What's really happening with Labour in the polls?

Suddenly, the polls seem to be all over the place. Why do different opinion polls show different results? And how do we know which one is right?

It should not have come to this.

The Tories were serenely sailing along, oblivious to the need to connect with the public or outline much in the way of tangible policy. Just put your faith in Theresa May, they said, who is not Jeremy Corbyn, they reminded us, and all would be well with the world.

That was just one week ago.

A swathe of populist free-for-all policies and one U-turn later and, on Friday, YouGov struck fear into Tory souls with a 5-pointer.

Is it an outlier? Probably. Should we take serious note of it? Probably not. Does it indicate a pretty solid direction of travel? It certainly does.

In anticipation of a numerous “Polls apart” headlines, I have to report that ICM’s poll in the Sun on Sunday had a 14-point Tory lead. Just to confirm, if your numeracy levels need some help, that’s not a 5-pointer: it’s 14 points, and it’s the same number that our previous poll had a week earlier. Big enough for a Tory majority of 126.

But the polls are narrowing—we had a 20-point Tory lead no more than ten days ago—and suddenly can, justifiably, be said to be all over the place.

What on earth, I hear you ask, is going on?

Changes since 2015

Polling models have changed radically in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election. In fact, that polling miss was mulled over once again at the British Polling Council/National Centre for Research Methods conference only last week.

At the conference, the numerous methodological changes enacted by all firms of pollsters in preparation for 2017 were outlined—not least by myself, on behalf of ICM.

Truly, as Sir Bob Worcester used to say about ICM—without as much vindication as he would have were he to say it now—we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Here’s a quick walk-through of changes that have been made to the Guardian/ICM poll since 2015: we’ve switched from phone to online data collection; doubled our sample size; introduced a range of new quotas and weights; radically overhauled our turnout modelling; and introduced a post-data adjustment, that reallocates people who we know nothing about politically.

It’s a pretty radical set of methods.

But there’s a catch; one which relates to that penultimate change. For were it not for the particularly strong turnout model employed, we too would be showing something very close to YouGov’s 5-pointer, rather than the 14-pointer we have.

Polls apart

It’s true that raw data can be moved materially from its base scores, and the strength and direction of the movement entirely depend on the intellectual and practical beliefs of the pollster in charge.

ICM’s view, which has been so long-held it pre-dates even my own 22 years in situ, is that polls intrinsically inflate Labour’s share—there’s more evidence of this than a stick can be shaken at—and finding ways to mitigate that problem is the responsibility of the polling agency.

So, to summarise, YouGov are softer on turnout than ICM and have a 5-point Tory lead. ICM is probably the hardest polling firm on turnout and we have a 14-point Tory lead.

These differing numbers can be attributed to the philosophies and choices made by individual pollsters, rather than the raw data we collect. Of course, in many cases the combined effects of all tools at our disposal work to bring us together; today, we see that they have driven us apart.

The cat among the pigeons

But the raw data we collect is, actually, the core problem. After 2015, the British Polling Council Inquiry identified “unrepresentative samples” as the cause of the polling miss, and all us pollsters have tried to address this problem in different ways.

The difficulty is that nobody really understands why the samples were unrepresentative, and if the problem is too complex to understand, you can bet the solution might be directed towards the wrong root cause. That’s a terrifying prospect in a close election; it’s not so much of one if a landslide is still the most likely outcome.

This is why YouGov’s poll is the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons. This was to be a cruise control election, in which our new methods would not be seriously tested, as there was only one winner in serious contention.

The idea of an unexpectedly close election, in which both May and Corbyn are predicted to be the next incumbent of Number 10, is just too concerning for pollsters to contemplate.

Original article published in Prospect Magazine on 28th May 2017 - https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/whats-really-happening-with-labour-in-the-polls


28th May 2017 Poll Results

Storm clouds have gathered in this General Election campaign. Rarely can there have been a more tumultuous and stunning sequence of events during a week of General Election campaigning,

The delivery of a hugely populist Labour manifesto with giveaways for all compared to a policy-light document hitting core Tory voting pensioners in their pockets hardly seems like a fair contest. The fact that the Tories had to quickly U-turn on social care then heaped on the impression of unreliability rather than Presidential-style strength. It might not have done though actually; more people (42%) respect the fact she’s capable of changing her mind and correcting her mistakes than think she can’t deliver strong and stable government (30%).

But some polls have moved as a result. That said, maybe we should just pump the breaks a little on this Tory collapse narrative. Our poll in today’s Sun on Sunday gives the Tories exactly the same pretty monstrous 14-point lead they had in our poll at the start of last week. If right, that’s a Tory majority in the House of Commons of 126 seats (they currently sit on a majority of only 16 seats). So the Tories are not shipwrecked after the storm, they’ve just had a bad week, and the storm clouds always move on elsewhere.

Labour have recovered somewhat it’s true, and at 32% in this poll it implies a better performance from Jeremey Corbyn than Ed Miliband managed two years ago.

But nearly all the fundamentals still point to a strong Tory result. Who would run the economy better? Duh. Hammond and May over Corbyn and McDonnell twice over.

Who would make the best Prime Minister? Despite a bad look this week it’s still hands-down Theresa May, 48% saying so compared to Corbyn’s 27%.

What about trust? Well, what have the Romans ever done for us? On defence, the nuclear button, terrorism, the nation’s finances, avoiding a recession, immigration, Brexit negotiations and helping with household finances it’s Prime Minister May over Prime Minister Corbyn every time. He does get a look in on the pretty important future of pensioners, the NHS and schools though.

And for dessert, what words do the public associate with each leader? For May, top of the list are: strong, intelligent and convincing. For Corbyn, he’s seen to understand people, and intelligence is in there but only in conjunction with being out of touch, weak, dangerous and irresponsible. Probably not the kind of endorsement he’s looking for.

Polls will go up and down, but despite the apparent improvement in Labour’s position, they are still in second place by a country mile. This leaves the question of what happens next for Labour? With some mutterings about the need for a new Centre-Left party we tested the idea among recent Labour voters. Most of them will stick it out with Labour even with Captain Corbyn still at the helm, or some other handpicked member of the hard Left.

After Manchester, the resilience and magnificence of the British public has been on full display. Most won’t be cowed in the face of the terror threat. Six in ten don’t fear for their personal safety now any more than they did last week, although 37% (mostly younger members of society) might think twice. The reintroduction of the death penalty might help – a full 65% would approve of it in the case of terrorist acts and for the murder of children, while 58% think it should apply to the murder of on-duty police officers. This has hardly moved from when we last asked it, back in November 2005.

ICM Unlimited interviewed a representative sample of 2,044 adults aged 18+ online, on 24-26th May 2017. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.