Issue 107: 2017 06 01: Adding it all up – UK voting intentions (JR Thomas)

01 June 2017

Adding It All Up

What the opinion polls are telling us.

by J.R.Thomas

When it comes to numbers, you may think the Tories have the Labour Party beat.  Ms Abbott cannot do even the most basic sums, it is clear; and Mr Corbyn, it turns out, cannot remember his.  Not many of us have the misfortune to be quizzed on live radio about erudite aspects of our hobbies or businesses, but under the hammer blow interrogation of the modern interviewing style (where are thou, Alan Whicker; return to us, oh Fyfe Robertson) I doubt few of us could remember our own children’s birthdays, let alone work out the tax we will pay for the forthcoming year.  And the public seem inclined to sympathise; Mr Corbyn’s elegant apology for forgetting the costs of his child care policy was received in the right spirit by the public who appreciated that he took the trouble to look it up and give the figures later.  And, wily politician that he is, that gave him the chance to get a bit of free publicity for one of the better selling suggestions in the Labour Party manifesto, so overall, no harm done.

Mrs May also has an increasing problem with numbers; especially after the publication in Wednesday’s The Times of their special YouGov survey, an opinion poll conducted on a constituency basis, which this column has long argued is the most accurate approach when seeking a guide to voter intentions.  This, or at least The Times headline, suggests a hung Parliament with Labour gaining maybe up to 30 seats.  Close reading of the figures suggests that is not what it is saying; it is one possibility in the range of figures which the poll presents and the one most likely to sell newspapers – whoops, we mean one of a range of potential outcomes.  But the figures are fascinating. They show an unusually large number of voters who are yet to decide; or possibly are sick of opinion polls.  This latter should not be discounted entirely – people can start to become hostile to polls in the latter stages of elections.  But discounting this, it does suggest that the Tory campaign is not going well and Labour might yet do not as badly as we have all tended to think.

There must be a mood of panic in Conservative Central Office as it struggles to recommend how advertising should be adjusted, what resources should be deployed in what seats, how issues should be played up or down.   Modern technology has changed the art of politics on the ground a great deal.  If there are enough volunteers, then of course the ancient arts of door-stepping and leafleting are still widely deployed, as readers who live in marginal seats will be only too well aware.  It may do some good, or it may drive the poor voters to distraction, but it is certainly good for the morale of all those party loyalists.

But modern campaigning is really about much more sophisticated techniques than that; making sure for instance that speakers talk about issues the public admire in their party – Brexit, perhaps – and not dwelling on those ones that seem to be losers – paying for your own health care until either the pips squeak or you do.  Advertising can be refocused; party big-wigs of the right views and tone can be wheeled out where they will do most good; the Prime Minister can visit candidates who will attract favourable (free) TV publicity – “Good Morning, Mr Goldsmith”; and avoid those who might not (no names).

This level of refinement looked as though it did not matter three weeks ago; but the rapid tightening of the gap between Labour and Conservative suggests it might matter a lot over the next week.  The mess over health care funding has damaged Mrs May, but she has sensibly stopped digging and is now back on issues where she hopes to play strongly.  But her personal approval ratings – basically, the number of voters polled who say they like her drift minus the number who say they don’t – have dropped down to minus 9 from plus 10, whilst Mr Corbyn has risen from minus 42 to minus 11.  You, too, might not like such figures if you polled your friends and relations, and neither leader will like these, but what they do show is Mrs May having a relatively bad election and Mr Corbyn having a good one.  The gap between their parties has narrowed by a pretty astonishing amount too – there are a lot of polls being published at the moment, not just the YouGov constituency ones.  The figures vary, from the Tories being six points ahead to being eleven points ahead, with a median around nine, but they are a long way from the twenty point lead that Theresa was looking at five weeks ago.  The polls also confirm the collapse of the minor parties; UKIP has almost disappeared, at least from the voter perspective, and the Liberals are around five percent and stuck.  The UKIP vote seems to have gone fairly comprehensively to the Tories – which is interesting because it is believed UKIP took it in the first place mainly from Labour.  That may suggest Labour is gaining votes from former Liberals and the Greens, not winning back its former working class supporters.  If that is so we may indeed see some unexpected results in individual constituencies.

Perhaps Labour is being helped by quite a number of local candidates who are running on a basis of “Vote For Me, Not For Jeremy”; saying that they will be good hardworking local Labour M.P’s and, by implication, will get the Corbyn mob out of its offices as soon as possible.  Win or lose, the Parliamentary Labour Party on 9th June could be a very discordant bunch.

“But,” you say, “they are not going to win, opinion polls are all baloney and moon dust.” And here we must differ.  We have always put forward the case in this column that the opinion polls get it a lot more right than they are usually given credit for.  They can only report what people say to them of course, and people do fib and change their minds (floating voters, who really influence the results in the marginal constituencies, change their minds a lot, research suggests).  But whether the Tories are six points ahead or nine or eleven is not that big a margin if 10% of the electorate are still undecided; it is clear that the Conservative lead has gone down a lot, just as it is clear what has happened to UKIP and to the Lib-Dems.  Things may change again.  The most accurate opinion polls are always the exit polls on the day, when the voter’s deed is done.

Which is why we must now go back to Conservative Central Office and the smell of overheating abacuses.  The opinion polls also report voter loyalties have been shaken loose, most notably by Brexit, but also by the election of Mr Corbyn to the Labour Party leadership, by the devastation to the Lib Dems of co-sharing power, especially by Mrs May forgetting her natural voter advantage among the older segment of the population.  Campaigners in Bolsover say that one of the safest Labour seats – held by that grand old man of Labour Dennis Skinner – is neck and neck with the Conservatives; and Labours’ deputy leader, Tom Watson, is having similar issues at West Bromwich.  Both seats are changing demographically but, even so, to lose such seats would be extraordinary.  There are also suggestions of localised Lib-Dem surges in profoundly “Remain” voting constituencies which could also upset local apple carts.  It is unlikely that Mrs May will lose, but she could find that she is losing in places she did not expect (Battersea?), even if she wins in places pretty much unknown on the Central Office maps.

Plus one other thing.  The Ipsos MORI detailed analysis of voter behaviour in the 2015 election came out late last year, but has been little discussed.  It is based on opinion polls, of course, but they are exit polls which are known to be pretty accurate.  It shows some interesting trends which might keep Central Office awake for the next few nights.  The trend among young people to vote Lib-Dem or Labour markedly accelerated.  And people who live in rented accommodation are markedly more likely to vote Labour, whatever their historic preference.  If Mrs M does win, she might want to reconsider how much she really wants to encourage the private rented sector, let alone new council housing.

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