plus or minus 3% (though given response rates, weighting effects and that polls are not pure random samples, that’s a bit of a polite fiction). That means if the real position was Labour and Conservative tied on 33%, you would expect to see the Conservatives ranging from 30% to 36% and Labour from 30% to 36%, and while the results would tend to be clustered around the middle of that range, random variation could reasonably vary between a 6 point Tory lead and a 6 point Labour lead. Taken alone and in isolation, it does mean an individual voting intention poll isn’t that useful… which is why you shouldn’t look at them alone and in isolation – watch the trend.

This week’s YouGov/Sunday Times poll is out here. Topline figures are CON 32%, LAB 32%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 18%, GRN 6%. YouGov’s average for UKIP this week has been running at only been 14%, so the 18% here looks unusually high – it could be an effect of the the events in Paris, or could just be a random blip.

Part of the rest of the poll addressed the attack on Charlie Hebdo – of course, these figures need to be seen in that context and people’s opinions may very be different in circumstances that are not so emotionally charged (it’s an issue I’ve sometimes commented on about polling about the death penalty – people only commission polls on the death penalty when there is a particularly heinous murder in the news, so polls are always influenced by a particular event).

Looking at the polling, a strong majority of people think the press should be free to criticise, mock and ridicule religion, but even in the current context a sizeable minority disagree. Around a quarter of people think the media should not be allowed to mock or ridicule religious beliefs or figures, 18% think the media should not even be allowed to criticise or question religion. More specifically, 69% of people think it was acceptable for Charlie Hebdo to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, 14% unacceptable. In the aftermath of the attack, 63% think that other newspapers should have reprinted the cartoons, 71% that the media in general have an obligation to show controversial items that might offend people if they are newsworthy.

Moving back onto party politics, YouGov asked about the two issues that dominated the first few days of campaigning last week – the economy and the NHS – along with expectations and preferences for the result.

A majority of people (58%) think that the pledges and promises that Labour have made mean they would end up having to increase taxes on people like them. However, people feel almost the same about the pledges and promises made by the Conservative party – 51% think they would end up having to increase taxes for people like them. Overall 37% think George Osborne has been a good Chancellor, 44% a bad one – a net rating of minus 7. This actually compares relatively well to people’s recollections of past Chancellors – Alistair Darling scores minus 19, Gordon Brown minus 18, Ken Clarke minus 8 and minus 19 for Norman Lamont.

Labour maintain their normal lead on the party most trusted to deliver NHS services – 31% would trust a Labour government under Ed Miliband more, 22% a Conservative government under David Cameron (there was a ComRes poll late last year that showed David Cameron more trusted than Ed Miliband on the NHS, which caused some comment. I think that’s probably just a salutory lesson of not paying too much attention to single polls with unusual results – the overwhelming majority of polls on the NHS show Labour are more trusted on it even if you do mention David Cameron and Ed Miliband in the question.

Asked about their own experience of GP services, 15% say their local GP service has got better, 34% worse, 40% that is has stayed about the same. 49% of people say they are normally able to get an appointment when they need one, 36% that they are often unable to. 8% say they have had to go to A&E when they were unable to get a GP appointment. Long waits at Accident & Emergency are mostly blamed on people turning up with minor ailments, rather than funding shortages from this or the previous government. 54% blame people turning up with minor problems, 29% blame immigration and health tourism, 28% not enough social care and 27% lack of GP out of hours service.

Looking towards the next election people are split down on the middle on their preferences – 38% would prefer the Conservatives to have the most seats, 38% for Labour to have the most seats. 52% would like one of the parties to win an overall majority, 24% would prefer a hung Parliament. Asked what they think the result will actually be, 59% expect a hung Parliament, only 18% expect a majority government. The Conservatives are seen as slightly more likely than Labour to be the largest party, 42% to 35%. Asked a more detailed question about coalition preferences, Tory voters would prefer another deal with the Lib Dems to one with UKIP (48% to 37%). Labour voters would prefer a Lib Dem deal to one with the SNP or UKIP (42% Lib Dem, 29% SNP, 12% UKIP).

In the first week back there have been seven polls. The regular weekly Ashcroft poll hasn’t fired up yet, and none of the phone pollsters did fieldwork over the first weekend of the year, but the daily YouGov and twice-weekly Populus polls are off:

Opinium/Observer (2/1/15) – CON 32%, LAB 33%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 17%, GRN 4%
Populus (4/1/15) – CON 34%, LAB 35%, LDEM 9%, UKIP 12%, GRN 5%
YouGov/Sun (5/1/15) – CON 31%, LAB 34%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 14%, GRN 8%
YouGov/Sun (6/1/15) – CON 33%, LAB 33%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 13%, GRN 8%
YouGov/Sun (7/1/15) – CON 32%, LAB 33%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 15%, GRN 7%
YouGov/Sun (8/1/15) – CON 33%, LAB 33%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 13%, GRN 7%
Populus (8/1/15) – CON 33%, LAB 34%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 14%, GRN 6%

All the polls so far are showing a tight race, with the Labour party averaging a very small lead – the current UKPollingReport average has CON 33%, LAB 34%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 14%, GRN 6%. YouGov started the year by changing their methodology to include UKIP in the main prompt, but it doesn’t appear to have had any impact on their level of support (if anything they are marginally down – last month YouGov had them averaging at 15%).

Start of the Campaign

The political parties started the campaign, the Conservatives largely on the economy and spending, Labour on the NHS. In terms of believability at least Labour’s claims went down better – by 48% to 32% people thought the claim that the NHS could not survive five more years of David Cameron was true, and by 42% to 27% that the claim the Tories wanted to cut spending back to 1930s levels was true. For the Conservatives, by 33% to 22% people believed that Labour had made £20 bn of unfunded spending commitments, but their claim that they had reduced the deficit by half was disbelieved by 49% to 24%.

Those, of course, are responses when respondents are prodded and forced to consider some party political claims and have an opinion. Whether anyone actually noticed or cared and whether anything made any difference is a different matter. I doubt we will see much change in the positions at the start of the week when the Conservatives led Labour on the economy by 15 percentage points, and Labour led the Conservatives by 12 points on the NHS, little different from other issue polls over recent months. Where there has been a significant change in the salience of issues. Presumably on the back of headlines about A&E waiting times and crisis in the NHS the proportion of people saying that health is one of the main issues facing the country has risen to 46%, in third place behind the economy and immigration and up 13 points since December. If health remains high on the agenda it will be good for Labour.

OfCom major parties

As I wrote about yesterday, Ofcom released their draft guidance on which parties should be treated as major parties in terms of election coverage. It’s open for consultation so may yet change, but as things stand UKIP will be treated as a major party (meaning broadcasters will have to give due weight to reporting them in editorial coverage), the Green party will not.


Latest projections from Election Forecast (Chris Henretty et al’s project), Election Etc (Steve Fisher’s project) and the New Statesman’s May2015 site are below. All are predicting a hung Parliament, all with Labour and Conservative within 10 seats of each other. Note that Steve Fisher’s method doesn’t have anyway of factoring in the SNP yet, so will change very soon. I think we should also be getting a regular seat projection from the Polling Observatory team in the next week or two.

Election Forecast – Hung Parliament, CON 284, LAB 281, LD 26, SNP 34, UKIP 3
Elections Etc – Hung Parliament, CON 294, LAB 297, LD 29, OTH 30
May 2015 – Hung Parliament, CON 273, LAB 281, LD 24, SNP 46, UKIP 3