Polling Observatory #35: Politics, Fast and Slow

This is the thirty-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.

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This month’s Polling Observatory is the first since the March budget, widely reported to have driven a bounce in support for the Conservatives. There is certainly evidence of a narrowing in the gap between the top two parties: our estimate puts Labour on 36.2%, down 0.8 percentage points on last month, and their lowest share since the end of 2010.  The Conservatives are up on 33.0%, up 0.9 points on last month and their highest share since early 2012. This leaves the gap between the parties at 3.2%, the lowest we have recorded since the parties briefly drew level in the aftermath of David Cameron’s European treaty veto in late 2011. It seems our speculation about a possible “voteless recovery” last month may have been premature. Meanwhile, in the undercard fight, UKIP come in at 12.1% this month, down 0.6% on last month, while the Liberal Democrats post a figure of 7.6%, up 0.4% on last month’s score.

The Conservatives’ renewed strength in the polls may owe something to a well-received budget from George Osborne, but when we take a longer view it becomes apparent that this latest narrowing is in fact the a continuation of a very gradual trend that has been proceeding, in stop-start fashion, for more than a year – as our excellent colleague Anthony Wells noted in his year-end review. In the early months of last year, Labour leads over the Conservatives were in double digits. This fell to under six points in the summer, before rebounding slightly in the autumn. Since November 2013, though, the narrowing has continued, and the lead has fallen from just under seven points to just over three.

Regular readers of this blog will know that we are cautious about identifying trends in what is often stable opinion, and also wary of using figures on polling leads, which are subject to more volatility and random variation. The underlying pattern here is however clear – the gap between the top two parties is steadily narrowing. Our main chart suggests this is the product both of rising Conservative support and falling Labour support, and also suggests that this is happening despite no decline in support for UKIP, who many argue are the main cause of recent Conservative weakness

Labour leads over the Conservatives since January 2013

Labour leads

This slow but steady change in public opinion is not, however, the product of short term shifts in the political weather – the gentle ebbs and flows in public opinion over the Parliament do not have much relationship to the torrent of scandals, gaffes, policy announcements and message battles which constitutes the day to day world of politics for those in the media. This disconnect between the narratives about political events that are popularised by politicians and the media, and the slowly shifting tides of public opinion highlights the two-speed nature of politics. In Westminster, politics is a frantic day-to-day activity, conducted in the merciless glare of a 24 hour news cycle. Out in the country, politics is a marginal interest, on the fringes of attention, and opinions change slowly.

Those who make a habit of following political stories on newspaper front pages – or via highly charged political Twitter feeds easily forget that most voters are paying little to no attention to the events which are filling their days. Even major political set-pieces like the budget, Prime Minister’s Questions, or the Clegg-Farage debates barely register with many voters. Indeed, most of the population are at work during PMQs, unable to tune in to a television or a politics live blog, while the vast majority had much more interest in the latest goings on in Albert Square or Coronation Street than the duelling rhetoric of Nigel and Nick. Even economic news, which is of more immediate interest to many voters, tends to trickle down as a gradual process of diffusion, either in a general sense among the public that things are getting better or worse for the country or more directly as people feel better about the pounds in their pocket, and more eager to spend them. In practice, the fallout from political events is usually slow and sluggish, as it takes a long time for voters to notice and respond to things which are a long way from their everyday concerns.

Shifts in public opinion therefore tend to take place slowly, over long periods of time (with rare, but important, exceptions such as the Cameron veto and the “omnishambles” budget). Political commentators, however, exist entirely in the “high frequency politics” world, and interpret every day’s and week’s events in terms set by this world, projecting them onto the wider public, whose indifference is so far from their own everyday experience that it is hard for them to keep it in mind. Every minor event is expected to produce a sharp public reaction and every momentary twitch in the pulse of public opinion is attributed to the stories attracting Westminster buzz. As we write, much ink is being spilled over the public opinion implications of Maria Miller’s expenses, yet there is no sign that this is having any impact on the polls, nor should we expect it to when most voters have only a sketchy understanding of who Ms Miller is or what she is supposed to have done. This may change as the story gradually diffuses through the electorate, or if it takes a new turn. More likely, however, is that it will simply come and go, like many earlier stories before it, without leaving any lasting mark, aside perhaps from intensifying a little the “pox on all your houses” sentiment which has helped to fuel the rise in UKIP support.

It is important to bear in mind that the important, and lasting, changes in public opinion take place gradually, often too slowly to perceive without the benefit of months of data, because as election fever takes hold in the Westminster village, the focus on “fast politics” will become ever more intense. There will be many moments and many stories that are presented to us as ‘game-changers’ or turning points. In most cases they will be nothing of the sort, while the real action takes place away from the noisy slapstick comedy playing out on the news channels. Millions of voters will begin settling on their choices, nudged this way and that by forces which are, to some extent, predictable. The regularity of the tidal forces which move the “slow politics” of voters’ shifting opinions allow us to make modestly informed forecasts about the direction public opinion will take next, based on the lessons of history. Such forecasts are inevitably limited, particularly this far out – every election is in some respects unique, and we only have polling data for about 15 previous election cycles. Nonetheless, they tell us something useful about the likely direction of public opinion, and do better than guessing the outcome based on where opinion is now. Next month, with exactly a year to go until the general election, we will unveil our first forecast of the most likely state of public opinion on polling day next year, and how this will translate into seats in the House of Commons. There is still a long way to go, but our initial analysis suggests that the narrowing over the past year is in accordance with past trends. Tune in next month to find out if we expect it to continue…

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup


Polling Observatory #34: A voteless recovery so far but still time to turn the tide?

This is the thirty-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.

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On Wednesday, George Osborne will get up to deliver what is certain to be the sunniest Budget statement of his Treasury career. All the statistical indicators now point to a robust recovery – steady growth in GDP, falls in unemployment, and rising business and consumer confidence. The cloud on the horizon for Osborne and his Conservative colleagues is that there is, as yet, little evidence that the improving economic climate is improving the government’s political fortunes. With each passing month, the lack of any meaningful movement in the polls increases anxiety about a voteless recovery in 2015, with British voters unwilling to give the government any electoral reward for the much discussed “tough decisions” of the past few years. .

The story from February’s Polling Observatory estimates is much the same as in previous months. Once again, we can report that these suggest no dramatic changes in the status quo that has been in place since last autumn. We estimate Labour support this month at 37.0%, down 0.8% on January. The Conservatives come in at 32.1%, up 0.2% on last month. The overall gap has thus narrowed to under 5%, but both parties’ shares are broadly in line with previous estimates. There is not yet any evidence of sustained movement away from Labour or towards the Conservatives. We estimate UKIP support at 12.7%, up 0.9% on last month, and our highest estimate for the party since their peak after last May’s unexpected local election triumphs. The approaching European Parliament elections should provide a favourable environment for UKIP, so they may see further increases in support in the coming months. The Liberal Democrats have endured another poor month, and our estimates place them at 7.2%, the same as last month. Time will tell whether Nick Clegg’s new strategy of direct engagement with UKIP will help to reverse his party’s long polling slump.


There are, however, some green shoots of recovery in other polling. In YouGov’s regular tracking poll of government performance on the economy, the share saying the government handling the economy well now stands at 41%, up 16 percentage points on its low point in the summer of 2012, and the highest level seen since December 2010. The share rating the state of the economy as “bad” stands at 45% with the same pollster, which sounds pretty awful but is in fact the lowest figure recorded in this Parliament. For most of 2011 and 2012, between 70 and 80% of voters took a dim view of economic conditions. Finally, YouGov’s “feel-good factor” index – the balance of households expecting things to improve minus those who think things will get worse – now stands at -20. Once again, this sounds bad but we must factor in a general Eeyorish tendency in the British public – the last time the figure was this high was in the first half of 2010, when Labour staged a sustained rally in the polls in the run-up to the 2010 election. Other pollsters tell a similar story – Ipsos-MORI’s economic optimism index has shown a sustained run of strongly positive figures, the most positive since the beginning of New Labour’s government in 1997. Osborne can take additional comfort from his sobering experience in 2012 – when his “omnishambles” budget was followed by a sharp decline in Conservative poll ratings – while this was not the public reaction he was hoping for it did at least demonstrate that the budget is one of the rare political events with some capacity to move public opinion. With the public finances improving at last, he may hope to be able to offer enough goodies to voters to move the dial in the other direction this week.

While public opinion remains in a steady state, there are thus reasons for hope for government politicians: voters have noticed the improved economic climate, though they have yet to give the government any credit for it. The government can take further hope from polling history:  our analysis of historical polling trends, suggest that Labour still have plenty to worry about over the next 14 months. Our Polling Observatory forecast model, which analyses historical polling trends to project the current state of public opinion forward to election day, suggests the likeliest outcome currently is a modest recovery in the Conservatives’ poll share, sufficient to make the next election a statistical dead heat in vote shares. This outcome would likely still translate into a small Labour majority because of biases built into the electoral system, but this projection highlights the very real possibility of another hung parliament if  Labour cannot maintain its poll lead in the coming months. The evidence from past election campaigns suggests that there is currently still plenty of time for opinion to change, and the economic opinion data provides one strong reason to suggest that it may do so. Each month from here on in is crucial for the parties’ electoral fates: the link between current polling and subsequent election results becomes steadily closer with each passing month in the last year of a Parliament, making a 5 point lead harder and harder to overhaul. There is still time for the parties, and their leaders, to change their electoral fates, but it is starting to run out.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #33: Public opinion steady through the storms

This is the thirty-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.

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January has been a stormy month in and out of politics. While freak storms have dominated the news agenda, politicos have been more excited by freak polls. Conservative activists took the airwaves and the internet to trumpet a YouGov poll showing Labour’s lead over their party down to 2%, only to be beaten back by Labour activists touting another poll by the same company, just days later, showing the Labour lead back into double digits. The reactions such polls garner are a powerful demonstration of the effect of selective, partisan attention – an outlier poll showing the gap between the parties disappearing or yawning wider than it has for many months, is widely quoted, touted and debated. The many other more mundane readings of public opinion receive little attention. The casual reader is left with the impression that public opinion is chaotic, and everything is up for grabs.

Yet, once we put all the data together, those noisy, attention seeking outliers no longer drive the story. The dull reality this month, as in most months of this parliament, is that public opinion hasn’t moved at all. We estimate Labour this month at 37.8%, up 0.2% on last month. The Conservatives come in at 31.9%, up 0.9% on last month, but merely a return to their steady position in the autumn after a brief Christmas downtick. UKIP stand at 11.8%, down 0.3% on the month, while we estimate the Lib Dems at 7.2%, down 0.6% on last month, one of their weaker showings but not yet evidence of any sustained decline on their long run equilibrium.

While commentators paid to follow the torrent of current affairs full time tend to read meaning into every minor tremor in the polls, in reality public opinion moves slowly, and seldom. The current deadlock in public opinion – with Labour steady in the high thirties, the Conservatives in the low thirties, UKIP around 10-13% and the Lib Dems a little behind them, is by our count the sixth phase in the evolution of the parties’ standing with the electorate over the course of this Parliament. The story to date has run like this:

Phase 1. May 2010 to December 2010: The Conservatives share is high and steady in the initial Coalition honeymoon period, while left-leaning Liberal Democrats angered by their party’s alliance with the Conservatives depart for Labour in droves. Lib Dem support falls, and Labour’s rises, throughout this period. The cumulative swing in support during this period was very large – 12 points or more – sufficient to put Labour ahead of the Conservatives within a year of their worst defeat for a generation. The Liberal Democrats slump to below 10 percent by the end of this period, and has remained steady at 8-10 points ever since.

Phase 2. January 2011 to November 2011: A slow decline in Conservative fortunes as the economy stagnates and the public sours on austerity spending cuts. Labour’s revival stalls as they run out of left of centre Lib Dems to recruit and prove unable to win over disaffected Conservatives. UKIP support begins ticking steadily up in the period, but remains largely below the media radar.

Phase 3. December 2011 to February 2012: A rare example of current events triggering a genuine shift in public opinion, as Cameron’s EU veto, and the widespread positive coverage of it in the Eurosceptic parts of the press bring the Conservatives a short lived win over UKIP, enough to bring their support briefly level with Labour. 

Phase 4. March 2012 to December 2012: The Conservatives’ support collapses sharply in the spring, while Labour’s rises. Labour moves from a dead heat to a ten point lead in a few months. While the “Omnishambles” budget, and other political mis-steps such as the bungled deportation of Abu Qatada are possible triggering events, it is also possible that the Conservatives’ Christmas 2011 rally was unsustainable, and that they were bound to revert to their equilibrium position once normal service resumed. Things level off by the summer, and for the rest of the year the Conservatives languish around 10 points behind Labour. UKIP continue their slow but steady rise, and by the end of the year are competing with the Lib Dems for third place.

Phase 5. January 2013 – June 2013: UKIP become the big story as their support surges ahead, and they deliver an impressive and largely unexpected haul of local election victories. The wave of positive media coverage that ensues further propels them upwards, to a peak of close to 15% at midsummer. The UKIP surge is reported largely as a Conservative problem, but the polls tell a different story: both Labour and the Conservatives lose ground as UKIP advance. UKIP are more than just a Conservative revolt, as our sister blog UKIPwatch has explained.

Phase 6. July 2013 – present: UKIP fall back a little as the media move on to other stories, but the insurgents keep much of the new support they have picked up and remain well ahead of the Lib Dems in third. The Conservatives recover their lost ground, but Labour do not, resulting in a narrower lead of 5-8 points over the Conservatives. By the autumn, the pattern is set and has continued to date.

Six phases in four years suggests that, with over a year to go, there is still time for another twist in the tale. While this is true, the scope for large shifts ahead of the election is narrowing every month. Who is going to change their minds? The ten percent bloc of the electorate that switched from the Liberal Democrats to Labour at the start of the Parliament shows few signs of having second thoughts, and, given their hostility to the government and its leading figures is almost equal to Labour’s, there is little reason to think they will in the near future. Labour’s gains from this group look secure.

At the other end of the spectrum, the ten percent chunk of the electorate who have switched their allegiance to UKIP also look tough to convince. These voters are angry, disaffected and deeply hostile to the whole political mainstream. It is possible that concerns about the futility of a UKIP vote in most local constituencies will induce some to drift back to the mainstream, but we wouldn’t bet on it. Given their generally bitter outlook, such voters may prefer staying home than backing one of the hated “LibLabCon”.

The balance therefore lies, as it often does, with the mushy middle and the economy. The likeliest driver of a shift in sentiment over the next year would be if sustained economic recovery started to be felt in the pockets, and the minds, of uncommitted voters. Conservative pundits are fond of likening 2015 to 1992 – an election when a large Labour lead evaporated due to lasting public concerns about the opposition party’s ability to manage the economy. They should also give thought to the sobering possibility that 2015 will instead play out like 1997 – when an unpopular Conservative incumbent waited in vain for a surging economy to deliver a rebound in their support. The same combination of buoyant economic numbers and stagnant poll numbers is playing out again today, and every month it continues, the brows in Conservative Central Office will be furrowing a little deeper.

P.S. In an excellent blog on Lib Dem prospects, Lewis Baston has queried whether our method is a little bearish on the party. We agree with many of his points, and will return to this issue in more detail in a future post. Our modelling choices do look a little harsh on the Lib Dems at present, but this was not so clear when we set up our polling model in 2010, and we are reluctant to confuse our analysis by changing our methods half way through a Parliament. The choice of model does have some impact on overall Lib Dem support levels, but it has no impact on the broad trend: the Lib Dems lost over half their support in their first year in government and have, to date, found no effective methods to bring their national popularity back up again. However, we agree with both Lewis and Stephen Tall that the national poll numbers are misleading for the party, whose fate will be decided, more than those of the other parties, by their local constituency campaigns.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

This blog is cross-posted at Manchester Policy Blogs, NottsPolitics and The Telegraph blogs.