How to read the Tory poll lead

Cameron's party on top in this morning's Sunday Telegraph/ICM survey.

A seemingly remarkable opinion poll in today's Sunday Telegraph that shows a Tory lead over Labour of two points -- after a week of economic gloom -- prompts Political Betting to ask:

Is it so bad that voters want to stick with nurse?

Whichever way you look at the ICM numbers -- Conservatives 38 per cent (+2), Labour 36 per cent (-2), Lib Dems 14 per cent (no change), Others 12 per cent -- they do not make happy reading for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

Yet, as always, outliers such as these should be treated with caution. After all, a weekly YouGov poll, published by the Sunday Times, shows an eight point lead for Labour -- Conservatives 35 per cent, Labour 43 per cent, Lib Dems 9 per cent, Others 13 per cent.

So what's going on? Over at UK Polling Report, Anthony Wells notes:

Whenever a poll shows an unusual result I offer the same caveat - sure, it could be the start of some new trend, but more often than not it turns out to be a blip caused by normal sample error. Pollsters' different methodologies have impacts upon their topline figures, and ICM tends to show some of the most positive figures for the Conservatives

Equally, YouGov tends to record some of the highest numbers for Labour. So until other polls show what ICM shows today, it's more realistic to conclude that Miliband's party still enjoys a small lead.

But before we dismiss today's numbers and move on, it's worth making a couple of points -- and neither reflects particularly well on Labour.

The first is that Labour's poll lead (if that is what it continues to be) has hardly shifted from where it was last December. Indeed its percentage share -- and that of the Conservatives -- has declined slightly. That decline is explained by the rise of the "Others" -- where once the Liberal Democrats as the "third party" would pick up the protest vote, it is now going elsewhere.

Labour is failing to pick up the protest vote because it is still blamed, at least in part, for the economic situation. It must hope that, as the parliamentary session progresses, the blame shifts from red to blue.

The second thing to acknowledge is that the unions made a tactical error last week -- an error not of intention but of timing -- and that may be reflected in the ICM numbers. As one shadow cabinet minister described it to my colleague Rafael Behr, the decision to strike less than 24 hours after George Osborne's Autumn statement was "a source of frustration". Privately, the language was doubtless far stronger. As Rafael notes in this week's Politics Column:

Miliband would gladly have let the news of [George] Osborne's economic woes reverberate through the week. Instead, the focus shifted to an issue that risks discomfort for the Labour leader, given his party's financial reliance on trade unions.

It was not to be and David Cameron and Osborne escaped from a potentially tricky week unscathed.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.