Are Labour up or down today? Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

How much attention should we pay to daily polls?

The daily numbers are interesting, but the trend tells the story.

This post was originally published on May2015.com.

How much attention should you pay to the polls? This week Labour have led comfortably, then drifted down, and now the Tories “lead”, according to YouGov’s overnight tracking poll.

This is – as some have pointed out – noise. The trend is what is worth watching, along with the results of each polling house, rather than just one. Reporting on the polls throughout the week relies on following the YouGov/Sun tracking poll, published from Monday through Thursday night.

But they are only one of the eight major, active British pollsters. We hear from some of them – ICM, Ipsos Mori – only once a month, or others – ComRes, Survation, Opinium – only every few weeks. Aside from YouGov, only two other pollsters poll weekly: Ashcroft, who often creates a mini-news cycle on Monday afternoon, and Populus, who poll on Monday and Friday mornings.

If you pay attention to YouGov’s daily tracker polls you can write a new headline almost every day. The real story is the trend across all eight pollsters over time. May2015‘s Poll of Polls is keeping a track of all the numbers each day. We like to keep an eye on our rolling four-day average:

If we just looked at the daily averages, we see a more muddled picture - especially in mid-week, when just YouGov are polling.

Daily polls become important over time. Or they can mean something if a number of pollsters show the same sudden shift, as Ashcroft, Populus and YouGov did on Monday, when all three put Labour ahead by at least 4 points. But that seems to have been about a post-Rochester Tory-to-Ukip swing, rather than any lasting change; Labour's vote share never really changed, and the Tories have now "recovered", at least in YouGov's numbers.

Polls are truly informative over months and years.

And while a four-day average is at least something of a trend, polls are truly informative over months and years, rather than days and weeks. Exploring the polls over the last 44 years - as you can do here on May2015, focusing in on any week or month since August 1970 - tells the story of post-1960s British political history.

Click through to track the rise and fall of the SNP, who led the polls for three months in late 1981, or the Blair and Brown years, and the Tories' long, slow, limited recovery since 1997.

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.