When YouGov gave Labour an eleven point lead in the week I think most people were somewhat sceptical, and rightly so – it was a snap poll with less than the normal sample size conducted in a hurry straight after Gordon Brown’s conference speech. A new YouGov poll in Saturday’s Telegraph however confirms the change and is backed up by a Populus poll showing a ten point lead.

The topline voting intention figures from YouGov, with changes from the mid week poll, are CON 32%(-1), LAB 43%(-1), LDEM 15%(+2). Compared to the last full YouGov poll from before the Labour party (probably a more sound comparison, given that the last poll was just a snapshot poll with less than the usual sample size) the changes are CON minus 1, Labour up 4 and the Liberal Democrats minus 1. The poll was conducted between Wednesday and Friday.

Populus’s poll has headline figures of CON 31%(-5), LAB 41%(+4), LDEM 17%(-1). Until now Populus had been showing slightly higher figures for the Conservatives than other pollsters, putting them in the mid thirties while everyone else had them down in the low thirties – this brings them into line with the sort of figures other companies have been showing.

Of course these polls are still likely to be showing a short term boost from Gordon Brown’s speech and the publicity given to it, but we can at least be confident now that it’s a real change, not just the random vagueries of a small poll conducted in a hurry.

A double point lead for Labour must make the pressure for an early poll almost irresistable for Gordon Brown – supposedly he is making the decision this weekend – and no doubt there will be more polls during the weekend for him to ponder over, at the very least a new Ipsos-MORI poll is due on Sunday.

While the polling evidence is strongly in Labour’s favour, the evidence in the other direction is from the local council by-election results mid-week which were very positive for the Conservatives, especially in marginal seats like Corby and Dover. How do we square opinion poll results showing a huge Labour lead with local council by-elections showing swings to the Conservatives?

Some people swear by local by-election results as a way of predicting elections, I have always been rather dismissive of them. They are on a much lower turnout, they are often skewed by particular local factors (a big Labour victory in Worcester a week ago was probably partially due to the revelation that the Tory candidate wrote ran a website devoted to erotic fiction, I’d warrant some of these by-elections had there own local causes too!), people vote differently at local elections to national elections (if nothing else, there is a tendency for the Lib Dems to do better and Labour worse) and to a large extent they are probably decided by local campaigning strength and ability, rather than the bigger national picture. Added to that there aren’t actually very many of them and the picture you get from week to week varies according to where happens to have had a by-election.

If, for the sake of argument, they are a pointer, then why the difference? Perhaps it is a sign that the Conservatives are indeed doing better in marginals, and the huge Labour leads in the polls are because of core Labour voters in the inner cities being enthused. Perhaps it is because the swing to Labour is largely amongst people who probably will not, in the event, vote. I’m sticking with the explanation that they actually just aren’t a very good predictor.

I don’t see any reason to think that the polls aren’t an accurate reflection of current public opinion. If you are a Conservative supporter, then I wouldn’t advise you to take succour from local by-election results. The only comfort I can offer is that these figures are from polls conducted immediately after the publicity boost of Labour conference, if the Conservatives have a good conference then may yet see their own boost in the polls.

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