Polling Observatory #GE2017 campaign report #2:

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). You can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This post is part of a long-running series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates can be found here and here.

The Polling Observatory is now able to report on polling from the first fortnight of the election campaign. Our estimates show several notable changes on last time. Firstly, the Conservatives gained nearly three points after announcement of the general election but in the last week this gain has stalled – with their support now standing at around 46%. The big losers in the polls so far are UKIP – who have dropped several points in just the last two weeks (now at 7%). Indeed, their support has almost halved since mid-February, pointing to a bleak electoral outlook for the party. As we noted last time, UKIP’s collapse has closely mirrored the surge in Conservative support. Contrary to expectations, Labour has gained in the polls – with its support now standing at 28%, two points higher than in our last report. In contrast, the Liberal Democrats have fallen back slightly, at 10% still only a couple of points higher than their disastrous performance in 2015.

So far, the polls tell a pretty clear and straightforward story: a towering Conservative lead over their main challengers Labour, the collapse of UKIP and marginal revival of the Liberal Democrats. Whether any surprises lie in wait for us in the next five weeks depends largely upon whether the early Conservative surge wears off at all and whether Corbyn’s Labour can muster further gains in support that would deny Theresa May the landslide that looks on the cards.

UK 01-05-17 anchor on average

 

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory campaign report #1: reading polling tea leaves in the shadow of the bonfire of the experts

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). You can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This post is part of a long-running series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates can be found here and here.

It has been almost 18 months since the Polling Observatory’s last investigation of the Westminster polls, though the intervening period has seen dramatic political events – Britain’s vote to leave the EU, a change in Prime Minister, and much more besides.

The surprise result of the 2015 general election prompted much reflection on the reliability of polling methodologies – most notably in the report of the official inquiry into the pre-election polls – as did the outcome of the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. The vanquishing of the polls, and election forecasts, has added fuel to the bonfire of the experts. To populists, the unpredictability of voters may serve to further undercut the authority of elites.

While the events of 2015 and 2016 provided a valuable reminder that a dose of caution is needed when digesting the latest polls, they remain the best way of assessing relative shifts in public opinion.

As regular readers will know, we pool all the information that we have from current polling to estimate the underlying trend in public opinion, controlling for random noise in the polls. Our method controls for systematic differences between polling ‘houses’ – the propensity for some pollsters to produce estimates that are higher or lower on average for a particular party than other pollsters. While we can estimate how one pollster systematically differs from another, we have no way of assessing which is closer to the truth (i.e. whether the estimates are ‘biased’). This was where our election forecast came unstuck in 2015, as the final polls systematically over-estimated support for Labour and under-estimated support for the Conservatives.

Because most pollsters have made methodological adjustments since May 2015 – designed to address this over-estimation of Labour support – it is inappropriate to ‘anchor’ our estimates on their record at previous elections. Instead, we anchor our estimates on the average pollster. This means the results presented here are those of a hypothetical pollster that, on average, falls in the middle of the pack. It also means that while our method accounts for the uncertainty due to random fluctuation in the polls and for differences between polling houses, we cannot be sure that there is no systematic bias in the average polling house (i.e., the industry as a whole could be wrong once again).

Our latest analyses are based on polls up to April 18th, the day of the announcement of the general election to be held on June 8th. Since then, a number of polls have suggested an even larger Conservative lead – and it will be interesting to see if this is sustained in coming weeks of the campaign. The Polling Observatory’s headline figures currently put the Conservatives on 43%, far ahead of Labour on 25.7%. The Liberal Democrats at 10.5% have overtaken UKIP, at 9.8%, for the first time since December 2012. Meanwhile the Greens are lagging well behind at 4.3%.

UK 19-04-17 anchor on average

Our estimates also provide insights on the trends in support for the parties since May 2015. Under David Cameron, support for the Conservatives had been slipping, especially in early 2016. It was only immediately following the EU referendum vote, and around the time that Theresa May took over as PM, that they have enjoyed a sharp rise in support. In contrast, Labour’s support has steadily been declining since April 2016 – from around the start of the EU referendum campaign. This is well before ‘the coup’ that some have blamed for Labour’s poor polling. We find no evidence to support those claims here.

While UKIP support rose steadily in the year following the 2015 general election, it slumped after the Brexit vote and has continued to decline since. It is too soon to write off UKIP for good, but it is clear that the party faces an uncertain future, threatened by an emboldened Conservative Party plotting Britain’s course out of the EU. By contrast, Brexit has given a renewed purpose to the Liberal Democrats, whose support has steadily been increasing since June 2016 – though hardly at a dramatic rate. The largely static support for the Greens highlights that Britain’s ‘progressive’ parties face an uphill battle to win back voters.

The trends since Brexit specifically point towards two gradual shifts: UKIP voters switching to the now more pro-Brexit Conservatives (with the blue and purple lines mirroring each other quite closely above), and the Liberal Democrats slowly recovering, seemingly at the expense of Labour who are slowly declining. The parties that appear to have benefited from Brexit are those now seen as the natural issue ‘owners’ of Leave and Remain.

So the two mainstream parties with clear Brexit positions are rising in the polls, while the one without a clear position (Labour) is declining steadily.

During the election campaign we will provide updates on the state of support for the parties. We will also be undertaking analyses of what ‘the fundamentals’ – such as party leader ratings and the state of the economy – tell us about the likely election result. Our aim will be to provide an assessment of election forecasts generated using different methods and data. After the experience of 2015, where the polling miss threw many forecasts off, we believe that this approach of triangulation may bolster confidence in expectations about the likely result – and also illuminate how different modelling choices and assumptions matter.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

The Left After Trump

Diptic

Diptic

By Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here and more posts by Gerry Stoker here.


Trump’s election is an unmistakable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people. It is one that has delivered escalating inequality and stagnating or falling living standards for the majority, both in the US and Britain.

This is a rejection of a failed economic consensus and a governing elite that has been seen not to have listened. And the public anger that has propelled Donald Trump to office has been reflected in political upheavals across the world.

But some of Trump’s answers to the big questions facing America, and the divisive rhetoric around them, are clearly wrong.

I have no doubt, however, that the decency and common sense of the American people will prevail, and we send our solidarity to a nation of migrants, innovators and democrats.

After this latest global wake up call, the need for a real alternative to a failed economic and political system could not be clearer.

That alternative must be based on working together, social justice and economic renewal, rather than sowing fear and division. And the solutions we offer have to improve the lives of everyone, not pit one group of people against another.

Americans have made their choice. The urgent necessity is now for us all to work across continents to tackle our common global challenges: to secure peace, take action on climate change and deliver economic prosperity and justice.

This was the statement made by Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of Britain’s Labour Party, in response to the Trump victory in the American presidential election. If progressives are to respond to Trump’s victory, Brexit and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe and other democracies including Australia and parts of Asia the leader of one of Europe’s most successful and long-established social democratic parties might reasonably be expected to be on the right track. Unfortunately he is not. Corbyn falls down both in his diagnosis of what is happening and in the wooliness of his solutions.

Misunderstanding the problem

In terms of diagnosis the issue is that neither Trump nor Brexit – let alone other versions of right-wing populism – have built their electoral coalitions based on those left behind by economic change alone. They mobilise a bloc of disaffected working class voters and combine them with conservative supporters of from better-off households. Brexit won the day by combining traditional rural and suburban Conservative voters with more disaffected working class support in urban areas that have experienced economic decline over many decades. Trump won because he managed to peel away enough working class white voters while retaining the middle-class and rural Republican base. A classic pattern of support for right-wing populism follows the shape of a V-curve with most support coming from either end of the political spectrum: the relatively deprived and the relatively well-off.

Most of these voters do not reject the current economic system. Rather they want to be better placed within it. It is long-term employment and wage stagnation that is driving this economic discontent. Beyond that economic discontent how does right-wing populism pull together the two sides of its coalition? It gives people someone or something to blame for that sense of losing out. Populism relies to a great degree on the capacity of leaders to manipulate exasperation with social change, for example ‘by portraying “ordinary people” as the victim of an alliance between those at the bottom (needy immigrants and asylum seekers) and those at the top (the wealthy elite who aspire to even greater wealth and political clout)’. It adds issues of social identity, status and antagonism to the mix to create a distinctive politics of resentment.

There are three lessons to draw from this alternative diagnosis; none of which are central to Corbyn’s analysis. First there is no “unmistakable rejection” of the current economic system; although there anything that can be defined as the political establishment is given a kicking. Second unlocking the V-curve of support for right-wing populism is not a straightforward task because it mixes economic and social resentments. Arguing that we need an economy that works for all will be treated as the vacuous statement it is. In any case it will not cut through the wider sense of resentment against others. In politics there is no real or imagined nature to resentment there is just resentments and whether progressives like it or not they have to be addressed. Third, the only future for building an alternative winning electoral bloc is not simply to appeal to the left behind but to build a wide coalition of support drawn from those who are both winners and relatively speaking  losers from a complex dynamic of economic change. In short do not believe the rhetoric of right wing populists about standing for the left behind. Look at what they do to win.

Coming up with solutions

Here the challenge faced by progressives is that modern global capitalism is – as ever– creating a dynamic of winners and losers. Cosmopolitan centres are the gainers in a new system of global production, manufacturing, distribution and consumption that has led to new urban forms made possible by the revolution in logistics and new technologies. These centres are marked by their intellectual assets, cultural strength and the capacity of their infrastructure to attract people, ideas and skills. These global urban centres are highly connected, highly innovative, well-networked, attracting skilled populations, often supported by inward migration, and display the qualities of cosmopolitan urbanism. Such places will be further advantaged by trends of robotisation and automation in the labour force, and a shift towards service and knowledge economies. At the same time, other towns, cities and regions are experiencing an outflow of capital and human resources, and are suffering from a lack of entrepreneurship, low levels of innovation, cultural nostalgia and disconnectedness from the values of the metropolitan elite. These shrinking urban locations are the other side of the coin; for them the story is of being left behind as old industries die or as old roles become obsolete, human and physical infrastructure decays. Populations may be declining, the skilled workers and the young are leaving in search of opportunity (reinforcing the cycle of decline) and these places are increasingly disconnected from the dynamic sectors of the economy, as well as the social liberalism of hyper-modern global cities in which the political, economic and media classes plough their furrow.

These developments are not temporary or transitional. The scale of change is such that the processes that are in operation go beyond cyclical explanations of growth and decline, since the entire system of production, distribution and consumption is being restructured, generating new divides that have an air of solidity. The situation is such that the position of cosmopolitan cities is self-reinforcing but not without challenges. While not all left behind cities, towns and rural areas can easily be dragged into the slipstream of dynamics of the creative economy by policy interventions.

We are only in the foothills of being able to grapple with the policy issues created by this dynamic of social and economic change. It would be better for progressives to accept that they are far from clear about what to do rather than mouth platitudes about social justice or argue that more investment in infrastructure, housing, education and training will do the trick. Some of these types of interventions have been tried yet they appear to only partially stem the tide of change. To argue for more of such interventions without reflecting on what should be done appears misguided. A display of humility from politicians and experts around the political establishment might encourage voters to listen to them again.

We need action both locally and globally. The importance of a local focus and a commitment to local power is that the right solutions for different areas are likely not to be the same. For cosmopolitan areas of growth the challenges are congestion, housing shortages and sustaining a wider social fabric as the pace of work accelerates. For those areas they can join the new economy as latecomers then a clear specification of the niche and focus of their ambition as well as targeted financial incentives, infrastructure and training would be required. We may also have to accept that some areas will be forever left behind and develop a planning system capable of managing decline and embracing the potential of declining growth in terms of climate and lifestyle gains. Globally the challenge is how to sustain free trade while tackling its social and environmental impacts. This probably means revisiting the global architecture of regulation set up after the Second World War. There is no quick fix and it is important for progressives to be honest about that.

The final reason why progressives need to work hard on solutions in that those offered by right-wing populists will fail. Controlling immigration will not solve the problems of left behind places such as Rotherham, Yorkshire or Flint, Michigan. Leaving the EU will not save the NHS for Britain. Imagining a global economy where you trade freely and yet you impose barriers on others or where you can access markets without following rules agreed by all others does not make it a reality. The fallout from those failures will be massive but progressives should not assume they will be the automatic beneficiaries. Populists will be good at the blame game. The challenge for progressives is both to offer an accurate diagnosis of what is going on and work in depth on solutions to respond. Corybn’s statement should be a cause of concern, rather than hope.

The Failures of Political Science: Trump, Brexit and beyond…

By Will Jennings and Martin Lodge. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Twitter) and Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Lse.ac.ukTwitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States of America, while in June Britain voted to leave the EU. Political science has widely failed to anticipate two of the defining events of our era, just as it failed to foresee the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago (also on November 9th). Populism is everywhere now and has entered the mainstream. Few could dispute that political science has been somewhat blindsided, having been distracted by the scientific credentials of the discipline, and having itself become an elite technocratic enterprise detached from the everyday experiences and everyday politics of voters.

Donald Trump broke all the rules of the political science textbook of election campaigning. He lied. He did not release his tax returns. He insulted significant parts of the electorate. He attacked the media. He brazenly rode out scandal after scandal. He was not backed by party elites. He did not pivot. He was not endorsed by newspapers. He was not considered qualified for the job by voters. He faced a relatively popular incumbent and growing economy. The polls and poll aggregators predicted a comfortable Clinton win (many academic forecasts were rather more circumspect). Trump defied them all. A not dissimilar story could be told about the Brexit campaign. While some could rightly claim to have diagnosed the conditions leading to each victory, these were surprise events when they happened.

Our analysis did not stand up to the job, and this poses fundamental questions about the direction that the discipline has taken in recent decades and its abandonment of a more critical examination of the nature of politics. Political science has lately glorified big data, replication and high-tech computational methods. But what use are these if hegemonic theories and fashionable methods are ill-equipped for the task at hand?

At the same time, the role of the academic as pundit has increasingly pitched political scientists into the media limelight. While advancing public understanding of politics should unquestionably be a mission for the discipline, this creates pressure to hype findings, condense them into the confines of a tweet, or offer analysis to meet the demands of short-term news cycles rather than posing more critical questions about the nature of social and political change (or questioning the assumptions of our data and models), or even challenge the way in which politics is done and the media package it. This pressures researchers to favour punditry (making bold predictions about outcomes and basking in applause for their foresight) above deeper diagnosis of long-term trends. It also often makes them inseparable from the politics they seek to analyse.

Of course, political science has had much to say about the rise of populism across many advanced democracies, its causes and its consequences. We know a substantial amount about the nature of the U.S. political system and its (lack of) responsiveness to wider societal change, the rise of Euroscepticism, the increasing importance of values and identity in various political contexts, and the notion of ‘backsliding’ by countries on earlier commitments to liberal democracy. Beyond this, there is further scope for soul-searching. This should centre on the role of political science in a context in which it has become acceptable to endorse the rise of ‘illiberal democracies’.

One of these is the nature of knowledge production. Universities in their quest for global reputations have become ghettos for research communities whose international interactions are rarely interrupted by the inconvenient demands imposed by high fee-paying students (and have engaged little with local people living in communities on their peripheries). These networks are reinforced by advances in communication technologies – generating our very own academic filter bubbles. The move towards bifurcating academic careers into research and teaching silos will only increase this disconnection outside the discipline. This is not a context that is able to detect or fully understand societal changes.

Such trends have been further accentuated by the craze to create ‘public policy schools’ so as to inform global elites of students about policy experiences, global challenges and international networking. Such programmes have been attractive in financial terms to universities, they have proven to be a convenient vehicle to attract high profile donors, and they offer opportunities for students to mingle. Interestingly, the fashion of public policy schools arrived just as the attractions of private sector MBAs seem to be fading away. To be close to ‘practice’, the academic gain is access to the questions and concerns of key decision-makers who have a desire to learn about ‘what works’ without necessarily probing deeply into scholarly disputes. More broadly, critical questioning is unlikely to feature on such programmes given that learning outcomes are about enhancing ‘rationality’.

Executive-type teaching offers higher rewards and the possibility to avoid routine, intensive teaching duties. The quest for global leadership in the name of rational decision-making is likely to come at the price of dealing with concrete problems at the local level (losing the tacit knowledge that is crucial to understanding the challenges facing local societies and communities). These programmes, by their nature, are unable to cope with an environment that encourages post-factual argumentation.

More generally, this raises questions about the role of political science. For those believing in a pure version of ‘science’, the political science discipline is about ‘knowledge’ with little concern for the wider environment. This ignores a much more significant contribution that political science should play in promoting the normative foundations of liberal democracy. This is not to discourage critical analysis and commentary, but a renewed focus on the prerequisites for an open and tolerant society to conduct politics. This would require a much deeper engagement with society beyond one-off events such as open day events and school visits. This requires encouragement for universities to become part of the wider conversation about the importance of certain constitutional and democratic norms.

In other words, political science, if it wants to live in a liberal democracy and be in a position to work openly and freely, needs to return to a concern with protecting the very foundations of liberal democracy. Whether the short term career incentives of academics and the wider environment of populist politics and campaigning media will be receptive to this necessity is questionable. However, the question of what kind of societies political scientists want to inhabit is of fundamental importance: do they want to live in cut-off ghettos of the like-minded, obsessed by sectarian ‘top three’ journal rankings, or do they want to promote and support the conditions for an open society, one that makes science possible in the first place?

The Strange Death of Parliamentary Democracy

By Will Jennings and Martin Lodge. Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Martin Lodge is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Lse.ac.ukTwitter). You can read more posts by Will Jennings here.


FullSizeRender_2

One hundred years since the battle to end all battles at the Somme, the aftermath of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU offers a stark reminder of the court politics of a different era. Once again the officer class has sent the ‘tommies’ over the top with little thought for what lies ahead. The ‘sun-lit meadows beyond’ that the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson spoke of seem distant at best. Whatever the long-term social and economic consequences of Brexit, the political ramifications of Brexit have displayed a terrifying decline in the political elite’s commitment to representative democracy and a breakdown of the norms and conduct of political debate.

New Politics and Labour

These dangerous times for representative or parliamentary democracy are most prominent in the two main political parties. Take the Labour Party and its leadership crisis. Here the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn suggest that a (non-binding) vote of non-confidence by parliamentary colleagues has no legitimacy. Legitimacy is seen to lie in the election of the party leader by a majority of party members. It is claimed that the future of politics lies in ‘movements’ rather than party organisation. This is no longer about party meetings or canvassing, and winning elections, but about expression of a political worldview and set of values. A disregard for the engagement of political parties in parliamentary processes has been at the heart of so-called militant tendencies on the left for a long time. For these elements, participation in representative democracy is seen as a sell-out to dominant (capitalist) interests. These elements have received a lease of life in the name of ‘new’ supposedly kinder politics. We are now at a place where there is a split between a party in parliament and a (proclaimed) movement outside parliament (though there is little evidence of how large that movement is, despite support for Corbyn in the leadership election last year). This is a dangerous sign for the future of representative government. After all, political parties are supposed to play a dual role – the first is to provide for responsiveness to the views of voters, and the second is to participate in responsible government (and opposition). Suggesting that legitimacy for party leaders lies in a movement undermine the crucial role that political parties play in government. This is politics by an elite that looks different from the Bullingdon boys, but is still an elite nonetheless.

The Death Throes of Club Government and the Conservatives

The leadership battles in the Conservative Party currently resemble the courtier-intrigue of a Shakespearean play. Whatever the twists and turns of the contest, the preceding events of the referendum campaign point to an important decline in the understandings of representative democracy by party leaders. One of the distinguishing (and problematic) features of the Westminster system was its lack of formal checks and balances. The ‘elective dictatorship’ was held in check by ‘responsible’ club government – social ties and conventions were to ensure appropriate behaviour in government. As many have argued, ‘club government’ has been in fatal decline since the days of Margaret Thatcher, given hyper-innovations, such as liberalisation and internationalisation. The last ‘club’, united by a shared school and university background, appears to be the world of British politics. This, as Michael Moran has argued, sets up the stage for tragic failure: a world in which internationalisation and regulation have constrained the levers of the political elite. In turn, this raises the incentive to engage in spectacles and posturing, whether these include grand events such as the Olympics, building projects such as airports, or battle-bus style campaigning to rage against the ‘loss of control’. The consequences of these spectacles are unlikely to come cheap, if only in terms of taxpayer expense. Not least, the prevalence of stage-managed events is itself a source of public cynicism about politics being contrived and out of touch with ordinary folk.

Populism and Illusions of Governing

More fundamentally, offering the spectacle of regaining ‘control’ plays straight into the hands of those politicians with outright disdain for political institutions. Appeal to ‘decent’ and ‘hard-working’ people offer a rhetoric that divides any population into, on the one hand, those who are ‘deserving’ with common sense and the undeserving feckless and undeserving ‘elites’ on the other. This then leads to the rather bizarre spectacle of elite, career politicians campaigning on an anti-establishment and anti-London ticket (a phenomenon that has been well-documented in the US since at least Jimmy Carter). In doing so, they further undermine the role of parties in contributing to responsible government and opposition.

The same holds for the SNP. Here, the vote of a UK-wide referendum has been reinterpreted as a vote of a separate country that stands apart from the rest of the UK. Political opportunism has to be always seen as part of the (legitimate) political game, but it dangerously conflates one issue (the UK’s relationship to the EU) with another (the future relationship of different ‘nations’ in the British Isles).

More generally, then, the increased use of referenda and other methods of direct democracy in British politics should not necessarily be seen as advances of participation. Rather, they should be seen as attempts by party leaderships to overcome their own internal party conflicts. In the case of Labour, direct elections of the leader offered the dual promise of reduced trade union influence and symbolic gesturing that office-seeking was somewhat checked by the party. In the case of David Cameron and the Conservatives, it was an attempt to maintain illusions of ‘governing’ (i.e. ‘control’) by offering voters a choice while the real world has turned ever more into one that demands compromise, bargaining and dealing in trade-offs. That is not the kind of world that fits easily into the legacy-seeking worldview of the debating rooms of the Oxford Union.

An International Phenomenon?

The recent developments in British politics may appear a peculiarly national malaise. They are however consistent with much wider international trends. One such trend is growing bifurcation among electorates between cosmopolitan and provincial places, as one of us has highlighted in work with Gerry Stoker. Another is the dominance of constraining policy frameworks in order to attract international private investment. The latter has reduced discretionary scope for doing politics as governments have lost control over much of their policy agenda, in areas such as taxation and migration. The former encourages divide and rule style of politics that sits uneasily with the myriad ways of parliamentary government and decision-making in international organisations. Pledging that ‘one can have one’s cake and eat it too’ and not be laughed out of the court of popular opinion suggests that politics is treated as student union-type entertainment, and worse. After all, it is not the jester that speaks truth to power that is being feted, but the jester for jester’s sake.

We do not have a rose-tinted view about the pragmatic functioning of parliamentary democracy, in Westminster or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the explicit disdain for responsible government through representative democracy by engaging in political games and posturing without compromise might at first sight appear attractive. It unfortunately resonates more closely to the politics of Weimar than the traditional views of Westminster. This disdain might make for catchy tweets and photo-ops, but it will do nothing in the long-term for the legitimacy of political institutions. In fact, it reduces the actual ability to solve policy problems, and ultimately it will foment the public mood of disillusionment.

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

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


This post is part of a long-standing series (dating to before the 2010 election) that reports on the state of the parties as measured by vote intention polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

 

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

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

 

Negativity Towards Politics: A By-Product of a Failure in Moral Accounting?

By Jonathan Moss, Nick Clarke, Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker. Jonathan Moss is Senior Research Assistant for Geography at the University of Southampton, Nick Clarke is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Southampton, Will Jennings is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter) and Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). Their project ‘Popular Understandings of Politics in Britain, 1937-2014’ is funded by the ESRC.


Many politicians believe that their world is one of high accountability; after all they put themselves up for election and can find themselves unceremoniously dumped by voters. Also on a daily basis their actions and words are the focus of attention in traditional and new media. So why do 21st century citizens in contemporary democracies appear to be so disdainful of politics and far from appreciative of their politicians?

Here are some quotations from responses to a Mass Observation directive sent out in 2014 – as part of our ESRC research project – asking its panel of volunteer diarists to comment on several leading British politicians.

David Cameron is characterised by mass observers as a ‘sleazeball’, ‘multimillionaire posh boy’ and ‘emotionally unknowable careerist’; he is also criticised for having ‘chubby cheeks’, or a ‘shiny buffed up face’.

Ed Miliband is described as ‘weird’, ‘feeble’, ‘too wet’ and a ‘dweeb’ or a ‘creep’; one respondent explains that ‘he is wiry and gangly and doesn’t exude honesty or truth’, another compares him to a ‘sixth form debating team captain promoted beyond his capabilities.’

George Osborne is ‘pompous’ and a ‘smirking public school bully’; if he wasn’t a politician ‘he would probably be a small time banker swindling old ladies out of their life savings’.

Nick Clegg is a ‘poodle’, a ‘bully’s sidekick’, he is ‘very slippery’ and ‘reneges on promises and plans’.

These comments are not just negative but caustically damning and also bitterly personal in their sense of betrayal. Why given that the politicians are plainly more formally accountable than many others in our society do they attract such a strong sense of moral and personal antagonism? One explanation might be the difference between the formal accountability of democracies and the moral accounting we use as citizens in our daily lives.

As George Lakoff‘s Moral Politics argues citizens draw on shared metaphors to understand and judge politics. There are, Lakoff argues, standard ways in which the idea of moral accounting can be delivered in human societies. To balance the moral books with respect to misdeeds you can engage in reciprocation ( look I know it was bad but look what you got out of it); restitution( look I know it was bad but I am sorry and I am showing it ) or retribution( look I know it was bad but I am paying for it now).We are energised by the idea of moral accounting: good actions must be repaid and bad punished. The moral books must be balanced and when they are not then a social system is in trouble. Politics is not exempt from this moral universe. The problem with today’s politics is a lack of moral accounting schemas that convince from the perspective of citizens.

This issue is amplified because politics is an activity inherently in need of a lot of moral redemption. Politics is not an activity that always shows the best side of the human character. Its leading players often engage in deception, subterfuge, dissembling, pork barrelling, currying favour and intrigue. Consequently, anyone who engages in politics, as Michael Walzer points out, faces the dilemma of dirty hands. To get things done requires a willingness to do the necessary to win the day.

As citizens and observers of politics we have for long understood this negative feature of politics. The idea that moral lapses are characteristic of those that engage in politics is commonplace, as literature and history has suggested over centuries. Indeed as a more recent cultural expression, House of Cards (based of course on the original British version, written by Michael Dobbs at the height of sleaze under the Major government) suggests it is possible for millions of television viewers to enjoy the brilliant Kevin Spacey doing his diabolical worst to get his way in an imaginary version of American politics. Indeed real politicians are often admired for their capacity to get things done and to do the necessary to win elections, legislative votes or other political battles.

The problem is as our research has shown none of the moral accounting options- reciprocation, restitution, and retribution- come easily to hand in today’s political system and as a result politicians struggle to assuage their culpability with us. The moral books are not balanced so formal answerability may be delivered but not moral accountability. The mechanisms of moral accounting fail to deliver for today’s politics and that in turn lies at the heart of the intensity of today’s political disillusionment.

Politics knows the value of reciprocation. Politics can be dodgy but if it delivers for you then maybe it’s OK.   The ends justify the means; and those that share in the spoils can be satisfied as Machiavelli argued. Partisan dealignment has made that solution more difficult to deliver in contemporary politics. In the 2015 British General Election around two thirds of voters supported losing candidates and a third of population failed to vote at all. The Conservatives won the support of just 25 per cent of registered voters. In the 1940s or 1950s over 9 in 10 of voters would have been backing either Labour or Conservative in closely fought high turnout contests and would be pleased with victory or satisfied with a well- fought campaign by the politicians that they identified with. Success for your party in the context of fragmenting voting patterns and the absurdities of a first -past- the- post electoral system has become a balm to sooth political misbehaviour with reduced impact. You can forgive the whoppers, wobbles and compromises if your party wins but only a few of us have that option.

Let us now focus on second form of moral accounting- restitution- where the politician visibly and clearly wrestles with their conscience; showing the strain that getting their hands dirty has put on them. Maybe politicians in the past had more chance of being imagined as engaging in such activities but today’s relentless 24 hour media coverage exaggerates the need for constant bullishness and spinning and seems to leave little space for introspection or thoughtful reflection from our politicians. It may be that politicians do mull over their misdeeds but there appears to be only limited opportunities for the public to observe that.

The third form of moral accounting involves politicians taking responsibility for their sins by doing penance and being punished. We can, as noted earlier, as voters remove politicians from their position but the after-life of the politician appears to have few downsides that we as citizens can easily observe. In the modern era many politicians appear to experience a post-political life boon- far removed from the idea of moral retribution- given the expansion of non-elected governance positions and lobby opportunities. There is clearly some evidence of a tough time being had by some but the focus of attention is in the modern form of politics is on its lucrative books deals, non-executive directorships , corporate consulting gigs, positions on quangos and well-rewarded lecture circuits. All these options appear to offer post- political career deserts only in the opposite direction to any punishment we might feel should be handed out.

We know in our hearts that politicians must behave badly to get the job done but we are made more uncomfortable with politics today because of our incapacity to see some form of moral judgement in play to temper that inevitability. Decreasing numbers of us think that politics delivers for us and are so enabled to judge that politicians achieved good even while doing bad things. The continuous campaign characteristic of modern politics means we cannot observe our political leaders feeling the pain or regretting of their misdeeds very often. And post- career rewards rather than penance appear to have become the norm for the modern politician. As citizens we know that politics cannot be wholly moral but we still think about it in moral terms.   We are cognitively inclined to judge and we need the books to balance but the standard mechanisms of moral accounting are considerably less effective today.