Polling Observatory Scottish referendum special: who is ahead and how close is it?

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.

This is a Scottish independence special of our regular series of posts that reports on the state of support for the parties in Westminster 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 the polls are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the state of public opinion – 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.

In recent weeks the debate over Scottish independence has reached fever-pitch, and debate over some of the polls has been just as fierce. Most notably a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times, published on September 7th, caused shock waves both North of the border and in Westminster when it showed Yes marginally ahead, the first lead for the “yes” campaign in many months.

As regular readers of the Polling Observatory will know, we tend to take a conservative view of sudden movements in public opinion. Most short-term shifts in the polls are nothing more than random noise. Indeed, a recent study shows that apparent swings in public opinion during campaigns are often not due to actual shifts in opinion, but instead result from differential response rates: in other words, supporters of side currently faring worse in the polls are less likely to respond when surveyed.

The method we apply to Westminster polling can also be used to look at the underlying balance of opinion in Scotland. We estimate current referendum sentiment by pooling all the currently available polling data, while taking into account the estimated biases of the individual pollsters (“house effects”). Because we have no fixed reference point for “true” public opinion (i.e. the accuracy of all the pollsters will only become known on the day of the vote), we make adjustments relative to the “average pollster”. This assumes that the polling industry as a whole will not be biased. This assumption could prove wrong, of course but we have no way of knowing what any biases might be. We can only draw on the historical record – and referendums are both very rare and very unusual political events, so this record must be interpreted with caution. That important caveat noted, it is worth highlighting that past evidence suggests an underestimation of No support is somewhat more likely.Scottish without dk 08-09-14 (1)

Our data cover the period up 6th September, including the YouGov poll that put the Yes camp in the lead for the first time (so does not include subsequent polls by Survation and YouGov that have the No camp back in the lead). Support for the Yes camp has surged in the last six weeks or so, leading some forecasts to put the chances at close to even, but the independence campaign still lagged in our estimates even after the YouGov poll. Subsequent polls, including one on September 11th by YouGov, have all shown No narrowly ahead, suggesting the 48%-52% margin we find here has not altered in the last few days. While the race has got considerably closer, the polling evidence still makes No the favourite.

The same pattern is repeated if we look at the trend for unadjusted responses below (undecided voters are not plotted on our graph), although here support for the Yes and No camps is even closer. There is some suggestion here that Yes has surged by winning over “don’t knows” rather than converting No supporters – Yes has risen by a good deal more than No has dropped. However, the current balance of opinion suggests that Yes will either have to win a large majority of the remaining undecided or convert some No votes to its camp in the final few days.

Scottish with dk 08-09-14 (1)

As mentioned above, our method also makes it possible to estimate the “house effect” for the survey responses for each polling company, relative to the Yes and No figures we would expect from the average pollster. That is, it tells us simply whether the reported share of responses for Yes, No and Don’t Knows is above or below the industry average. This does not indicate “accuracy”, since there is no final vote against which to benchmark the accuracy of the polls. It could be, in fact, that pollsters at one end of the extreme or the other are giving a more accurate picture of voters’ intentions – but the final vote is the only real test, and even that is imperfect. In the table below, we report all companies’ support for the Yes and No camps (and for don’t knows) relative to the median pollster.

Table: House effects of independence pollsters relative to median pollster

House Mode Yes No DK
YouGov Internet -0.5 4.6 -4.2
ICM Internet 0.5 -2.1 1.5
Panelbase Internet 4.4 -2.3 -1.9
Ipsos-MORI Telephone -0.6 6.5 -5.9
TNS-BRMB Face-to-face -5.6 -4.2 9.8
Survation Internet 1.5 -0.1 -1.0

Our estimates show substantial differences across polling houses. While YouGov (+4.6) and Ipsos-MORI (+6.5) tend to report higher responses for the No camp, Panelbase (+4.4) and Survation (+1.5) tend to show higher numbers for the Yes camp. Interestingly, TNS-BRMB, which is the only polling company to carry out face-to-face surveys about the referendum, report lower responses for both the Yes and No camps, and a much higher proportion of undecided voters.

With just over a week now until Scotland goes to the polls, and with the campaign raging on as big hitters on both sides of the border fight it out, there is still time for late movements in public opinion. A lot will also depend on the turnout – voter registration for the referendum is exceptionally high at over 97% – well above the 85% registration rates typically seen in other elections. Figuring out how these less politically engaged voters will behave, and how many will cast a ballot, is an unusual challenge for both pollsters and the campaigns themselves.

One thing we know for certain is that opinion is closely divided. We should therefore exercise even more caution when digesting the latest shift in the polls from Yes to No or No to Yes. Everyone engaged with this passionate debate will be keen to read their own preferences into every tremor of public opinion, which means now more than ever we must keep in mind than many of the small moves in coming days will be nothing more than the random fluctuations in patterns of response that are an inherent part of opinion polling. When the result is tight enough to be within the margin of error, polls showing Yes at 49% and 51% amount to the same thing – it’s “squeaky bum time”.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Scotland deliberates: an interactive discussion on the #indyref debate

Scotland goes to the polls of the 18th of September to decide whether or not to become an independent nation. There has been lots of coverage of the merits of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ positions. But what about the wider public deliberation? Has the independence referendum got Scots talking about constitutional issues, or how they want their democracy to work? Have people begun to articulate a ‘Scottish way’ of doing things that is new and distinctive? Win or lose, will Scotland be a more participatory, deliberative, democratic place after the referendum?

The Political Studies Association’s Participatory and Deliberative Democracy Specialist Group will be tackling these questions in the first of an occasional series of Google hangouts, an online panel discussion with an opportunity for you to ask questions of the panellists, and carry on the conversation. Panellists include:

The hangout will happen at 2pm today. You can view it live, or after the event, on our youtube page or blog. Keep an eye on twitter @psademocracy #indyref #scotsdeliberate, and the blog if you want to take part in the surrounding discussion.

The Polling Observatory Forecast #4: Conservative hopes recede slowly

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.

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 01-09-14

This month’s Polling Observatory reported falls in support for both Labour and the Conservatives. Our forecast again finds the parties locked in a statistical dead heat, although Labour has edged up slightly, by 0.3 points, to 36.5%, and the Conservatives have slid back further, down 0.6 points to 34.9%. The continued stagnation in the polls is starting to harm the Conservatives in our forecast, with a slight widening of the gap between the parties.

This reflects the fact that the Conservatives have been unable to make gains that history would suggest, while Labour’s support has proved more resilient than expected. Indeed, the trend in our forecast for the Conservatives has been steadily downwards over the past year. A key factor in this may be the continued strength of UKIP, which has no historical precedent and may have upset the traditional pattern of Conservative recovery as polling day approaches.

The Conservatives’ inability to make any progress in polling over the past four months means that time is running out for them to deliver the shift in opinion needed to top the poll. Our forecast will continue to fall if the polls remain unchanged. There is a little good news, for a change, in our forecast for the Liberal Democrats, with their predicted vote rising 0.9 points to 9.1%. This would still inflict substantial electoral losses on the party, however the magnitude of these losses is likely to depend more on the Liberal Democrats’ local strength than their national polling.

Surprise events such as the defection of Douglas Carswell from the Conservatives to UKIP and the fierce contest over the referendum on Scottish independence – with the result still in the balance – demonstrate just how much uncertainty remains concerning the result of the general election to be held in 2015 (with even the timing of the election itself now thrown into doubt). Our forecasts do, however, provide some indication of whether the parties are performing above or below their historical expectations – and the likelihood of their gaining or losing support as Election Day approaches.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Will Shifting U.S. Voter Demographics Shift Republicans on Social Security?

By Joseph Owen, MA student of 20th and 21st Century Literature at University of Southampton (personal blog).

The composition of the US electorate is changing significantly. The percentage of minority voters, in contrast to white voters, is continually rising. These minority voters are vastly more likely to vote Democrat, be on relatively lower incomes, and be in favour of strong state social security. If the Republican Party wishes to be elected in 2016, it is commonly understood that they will need to broaden the appeal of their policies and public discourse to factor in these altered demographics. In spite of the GOP’s ideological antipathy towards an expansive, federal welfare state, it may become an electoral impossibility to continue peddling rhetoric and policy which favours its dismantling. The question, put simply, is whether Republicans will adhere to their rigid ideological impulse, or bow to political pragmatism.

Image credit: The Atlantic. Click to visit source.

The omens for the latter are not good. Using the seemingly ancient notion of individual and private charity as a preferable substitute, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent budget proposal seeks to shrink the government safety net in order to counter the usual Conservative anathemas: dependency, disincentive and sloth. The logic seems crude at best. Before the apparently inevitable Democratic electoral majority, state social security has to be dismantled as quickly as possible and voluntary beneficence actively encouraged in its place. Presumably, Republicans believe such a systemic change in the welfare state will be irreversible and the new status quo will be embraced or, at least, acquiesced to. The likelihood of this tactic prevailing seems, politely, optimistic. That, however, has not stopped other perhaps more sinister avenues from being explored by the GOP.

Republicans will struggle to reverse the existing tide of demographic change. Yet, they can influence the ability of minorities to vote. Though the mainstream GOP has largely disowned the barely-covert racism of its somewhat recent past, attacking the rights of minorities is a useful tool in preserving their most fundamental ideal: a minimal state. Framed in the sense of suffrage; Republican states have tried to eliminate early voting, ensured proof of citizenship is a prerequisite, and focused their anti-welfare sentiments towards inner-city areas. These actions, both legislative and discursive, affect minorities far more than the white population, preventing the former’s capacity to vote and appealing to the widely-held prejudices of the latter.

In spite of changing demographics, rather than politically embracing them, it seems Republicans are sticking rigidly to their anti-social security dogma – whatever the electoral arithmetic.

Polling Observatory #40: Treading water as Scotland’s big moment approaches

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.

This is the fortieth 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.


UK 02-09-14 anchor on average

While last month’s Polling Observatory saw UKIP fall and the big two rebound, this month sees the opposite. Once again, rumours of “peak UKIP” look premature – our model puts Farage’s party at 14.0% at the start of September, close to their all-time high earlier this summer. With a thumping by-election victory looking likely for UKIP defector Douglas Carswell-in October, UKIP look set to continue causing headaches in Westminster after the dust settles in Scotland.

The Conservatives and Labour both give up last month’s gains, putting them back where they were at the start of the summer. Our estimates put Labour at 34.4%, a fall of 0.9 points from last month’s figure while the Conservatives close the summer on 31.2%, down 0.8 points.

The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, continue to wilt. They are down to 8.6% in this month’s estimates, a drop of 0.2 points and a new all-time low for this Parliament. With seven months to go, Nick Clegg and his colleagues are staring into the electoral abyss. They will have to lean heavily on local incumbency bonuses and anti-Conservative strategic voting to save them from disaster next May.

As we have noted before, the polls in this Parliament seem to have followed a “punctuated equilibrium” pattern, with short periods of intense change followed by long periods of stasis when public opinion settles down into a new pattern. The polls currently seem to be in another of these periods of stasis. Our chart below shows the estimated leads in the polls for Labour over the Conservatives over the last year. This can be split into three periods. During the final months of 2013, the Labour lead was steady, then fell sharply between February and May 2014, before recovering slightly and levelling off at around 3 to 4 points over the rest of the summer.

There are two lessons for poll-watchers from this chart. Firstly, the sharp drop in the spring shows that, with eight months to go, everything is still to play for. Recent Conservative lamentations about the death of their electoral prospects following Douglas Carswell’s defection look overstated. Labour’s lead dropped nearly 4 points in the course of four months last spring – if this happened again early in 2015 the Conservatives would be ahead in the polls as election day loomed.

Secondly, while there is time left on the clock, it is running out fast. Biases built into the electoral system mean the Conservatives need a lead of several points in the vote to be sure of a lead in seats. Back in May, a shift from Labour to Conservative of 0.5 points a month would have been enough to deliver a three point vote lead and probable seat lead by election day. Four months of stasis in the polls has raised that to 0.7 points a month, and each additional month raises the required slope still further. Time is running out fast for the Conservatives.

Chart: Labour lead over Conservative since September 2013

Lab lead over Con sept 14

There are still plenty of things, predictable and unpredictable, that could shift public opinion out of its current equilibrium. The first – and most important – comes next week when Scots vote on whether to dissolve their 300 year old union with Britain. A yes vote upends all the existing political and electoral calculus. Scotland leans quite strongly to Labour in Westminster voting, and even more so in Westminster seats. Labour would lose 41 seats if Scotland becomes independent, while the Liberal Democrats would lose 11. The Conservatives’ position, by contrast, is barely changed. As one pundit quipped: “what do the Clacton by-election and the Scottish independence referendum have in common? They both cost the Conservatives one seat.” The Conservatives would have a majority in the current House of Commons without Scotland, and would find a victory on seats – if not an outright majority – much easier in the next election if Scots MPs were excluded. However, Scots would not be leaving the union immediately, which could produce some tricky constitutional situations. Who governs if the 2015 election delivers a Labour majority with Scottish MPs but a Conservative plurality without them? If things go Alex Salmond’s way next Thursday, this is one of many questions we will all have to consider.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

What can the 1995 Quebec referendum tell us about the Scottish referendum?

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.

Word this week that the yes side in the Scottish independence referendum has closed the gap and perhaps even take a small lead (at least according to one poll) has caught the political establishment in the UK off guard. The conventional wisdom for most of the past year has been that the no side in the referendum should win quite handily. And I have to confess that the political scientist in me read the polls the same way. To anyone who asked me for my opinion over the summer months I confidently predicted a victory for the no side. The problem with polling and conventional wisdom for events such as this is that independence referendums are so rare that we have very little previous information with which to make predictions.

But I at least should know better, because one of the very first votes I cast was in the Quebec independence referendum in 1995. And the current referendum in Scotland is starting to look eerily like the 1995 referendum in Quebec. The province of Quebec in Canada has held two referendums on independence. The first was held in 1980 and the no side prevailed by a vote of 60% – 40%. During the second referendum campaign in 1995 the initial polls in June suggested a similar 60% – 40% victory for the no side. And for much of the summer the polls continued to show a strong lead for the no side. With about three weeks left in the campaign the Premier of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau, decided to change things up by nominating the charismatic and popular politician Lucien Bouchard as the head of the yes campaign and the lead negotiator for Quebec independence. This change in the leadership of the yes campaign created a rapid and decisive shift in the polls. Within a week, opinion polls began to show a lead for the yes side. The no campaign was caught flat-footed. The Prime Minister decided to make a last minute special address to the nation. Promises were rapidly made for increased political powers to the province of Quebec. And U.S. President Bill Clinton even took time during a press conference to make a direct plea to Quebeckers to remain in Canada. Yet, the polls kept showing clear momentum towards the yes side. One of the last polls released before the referendum predicted a yes victory by 6% — outside the poll’s margin or error.

I will always remember October 30th, 1995, the day of the referendum vote. I went to the polls early to cast my vote, and then I spent most of the rest of the day on the campus at Concordia University. The thing that struck me was how quiet and tense the city was. Nobody wanted to discuss the vote, but it was clearly the only thing on anyone’s mind. When the polls finally closed in the evening we sat down to watch the returns. For most of the night, the Yes side was ahead by a sizeable margin. But as the vote came in from the English majority areas of Montreal, the No side closed the gap, and eventually (late in the evening) squeaked out a 50.58% to 49.42% win.

These days, when people in England learn I am from Quebec, they usually proceed to ask me “Do they still want to separate over there?” The answer to that question is of course a complicated one. In the aftermath of the Quebec referendum in 1995 most people (including myself) believed that it was only a matter of time before there would be a third referendum and that the yes side would win. Yet, in the interim, the federal Government in Canada responded to the referendum by delegating more power to Quebec and meeting some (but not all) of the core demands of the nationalist movement in Quebec. And so, somewhat paradoxically, a strong independence movement in Quebec has over the long term made Quebec independence less likely.

So, what lessons can citizens in the UK (whether living inside Scotland or outside) take from the 1995 Quebec referendum? First, we should not be too surprised that the polls have shown a narrowing race as the day of the vote draws near. While most elite opinion (including Rupert Murdoch) has quickly blamed the political elite in Westminster for bungling the referendum campaign, in votes on national independence, political leaders from the central government face a difficult choice. If they campaign too actively for unity, they end up sounding like they are meddling and condescending. Yet, if they campaign too little, they are quickly accused of being aloof and disinterested in the demands of the nation seeking independence. The yes campaigns, on the other hand, have the advantage of appealing to national pride, and speaking to and on behalf of the nation voting on independence. So, campaigns for independence have some built in advantages over campaigns against independence.

Second, in terms of the vote itself, I think it is now in the genuine toss up category.  As the polls narrow, the yes side has two clear advantages. First, all the momentum over the last two weeks is clearly on its side. Second, it clearly has a more mobilized base and the SNP has a very strong get out the vote (GOTV) operation. In close races, the side with the momentum and a strong GOTV operation usually wins. However, given that this is not just an election to choose the next government, but a vote to create a new country, my hunch is that a lot of the remaining undecided voters will eventually decide to vote no as undecided voters are probably more risk averse. This is what happened in Quebec in 1995.

Third, regardless of the outcome of the vote on September 18th, this will not be the end of the Scottish independence movement, but only the end of the beginning. If the yes campaign is triumphant, then we will enter into a period of negotiations over how Scotland will become an independent state and all of the open questions about currency, national defence, and relations to the EU, along with numerous other issues most of us have not even thought about yet, will have to be resolved. But, even if the no side wins, the fact that an independence referendum has been so close will create pressure for greater constitutional concessions to Scotland. After both of Quebec’s referendums, the Canadian federal government responded with greater decentralization of powers to the provinces. There are already reports in national papers in England, that the UK government this week will announce plans to devolve more powers to Scotland. After a close no vote in a referendum, there will be serious pressure on Westminster to not only devolve more powers to Scotland, but to reconsider the very constitutional structure of the UK. And so, just as the no votes in both of Quebec’s referendums sparked significant reforms to the Canadian Constitution, regardless of the outcome of the Scottish referendum, its aftermath is bound to provoke significant changes to the UK constitution.

Book Review of “The Blunders of Our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

DipticBy Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter). Read more posts by Will here.


This is an extended version of a book review that will be published in Political Studies Review in August 2015 (Volume 13, Issue 3), and will be available at the Wiley Online Library.

The Blunders of Our Governments. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. London: Oneworld, 2013.

At a time when the modern state is faced with the pressures of austerity and a rising anti-politics sentiment among its citizens, The Blunders of our Governments takes on the important task of cataloguing and diagnosing the many policy failures of British government over several decades. In this, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe sketch out some of the details of twelve highly readable ‘horror stories’ of British public policy; with the cases including the poll tax, the ERM crisis, the Millennium Dome, the public private partnership for upgrading the London underground and the aborted identity cards scheme. Having done this, they reflect on some of the causes of the identified blunders and how they can be linked to defects of the British system of government, and to the cultures and practices that are prevalent in Whitehall and in Westminster. This is a noble effort and no doubt one that will attract the interest and attention of influential decision-makers in government. Its format makes it highly accessible for a popular audience, but means that it frustratingly fails to make any reference to the substantial amount of research that exists on policy disasters (and the litany of labels used to describe the occasions when things go wrong with policy). This means that a lot of what is already known about the dysfunctional pathologies of modern British government is overlooked, for example the excellent work of Moran (2003) on policy catastrophes and the regulatory state. Indeed, King and Crewe repeat many of the arguments made by Dunleavy (1995) about large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes being endemic to Britain’s political/administrative system, and even draw on some of the same cases. The lack of a clearly structured theoretical framework or method for policy analysis means that the set of explanations of policy blunders seems rather ad hoc and there is no attempt to integrate these in some sort of conclusion. Indeed, the book ends rather abruptly with a postscript on the Coalition government’s record on policy blunders.

That this is such an engaging account is in part because it is full of contradictions and unsolved puzzles. The authors repeatedly suggest that British government is blunder-prone (p. ix, xiv, 399), but concede they are unable to say whether it is more or less blundersome in either historical or comparative perspective (p. x). It is claimed that blunders are numerous (p. ix), but no systematic review of the evidence is presented to back this up – we simply have to take the word of these seasoned observers of British politics. Indeed, it is a little surprising that King and Crewe admit to selecting their twelve cases “… from a much longer list compiled from the suggestions of a large number of former ministers, senior officials and political commentators” (Crewe 2014, Political Insight). This would seem methodologically problematic given that in-group biases are one of the factors famously associated with policy disasters; such as in the seminal work of Janis (1972) on groupthink. Should we trust the judgement of the people who were at the scene of the crime as to what happened and who was to blame? This seems at risk of the ‘cultural disconnect’ that the authors warn about.

For a study of government blunders, there is a much greater focus on high politics – in the form of ministerial and departmental manoeuvrings – than the reasons why policies fail and how the choice of particular policy instruments matters. Accordingly, blunders are selected as ‘occasions on which ministers and officials failed to achieve their declared objectives’ (p. 6). This is a clear benchmark for identification of political blundering, but does not allow for a more critical and systematic evaluation of why things go wrong. Take the case of the Millennium Dome discussed in Chapter 8. This was an unmitigated political disaster for the Blair Government, with ministerial hubris playing some part. However, in terms of construction and delivery the Dome did not suffer the magnitude of cost overrun typically incurred in the management of mega-projects – rising just 4% from the forecast expenditure in its May 1997 budget (NAO 2002, p. 2). The financial difficulties of the Dome were instead due to over-optimistic expectations about revenue from commercial sponsors and ticket revenues – which left the government-owned company insolvent. Further, the confused governance of the Dome project can be traced to attempts to deliver millennium celebrations as a public-private partnership, before the Blair government even took office in the 1990s. This decision led to a protracted, disruptive and ultimately futile outsourcing process, with the private sector unwilling to take on the risks attached to the project, which Labour inherited in 1997. The Dome blunder can thus be attributed to a combination of path dependence (inheritance of the project from a previous government), flawed assumptions in the choice of policy instrument (i.e. co-delivery of the project with the private sector) and cognitive biases of decision-makers (over-confidence and commitment of the sunk cost fallacy once the project was underway). None of these conditions/pathologies are particularly unique to British government, however. King and Crewe’s choice of the term ‘blunder’ is appealing because it cultivates the image of naive ministers and civil servants making avoidable mistakes. However, it distracts from more fundamental questions about why the institutional structures of the state fail to prevent errors due to individual or collective decision-making. As Moran (2001, p. 415) argues, the sustained influence of blunders in high politics can be attributed to ‘incomplete penetration of the regulatory state’. This arguably provides a far more revealing and fundamental explanation of the Dome fiasco and other policy failures.

Similarly, many of the examples identified as cases of policy successes are open to challenge. King and Crewe cite the organisation of the London 2012 Olympics as a policy success (p. 21). While undoubtedly extremely popular and a triumph for the government in terms of operation of the sporting event, in policy and planning terms the Olympics was still error-prone across a range of criteria for evaluation: its cost exceeded the original forecasts by more than 200% (Jennings 2012), the army had to be drafted in to provide security after the contractor G4S failed to supply the agreed number of security guards, and the promised legacy of increased sports participation has not materialised. While a political success, the policy story was distinctly mixed. Similarly, government preparations for the swine flu epidemic of 2009 are cited as another example of success (p. 20). Subsequent scientific evidence has suggested, however, that that the vaccines were ultimately ineffective, leading the Daily Mail to exclaim “Ministers blew £650 MILLION on useless anti-flu drugs” (10 April 2014). One person’s policy blunder is another person’s success, a point which surely more should have been made of.

In some regards The Blunders of our Governments is in line with a healthy tradition of self-depreciating tendencies of the British ruling class, which has endured a crisis of self-confidence since the breakup of the British Empire and in successive decades of crises of the economy and political institutions. King and Crewe’s thesis is premised on the belief that governments screw up too much, and that this ailment is distinctly British in its origins. On the other hand, it perpetuates a dangerous in-group view of the ruling club – based on the stories told by key actors – without asking searching questions about the tools that government opts to use and broader trends in modes of delivery of public services for the modern state and why these do not avert policy blunders. Its lack of reference to comparative examples (such as the cost overruns and technical difficulties in constructing both Berlin Brandenburg Airport in Germany and Bibliothèque nationale de France) is similarly symptomatic of this insularity, and of the lack of systematic analysis of evidence to back up the far-reaching assertions offered. As an account written by insiders with connections to the political elite this book is highly revealing of an outlook of the challenges of governing, which is rather charming but at the same time disabling. It presents only a faux challenge to the political elite and will readily be embraced by them as it reflects their worldview. Nothing important is likely to change as a result of its diagnosis, which given its subject matter might be considered disappointing from the perspective of many citizens.


Crewe, Ivor. (2014). ‘Why is Britain badly governed? Policy blunders 1980-2010.’ Political Insight 5(1): 4-9.

Dunleavy, Patrick. (1995). ‘Policy Disasters: Explaining the UK’s Record.’ Public Policy and Administration 10(2): 52-70.

Janis, Irving. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

Jennings, Will. (2012). ‘Why Costs Over-Run: Risk, Optimism and Uncertainty in Budgeting for the London 2012 Olympics.’ Journal of Construction Management and Economics 30(6): 455-462.

Moran, Michael. (2001). ‘Not Steering but Drowning: Policy Catastrophes and the Regulatory State.’ The Political Quarterly 72(4): 414–427.

Moran, Michael. (2003). The British Regulatory State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

National Audit Office. (2002). Winding-up the New Millennium Experience Company Limited. London: The Stationery Office.

What Is the Real Impact of Migration from Eastern Europe to the UK? A Look at the Evidence

By Dan Jendrissek, an interdisciplinary PhD student in Social Sciences and Modern Languages at University of Southampton (@jendrissek). Dan is currently on the job market.

When Poland joined the European Union in May 2004, only the UK, Ireland and Sweden decided to open up their labour markets and chose not to impose major restrictions on members of the ‘new’ EU8 states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia). Nonetheless, EU8 citizens had to be registered on the Workers Registration Scheme and in continuous employment for 12 months before they could claim income-related benefits like jobseeker’s allowance or housing benefits. Migration from EU8 countries to the UK, from Poland in particular, turned into “one of the most important social and economic phenomena shaping the UK today” (Pollard, Latorre, Sriskandarajah 2008: 7) and is still heavily influencing the immigration debate. Most of the political commentators on the impact of migration from Eastern Europe, however, are stubbornly ignoring the existing evidence.

At the time Poland joined the EU in 2004, the country’s unemployment rate was 19%, compared to 5% in the UK (Eurostat 2014). Furthermore, a youth unemployment rate of 40% in Poland had made employment in the UK, even in low-skilled jobs, an attractive option for young Poles. Given these numbers it is hardly surprising that migration from Eastern Europe to the UK inclined significantly after EU accession.

While in 2001 58,000 Polish citizens were living in England and Wales, this number rose to 558,000 in 2011 (Office for National Statistics 2001, 2013). Long-term international migration (LTIM) data shows that in-migration of EU8 nationals increased after 2004 and peaked in December 2007 (ONS 2014). Since then, numbers for EU8 in-migration have been declining and data from the Polish Labour Force Survey demonstrates that while degree level educated migrants tend to stay abroad, those with secondary and vocational level of education originating from rural areas are increasingly returning to Poland (Anacka & Fihel 2012).

Figure 1: Long-Term International Migration estimates by EU8 citizenship, June 2004 to December 2013 (ONS 2014)


Rolling year (YE = Year Ending, p = Year includes provisional estimates for 2013)


Labour as well as Conservatives have identified immigration from Eastern Europe as a problem. In last year’s immigration speech, Prime Minister David Cameron emphasised the role of post-2004 migration from Eastern Europe for current immigration policies by arguing that “when new countries join the European Union it is important to put in place transitional controls and it’s wrong that this didn’t happen with Poland and the other countries that joined the EU in 2004.”

Labour leader Ed Miliband’s position is not far off. In a speech at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in 2012 he claimed that his party had mishandled immigration from Eastern Europe and declared that “one of the areas where we had got things wrong and needed to change was immigration”; while there was “nothing wrong with anyone employing Polish builders”, there was a problem with “local talent” being “locked out of opportunity”. Mr Miliband has reiterated his position since: in a party political broadcast in 2013 he announced a crack-down on “low-skill migration” and called for “the maximum transitional controls for new countries coming in from Eastern Europe”.

In another IPPR speech the then shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant criticised UK retailer Next for using a recruitment agency that hired exclusively Polish workers for a warehouse in West Yorkshire. Mr Bryant said it was not illegal for agencies to target foreign workers, however, “when agencies bring such a large number of workers of a specific nationality at a time when there are one million young unemployed in Britain it is right to ask why that is happening.”

In the above statements a connection is made between ‘Polish builders’ and ‘local talent being locked out of opportunity’, between immigration and youth unemployment. At first glance it may seem that there is nothing wrong with asking these questions and these discursive chains may make sense to a wider audience. However, two things are noteworthy in this context: firstly, statements like the above are almost identical to those uttered by voices from the supposedly other end of the political spectrum, be it the infamous think tank MigrationWatch establishing a connection between immigration and youth unemployment or UKIP’s Nigel Farrage blaming “the huge increase in supply of unskilled labour” from abroad to negatively influence wages and housing.

Secondly, and more importantly, these statements are ignoring a growing body of evidence. In fact, the connectedness of (youth) unemployment and immigration is far from self-evident. A study by the Bank of England, for example, reviews international and UK research and concludes that there is no evidence that immigration influences wages or unemployment. On the contrary, the authors argue that immigration is likely to have reduced the natural rate of unemployment in the UK.

Other studies come to similar conclusions. Eldring & Schulten (2012) compare data from Germany, Norway, Switzerland and the UK. They point out that cases of wage-dumping and even exploitation of migrant workers do exist in some sectors, but that at the macroeconomic level the effects of migration on wages are marginal, something connected to the existence of a national minimum wage.

Finally, Dustmann & Frattini (2013) investigate the contributions of immigrants to the UK tax and welfare system. According to their research migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) have put more money into the system than they took out; between 2001 and 2011 EEA immigrants contributed 34% more to the fiscal system than they took out, equivalent to a net contribution of around 22 billion GBP. Furthermore, recent immigrants are 45% less likely to claim benefits or tax credits than the UK’s native population. This can be explained by the age structure of recent immigrants and their educational credentials – especially Polish migrants are comparably young and highly qualified.

Data from the British Labour Force Survey (LFS) shows that EU8 migrants are more highly educated than people born in the UK. In 2012, around one in four UK born citizens was degree level educated. The number of Polish born LFS participants with degree level qualification was 37%, while another 20% were holding other work related or professional qualifications. Despite these high educational credentials, the majority of Polish migrants in the UK are working in rather low-skilled jobs in the manufacturing and hospitality sector. This ‘social downgrading’ often leads to a variety of problems for the individual (Trevena 2011, 2013) and constitutes a waste of human capital on the macroeconomic level. A recent IPPR report shows that a fifth of workers with higher education qualifications are doing menial, unskilled jobs in the UK and LFS data indicates that this situation is even worse for migrants from Eastern Europe.

To sum up, there is a growing body of research on the impact of migration from Eastern Europe to the UK. The existing evidence suggests that overall intra-European migration has been beneficial for the UK. Over the last decade, migrants from Eastern Europe have paid more money into the system than they took out. On average, they are young and well-educated, yet, they are more likely to end up in low-skilled jobs than UK born citizens. Furthermore, migration from Eastern Europe to the UK has been in decline since 2007 and some studies suggest that it is, in fact, the ‘best and brightest’ that decide to stay while those with a low level of qualification are increasingly returning to their home country.

While it has become commonplace to establish a link between immigration, unemployment and falling wages in public political discourse, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that one does not cause the other. With less than a year to go until the next UK general election and immigration likely to be one of the hot issues, it is important to get the facts right and to put the immigration debate on an evidence base in order to tackle a rather ill-informed political blame game.