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.

Conclusions

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

Polling Observatory #39: Big two recover as UKIP fall back

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 thirty-ninth 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 06-08-14 anchor on average

This month’s Polling Observatory comes after a month of political twists and turns – most notably with the resignation of Baroness Warsi over the Israel/Gaza crisis and the general election gate-crashing act performed by Boris Johnson. Last month we reported a slight rebound in the polls for Labour but were cautious over the presence of a ‘Junker’ bounce in Conservative fortunes, despite much fanfare in the media. This month’s estimates suggest the Conservatives have made some recovery, but despite one poll putting the Conservatives ahead, and another showing Labour in front by 8%, the underlying position remains a narrow but significant Labour lead.  The Conservatives have posted a solid gain in support in July, rising 1.2 points. They now are at 32.0%, close to their highest level of support since the beginning of 2012. However, Conservative support still remains within the 30-32% band they have settled into for over two years, a band they must break out of to have any prospect of being the largest party in 2015.

Labour also gained significantly this month, up 0.7 points, at 35.3%. This blunts the impact of the Conservative rebound, and is the second significant gain in the row for the party, who are now about 2 points above their low ebb in the late spring, though still well below the high-30s range they typically enjoyed last year. Labour’s lead over the Conservatives is now 3.3 points – close to the all time low found in our March estimate.

The narrow gap at the top will give the blues a boost, but the Conservatives are still persistently behind the opposition and time is ticking away. Interestingly, these changes are in line with what we would expect from our forecasting model – with both parties expected to receive greater support in May 2015 than they are currently polling.

To some it is difficult to comprehend that Labour is holding a steady poll lead despite the strong negatives of their leader and the continued view from the electorate that the party is partly to blame for the continued economic travails of the UK. However, the reality is that Miliband’s negatives are already ‘priced in’ to Labour support, while Cameron also suffers from relatively anaemic leader ratings by historical comparison. Further, for all Labour’s negatives, the party retains the image of being well-intentioned if flawed and ineffectual, whereas the Conservatives are toxic with large parts of the electorate, and have done nothing to address this, aside from a few last minute electoral giveaways. With Boris Johnson on manoeuvres for the leadership of the party, and several MPs stepping down ahead of the election (including several of the 2010 intake), party discipline is in a fragile state – leaving Chief Whip Michael Gove with a crucial role before the general election.

After a sustained surge in support, UKIP have fallen back, down 1.5 points at 13.3%. This fallback is in line with what we saw in 2013, when UKIP surged after electoral success brought them media attention but fell back somewhat over the summer. Last year, the party retained quite a bit of its new support, levelling off at about 10%, several points above their level in 2012. Their current 13% share is well above where they were at this time last year, but only time will tell whether they are able to retain the new recruits won in the European campaign. The UKIP narrative surely will return to the top of the media agenda ahead of the May 2015 general election, providing the party with another possible  shot in the arm, and UKIP’s membership and political donations are currently at record highs.  Farage’s fox is not shot yet.

Despite their fall-back, UKIP remain well above the Liberal Democrats who are flat-lining below the 10% level, specifically, at 8.8%, with no change on last month. For both parties, however, the national share of the vote will be less important than their local strength in seats that they are trying to take or hold. The recent Ashcroft poll of Tory marginals revealed that UKIP is outperforming their national figures considerably where they have a strong local campaign – and where features of the constituency are in their favour. Earlier Ashcroft marginals polling suggests that the Liberal Democrats also do better in the seats where they are well entrenched and seeking to hold off Conservative challengers, though Clegg’s party is in deep trouble when Labour is the challenger.

The same story also applies, to a lesser extent, to the larger parties. Strong incumbents often enjoy a local bonus in support which can help them weather a national swing away from their party, while weak challengers can under-perform. The local social and demographic mix of a seat can also play an important role – as seen in 2014 local elections where Labour performed strongly in diverse London boroughs while UKIP surged in seats with concentrations of older, white working class “left behind” voters. The 2015 election is not a national popularity contest but 650 local popularity contests. As we roll out our constituency-level forecasts in the coming months, we will start to analyse how to translate the national picture into a map of the local constituency battles which will ultimately decide who governs after May 2015.

 

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.

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