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

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 #42: Sharp drop in Labour support adds further confusion to the most chaotic election in living memory

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-second 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 01-11-14 anchor on average

In last month’s Polling Observatory we noted remarkable stability in the polls despite a hugely eventful political month. This month we find the opposite pattern. A relatively subdued political month has been accompanied by one of the largest shifts in opinion we have observed since the beginning of this parliament. Labour’s vote share, at 31.6%, is down 2.8 points in just a month, erasing nearly all of the fragile lead over the Conservatives that the party have been clinging to over the past six months. This plunge in support is among  the largest shifts in opinion we have recorded since 2010, and implies that about one in twelve Labour voters has drifted away from the party in the past few weeks. A significant part of this drop may be the result of the seismic shift in opinion north of the border, where support for the Scottish National Party has surged dramatically, threatening Labour’s long hegemony in Scottish Westminster polls and votes. The Conservatives, by contrast, have recovered some of the ground they lost last month, rising 0.6 points to 30.7%. The top two parties are now within just a single percentage point of each other, pointing to a tightening race with just six months to go to the general election.

Meanwhile UKIP have consolidated their large gain last month, and are stable on 15.2%. However, as the widening dashed lines around our latest UKIP estimate indicate, there is an unusually high degree of uncertainty about UKIP support at the moment. This reflects the substantial spread in UKIP support in the polls. Some pollsters are showing the party at 20% or higher, and indeed in the aftermath of the Clacton by-election one Survation poll reported UKIP as high as 25% (and another ComRes poll put them on 24% around the same period). In contrast, other pollsters have them stable in the mid-teens, for example with both Populus and YouGov often finding UKIP support in the 13% to 15% range.

As we have discussed previously, our method makes it possible to estimate the ‘house effect’ for each polling company for each party, relative to the vote intention figures we expect from the average pollster. That is, it tells us simply whether the reported vote intention for a given pollster is above or below the industry average. This does not indicate ‘accuracy’, since there is no election to benchmark the accuracy of the polls against. 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. In the table below we report the ‘bias’ towards or against each of the parties for all current polling companies. From this, it is quickly apparent that the largest range of house effects are found in the estimation of UKIP support, with Survation’s figures 4.3 points higher than the average pollster, followed by Opinium at 2.8 points higher and Lord Ashcroft at 2.1 points higher. In contrast, ICM put UKIP 2.6 points lower, ComRes (telephone) 2.5 points lower and Ipsos-MORI 1.8 points lower. As when we reported on this previously, the uncertainty seems to be associated with the method a pollster employs to field a survey. All the companies who poll by telephone (except Lord Ashcroft’s weekly poll) tend to give lower scores to UKIP. By contrast, three of the five companies which poll using internet panels give higher than average estimates for UKIP. The diversity of estimates indicates the continued uncertainty about the extent to which UKIP is reshaping the political landscape at the present time, where the lack of a clear precedent means that pollsters have little previous information to use to calibrate their estimates.

With the top two parties effectively tied, and the pollsters divided about the performance of the surging insurgents who may decide their fates, the outcome of the 2015 election has never been less certain.

House Mode Adjustment Prompt Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
ICM Telephone Past vote, likelihood to vote UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 1.3 -0.8 2.7 -2.6
Ipsos-MORI Telephone Likelihood (certain) to vote Unprompted 0.5 0.3 0.5 -1.8
Lord Ashcroft Telephone Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ -0.9 -0.6 -1.0 2.1
ComRes (1) Telephone Past vote, squeeze, party identification UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 0.3 -0.1 0.1 -2.5
ComRes (2) Internet Past vote, squeeze, party identification UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 0.3 -0.7 -1.0 1.8
YouGov Internet Newspaper readership, party identification (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 1.9 2.1 -1.3 -0.4
Opinium Internet Likelihood to vote UKIP prompted if ‘other’ -0.8 -0.8 -2.2 2.8
Survation Internet Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010) UKIP prompted -1.7 -1.4 -0.3 4.3
Populus Internet Likelihood to vote, party identification (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 2.4 1.7 0.1 -2.1

Another polling sub-plot which emerged this past month has been the emergence of the Greens as yet another potent force in the fragmenting political landscape. A number of polls have put their support at 6% or 7%, a massive increase on their 2010 showing of less than 1% (though this is artificially deflated as the party stood candidates in less than 50% of constituencies), and close to or even above the struggling Liberal Democrats. We do not currently estimate support for the Greens, but will investigate adding them to our model if the current surge in support is sustained. Currently, we have the Lib Dems at 8.5%, up 0.3 points on last month. Although falling behind the Greens is symbolically bad for the party, and provides seasoned poll watchers with an exciting new story, the substantive impact of this new twist is likely to be limited. The Lib Dems’ fate still depends on how well they can hold on to votes in their traditional constituency strongholds.

Despite the sharp fall in their support this month, Labour still hold important structural advantages thanks to the biases in the electoral system, which mean their votes translate more effectively into seats. Lord Ashcroft has been doing the psephological community a huge service by systematically polling the individual marginal seats which will decide the result next year. Using this method, he has already identified enough prospective Labour gains to put the party ahead on seats next year, and he still has many more strong prospects to poll. However, as Lord Ashcroft’s himself wisely reminds us, polls are a snapshot not a prediction, and Labour’s leads in many key marginals look awfully fragile. The opposition remains, slightly, in front for one more month. But there are six more to go, and if just one of these looks like October, the contest will be thrown wide open.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

The Polling Observatory Forecast #5: Conservatives fading away?

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 01-10-14

This month’s Polling Observatory reported largely stable electoral preferences during September, despite a turbulent month at the summit of politics.  The shares for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and especially the Conservatives declined slightly, the latter by 1.1%.  UKIP was the beneficiary, and gained 1.2%, almost exactly what the Conservatives lost.  The forecast based on these numbers yet again finds the two major parties locked in a statistical dead heat but with the Conservatives slipping back further, down 1.2% to 33.7%.  The gap between the parties widened a little less as our Labour forecast also fell slightly, and now stands at 2.5%.

The inability of the Conservatives to close the gap in voter preferences makes it less and less likely that they can overtake Labour.  Our forecast share for them has declined steadily because they are not making the gains in the polls history suggests they ought to be at this stage.  Time is running out for Cameron’s party, and unless they can produce a sustained recovery in their polling numbers our forecast will continue to decline.  However, it is worth remembering that swings in the polls are possible even very late in the day, and the gap between the top two remains narrow enough for our forecast to be a statistical dead heat.  All signs still point to a very close election.

Things are even worse for the Liberal Democrats, whose  forecast share drops again, by 0.4% to 8.7%.  Should the performance continue, there surely will be consequences for the share of the seats in Parliament as well, specifics of which we are planning to provide in our next (November) post.

In the meantime, we are keeping a close watch on the polls in the wake of the party conferences.  Is there a lasting Conservative bounce coming after Cameron’s speech highlighting tax cuts and further reductions in the size of the state? Or will this prove fleeting, as the news agenda moves on to NHS strikes, health scares and foreign entanglements? Only time and the data it reveals will tell.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory #41: Opinion stable for now, but election battle lines are being drawn

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-first 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 01-10-14 anchor on average

This month’s Polling Observatory update comes after another tumultuous month in British politics – one that  began with the shock defection of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell to UKIP; followed by the frantic conclusion to Scottish Independence referendum campaign, which saw the highest voter turnout seen in a post-war British election, and  immediately kicked off a new constitutional battle over ‘English votes for English laws’. After all this drama, party conference season was likely to feel anti-climatic and an anodyne Labour Party conference featuring tired activists and a flat leader’s speech delivered on this expectation. The fireworks soon began flying again, however, as Nigel Farage’s insurgents used their conference to declare war on Labour in Northern constituencies, and unveil a second Conservative defection right on the eve of the main governing party’s conference. Rumbling in the background through all this has been the steadily worsening Middle East crisis, leading to a recall of Parliament and a return of Britain to conflict in the region.  Summer silly season is definitely at an end.

Our latest report covers polling data up to October 1st – just prior to David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference, which was widely heralded in the media for its promise of jam tomorrow (future tax cuts). We therefore miss any possible conference ‘bounce’ from the speech – hinted at by three polls, two in succession by YouGov and one by Lord Ashcroft – putting the Conservatives ahead. As ever, we would be cautious about over-interpreting sudden and large movements in the polls, not least as two other polls have shown Labour maintaining their lead – and the latest YouGov poll puts Labour back two points in front. We shall see next month whether Cameron’s supposed conference ‘bounce’ holds up once the news cycle has moved on.

The big movers in September were UKIP, who gained 1.2 points, rising to 15.2%, and the Conservatives, who fell 1.1 points, down to 30.1%. The defection of two Conservative MPs – Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – to UKIP may therefore have led some of their fellow partisans to make a similar switch. Victories for one or both of the defectors in their new party’s colours, and the positive media coverage that would doubtless follow UKIP’s first Parliamentary wins, could encourage further moves in the polling. With constituency polls for both Clacton and Rochester & Strood currently pointing towards UKIP victories, Nigel Farage’s rebels look set to keep up the pressure on the Conservatives over the next couple of months.

Despite a lacklustre conference, our estimates see Labour stable on 34.4%, with no change from last month. As a result, Labour have preserved their fragile poll lead for another precious month. Indeed, the lead as estimated just prior to the Conservative conference was the highest we have recorded for six months, though it remains within the narrow 3 to 5 point band that it has been stuck on for most of 2014. The Liberal Democrats still face a daunting electoral challenge, with their support down 0.3 points on 8.3%.

It will be interesting to see whether the apparent conference bounce for the Conservatives is sustained at all. It is worth remembering that an 8% swing over the course of just a matter of days implies that over two million people have adjusted their voting intention in response to a single speech The empirical evidence of post-conference bounces in the polls is weak, and there is very little chance of these lasting through to election day. Most of the effects of events on public opinion are gradual and slow-moving. In this respect, it may be the tone set by Cameron’s speech – with its focus on tax cuts for middle and higher income earners and further reductions in the size of the state – which may matter most. The speech draws clear battle lines over taxation and spending for the coming election, perhaps the clearest seen for twenty years, but may also imperil the Conservatives’ hard won reputation for fiscal responsibility, as shown by the criticism of the unfunded tax cut announcements by trusted sources.  So while we are sceptical that Cameron’s speech alone has changed many minds in the last few days, it could nonetheless usher in a new phase of public opinion dynamics as voters react to the newly drawn divides between the parties.

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.