Polling Observatory #30: Good news for all the parties… except the Lib Dems

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This is the thirtieth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

As the dust settles after conference season the state of support for the parties as 2014 approaches appears to have crystallised a little. Despite the supposed conference bounces and bumps that media commentators identified following Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze pledge and David Cameron’s conference speech, when all the underlying noise has been accounted for there has only been a slight shift since the end of the summer (and – as we have noted before – vote intentions for the main parties had been stable for some time before this).

If there is a winner from conference season, it is Labour, who after making the political weather ever since putting energy prices top of the political agenda have seen their support increase to 38.3%, up one point from our last report at the time of their conference in mid-September. This marks a reversal of the recent trend of a decline in Labour support. Despite the fanfare around the Conservative Party conference and the Godfrey Bloom side show at the UKIP conference, support for both parties has been static in the last six weeks – with no sign of a lasting conference bounce. Support for the Conservatives stands at 31.8% (with no change since our report at the time of their conference in late September), and UKIP at 11.3% (unchanged). There is worse news for the Liberal Democrats who now stand at 7.4% (down 0.3 points since their conference) – close to the all-time low for this parliament. Despite efforts to put clear blue water between them and their coalition partners – such as on green taxes on energy and qualifications for teachers – they are still paying the price for their abandonment of key election pledges early in the parliament. It is increasingly significant that the UKIP vote has been consistently higher than the Lib Dems for six months now – suggesting that there has been a rebalancing of electoral support for the third and fourth parties.

In previous posts (here, here and here), we have sought to urge caution on the lazy anecdotal use of past precedent to predict the outcome of the general election due to be held in 2015. We are keen forecasters ourselves, and some of these important qualifications will also apply to statistical models that look to forecast the likely swing towards or against the governing and opposition parties as the election nears. It is not uncommon for the statistical relationships that underpin these forecasts are context-variant. In other words, the economy might be a critical factor in one election but not in the next. Or leader ratings might matter for some parties but not others. Or voters might move back towards the governing party late on for some election cycles, but not others. In short, aphorisms such as ‘it’s the economy stupid’ and ‘leaders matter’ are based on sound political science, but may not always hold and may lead forecasters to go badly astray when predicting the result. They also provide journalists and opponents a convenient stick to beat parties and their leaders with, when the foundations of electoral support are often more nuanced. There are several reasons why forecasts for 2015 might not stick to the expected script that the Westminster Village has been reciting so far.

Firstly, it is undeniable that both the Conservative and Labour parties have a much lower ‘ceiling’ than in past elections. The Conservatives last won over 40% of the vote in 1992 (and Labour in 2001), and have not looked likely to do so in 2015 so at any point in the current parliament. They would likely have to beat this figure to secure a majority. Yet the party still suffers from an image problem with large swathes of the electorate and has done little to widen its appeal while in office. This makes the prospect of a large final year swing towards the government improbable despite the historical trend for mid-term movement away from the government in the polls to return as Election Day nears. Labour’s prospective pool of support has also looked much lower than its time in opposition during the 1987-1992 and 1992-1997 election cycles, where its poll numbers exceeded 50%. It cannot count on protest votes against the coalition because of the presence of UKIP, and its traditional base is shrinking, and also vulnerable to the challenge from Nigel Farage’s party.

Secondly, it is over-simplistic to suggest that a growing economy will assure a Conservative victory. It would certainly make it more likely, given that many people will be better off as a result, but it still depends on who benefits from the economic recovery. Personal (‘pocketbook’) economic judgments have been shown to be a significant determinant of voting. Even then, parties that have overseen sustained periods of economic growth are not always rewarded by voters. This perhaps explains why the Labour Party have been keen to push the economic debate towards the question of living standards (and the cost of living) rather than focus on the Coalition’s record on reducing the deficit and the impacts of austerity cuts. While much of the public still blame Labour for the economic problems left after the financial crisis, they also are strongly of the opinion that the Coalition is handling the economy badly. This again points to the argument that the sort of pro-government swing experienced at past elections will have to be achieved against much stronger headwinds.

Thirdly, David Cameron has tended to enjoy a comfortable lead over Ed Miliband in survey questions both about the ‘preferred Prime Minister’ and leader approval or satisfaction. Cameron also receives much more positive evaluations on his performance from supporters of his own party. Miliband has not made an impact on substantial parts of the electorate. For some, this state of affairs might point towards a clear-cut advantage on the basis of the importance of party leaders for voters making up their mind late. However, these advantages are observed in a context where all of the party leaders in Westminster have had persistently negative net ratings for the past three years. Indeed, Cameron currently has lower approval ratings (38%) than the St-Remy brandy-swigging and crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford (44%) (no relation) [HT @JoeTwyman]. It is worth remembering that Cleggmania in 2010 stemmed from the public’s previous relative lack of exposure to Nick Clegg. If Ed Miliband is similarly able to put in a strong performance on the campaign trail and also during the election debates that surprises the expectations of voters, it may deliver a last-minute bounce and negate the recent trends.

In short, 2015 remains difficult to call, and it will be a challenge for any party to win a workable parliamentary majority.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

CfP: The Theory and Practice of Security Governance

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics and International Relations

I am pleased to announce that ‘The Theory and Practice of Security Governance’ has been accepted as one of the workshops for the EISA European Workshops in International Studies to take place in Izmir (Turkey) in May 2014. I would therefore like to invite interested colleagues and PhD students to submit their proposals here.

The primary purpose of this workshop is to reflect on, and advance the theory of security governance in International Studies. Both inductive and deductive approaches are welcome, as long as empirical analysis is complemented by substantial conceptual and/or theoretical discussion. In particular, the workshop will aim to address a range of important questions concerning security governance, which are embedded in three theoretical traditions:

  1. Constitutive (ontological) theory: How can we conceptualise security governance? How does security governance differ across various geographical regions, different security risks and different levels of analysis?
  2. Causal theory: How to explain the differentiation of security governance structures?
  3. Normative theory: To what extent are security governance structures legitimate and accountable? Should transnational and international security institutions be held to the same standards of legitimacy and accountability as states? Should we consider security governance structures as a priori more effective and desirable than traditional inter-governmental cooperation?

These three modes of theorising will help to (A) unpack the concept of security governance in International Studies; (B) advance our understanding of the dynamics associated with this concept; and (C) address the key moral dilemmas.

Possible topics of papers include, but are not limited to:

  • security governance in Europe and other regions, including formal organisations (e.g. the EU, NATO, OSCE, UN, OAS, ASEAN, AU) and informal structures;
  • the role of regional/global organisations in providing security governance both internally and externally;
  • the contribution of the IR theory, as well as other social sciences (e.g. sociology, psychology, economy) to our understanding of security governance;
  • the relationship between security governance, security community and international regimes;
  • the contribution of empirical cases to our understanding of the possible security governance attributes, including: multiple centres of authority; public and private actors, formal and informal structures, norms and values;
  • the dynamics at the intersection of various levels of analysis: sub-state (e.g. private security companies), states and international organisations;
  • the nature and role of inter-governmental and transnational policy networks.

Understanding Parliament

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By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

In the current edition of Politics Review, the magazine for A-level Government and Politics, I have written an article exploring the UK Parliament in terms of what it does and how effectively it does it. The piece covers a number of important areas, many of which we hear about all the time in the news, even if somewhat tangentially. For example, it examines parliament’s representative role, how it communicates voter opinions and preferences to government, and the extent to which MPs effectively represent the diversity of UK society. It also explores parliament’s scrutiny role as a major check on what government does and as a crucial site of political accountability, particularly noting the expanding role of select committees in this regard. The article concludes that parliament is not a perfect institution – and can never be perfect – but that there is much still to be done to make it work better as a political institution, particularly in terms of its representative credentials and its capacity as a forum for rigorous executive scrutiny. A great deal of political energy is expended inside political institutions such as parliaments and, as such, it just makes good sense for us always to reflect on how they can better serve the public.

Helping to Create the Open Data Barometer

By Mark Frank, PhD student in Politics & International Relations and WebSciences

Over the last couple of months I have been lucky enough to be involved with creating the first Open Data Barometer.  This is a project run by Tim Berners-Lee’s Worldwide Web Foundation to measure the progress that countries round the world have made in opening up data for reuse – and the results have just been announced. Although the Barometer includes progress on both government and non-government data,  government policy is at the heart of both sectors and the results are a reflection of government attitudes to and progress towards open data. Unlike other “barometers”, such as the Eurobarometer, which are based on surveys and interviews, the process for creating the open data barometer comprises using the internet to find the answers to a structured set of questions about each country. Questions range from considerations of general context (e.g. is there effective freedom of information legislation?) through impact (are there clear examples of open data improving government efficiency?) to specific types of data such as health, environment and transport.  Every answer has to be supported with publicly available evidence. You can see the text of the questions and the kind of evidence required here. The answers are then peer reviewed and normalised.

I conducted the research for the UK and the USA, which given my limited language skills was probably all I could manage. As it turns out the UK came top of the barometer and the USA was second. This probably made the job easier than for some other countries as it is easier to prove a positive – e.g. yes, there is open data on transport – than a negative. And the UK and the USA had a lot of positive answers. I don’t think this means I was a soft reviewer.  I am pretty sure most members of the open data community would have guessed these two countries would come top before the project began. It was quite a lot of work but could be done almost entirely at my desk using a browser.

I also found it to be an excellent way to improve my knowledge and understanding of the two countries. For example, I never realised that the USA had no general information privacy legislation equivalent to our Data Protection Act (it relies on a complex set of federal and state laws relating to specific sectors such as health). If the opportunity to do something like this comes up again I would jump at it.

As befits an open data project all of the data is available on the web and anyone is licensed to reuse it. So if it is relevant to your research then please help yourself. I think it is good information. The vast majority of questions were relevant and clear (inevitably there were a few that were less clear and or overlapped –  but compared to similar exercises I have done before it was good) and the feedback from the peer reviewers was both detailed and helpful. Remember that many of the questions are about transparency in general – so it might be relevant even if you are not specifically interested in open data.

Does young mean less political or involved? Lessons from Southampton Youth Debate Event

By Tudor Vilcan, Politics & International Relations

Contemporary discussions in academic research tend to quite often revolve around the issues of impact and dissemination. In disciplines like International Relations and Sociology especially, fierce debates about the relevance of the field vis-a-vis the larger (lay) audiences have been and still are quite commonplace. But is there an undeniable sense of mismatch between the rigours and expectations around academic research and the somewhat more straightforward frameworks of understanding perpetuated at the level of media or in the casual conversations of everyday life?

An event organized on Wednesday 16th of October by PhD students from across Social Sciences at University of Southampton in collaboration with the Outreach Office can be thought of as an attempt to bridge this apparent disconnect. What better way to engage the question than by inviting 100 young people in Year 9 across Southampton, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight to learn about doctoral research and take place in a ‘Question Time-style’ panel discussion with local politicians. Having arrived at the University early in the morning, the young people were split into groups and taken to different rooms to listen to parallel presentations by three PhD students about their own research. Following this, at midday, the participants attended an hour long interactive workshop which was designed to encourage them to come up with interesting questions for the panel discussion which took place afterwards. The panel discussion saw the young people asking the local politicians present, Rowenna Davies, Flick Drummond and the British Youth Council Vice Chair Solomon Curtis questions about the issues they found most important in their own communities.

The event was a resounding success and everyone involved rose to the occasion. The teachers that accompanied the young people were very pleased with the activities and the young people themselves seemed enjoy both the presentations and the more interactive parts of the day like the workshops and the panel discussion. Some of the PhD students involved were asked by the teachers to come and teach with them at their schools, and some of the teachers even expressed an interest in undertaking PhD research themselves. Rebecca Ridley (Education) and Emily Rainsford (PAIR), both PhD students here at the University of Southampton, bear the responsibility (and credit!) for the design, organization and success of the event.

Perhaps the lasting legacy of the event will stay with the young people involved. Being among the brightest students in their schools, it is highly like that most will take the path of higher education. Thanks to this event, they will have a very early idea of what research inside the academic world means and looks like. Thanks to the panel debate, too, they would have learned that they are never too young to think and care politically. From what I have seen during the my own workshop session with them, their age does not stand in the way of having strong, well-argued positions on almost any kind of issue.

During my presentation about climate change I sought to engage them in a discussion about what can be done regarding the environment. If I tried to stress one thing it was that arguably a lot of this will come down to them, the younger generation, and the way they think and act about the environment. In this sense, more initiatives of this sort might help expose them to the issues in which their interests are already embedded. Communicating research therefore, even for one of the least initiated of audiences, should not be about the ESRC’s obsession with impact, ticking a box in the never-ending quest for benchmarking. It should be about opening up, about bridging manufactured divides and engaging all individuals in society, young or old, in the quest for the betterment of the human condition, a quest that should already be implicit in the idea of academic research.   

Note: the event was kindly supported by the RDGC Public engagement and Outreach fund, the School of Education, Centre for Citizenship Globalisation and Governance, Division of Politics & International Relations and the ESRC Doctoral Training Centre. 

The Scottish Independence Referendum and ‘Positive Politics’

By Dr Alexandra Kelso, Senior Lecturer in Politics

We hear a lot about how the negative tone in which political debate is conducted has contributed to a declining willingness amongst people to get involved. Whether that’s true or not, the current political debate on the Scottish Independence Referendum due to take place in September 2014 claims to offer an antidote to those who are drained by relentless negativity.

Politicians are currently falling over themselves to prove that they are approaching the questions surrounding Scottish independence with a positive outlook. Both those for and against independence insist that the only way to win their case is to demonstrate the positive aspects of their claims, rather than focus on the flaws in their opponents’ arguments. This week’s evidence session held by the House of Commons Scottish Affairs Committee provides a nice insight into this.

As part of it’s long-term inquiry into the independence referendum, the Committee heard from the coalition government’s tag-team of Danny Alexander (Chief Secretary to the Treasury) and Alistair Carmichael (Secretary of State for Scotland), who were there to discuss a recent report on the case for independence published by the government’s somewhat sinisterly named Scotland Analysis Unit. ‘This programme is setting out the positive case for the continuation of the United Kingdom, despite what others may claim to the contrary,’ Mr Carmichael explained. While the UK government seeks to present a wealth of evidence that supports is defence of the UK, Mr Carmichael told the Committee that this stands in contrast to the practice of the Scottish Government, which he accuses of ‘saying one thing in public and another thing in private.’ The theme was continued by Danny Alexander, who explained that the new report from the Scotland Analysis Unit was significant ‘because the central argument it makes is an extremely positive one … Scotland is a highly successful small country because it is part of the United Kingdom.’

These snapshots of committee evidence are emblematic of the broader thrust of the referendum debate. The participants on both sides, but particularly on the unionist-side, have been extremely eager not ‘go negative’ for fear this will fuel their opponent’s cause. Naturally, these assurances from participants about remaining positive are part of a bigger rhetorical toolkit and, as we see in the extracts above, often come hand-in-hand with critiques of opposing claims.

Those in favour of preserving the UK are fearful of appearing to make the patronizing claim that Scotland ‘could not go it alone’. Those in favour of independence are reluctant to paint too much of an us-and-them portrait of the United Kingdom given the sizeable English population that resides in Scotland. This week’s grueling debacle over the appalling threat by the owners of the Grangemouth petrochemical plant to close the facility if workers don’t accept seriously compromised pay and conditions may yet shift the emphasis of debate away from the so-called positives of union and independence, into more meaningful terrain about how Scottish political actors actually deal with serious political and economic problems.

The Place of Populism

By Dr John Boswell, Politics & International Relations

I think one of the frustrating things for me is that everyone’s got their own opinion on [obesity]. Everyone thinks they’re an expert because they’ve got a mouth. (Interview with Australian clinician, June 2011).

I um-ed and ah-ed for a long time over what to do with this particular quote, garnered during research on the policy debate around the ‘obesity epidemics’ in Australia and the UK. Out of context, it sounds terribly elitist. In context, however, it was much more understandable—it reflected his frustration at what he saw as the uneducated and reactionary nature of the debate. He, along with many of my other expert interview participants, expressed deep concern that his richly informed understanding of the complexities surrounding this public health issue was swamped by a ‘toxic’, populist account of obesity as a personal (or parental) failing which Nanny State should have nothing to do with. This populist view is one that typically invokes an acerbic, aggressive tone, ridiculing obese individuals and attacking the expert and activist ‘do-gooders’ who promote public policies on their behalf. For this clinician, and for most of my other interview participants, such ‘fat hatred’ was as egregious as racism or religious persecution, constituting the ‘one of the last bastions of discrimination’ in society.

Yet, though the populist view he described is one that is prominent (though not dominant) in the media in both countries, and one that is voiced occasionally by prominent actors in elite or empowered sites of policy debate in the UK, in Australia, the debate to which the clinician was referring, it has actually become taboo among elite actors. According to my research of Hansard, newspaper articles and other publicly available documents, not one politician, expert or stakeholder has invoked this perspective in the period since 2007. When confronted with my counter assertion—that the populist, anti-Nanny State narrative was far from dominant and was actually excluded by an unspoken cordon sanitaire from elite sites of deliberation—the clinician responded with an element of surprise, before concluding that (if correct) this development should be treated a sign of significant progress in the debate.

But is it? Just because he and his fellow experts (and me for that matter) don’t like the populist view, does that mean it should be excluded from elite sites of deliberation? Do we need to ‘defend democracy’ from such dangers, placing a cordon sanitaire around elite debate? This is an important question, relevant not just to obesity of course, but to a whole raft of political debates which feature reactionary, populist accounts: immigration and race, religion, indigenous rights, climate change and so on. It is also a question not just of philosophical interest, but one which speaks to who contemporary institutions of governance include and how they operate.

Drawing on new ideas in deliberative democratic theory—now the dominant normative account of what democratic politics should entail—I argue in my paper for the  Southampton-Stockholm workshop that the slightly broader representation of this view in the UK is preferable to the unspoken cordon sanitaire in place in Australia. I argue that populist views like those on obesity generally require broader incorporation in elite and empowered sites of debate. There are three primary reasons for coming to this conclusion.

First, incorporating populist views like those on obesity, grounded as they are in ‘common sense’ and ‘old fashioned values’, forces the experts like the clinician quoted at the start of this post to engage with this sort of folk logic rather than dismiss it. After all, decisions on political problems like obesity are not just technical. In the UK case, instances of dialogue between the technical and the populist can be seen to moderate and adapt the claims of both.

Second, active inclusion of populist adherents can encourage them to couch their claims in much more respectful terms. In the UK, where elite representation of the populist view took place, it tended to involve far milder language and to steer clear of vilifying the obese. Whether motivated by the relative absence of publicity, or by the more formal and dignified norms associated with elite sites of debate, the very act of inclusion had a de-radicalising effect.

Third and perhaps most important, exclusion of populist views from elite debate can harm the perceived legitimacy of the process, and thus limit the democratic imagination.  I found that elite actors in the Australian context, like the clinician heading the post, displayed a paranoia about the influence of populist anti-Nanny State sentiment—paranoia that led them to exclude it from elite sites of debate but which also conditioned and limited their advocacy for fear of a populist backlash.

I want to be clear that I am not claiming on this basis that all views—no matter how toxic—ought to be aired in all the institutions of public discussion. What I am saying, though, is that by and large more legitimate democratic processes will generally result from the recognition, rather than resentment, of the fact that ‘everyone has a mouth’.