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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.