The Polling Observatory Forecast #3: Slow decline in Conservative prospects, but still too close to call

As explained in our inaugural election forecast, up until May next year the Polling Observatory team will be producing a long term forecast for the 2015 General Election, using methods we first applied ahead of the 2010 election (and which are also well-established in the United States). Our method involves trying to make the best use of past polling evidence as a guide to forecast the likeliest support levels for each party in next May’s election, based on current polling, and then using these support levels to estimate the parties’ chances of winning each seat in the Parliament. We will later add a seat-based element to this forecast.

Forecast 30-06-14 cropped

This month’s Polling Observatory saw a slight rebound in support for Labour, despite the sustained, now rather tedious, debate over Ed Miliband’s leadership credentials. Our forecast, which builds on the historical polling record alone to project forwards to next year’s general election, again puts Labour and the Conservatives in a statistical dead heat, although Labour has edged up to 36.2% and the Conservatives have fallen back slightly to 35.5%. This Labour lead of 0.7% is far too small to be statistically meaningful at this stage, with polls still providing a very uncertain guide to the outcome. This movement reflects the fact that Labour are holding their support, where the historical record suggests we should be expecting declines at this point. In contrast, the forecast for the Conservatives is on a downward slope, indicating that they are not making the gains that history would typically expect. Our colleague Steven Fisher has found similar trends in his model, which also builds on historical polling data. If the current poll lead continues into the autumn, the Conservatives may well need to start worrying – the accuracy of polling as a predictor of the general election outcome steadily increases as we enter the last six months. There is also bad news for the Liberal Democrats, who our forecast puts on 8.2%. Once we introduce the seats-based element to our model, the picture might not look quite so catastrophic for them, but our current expectation is for an extremely poor performance.

Today, all the main parties are struggling to attract the level of support that would indicate a strong prospect of securing a parliamentary majority in 2015. The two-party share of the vote by Conservatives and Labour is as low as it has ever been.  All three of the established parties are still running below their historical averages, in part due to the rise in UKIP which has taken “none of the above” vote intentions to record highs.  The relative stasis in the polls is partly because the structural weaknesses of parties and leaders (Miliband’s poor ratings, the damaged Tory brand, and the Liberal Democrat betrayal) are all priced in to the polling numbers we have been seeing. This means that axioms such as that ‘oppositions need to be further ahead at this stage’ or that ‘governments will always be rewarded for a growing economy’ may not necessarily come to fruition given the listlessness of the polls. It is dangerous to assume that these sorts of factors will always lead to late shifts in opinion. Though there have often been late swings in opinion away from the opposition, or towards the government, this is a tendency not an iron law, as our table below reveals.

Election year Govt change last 12 months Opposition change last 12 months Swing from opposition to government last 12 months
1955 (CON) 4.5 -0.3 2.4
1959 (CON) 2.1 4.7 -1.3
1964 (CON) 4.9 -0.9 2.9
1966 (LAB) 3.7 -1.4 2.6
1970 (LAB) 13.9 -8.5 11.2
Feb 1974 (CON) 2.6 -8.4 5.5
1979 (LAB) -7.1 0.9 -4.0
1983 (CON) -2.6 0.5 -1.6
1987 (CON) 10.4 -5.4 7.9
1992 (CON) -3.0 -1.3 -0.9
1997 (CON) 2.1 -3.3 2.7
2001 (LAB) 1.1 -3.5 2.3
2005 (LAB) 3.0 -3.6 3.3
2010 (LAB) 6.6 -3.4 5.0
Average since 1955 3.0 -2.4 2.7

Our table, built from our polling historical database, shows how the polls move in the last year of a Parliament in each election cycle since 1955. There is a “swing back” tendency towards the government – on average the governing party picks up three percentage points in the last year, and the opposition loses 2.4 points. But there is a lot of variation around this mean. In some elections, such as 1987 and 1970 there is a dramatic swing back to the government (though note that, on these occasions, the sharp rise in government popularity may have helped trigger the election in the first place, something now impossible with fixed term parliaments). On other occasions, such as 1979 and 1992, the polls record a swing away from the government in the last year. So while an improvement in the Conservatives’ relative position is historically likely, it is not certain, and it is unlikely to be a dramatic shift.

This matters, because the current biases in the electoral system mean the Conservatives need a substantial lead to become the largest party in Parliament, and a hefty one to have any chance of a majority. If the swing back to Cameron’s party is in line with the historical average of 2.7 points, then we would expect the Conservatives to go into next year’s election with a lead of less than two percentage points, definitely not enough for a majority, and probably not even enough to be the largest party in Parliament (particularly if the Liberal Democrats hold up better in seats they are contesting with the Conservatives). A polling swing back would provide the Conservatives with a valuable morale boost, but thanks to the disadvantages of the electoral system, Cameron’s party still have a lot to do even if the tide of public opinion starts to turn in their favour.


Jonathan HavercroftBy Jonathan Havercroft, Senior Lecturer in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.


My current research project examines the ideology of misarchism. Misarchism means the hatred of government or rule.  I am interested in both the intellectual history of the concept and its revival in contemporary right-wing populist movements in the U.S. and Europe. The term originally appears in German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, second essay, section 12, where he writes:

The democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin a bad word for a bad thing) has gradually shaped and dressed itself up as intellectual, most intellectual, so much so that it already, today, little by little penetrates the strictest, seemingly most objective sciences, and is allowed to do so.

In developing this term, Nietzsche was critiquing the political philosopher Herbert Spencer for attempting to ground political philosophy in the new science of evolution. Nietzsche objected to these types of philosophies on two grounds. First, evolutionary philosophies were reactive ideologies – they focused on the process of adaptation to explain change – where as Nietzsche felt that change was brought about through power struggles by conflicting entities. Second, these evolutionary philosophies denied the roles of power, struggle, and domination in both political and biological processes.

Today, we tend to label the political philosophy of Herbert Spencer and his followers social Darwinism, but this term is doubly misleading. First, it is misleading because what 19th century theories of evolution had to say about politics was (and still is) a contested terrain. Second, it is misleading because Darwin’s theory of evolution was not the most influential biological theory in this debate. That distinction belonged to the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarckian evolution posited that a mechanism of inherited characteristics was the driving force behind how species evolved. Conversely, Darwin argued that random variation in the traits of organisms drove the process of evolution. This difference in causal mechanisms leads to two different views about what evolution is. If one sides with Lamarck, then evolution is a progressive process in which only the fittest organisms survive over time. Conversely, if one agrees with Darwin, then evolution is a process of random selection in which mutations in an organism’s traits and changes in the natural environment lead to species variation, but there is no clear progress or teleology in the evolutionary process. In this debate Spencer sided decisively with Lamarck and argued that social changes in areas as diverse as economics, politics and morality were all driven by an evolutionary process in which only the best traits were inherited from one generation to the next.

For Spencer, this process of “survival of the fittest” meant that society itself was getting better over time and individuals were becoming more moral. This belief that society was progressing through a process of the survival of the fittest, led Spencer to defend a radical laissez-faire ideology. He believed that any attempt by the government to intervene in the market place or offer assistance to the poor or disadvantaged would undermine the process of social evolution, and as a consequence would weaken society.

This 19th century ideology of misarchism had four core features: 1. opposition to any kind of government action except for the administration of justice; 2. opposition to any assistance to the poor and disadvantaged; 3. belief that the social system will produce the best possible outcomes for society as a whole when the individual members of society act without government assistance; 4. the belief that morality, rather than government, should regulate the behavior or society. What this added up to was a fierce opposition to any government action outside of the use of a judicial system to punish crimes against individuals and private property.

In labeling Spencer’s philosophy as misarchist, Nietzsche points out that it is hatred of government that animates these types of movements. The term combines the ancient greek roots mis for hatred and arkhein for government or rule. This makes misarchism distinct from two other right wing ideologies – libertarianism and social conservatism. Libertarians ground their ideology in a defence of individual rights and freedom. And while libertarians would agree with misarchists on issues of the government’s role in the economic sphere, they differ when it comes to the police powers of the state as misarchists tend to favour heavier police interference in areas of personal conduct such as drug consumption. Conversely, social conservatives ground their ideology in the preservation of the existing social order and defend the use of government in areas that preserve traditional values and social institutions.

Polling Observatory #38: Polls may bounce, but public opinion usually doesn’t

This is the thirty-eighth 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. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 30-01-14 anchor on average


This was a bouncing polls month. Early on in June, several polls pointed to an unexpected rebound in Labour’s fortunes, leading to a brief flurry of speculation about a Labour surge. Then, right at the end of the month (and mostly outside of the window that our latest estimates refer to) polls started to show a slight recovery for the Conservatives, which was immediately labelled a “Juncker bounce” by the media, particularly the parts of it who approved of David Cameron’s fruitless campaign to prevent former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker from taking over as President of the European Commission.

The Polling Observatory’s method tends to have a more conservative view of moves in public opinion. Our estimates for the first of July put Labour at 34.6%, up 0.8 points on a month ago. While this is a modest rebound, it nonetheless represents a reversal of the downward trend evident for most of 2014 to date, and is the first significant up-tick in support for Labour since the autumn of last year. Conservative support is stable at 30.8%, down just 0.1 points on last month. However, this is without most of the alleged “Juncker bounce” polls collected in the first week of July, which, when added in, may push the Conservatives modestly higher than they were in late May – but this remains to be seen.

There is little evidence yet of a fall in UKIP support now the European Parliament elections have passed, confounding the expectations of pundits who believed the European election victory was the “peak UKIP moment”. Our estimates have Farage’s party at 14.8%, down just 0.1% on last month. The Liberal Democrats, however, continue to slide to new record lows. This month they register just 8.8%, down 0.5% on last month, and an all-time low under our new methodology.

While our model does register significant month-on-month, and even week-on-week, shifts in public opinion, these are never as dramatic as those shown in the polls which grab the most headlines. The truth is that such bounces are far too large to be plausible as real movements in public opinion — a 7 point swing, for example, would require 2 million people to change their vote preferences in a single week or month. This simply does not happen in the absence of a very powerful change in the political context. It is just not very plausible to believe that 2 million people switched to Labour at the beginning of the month, without any compelling reason to do so, or that a similar mass of voters were won over to the Conservatives by Cameron’s quixotic anti-Juncker campaign.

Once the polls are aggregated together, and the noise inevitably produced by random sampling variation is filtered out, the bounces in public opinion from month to month become much smaller. The largest weekly shifts in support we find to date in this Parliament mostly occur at the very beginning, when Lib Dem support fell by 1.5% in the second week after the general election, and then carried on falling at a similar rate for several weeks afterwards, while Labour support shifted upwards at a similar rate. In fact, almost half of the 20 largest weekly changes in public opinion in this Parliament are accounted for by the Lib Dems’ post-election collapse. This shift in preferences followed a hugely significant and largely unexpected event – the formation of a coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Millions of Liberal Democrats who had regarded the party as an ideological stable mate of Labour saw their vote choices in a new light and changed their preferences accordingly.

Party Number of weeks since May 6, 2010 (week starting) Weekly change in vote intentions
Lib Dem 2 (13/05/2010) -1.5
Lib Dem 3 (20/05/2010) -1.5
Lab 2 (13/05/2010) 1.4
Lab 3 (20/05/2010) 1.3
Con 101 (05/04/2012) -1.2
Lib Dem 4 (27/05/2010) -1.2
Con 86 (22/12/2011) 1.2
Lib Dem 5 (03/06/2010) -1.0
Lib Dem 9 (01/07/2010) -0.9
Lab 4 (27/05/2010) 0.9
Con 102 (12/04/2012) -0.9
Lib Dem 6 (10/06/2010) -0.9
Lib Dem 8 (24/06/2010) -0.8
Con 100 (29/03/2012) -0.8
Con 159 (16/05/2013) -0.8
Lib Dem 7 (17/06/2010) -0.8
Lab 34 (23/12/2010) 0.8
Lab 86 (22/12/2011) -0.8
Lib Dem 10 (08/07/2010) -0.8
Lab 107 (17/05/2012) 0.7

The other major shift in voters’ preferences during this parliament (aside from a sharp, but short lived, rally in Conservative support immediately after David Cameron’s European summit veto in December 2011) came in the aftermath of the “omnishambles” budget of March 2012, with the Conservatives’ poll rating falling around a percentage point three weeks in a row, and. Even then, there are several different explanations for this dramatic shift in preferences (as we discussed at the time here), which may have combined to make something of a perfect political storm – wrecking the Conservatives’ reputation for competence, alienating previously supporting groups, and reinforcing negative stereotypes about the ‘nasty party’.

Events such as the formation of a governing coalition between two parties that were not regarded as natural allies can produce large swings in the polls, so can highly visible examples of incompetence or economic crises. However, the vast majority of political events are nowhere near as significant. This is why the correct initial reaction to any headline of the form “x produces bounce in polls” is “let’s wait and see”. In the vast majority of cases, the apparent realignment of voters is swiftly revealed to be a statistical phantom.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

David Marsh Presents a New Working Paper “In Defense of Historical Institutionalism” at C2G2

Abstract: The paper takes issue with two standard critiques of historical institutionalism: that it can only explain stability, not change, and that the focus should be on discursive path-dependency, not institutional path-dependency. In response to the initial critique, I argue, first, that it wrongly equates path-dependency with path- determinacy and, second, that the challenge  can be addressed if we acknowledge that the relationship between institutions and ideas is a dialectical one, that is interactive and iterative. In response to the second critique, I argue that we should acknowledge that there are 3 path-dependencies: institutional; discursive; and political-economic. They interact and provide the context within which agents act; constraining and facilitating, but not determining, agents. These arguments will be illustrated by an examination of  the role of the British Political Tradition in British politics.

You can find David Marsh’s published research on his Google Scholar page.