Tag Archives: opinion-polls

“Good God, they might just do it!”

That was my reaction to the Sunday Times/YouGov poll today suggesting that Labour had managed to close the Tory lead down to just 2 points. While I expected the polls to close as election day drew nearer, and wouldn’t even be surprised by a margin such as that come 6 May, I never expect it to happen so quickly. You’ve got to hand it to Labour; they are starting to get the wind in their sales again.

But then, however much of a shambles the Tories may be at the moment, I’ve got to admit that they have a point when they ask, as they have been today, could you really face another five years of Gordon Brown? The idea fills me with dread. The silver lining on the Tory cloud was at least that there was a chance to remodel Labour along more liberal, less tribal and genuinely progressive lines. There are plenty of people in Labour I would happily see the Lib Dems working with in government; the current hegemony in charge at the top are a notable exception. That hegemony faces oblivion if Labour lose the election; if, hope against hope, they win, it will be another five years of one of most apocalyptically bad administrations we’ve ever seen.

I like to think that if Labour won they would unsentimentally ditch Brown as quickly as possible; he certainly has remarkably few genuine allies in the party. But that would not be without its problems either. Brown would have a personal mandate and it would be regicide on a scale that would make Thatcher’s assassins blush. The result would likely be a Brownite replacement who would quite possibly make Brown seem to be a wise sage in comparison (Balls, anyone?). The best we could hope for is a handful of reforms – including to the House of Lords – that Labour simply cannot continue putting off any longer (although Jack Straw will have a good go) and the prospect that a reduced majority will make it harder for the Brownite hegemony to continue to get its own way. The AV referendum will be a lost cause (the facts that it won’t survive if the Tories win and is highly unlikely to deliver a ‘yes’ vote explain why I struggle to get motivated by it either way).

For me, the most telling part of Peter Watt’s Inside Out was the section in which he describes how George Osborne wrong-footed Labour by announcing his plans to raise the inheritance tax threshold in 2007. No-one at the top of Labour had a clue how to respond to this (including, it has to be said, Watt). The same team were responsible for the 10p income tax rout a couple of months later. For these people, “fairness” is nothing more than an empty slogan designed to engender votes. It’s a branding exercise with no substance which they would ditch in a second if it had served its purpose. The only thing that makes Labour better in my eyes than the Tories is that there are a clutch of consciences sitting on their frontbench which occasionally remind the party of the principles it claims to expound (the baying mob on the Tory benches who are similarly keen to remind Cameron of Conservative principles could never be legitimately described as “consciences”).

I just don’t want either of the fuckers. To the 45% of the population living in a constituency where the Lib Dems are in first or second place: please. We might not be perfect but surely it’s the better option by a wide margin?

The vacuity of progress

After a week of George Osborne attempting to claim the mantle of “progress” whilst defending the NHS, and an organisation called “Progressive Vision” calling for the NHS to be scrapped, PoliticsHome have published a poll which suggests that a) A third of people think that no political party is ‘progressive’ and that Labour is less progressive than the Tories, Lib Dems and the Greens; and that b) most people think that ‘progress’ means ‘reforming’ and ‘modernising.’

I’m sure that what PoliticsHome would like us to infer from these findings is that Labour is a busted flush, and it is hard to deny that it suggests that. But it also suggests something else: the word ‘progress’ has come to mean nothing at all really.

‘Modernise’ was used so much by Tony Blair that it became a busted flush. ‘Reform’ isn’t quite there yet but is essentially meaningless unless qualified with something else. ‘Progress’ alone remains a phrase in the political lexicon that politicians still seem to think they are in a battle to dominate.

I can’t help but feel that if you asked the public what ‘reform’ or ‘modernise’ meant most of them would say ‘progress.’ What this suggests is that all three words have become fuzzy marketing words rather than anything else. They are a substitute for meaning.

When everyone from the far left to the far right is claiming ownership of a term then it has essentially become meaningless and it is time to move on. It wasn’t always thus. During the Enlightenment, progress was linked to the notion that we are moving towards a perfected, utopian society. For a while the left held onto this notion whilst superimposing its own vision of equality and solidarity.

What’s worrying is the way political discourse has become dominated by these non-words. Pace Obama, “change” including “real change”, “the change we need” and “now for change” has become ubiquitous. Particularly in the UK a lot of people appear to have mistaken the accoutrements of the Obama brand for the core package and assumed that if you copy the former you will magically get the latter. When people on the other side of the world do this, we call them “cargo cultists” and patronise them.

It has always been the case that the two most effective political messages are “it’s time for a change” and “fear change.” In this time of comparatively value-free politics we appear to have confused the strategy for the philosophy.

Europe, turnout, the BNP, the Greens and fair votes

I’ve just got back from an hour’s stint on LBC talking about Yurp. Myself and fellow guest Hugo Brady from the Centre of European Reform were both under the impression we were there to discuss how the European Parliament works and the elections themselves. Instead we found ourselves being asked to mount a full frontal defence of the EU itself, covering everything from the CAP to auditing budgets. Not an easy task when you aren’t prepared (and as a non-expert of the subject I probably wouldn’t have gone on on that basis, but there you go).

For the record, incidently, I would quite happily scrap the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s appalling. If you do think that however, and you actually care about people unfairly affected by it in developing countries (as one of the callers purported to do), then the single worst thing you could do is pull out of the EU and allow the opponents of reform to have it entirely their own way. I don’t like a lot of UK policies and want UK political reform, but if you heard me calling for us to pull out of the UK on that basis you would consider me to be an utter loon.

What I didn’t get a chance to discuss were the poll findings that Vote Match/Unlock Democracy unveiled yesterday suggesting that tomorrow’s turnout could be an all time high for the European Elections. 50% in our YouGov survey said they were definitely going to vote (another 11% gave an ‘8’ or ‘9’ incidentally), which YouGov advise suggests a nominal turnout of 43-45%. That’s pretty unprecedented.

It is clear that the reason for this potentially (and comparatively) high turnout is not a hard fought contest about the European Parliament itself (if only) but MPs’ expenses and the subsequent meltdown of the UK Parliament. In short, the public are out to give the political classes a bloody nose. But it is also interesting to note both the generational and gender differences. Simply put, younger voters will be turning out in much fewer numbers and are not doing so because they simply don’t know what the elections are about. Older voters are, unsurprisingly, most likely to turn out. But it is the middle-aged voters who are most likely to abstain because of the expenses scandal itself. Women are likely to turn out in comparative numbers to men but their reason for not doing so again has more to do with not knowing enough about the elections than it has to do with scandal.

YouGov have also done an eve of poll for the Telegraph, suggesting that Labour may be pushed into third or even fourth place. As Anthony Wells has been chronicling, the polls are all over the place at the moment – the pollsters’ rules-of-thumb assumptions which they use to weight their data appear to have been blown wide open by the collapse in Labour support. We live in unprecedented times and it remains to be seen which pollster emerges with the most credit.

Nonetheless Anthony makes a good fist of an argument that YouGov are likely to be more accurate than most and for all their critics they have tended to be quite accurate. Either way, it looks terrible for Labour, with the Tory and Lib Dem levels of support staying at around their 2004 levels. The Greens look like their vote will be up while UKIP could either be significantly up or a bit down.

The Telegraph report that the 5% figure the YouGov poll gives the BNP suggests that they may well make the breakthrough they were hoping for in the North West. We only have the national figures to look at right now but unless the North West specific figures say something different, I’m not so sure. Based on the national swing, that puts the parties in the North West at:

Conservative: 23% (-1%, 2 MEPs)
Labour: 20% (-7%, 2 MEPs)
Lib Dem: 16% (-, 2 MEPs)
UKIP: 14% (+2%, 1 MEP)
Green: 10% (+4%, 1 MEP)
BNP: 6% (-, 0 MEPs)

Those figures come with a health warning, not to mention the fact that national swings are pretty spurious at the best of times. But it does highlight one aspect of this election which has been criminally under-reported: the resurgence of the Green Party. The psephology behind their Stop Nick Griffin campaign is entirely spurious but there is no escaping the fact that every vote for the Greens in the North West will make it harder for the BNP to get elected (where they are wrong is where they claim that a tactical Green vote is better than a vote for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems or UKIP in this respect). And with a poll leap of the scale that every pollster appears to be reporting will result in a quite healthy haul of Green MEPs. This is a big deal – certainly a bigger deal than the possibility that the BNP might win a single seat. Yet by and large they have been ignored.

If I have one prediction to make about these elections it is that they will be a vindications of the proportional voting system. I dislike closed list systems but even closed list-PR is better than closed list-FPTP.

Would we be looking at such a dramatic result if we still used FPTP for the European Elections? In one sense, we would. The story right now would not be “will the BNP gain a seat in the North West?” but “will the BNP gain seats in East London, the Potteries, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire?” All of these areas are places where FPTP has enabled the BNP to gain a foothold – often gaining swathes of seats with remarkably small shares of the vote. The BNP would have a much easier time targeting four old-style Euro-constituencies than they have targeting a whole region. Far from making it easier for the BNP then, PR has actually made it tougher.

But overall, it would have lead to business-as-usual. PR has given the public a means of punishing the political class (which as a whole, completely deserves it). Without PR, we would be looking at a repeat of 1989 where the Greens got 15% of the vote and not a single seat. Now maybe it is time the Greens (and UKIP) got their act together and learned to target but the electorate shouldn’t have to wait for them to get their tactics right in order to express its displeasure (and targeting is at best a necessary evil in any case).

Face the facts: under FPTP, we would not now be looking at as high a turnout and the main parties would be sitting pretty. The public would have no outlet to vent their frustration. That would have been a dangerously unhealthy state of affairs.

It is certainly frustrating that the last thing this election is being decided upon is what it is osensibly about – the future direction of the European Union. But if what we get in exchange is the first real opportunity for the public to fully express itself in a UK-wide election, that is a price worth paying. Now: let’s replace it with an open list system or STV so it can be even better!

C4 News Poll: Cable for Chancellor! (UPDATE)

I was on MoreFourNews this evening, talking about Channel Four News’ YouGov poll of marginal constituencies:

(it’s all televisual LIES by the way – the whole thing was done in green screen in ITN’s underground Danger Room. I half expected Gollum to virtually take part as the fourth guest.)

Because the poll is mainly focused on Lab-Con marginals (with a couple of Lib-Cons and three way marginals thrown into the mix), there isn’t much to comment on from a Lib Dem perspective. The main lesson is that the polls are incredibly volatile at the moment. C4’s poll last month predicted a 150 Tory majority; now it’s down to 50. If that was the situation going into a General Election, a hung parliament would very much still be on the cards.

The other lesson is that the Tories are doing really badly when it comes to public confidence in their ability to manage the economy; a complete inversion from 20 years ago. George Osborne’s ratings are atrocious. And this is a potential opening for the Lib Dems. While 15% think Darling is the best chancellor, 12% say Osborne and 19% say Cable (and among Tory supporters, Osborne only beat Cable by 28% to 20%, a damning indictment in itself in my view). If this was a nationwide poll, Cable’s rating would no doubt be even higher.

As I discussed in my CiF piece today, that isn’t translating into support for the party. It is however something to build on. We finally appear to have started moving beyond our media-imposed narrative of going through a period of implosion and uncertainty. 2008 has been a relatively gaffe-free year.

All the post-Kennedy crap is still lingering, but it is fading fast and will have almost vanished by 2010. My prediction is that with Cable lending us credibility and Clegg an unknown quality, we’re currently looking at quite a good general election. Both Ashdown in 1992 and Kennedy in 2001 managed to defy the low expectations people had of them.

Clegg still needs knocking into shape; nothing will convince me that the confusions this summer over tax didn’t lead to our autumn conference being a wasted opportunity. But if he can learn from his mistakes then I still wouldn’t rule out net gains.

Over on Comment is Free: Party like it’s 1909

My latest article on Comment is Free:

At a time when Vince and Nick are supporting government policy of giving banks high interest loans with the aim of getting them to pay off their debts before handing anything back to shareholders, it seems a little odd to say that the chancellor should not adopt the same fiscal prudence. That isn’t to say the party’s policy on shifting tax should be abandoned, but we are unlikely to be in a position to issue overall tax cuts any time soon.

I’m also going to be on MoreFourNews this evening, apparently with Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home and Jag Singh of Labour Home.

The Littlewood Effect: Why wishful thinking won’t win the argument for tax cuts for the rich

The new ginger group Liberal Vision – which to all intents and purposes appear to be an entryist brand of the libertarian pressure group Progressive Vision – published a pamphlet this week called ‘The Cameron Effect’ (pdf). As regular readers of Guido Fawkes will know by now, this report makes the startling claim that two in three Lib Dem MPs ‘could’ lose their seats at the next election unless the party introduces a policy of cutting tax cuts, including cuts aimed at high-earners.

Rumour has it that the reaction of at least one MP to this report was to push its co-author Mark Littlewood into a hedge. While I don’t condone violence, I have to admit I can empathise (sp. I can’t believe I wrote emphasise last night!). But for me, the real problem with this pamphlet is not that it is unwelcome (publish and be damned) but that it is a spectacularly poor piece of research.

Let’s take the psephology for starters. Littlewood and his co-author David Preston have this pearl of wisdom about first past the post:

“Under Britain’s byzantine electoral system – it is not just absolute vote share that matters but relative vote share.”

Hmmm… not sure about that. I notice there are no footnotes. Relative vote share certainly does matter in d’Hondt elections, but where is the evidence that is the case for FPTP?

Problematically for Littlewood and Preston, the example they cite doesn’t support their argument. It IS true that if you look at the average ratio of Liberal:Conservative votes in the 1983, 1987 and 1992 elections and compare it to the average ratio of LD:Conservative votes in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections, the ratio does indeed change from roughly 1:2 to 2:3. But if you compare 1992 to 1997, during which period the number of Lib Dem MPs leapt from 20 to 46, the ratio goes from a bit under 1:2 to a bit over 1:2. The 2:3 ratio cited only emerges once you factor in the 2005 General Election, when we made significantly fewer gains. If this analysis were correct, surely the ratio would be higher in the year of our great breakthrough?

But of course the difference between 1992 and 1997 was not some quasi-mystical change in relative vote share but a dramatic shift in the way the party targeted resources. This is just the first instance in which ‘The Cameron Effect’ fails to take into account the Rennard Effect.

The pamphlet goes on to examine how each constituency is likely to fare in the next election. Helpfully, it provides us with a neat little bar chart showing us what will happen in each constituency once you apply a uniform national swing based on an average of 30 opinion polls taken in the summer.

Even if we disregard the fact that the Lib Dem vote share will almost certainly be higher (and the Tory share will be lower) than the polls suggest this summer, this is a ridiculously crude mechanism to apply for three reasons:

a) It assumes that public opinion is constant across the UK with no significant variations. Yes, that probably means that in the South and East we are likely to struggle even more, but it also means that in the North and West we are likely to have an easier time gaining Labour seats.
b) Even Baxter allows you to factor in a tactical vote these days. Littlewood and Preston work on the extraordinary assumption that not a single voter will behave in this way, despite the fact that every single Lib Dem leaflet they receive will be urging them to do so.
c) In several of the seats listed as being at ‘measurable’ and ‘high’ risk (i.e. the seats which their press release lists as likely to go Tory) even the statistics they cite appear much rosier than they claim. Harrogate and Knaresborough is cited ad being at ‘measurable’ risk despite the fact that there has been a swing against the Tories locally and the uniform national swing would have us win. There’s a similar story in Kingston and Surbiton while in Solihull the massive swing locally, we are assured, counts for nothing.

While these factors appear to over-egg the claim that we are especially vulnerable to the Tories, they downplay our chances at gaining seats off Labour. They assume that not a single Tory voter in a Lib Dem/Labour constituency is squeezable. They talk about the sort of swings that we typically got in 2005 as being ‘exceptions’ to the point of being accidents – once again, the fact that in each of our target seats we are to have a campaign on the ground is completely downplayed.

In short, strip away the ‘we’re all doomed’ hyperbole and the prospect doesn’t look anything like as bad as Littlewood and Preston would have us believe. Don’t get me wrong: my prediction is that we will remain fairly static in the next election, losing some to the Tories and gaining some from Labour. And stagnation is something that I personally find extremely depressing. But the sort of wipeout predicted in this paper is simply wide of the mark.

So much for the psephology; what about the policy? Well, if the confident predictions of our demise seem unlikely, then the proposed cure-all is even harder to swallow. Let us assume for a minute that we really are in the ditch that Littlewood and Preston claim we are. Is a single change in policy really likely to make any difference? And that’s before you consider that the sort of tax cutting agenda they propose would by neccessity mean cutting several of our existing spending commitments (Littlewood and Preston decline to say which ones) and our opponents will almost certainly seek to present this in as poor a light as possible.

The entire argument for how promising tax cuts would make the party massively popular is based on a single opinion poll commissioned by the Taxpayers’ Alliance 13 months ago (before the credit crunch). Seriously. If that is really the best they can come up with, the only rational conclusion is that they must be wrong.

Their argument about cutting taxes for higher income earners is even more spurious. As a matter of fact (unrecognised in the paper) the Lib Dems don’t have a policy of clobbering the rich. Our policy is to close loopholes and exemptions only available to the rich. To argue, as they do, that what the average person in a low income really wants is special tax breaks for the rich so that, if they ever become rich, they’ll be able to get out of paying tax as well is taking the ‘aspiration’ argument beyond the point of absurdity. No-one is suggesting a return even to the 50p rate of income tax, so where did this nonsense suddenly come from?

In fact, I could probably make a better case for the popularity of tax cuts for the rich than Littlewood and Preston can. Far from being in the grip of ‘craven caution,’ when it comes to offering tax cuts, the Tories’ climb in the opinion polls began when George Osborne announced an intention to exclude all but the very richest from inheritance tax. So it is fair to say that some tax breaks for the rich are popular. But it is wrong to say that there is an opening in the tax debate. Lackadaisically calling for tax breaks for the rich won’t make us sound distinctive – they’ll make us sound indistinguishable from the Tories. And why should voters support Conservative copies when they can have the real thing?

Overall then, pretty much every single aspect of this pamphlet is poorly researched and ill-thought out. Mark Littlewood is a master of publicity and has managed to make a big splash with this pamphlet, but the fact that it is so, well, stupid, is cause for hope that Liberal Vision will prove short-sighted.

Cheer up you miserable buggers!

According to Lib Dem Voice, 52% of members surveyed think the party will at best hold steady at 63 MPs after the next election or lose MPs. I voted for the “63-75 MPs” option (although I veer towards the 63-70 range) and it surprises me that members are quite so pessimistic.

For the record, I do think Chris Huhne’s analysis last week is sound. That isn’t to say we won’t lose seats to the Tories, but I think we can afford to be confident that we will hold our own. It does suggest a somewhat rattled party after a couple of difficult years.

Panic! Panic! Hold on, is the economy really in a worse state than 1982?

The Telegraph has breathlessly flourished a new poll showing that the “feelgood factor” is worse than at any point since records began. In, er, 1981.

What this suggests is that the general public genuinely believes the current slowdown in the economy (note, not even a recession, just a reduction in growth) is a worst economic situation compared to the dole queues of the early 80s and the negative equity of the early 90s.

Now, I have my criticisms about the government and things could indeed get much, much worse than they are now. But I would humbly suggest that this illustrates how the public has become increasingly infantilised over the last 30 years, and arguably the uselessness of this measure, more than it says anything about the government’s handling of the economy. The fact that the Torygraph seems completely incapable of grasping that doesn’t say very much about its sense of proportion.