Polling Observatory #1: Estimating support for the parties (with some trepidation…)

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 post is part of a long-standing series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention 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 can be found here.

It is now six months since the television headlines rolled at 10am on May 7th, with the exit poll dropping the bombshell that the polls had got it badly wrong. The election forecasters fared little better, including us: even though our vote model had predicted a Conservative lead of 2-3 points, our seat prediction was nowhere close to the majority achieved by David Cameron. It is with a little trepidation then that the Polling Observatory team returns to provide its assessment on the state of public opinion in late 2015.

As regular readers will know, we pool all the information that we have from current polling to estimate the underlying trend in public opinion, controlling for random noise in the polls. Our method controls for systematic differences between pollsters – the propensity for some pollsters to produce estimates that are higher/lower on average for a particular party than other pollsters. While we can estimate how one pollster systematically differs from another, we have no way of assessing which is closer to the truth.

One possibility with this method is to use the result of the last election to ‘anchor’ our estimates of bias in the polls against the last election result. This treats the election result as if it was produced by a pollster with no systematic error. We can then estimate the systematic difference of each pollster with this hypothetical perfect pollster. With this method, for example, if pollster X produces results which are systematically 2 percentage points higher for the Conservatives than what would be produced by this perfect pollster, we would interpret a poll indicating 40% support for the Conservatives from such a pollster as 38% support for the Conservatives. This approach can be useful where there are recurring historical patterns (such as the tendency of the polls to overestimate the Labour vote and underestimate the Conservative vote), and might allow us to control for systematic bias in the polls.

We have chosen, for now, to anchor our estimates on the average pollster. This means the results presented here are those of a hypothetical pollster that, on average, falls in the middle of the pack.[1] We have chosen to use such a middle pollster rather than anchor on the election result because we believe that the inaccuracies/biases revealed in the polls in May will be different from those which may occur in this election cycle.[2] All of the pollsters have been undertaking reviews of their methods following the big polling miss in May, and it is unlikely that the biases in polling will be unaffected by the changes they are gradually introducing. Because of this, we offer our estimates of party support with an important caveat: while our method accounts for the uncertainty due to random fluctuation in the polls and for differences between polling houses, we cannot be sure that there is no systematic bias in the average polling house (i.e., the industry as a whole could be wrong once again). It may be that the polls are collectively right or wrong. It may also be that a pollster producing figures higher or lower than the average is more accurately reflecting the state of support for the parties than their competitors. Our estimates cannot adjudicate on whether figures on the high or the low side for a party better reflect the underlying preference of the electorate. The only test is on Election Day. Fortunately, none of this prevents us from identifying and reporting on the underlying trends over time.

In terms of the overall story, there has been little apparent change in vote preferences since the election in May. This despite the triumphant budget announced by George Osborne, the surprise ascension of Jeremy Corbyn to leader of the Labour Party (and the onslaught on him and his team from outside and inside the party), and the tax credits row that has quickly taken the shine off the government’s honeymoon period. Unlike the last election, there has been no sudden flight of voters from one party to another, as occurred with the collapse of Liberal Democrat support in the first six months after the Coalition government was formed.

Our estimates suggest that Conservative support has slipped slightly since the heady days of May and June, from around 40% to closer to 37% at the start of November. Despite Labour being divided and in some disarray over its direction, it has made slight gains from around 30% to 32%. This upward drift in the polls largely occurred before election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, so cannot be attributed to a Corbyn effect. Whether these gains will persist as the election nears and PM Corbyn becomes a possibility, is of course open to debate. At present, though, there is no sign of Mr Corbyn’s election having any impact on his party’s overall support. UKIP support has remained steady at around 13%, and the party shows no signs of going away – even with its own internal conflicts following Nigel Farage’s “unresignation” in the summer. Lagging somewhat behind, the Liberal Democrats continue to flat-line at just under 7%. One of the patterns of the last parliament was the stubborn immovability of Liberal Democrat support. New party leader Tim Farron has much work on his hands to win back voters, and so far there are no green shoots for the party in our estimates. Finally, speaking of the Greens, their support appears to have been squeezed since Labour election Jeremy Corbyn – perhaps because voters attracted by their distinct left wing platform now feel more at home in the Labour party. It has fallen around 1.5 points since the summer. Our estimates for all the parties suggest that the electorate is still to make up its mind on both the new government and the fragmented and much changed opposition. But there are some big events on the horizon, in particular the EU referendum, which may yet provide a shock to move political support in one direction or the other.

UK 01-11-15 anchor on average (1)

One of the reasons why the polling miss back in May came as such a shock was that by election eve there was broad consensus among the pollsters about the level of support for the parties (though of course we noted house effects earlier in the campaign). However, in the period since May the polling has been characterised by much more variation in the standing of the parties. This is revealed in the figure above. The size of the confidence intervals for our estimates in the period since the election (an average of 2.3 points) are more than twice those for the 2010-15 election cycle or for the month just before the start of the short campaign (each an average of 1.1 points). This indicates a much higher level of uncertainty about the state of public opinion today. Part of this could be due to a lower volume of polling since May, or more variation in polling methodologies as pollsters take different approaches in response to May’s polling miss. The greater uncertainty may also reflect the much lower frequency of polling since the election – election watchers used to multiple daily polls have now to accept a more meagre diet of one or two polls a week. The greater uncertainty may, however, also reflect something more fundamental: genuine uncertainty, and hence greater volatility, in the minds of the electorate. Voters are faced with an unexpected Conservative majority government and an unfamiliar and polarising opposition leader attracting widely varying reactions in the media and within his own party. In such circumstances many may be genuinely unsure as to their preferences. Only time will tell whether this uncertainty lasts until the next general election. For now, it provides an important reminder of the need to take single poll results with a degree of caution.


Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien


[1] The average difference between this middle pollster and those pollsters that produce estimates that are systematically higher for a given party is the same as the average difference between this middle pollster and those pollsters that produce estimates that are systematically lower for that same party.

[2] We came to a similar conclusion during the last election cycle when it became apparent that our method of anchoring on the election result was excessively reducing the estimated level of support for the Liberal Democrats.


Polling Observatory Latest #GE2015 Forecast: the Conservatives make slight gains, but the likeliest result is deadlock

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 we enter the closing stretch of the campaign, substantial uncertainty remains about the final outcome. Taking out the random noise, the polls are still showing a close race ahead of May 7th. Some have pointed to differences between telephone and internet pollsters, with the former having shown a steady, if slight, Conservative lead all year. Our method allows us to control for systematic differences between polling houses and variation in the ‘poll of polls’ that is due to changes in the mix of pollsters in the field at a given point in time.

The latest Polling Observatory forecast covers all polls completed up until April 30th, and shows support for the two main parties is still in the balance – with Labour on 33.1% and the Conservatives on 34.2% — though the confidence intervals are such that we cannot say for certain that the Conservative lead is greater than zero.

Our vote forecast points to a higher level of support for the Conservatives than two weeks ago, up 1.4 points at 35.0%, with Labour on 32.6%, up 0.1 points. This reflects the squeeze that the “big two” have put on other parties in the final weeks of the campaign. The Conservative lead now stands at 2.4%, but with considerable uncertainty remaining in our forecast.

Forecast 01-05-15

This slight shift in the balance of polling is reflected in our latest seat estimates. The Conservatives’ median estimate rises by six seats, Labour falls by six seats, and the Liberal Democrats fall by four.  This puts the median Conservative seat lead at just two. However, as the confidence intervals attached to our estimates reveal, this projected lead is highly uncertain, a veritable coin-flip, with a 53 per cent chance that the Conservatives will have more seats than Labour. A majority for either is at present very unlikely, e.g., the likelihood of a Conservative majority is tiny (less than 0.2%). Our estimates further reflect the gains made by the SNP in recent polling in Scotland, with the nationalists now forecast to win 54 out of 59 seats north of the border.

Table 1: Seat estimates, with confidence intervals and change on April 15th

Party March 1st estimate April 1st estimate April 15th estimate April 30th estimate
Conservative 265 271 268 274 (+6)


Labour 285 276 278 272 (-6)

(244, 295)

Liberal Democrat 24 27 28 24 (-4)

(18, 29)

UKIP 3 3 3 2 (-1)

(1, 4)

SNP 49 49 49 54 (+5)

(46, 58)

Others 6 6 6 6

(4, 8)

Northern Ireland (not forecast) 18 18 18 18

The Conservatives’ paths to a governing coalition are even more winding than their slight lead in votes and seats. They cannot reach a majority with the backing of the Liberal Democrats (combined 298 seats, 15 short of a majority) or with both the Liberal Democrats and the Northern Irish DUP (combined 306 seats, assuming the DUP once again win 8 seats), or even by adding UKIP to that two party combination (308 seats total). It would be very hard, with this seat outcome, for the Conservatives to sustain a government without some form of acquiescence from the SNP. Things are rather more promising for Labour.  While they cannot reach a majority with the help of the Liberal Democrats (combined 300 seats), they can with SNP.  Whether that happens remains to be seen, of course.

Table 2: Most plausible governing combinations, based on March and April seat forecasts

Party March 1st estimate April 1st estimate April 15th estimate April 30th estimate
Conservatives + Lib Dems + DUP 298 307 305 306
Conservatives + Lib Dems + DUP + UKIP 301 310 308 308
Labour + SNP 334 325 327 326
Labour + Lib Dem 309 303 306 300
Labour + SDLP + Plaid Cymru + Green + Lib Dem 316 310 313 307
Labour + Lib Dem + SNP 358 352 355 354
Labour + SDLP + Plaid Cymru + Green + Lib Dem + SNP 365 359 362 361

Our projected numbers suggest that while the ballots may all have been counted by May 8th, the shape of the new government may be up in the air for some time after.

Update: we have mow updated our forecast with all polls up to the end of Tuesday 5th May, giving the final Polling Observatory forecast for this parliament:

Conservatives 34.5% (32.6, 36.4)

Labour 32.4% (29.7, 35.2)

Liberal Democrats 8.7% (6.9, 10.6)

In terms of seats, this translates into:

Labour 273 (246, 295)

Conservatives 271  (248, 299)

Liberal Democrats 24 (19, 28)

Scottish National Party 55 (49, 59)

Ukip 2 (1, 4)

Other 6 (4, 9)

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory analysis cited in OfCom’s statement on party election broadcasts

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.

Regular readers of the blog might be interested to know that our Polling Observatory analysis of support for the parties (a joint venture between the Universities of Southampton and Manchester, Simon Fraser University and the University of Texas at Austin) featured today in OfCom’s statement on party election broadcasts. You can read the full OfCom report, ‘Review of Ofcom list of major political parties for elections taking place on 7 May 2015’, here.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory #45: Parties neck-and-neck as we approach the formal campaign

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 forty-fifth 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 01-03-15 anchor on average

As we approach the electoral business-end of this parliament, the party machines are gearing up for the campaign proper – with a lot of nervous watching of the polls for signs of a sea change in opinion. Are the public steady in their voting intentions, or are they starting to move as polling day nears? Our latest report tracks the polls up to March 1st, so just before the eruption of ‘debate-gate’ arguments about the Prime Minister’s reluctance to appear in televised debates, and before the most recent run of polls that look potentially more favourable for the Conservatives, though as ever we reserve judgement until the underlying trend is clear.

Our evidence suggests that the parties remain neck-and-neck, with Labour support at 32.2% the same as last month, and the same as our estimate at the start of December too. The most recent erosion in Labour’s lead, which has now all but disappeared, has not been due to a decline in Labour support, as was true for most of last year, but instead due to  a slight improvement in Conservative fortunes. The Tories have gained 0.3 points this month, rising to 31.5%, one of their best performances in the past year or two. However, despite recent gains, we still have them in the 30 to 32% rut that they have been in since the infamous “omnishambles” budget in 2012. If the more recent uptick in support seen in March’s polling to date is sustained, the Conservatives might break out of the rut just as the election finish line approaches. This remains to be seen.

UKIP have fallen back again, down 0.7 points to 14.8%, their lowest share since September. While not quite at the peak they achieved in the autumn, possibly due to reduced attention over the past month, Farage’s radical right outsiders have become part of the political landscape and continue to attract enough support to threaten to wreak havoc in May. The Liberal Democrats have made a slight gain, rising 0.4 points to 8.4%, but still look destined for severe electoral pain. One much-caveated forecast based on data from the British Election Study suggesting they could win just one seat. Their fate in Parliament continues to hang on the ability of their MPs to generate ‘personal votes’ sufficient to swim against the tide of national unpopularity.

Finally, the Green surge appears to have levelled off for now. We have the party up  just 0.1 point past this month, to 6.4%. This is a new record, and puts support for the party just below the Lib Dems, but  the questions remain how ‘soft’ much of the Green vote is as Election Day approaches, and how effective the Greens will be in channelling rising national popularity into successful local campaigns.

Based on these current estimates of support for the parties, our vote forecast points towards a result in May that is too close to call. We put both Labour and the Tories on 33.7% but with a wide range of uncertainty.  Our forecast indicates that Labour support could fall within the 30.1% to 37.2% range and Conservative support in a slightly narrower range — between 31.9% and 34.4%. In short, history suggests there is still time for either Labour or the Conservatives to pull ahead, though neither has a clear advantage right now. The Liberal Democrat forecast continues to edge downwards as the long hoped for recovery in support continues to elude them. It now stands at 8.8%, which would be just over a third of the vote that they won in May 2010.

Vote Forecast 01-03-15

As the four party politics of 2014 has given rise to five or six party politics, and as UKIP and the SNP appear to have become part of the electoral landscape that has proved resilient, the Polling Observatory team has produced its first set of forecasts at the constituency level. On Friday, 13 March, 2015, we will release these seat level forecasts, along with an explanation of how our model of constituency simulations works, and  estimates of each party’s chances in every seat.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory #44: Race continues to narrow with less than 100 days left

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 forty-fourth 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 01-02-15 anchor on average

Politics has returned with a vengeance after a brief festive cease-fire. All the parties have moved into campaign mode with just a few months left until election day, and news schedules are now daily filled with briefings, policy announcements, and the wearying trench warfare of spin, with hyperbolic claims and counter-claims hurled back and forth. What have the voters made of it all? Our last report tracked polling up to the beginning of December, so the latest estimates from the Polling Observatory cover two months: the December lull as well as the January campaigning.

So far, there is little evidence of any decisive impact on the overall balance of power. Labour support has been stable for the past two months – our February 1st estimate of 32.2% is exactly the same as our estimate for December 1st. There has been a great deal written in the media about an alleged slump in Labour fortunes, but this story seems to be behind the curve of polling – Labour support did experience a substantial drop in the early autumn, but has been stable since. Given that much of the autumn fall in Labour support seems to be concentrated in Scotland, where the recent wave of constituency polls by Lord Ashcroft has confirmed a massive swing from Labour to the SNP, it is possible that overall support for Ed Miliband’s party has not declined at all in England and Wales in the past year.

Conservative support has picked up a bit over the past two months, but most of the gain merely recovered the ground lost in November. We now have them at 31.2%, one point behind Labour, and still stuck in the 30 to 32% band where they been marooned for almost three years. The Conservatives will hope that their positive economic message, and David Cameron’s sizeable ratings advantage over Ed Miliband, will start to deliver polling gains as the election approaches, but as yet we see little sign of this.

UKIP received less attention over the winter than they enjoyed during their vintage autumn, crowned by two by-election victories. This may explain the slight dip in their poll ratings, down 0.7 points to 15.5%. Both of the main parties will hope that Farage’s insurgents will be squeezed in a more sustained way as election day approaches, but there is no evidence of this yet – 15.5% remains above the highest ratings the party received before 2014.

The Liberal Democrats slid once again over the past two months – down 0.5% to 8.0%, a record low on our revised methodology. The party’s famed constituency campaign organisations become ever more vital to its prospects one election day as its national poll numbers continue to flatline.

The other big political story of the past two months has been the “Green surge”, with support for the environmentalists soaring, particularly among disaffected younger voters, and pushing the Liberal Democrats into fifth in some polls. This month we have for the first time added estimates for the Greens. Our systematic inspection of the polling evidence does not support the narrative of a “surge” concentrated in the past few months, which seems to be the result of selective analysis of the most favourable polls. Instead, we find that support for the Greens has been steadily increasing for about a year, and – at 6.3% – is now more than double the level recorded at the beginning of 2014. As so often in this turbulent election cycle, the true impact of the Greens’ rise is hard to gauge at present – while there is a sustained and genuine shift towards them, it is concentrated among the segment of the electorate (under 25s) that is least likely to vote, and also most likely to be adversely affected by new voter registration rules. In addition, the Greens’ organisation is relatively weak, and so there remain doubts about whether the party has the capacity to mobilise and turn out its new support base. Despite the conventional wisdom that the Greens are hurting Labour, it is striking that the rise in Green support over the past few months has much more closely mirrored the (continued) decline in Liberal Democrat support.

With the four party politics of 2014 now giving way to five or six party politics, it is becoming ever more important to consider May 2015 at the constituency level. We have been working hard on developing our constituency level prediction model over the past couple of months, and we will very shortly unveil our seat level forecasts for the election. These will then be updated regularly along with the polling estimates.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Why the UK Needs Improved Caretaker Conventions Before the May 2015 General Election

By Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu. Petra Schleiter is an Associate Professor and Valerie Belu a Masters Student, both at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. Their work on the UK’s caretaker conventions has been published at doi:10.1093/pa/gsu027.

In 2010, the UK’s underspecified caretaker conventions caused the “Squatter in Downing Street” controversy, when Gordon Brown remained in office after Labour’s election defeat, pending the completion of the coalition negotiations. Pollsters predict another hung parliament in May this year and potentially protracted coalition negotiations. Yet, the country still lacks adequate rules to govern caretaker situations, which gives rise to considerable risks.

Caretaker periods and their attendant challenges are universal to parliamentary democracies. The government’s mandate to exercise its executive powers stems from its ability to command the confidence of parliament. However, there are points in every parliament’s lifecycle when no government can lay claim to such support—between parliamentary dissolution and a general election; after a general election and before the new government is formed; or when an incumbent government loses the confidence of parliament. During such periods a government must be in place. But in the absence of parliamentary confidence these cabinets lack democratic legitimacy, which can pose significant problems when they are called upon to make controversial and consequential decisions. For this reason, most parliamentary democracies have developed rules to govern these situations, often in the form of constitutional laws.

In the UK, the rules governing caretaker situations have historically been underspecified. As long as elections produced single party parliamentary majorities, this posed no particular problems because government formation did not typically require complex coalition negotiations. Transition periods were short: on average, government formation in the UK took just four days in the period from 1945 to 1994, compared to an average of thirty-nine days for the rest of Western Europe. However, the recently lengthened election timetable, and polls that predict a more fragmented parliament, make clear that the UK is likely to experience a more extended caretaker period in May 2015.

Inadequate caretaker conventions give rise to considerable costs and risks. As the ‘squatter in Downing Street’ episode illustrates, they can generate high-profile political controversy. As a result, parties were forced into unwisely frantic government formation negotiations in 2010, under tremendous public and media pressure. Moreover, poorly specified caretaker conventions can cause serious economic instability when they fail to ensure that the normal process of government continues largely unhampered. In New Zealand in 1984, for instance, a serious exchange rate crisis was triggered by unclear caretaker conventions in the context of fundamental disagreements between the outgoing prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, and the incoming Labour administration over the country’s exchange rate policy. The Reserve Bank was forced to suspend all currency exchange dealings to halt a run on the dollar.

Increasing Vulnerability

Two developments have increased the UK’s vulnerability to crises during caretaker situations. First, the electoral timetable has been lengthened considerably. Following recommendations by the Modernisation Committee, twelve days were added to the period between the election and the first session of the new parliament in 2010, doubling the length of that period compared to the three previous elections. The Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 further extends the length of the general election timetable from seventeen to twenty-five days, excluding weekends and bank holidays. The anticipated cumulative effect of these changes is that ‘[t]he length of time between dissolution and the formation of the next government in 2015, and therefore the length of the caretaker/purdah period, may be considerably greater than for any other election in modern times’.[1]

Second, these institutional changes are compounded by secular electoral trends that are making hung parliaments and the need for coalition negotiations increasingly likely. The 2010 general elections produced the UK’s second hung parliament and its first coalition since the Second World War. Longitudinal data suggest that partisan de-alignment has steadily eroded the vote share accruing to the Conservative and Labour parties in the postwar era. In the 1955 general election, the two largest parties attained a combined vote share of 96.1 per cent. A mere 8 seats went to MPs from other parties. By 2010, the electoral dominance of the two parties had been significantly eroded—their joint vote share was 65.1 per cent and fully 86 seats went to parties other than the Conservatives and Labour. Pollsters predict another hung parliament in May this year, which is also likely to be characterized by a more complex constellation of political forces than its predecessor.

The UK’s caretaker conventions and their shortcomings

The UK’s current caretaker conventions are part of the Cabinet Manual (2011). They recognise three situations in which ‘governments are expected by convention to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character’: ‘in the period immediately preceding an election’, ‘immediately afterwards if the result is unclear’, and ‘following the loss of a vote of confidence’ (§2.27). In all three situations, the same ‘restrictions on government activity’ apply. The government is expected to defer activity such as ‘taking or announcing major policy decisions; entering into large/contentious procurement contracts or significant long-term commitments; and making some senior public appointments and approving Senior Civil Service appointments, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money’. The Manual further states, ‘[i]f decisions cannot wait they may be handled by temporary arrangements or following relevant consultation with the Opposition’ (§2.29).

However, these conventions still leave the UK vulnerable to crisis and controversy because of three major shortcomings which could easily be addressed.

First, the current rules do not fulfil the central and minimal purpose of caretaker conventions, which is to ensure that the country is never without an acting government. A key gap in the current UK caretaker conventions is the lack of provisions to prevent a caretaker government from resigning. The Cabinet Manual merely notes ‘[r]ecent examples suggest that previous Prime Ministers have not offered their resignations until there was a situation in which clear advice could be given to the Sovereign on who should be asked to form a government. It remains to be seen whether or not these examples will be regarded in future as having established a constitutional convention’ (§2.10). To date, therefore, there is no duty of the incumbent government to remain in office during caretaker periods until the next cabinet is formed.

To ensure effective governance in the transition period, it is essential that the Prime Minister and government do not resign until the next regular government has been formed. Clear expectations about the identity of the government during caretaker periods are critical in effectively managing political and economic uncertainty during those periods. The UK should therefore follow the example of other parliamentary democracies and affirm the first principle of all caretaker conventions: a caretaker government cannot resign until an alternative government has taken office because the country cannot be left without a functioning executive. If the Cabinet Manual is not the appropriate vehicle to introduce such an innovation, it could be securely established by legislation.

Second, the current conventions lack clarity about the termination of caretaker periods. The Cabinet Manual states that ‘[t]he point at which the restrictions on financial and other commitments should come to an end depends on circumstances, but may often be either when a new Prime Minister is appointed by the Sovereign or where a government’s ability to command the confidence of the Commons has been tested in the House of Commons’ (§2.30). A central feature of this guidance is its indeterminacy. In the absence of an investiture vote, there is no clear consensus as to when a government’s ability to command parliamentary support can be considered to have been tested. As the House of Commons Justice Committee concluded, the period in which the caretaker conventions apply should be carefully defined, and the fact that a caretaker period has commenced or concluded should be explicitly announced. Greater clarity would have the merit of helping to manage public expectations and market reactions during transitional periods, and would provide political actors with a clear understanding of the rules and restrictions that are in effect.

Third, the current caretaker conventions do not adequately detail the restrictions on government activity during caretaker periods. If the UK is to be well prepared for the possibility of a lengthy post-election caretaker period, more attention has to be given to the practicalities of applying the caretaker conventions. Caretaker conventions are self-policed; they are thus only effective in so far as all major parties agree in their interpretation of the general principles and accept cross-partisan responsibility for their maintenance and observance. To this end, it is important that all parties understand and agree on shared definitions of what constitutes ‘major policy decisions’, ‘large/contentious procurement contracts’ or relevant appointments, before these issues become contentious. Some Westminster systems have chosen ‘definitions revolving around the monetary value of the contract’, for example, and ‘many have codified the level of appointment [permitted without consultation during the caretaker period] with precision’.[2] Similarly critical are appropriate protocols for the consultation process between the government and the opposition, should they become necessary. One central question that requires clarification is the degree of agreement required between parties before decisions can be taken. Another question that ought to be clarified is who should participate in the consultations.


In sum, the UK’s caretaker conventions are inadequate and the price that the country may pay for the political and economic uncertainty that these rules may trigger is potentially high. The polls indicate that the UK is set to elect another hung parliament in May 2015. Policy makers should act now to develop more adequate caretaker rules. Moreover, they must ensure that the media, the markets and the public understand that adequate conventions allow the normal processes of government to continue largely unhampered while a new government is negotiated.

1. Remark made by Ruth Fox in her written evidence to House of Lords Library, LLN 2011/002: Constitutional and Parliamentary Effect of Coalition Government, 2011.

2. A. Tiernan and J. Menzies (2008). Caretaker Conventions in Australasia. Canberra, ANU E Press, 2008, pp. 36–7.

You can find the authors’ work on UK’s caretaker conventions here:

Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu. forthcoming. “The Challenge of Periods of Caretaker Government in the UK.” Parliamentary Affairs, online first Dec 2014, doi:10.1093/pa/gsu027.

Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu. 2014. “How to avoid the Squatter in Downing Street controversy: Improving the caretaker conventions before the 2015 General Election.” The Political Quarterly, 85(4): 454-461.

Polling Observatory #43: Stability returns with race close to dead heat

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 forty-third 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 01-12-14 anchor on average

After the storm, the calm. Last month we found one of the largest shifts in opinion we have recorded since 2010, as Labour support plunged nearly three points in a few weeks. This month things have been more settled. Labour have recovered slightly, rising 0.6 points to 32.2%. The Conservatives fell back a little in November, down 0.7 points to 30.0%. As a result, Labour’s lead, which had fallen to less than one percentage point at the end of October, has recovered to a still anaemic 2.2% as the Christmas break approaches. Labour will take solace from the fact that their autumn slump has halted, and that the Conservatives’ three year failure to recruit new support has continued for yet another month. The party seems never to have recovered from the damage done to its reputation by the omnishambles budget in the spring of 2012. However, a lead of two points remains awfully precarious, and as we saw in October all that Cameron’s party need is one strong month to pull ahead in the polls. Both parties will go into their Christmas break with reasons to hope, and plenty to worry about.

UKIP had another strong month in November, with Mark Reckless, their second defection from the Conservatives, comfortably elected in UKIP colours in a seat without a demographic pro-UKIP lean. The sustained upward trend in UKIP support continues for another month, as Farage’s insurgents rise to 16.2%, a new record, up one point on last month. The pollsters have now arrived at a clearer consensus on UKIP support, reflected in the narrower “confidence interval” in our estimate, shown by the dashed lines. Farage and his colleagues will certainly be among the nation’s most confident politicians going into Christmas break. A year ago, many doubted that the party could convert their rising support into Westminster seats. No longer. Now the questions under heated discussion at political Christmas parties will be: “how many seats? Where? From whom?” The party can take great pride in its achievements to date, but longer term challenges remain. Even if it were to win 10 seats, the top end of most expectations, that would see 15% of the vote converted to less than 2% of the elected parliamentary intake.

The national polling provides little Christmas cheer for the Lib Dems. We have them at 8.5% this month, the same as last month. Their struggles to hold off the challenge for fourth place from the Greens continue, though as yet we do not have an estimate of Green support. The main source of solace for Clegg’s party comes from the Ashcroft constituency polling, which shows many Lib Dem incumbents in a much stronger position than national polling suggests, although Clegg himself seems to be struggling to hold off a Labour challenge in his Sheffield Hallam seat.

This month we can also bring you an update on our national polling forecast figure. We didn’t publish a forecast last month, so the changes reported are on the figures from two months ago. Labour’s decline in the polls over that period also is reflected in our forecast, though we do anticipate some recovery from the current level. We forecast a share of 33.4% for Labour next May, representing a fall of 2.8 points over the past two months. The Conservatives’ forecast share has not risen, however – we have them winning 33.8%, up just 0.1% from October’s forecast. The Liberal Democrats are also expected to recover somewhat based on historical trends in the polls. Our current forecast is for 9.2%, up 0.5% on the previous estimate. As before, we do not make a direct forecast of UKIP support as our forecasting method is based on historical polling trends, and there is not sufficient data to apply this method to UKIP support. Forecast 01-12-14

The current polling and the forecast both point to a near dead-heat between the top two parties. Yet neither may be particularly reliable anymore as an indicator of how the next Parliament will look. British politics has never been more fragmented, and that fragmentation means geography and constituency context  could be decisive. Surging support for the SNP, UKIP and the Greens is impossible to understand without focussing on the constituency battles where these parties will look to convert votes into seats, while the fate of the Liberal Democrats will turn on whether their legendary local campaigning skills can still deliver in a Siberian climate for the national party. We will shortly unveil our seat-level forecasting model, which attempts to capture some of this variation from seat to seat and produce a more accurate assessment of how the fragmented national political competition will play out in the hundreds of local contests which will decide next year’s outcome. In the meantime, we will continue to keep our usual close watch on the polls, as the closest political contest in a generation enters its final stages.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien