Coalition of chaos: Tory messaging or pollsters' plight?

Watch the Tories highlight the weakness of "Prime Minister Corbyn", says Martin Boon, director of ICM Unlimited.

So, Theresa May blindsided the rest of Westminster with the best kept political secret for generations, and fired a starting gun for what promises to be the most one-sided election campaign since Tony Blair promised that things could only get better 20 years ago. Or since the last sighting of a donkey jacket on the stump (that would be Michael Foot, 1983, for those of you too young to know). The latter somehow feels more appropriate.

And it didn’t take long for the first strike from Tory HQ either - warming to the 2015 theme of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket they thrust straight at Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of a rag-tag progressive coalition as the only possible alternative to, well, pick your Tory overall majority number du jour

The national polls correctly predicted a Clinton victory on vote share and the accuracy was better than it was in 2012


There’s plenty more where that came from, no doubt. With Labour MPs reportedly doing anything to avoid imagery of the Labour leadership on their constituency material, it’s a fair bet that Lynton Crosby will be drawing up images of Prime Minister Corbyn that will be unleashed on unsuspecting voters all over the key marginals in the weeks to come.

But why, I hear you say, are we reading anything from a pollster these days - more covered as we are in excrement than glory? It’s a fair question, but stick with me for a moment because the brown stuff has dropped off the fan. The charge of a polling catastrophe in 2015 is something we fully accept, but do remember that as many polls predicted a Leave referendum victory as a Remain one. And that presidential election? Well, the national polls correctly predicted a Clinton victory on vote share and the accuracy was better than it was in 2012.

So maybe you can believe us as we set new polling records almost on a weekly basis: highest ever Tory lead, highest ever Tory share of the vote, lowest ever Labour share. You name it the metrics are consistently pointing to a full demolition of Camp Corbyn.

And there’s so much more we’re doing to evaluate the power of the messages and the policy platforms on offer. At last, real evidence is emerging that what people say can be at odds with what they feel. ICM Unlimited’s new PECS Index measures the "emotional certainty" in a response, and we’ve found among other things, that "Take Back Control" had twice the emotional connection of "Project Fear" arguments, and with 2017 in mind, that a penny on income tax ring-fenced for the NHS is popular right up to the moment that people vote the other way.

You heard it here first.

Published in Campaign on 2nd May 2017 -

Successful policies press our emotional buttons

Here are some that people care about—and that Labour should put in its manifesto


Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn ©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images 

Right now, policy-makers are scribbling calculations and deliberating over manifesto commitments. Ah, manifestos: those great dust-collecting items read pretty much exclusively by party members and political hacks who then lie in wait, ready to trap an unsuspecting promise-breaker. That means you, Philip Hammond.

It’s only been a fortnight since Camp Corbyn finally revealed a pair of policies that seem to articulate winning Labour themes. VAT on private school fees and a real living wage of £10 per hour appear to help those in need at the expense of those who can afford it, notwithstanding the debate about who actually benefits. The response so far is promising—a YouGov poll found 52 per cent of people support VAT on private schooling, while ICM say that 61 per cent back the introduction of the £10 real living wage.

Good policies with admirable aims, well communicated and garnering public support—the Labour manifesto looks sorted. Except there’s a problem, The voters won’t necessarily respond in the way that the party would like. The misapprehension that they will has directed policy-makers and campaigners down a blind alley for years.

Progressive parties like to demonstrate how well their policies meet what the public say they want. This approach has led them towards those engaged voters who take the time to read up on policy. No surprise then, that Corbyn and the Labour party have been able to attract exactly these kinds of voters into their membership ranks.

Opinion polls ask people how they intend to vote, or what they think about a policy. Ask a question, get an answer. The trouble is, those answers may not reflect actual behaviour. Polls can fail by not taking into account that people are emotional beings. A policy can be popular, but it doesn’t follow that it moves people. The act of voting is an emotional one for many—hinging on lingering party loyalty, or an angry protest against a failing government.

We can now measure the emotional certainty associated with people’s responses to policy initiatives via ground-breaking techniques. Reaction Time Testing (RTT) measures the speed with which people respond to questions in micro-seconds, calibrated to each individual’s parameters. Quite simply, the quicker the response, the greater the depth of emotional certainty associated with their answer. We then index the emotional value of the policy: 100 is an absolute power to persuade and zero is complete indifference.

Sometimes the emotional appeal of a policy idea is manifestly there, in other cases there is a real disconnect between explicitly stated support and emotional connectivity. So how about that £10 an hour pledge? Of the 61 per cent who support it, they do so with a lack of emotional conviction—it receives a score of only 18/100. During the referendum, “Project Fear” messages were scoring about 26/100. In contrast, Take Back Control resonated to another level, with twice the connectivity because it linked together multiple ideas with simple cut through. In other words, people liked it, understood it and it moved them.

If we look at other policies that we might expect from Labour, it gets worse. Take the old penny-on-income-tax-ring-fenced-for-the-NHS, which everyone says they support right up until they vote for the opposite. It generates a similar lack of emotional certainty (15/100) to the real wage, and thus it will fail to move people’s voting intentions over the long haul.

So where can Labour look for policy appeal? Well, first up should be the reintroduction of the 50p top rate of tax. It has widespread support (62 per cent) combined with decent emotional pull (52/100). Most people know they won’t reach that top rate and that therefore other people will be coughing up. Banning the bomb has low level explicit support. Preserving the Union might work, but it is likely put in the shade in comparison to Scottish Indyref advocates, for whom it’s the defining tug at the heartstrings.

The NHS has potential as a core Labour issue, but right now emotional certainty may be diluted by perceptions of the party’s ability to manage it. Closing the door on new immigrants does have emotional firepower, and there are themes to explore around austerity and social wellbeing. The trouble is, the Tories have noticed this fertile ground. The most emotionally connective policies we have found so far came in the budget: a billion extra for social care (80/100) and the sugar tax (77/100) both hit the spot.

Progressive parties everywhere need to first understand what moves people and then ruthlessly exploit those emotional triggers. To gain power again, Labour will have to lay aside an approach it has been wedded to for decades, position a leader with an ability to inspire the masses, and reconnect the party with the public.

Published in Prospect on 25th April 2017 -

Hearts and minds

What people say can be at odds with what they feel, even when it comes to voting, says ICM’s Martin Boon, who believes this insight could be at the heart of a new way of conducting polling.


Hearts and Minds

You may have noticed that it’s hardly been the easiest of times for opinion pollsters lately. Not content with miserably failing to predict the right outcome at the 2015 General Election, final polls in the EU referendum – with one honourable exception – predicted a Remain triumph, and perhaps the ascendancy of President Trump has sealed polling’s fate among research professionals, pundits and, indeed, the general public.

Some of the critique might be a bit harsh – as many campaign polls predicted a Leave victory as did one for Remain, and actually Presidential polling was more accurate in 2016 than it was in 2012.

But no matter, we all know that the perception is more important than the reality so let’s just accept there’s plenty more work to be done reinventing the polling wheel. Indeed, some of us have already spent many more hours than is healthy trying to re-build a methodological process to accurately predict the state of the political parties at any given point in time.

Some good work has been done, I think, both here and at other polling houses, but we’ll see. But during the course of those long hours it occurred that the act of voting is not rationality encapsulated, but an intrinsically and intensely emotional act – sometimes hinging on lingering party loyalty, on other occasions an act of fury against a flailing government.

So why not assess the emotional certainty between an individual party choice and its impact on headline vote intention numbers? What if ‘intend-ers’ or ‘serious consider-ers’ are actually betrayed by an emotional obstacle that forces their retreat to party safe havens, or more to the point, what if social desirability bias (incorrectly also known as the ‘Shy Tory’ phenomenon) prevents people from admitting who they intend to vote for, pushing them into the unhelpful “I don’t know” or “refusal” boxes?

The advance of neuroscience and associated techniques has been massively helpful to this investigation. The application of Implicit Attitude Testing to the level of seriousness associated with specific party intentions has yielded important outcomes.

For example, we all believed that UKIP was the Marmite party; loved and loathed in equal measure, and intensively on both sides. Labour now holds that precious title under its precarious leader. If the emotional connection with the party really is severed as a result, as it has been in Scotland, its recent decline may only be the start of a perilous journey.

Modelling in emotional certainty is undeniably a problematic and, to some, dangerous evolution, moving stated voting preferences further and further away from their raw component. ICM has some history in this area, and in our case post-data intervention has had, at worst, a neutral impact on headline data, and at best, made some of our final predictions exceptionally accurate.

It’s worth more work, in my view, and we’re looking closely at it. But it’s not just about voting intentions, it’s just as much about policy, and about effectively communicating it to the largely unengaged masses. Perhaps even more than with vote intentions, ICM’s tests have shed previously unforeseen light on the power of public opinion to be potentially misleading, possibly manifestly, and to great detriment to campaigning causes.

Using our new policy and messaging evaluation tool, the Policy Emotional Certainty Score (PECS), we find that emotional reinforcement in a new policy idea or campaign message is often evident, but in other cases there is a real disconnect between explicitly stated support and emotional connectivity.

The EU referendum is a great case in point – arguments about the perceived failure of ‘Project Fear’ have largely been impressionistic and assumptive, but our tests during the referendum campaign revealed that ‘Taking Back Control’ had twice the emotional power of ‘Project Fear’.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the single clue I had that Leave really were going to win (although to be fair, there was at least as much suggesting the alternative outcome). What we’re seeing here, at last, is not just artificial wordsmithing, but evidence that what people explicitly say can indeed sometimes be at odds with what they emotionally feel.

For now our concentration is on message and policy development, with the recent Budget being a great opportunity to cross-reference our new technique against conventional polling. For example, headline polling figures might make you think that the Tories should have stuck to their guns on National Insurance Contributions (NICs) for the self-employed. A third of the public supported the NIC measure to raise much needed funds (the same number against), so why not ride out the storm and collect the cash?

Few read party election manifestos these days, except political hacks, and breaking promises is what politicians do. The agenda would soon enough turn back to Labour’s performance. Wrong. Breaking a pledge is seen as a breach of trust, and measuring people’s emotional certainty on this matter provides compelling evidence for politicians never doing so.

That third of the public who didn’t have much of a problem with it? Actually, when accounting for the emotional component the PECS Score indicated that only 5 (Indexed out of 100 ) could be counted on to be unconcerned by pledge-breaking. But there’s much more here. The social care crisis has touched a national nerve, and in confirmation the explicit score ICM found in support of raising a new £1billion for it ( 79%) was matched by the policy emotional commitment score ( 80 ).

The Sugar Tax, too, is as much an injection of energy to the emotional coffers as a post-lunch chocolate bar is to a tired child: 59% support it explicitly but this rises to 77 when we factor in the emotional component. And you know that age-old ropey premise about people being willing to pay extra in tax if the proceeds were ring-fenced for the NHS (but then voting for someone saying the opposite)? Guess what: 42% still say they would support this, but the PECS score plummets to only 15. Look forward to seeing that one on Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto suicide note.

It gets even worse though for supporters of the Left: if you suggest that income tax would be the funding source and then put a figure of what it’ll cost you next to it, expect to see manifesto pledge-breaking levels of emotional emptiness.

You know what? Journalists, the public and even you dear reader, might not believe pollsters anymore, but all of a sudden we might not be so sure about you either.

Martin Boon is a director at ICM Unlimited

Published in Research Live on 12th April 2017 -