Is Labour's lead five points or 10? Why ICM and YouGov disagree

It all depends on how you assume those who say "don't know" will vote when the election actually happens.

The latest monthly ICM/Guardian poll, showing that Labour's lead over the Tories has shrunk from eight points to just five, has provoked much comment. How, when most surveys show the party around 11 points ahead, can Labour have sunk so low?

To begin with, it's important to note that ICM's polls have long shown a lower Labour lead than those from other groups such as YouGov and TNS-BRMB. Seven of the last 12 polls by the company have had Labour ahead by five points or less. December's ICM poll, which showed a Labour lead of eight points, was also less flattering than the concurrent YouGov survey, which showed a Labour lead of 10.

Why the discrepancy? The main reason is the difference in how the two pollsters treat the "don't knows". While YouGov simply discounts those voters who say they "don't know" which party they'd vote for, ICM reallocates 50 per cent of them based on the party they voted for at the previous general election. This approach was originally developed to respond to the phenomenon of "shy Tories" - those who intended to vote Conservative but were unwilling to say so. In 1992, this famously meant many polls showed Labour in front when in fact it was the Tories who were heading for victory. After studying the data, ICM found that a disproportionate number of those who said "don't know" to voting intention questions in 1992 had voted for the Conservatives in 1987. The reallocation method was born.

At present, since a significant number of 2010 Liberal Democrat voters are unsure how they'll vote at the next election, while most Labour voters are sure, ICM invariably shows a higher level of support for Clegg's party than YouGov and a lower level of support for Labour. The most recent poll by the latter has Labour on 42 per cent and the Lib Dems on 11 per cent, while the most recent by the former has Labour on 38 per cent and the Lib Dems on a seemingly miraculous 15 per cent. There are good arguments for both YouGov and ICM's approaches but for those sceptical of ICM's method, it's worth pointing out that it was the second most accurate pollster in 2010.

Finally, it's worth imagining how different the political narrative would be if it was ICM, rather than YouGov, that conducted a daily poll. Since the coalition came to power, ICM has never shown a Labour lead larger than 10 points (a figure the party has only attained once, in September 2012) or a Lib Dem vote share lower than 11 per cent (the party averaged 14 per cent in 2012). Conversely, YouGov has had Labour ahead by as much as 14 points and the Lib Dems as low as seven per cent. But fortunately for Ed Miliband and unfortunately for Nick Clegg, politicos pay more far attention to a daily pollster than they do to a monthly one.

Ed Miliband would be under greater pressure if ICM's polling figures received as much attention as YouGov's. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”