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Here’s what would actually be news in polling – and three rules for reporting polls

It’s only news if you’ve compared lone polls to all the others, compare it to that pollster’s past and know each firm’s outliers.

Read this piece on May2015.com, our election site, for all the graphs that come with it.

On Monday an ICM poll suggested the Tories will win the election by more than a million votes. Today a TNS poll indicated Labour will win by 2 million. That’s quite a change.

In reality, little has changed. We’ve had six polls since Monday morning, but May2015’s 5-day Poll of Polls hasn’t moved much: Labour’s lead has shortened from 2.3 to 1.5 points.

Over the weekend we suggested the race has scarcely changed since the party conferences in early October. Labour have lost support in Scotland, which is why they’ve dipped since September, when they had a 3-4 point lead. But the party may not have slipped much at all in England & Wales.

The race is alternating between a small Labour lead (1-2 points) and a tie. The Tories have only twice led May2015’s 5-day Poll of Polls in 2015.

Outliers are being given air time by punters tired of a lifeless campaign.

That analysis looked at more than 150 polls over the past five months. But this week has shown how a lone poll can excite pundits into thinking everything has suddenly changed.

Outliers are being given air time by punters tired of a lifeless campaign. That’s all that’s really happening. The TNS poll should be taken with a pinch of salt: they’ve put Labour ahead like this before (by 6 two weeks ago, 7 in early January and 7 in mid-December). The ICM poll was more surprising, but it’s still just one poll with a 3-point margin of error.

So what would actually make news in polling? Here are three things we wouldn’t brush over so quickly.

1. YouGov hand one party a series of significant leads

YouGov poll five times a week. They are the highest-profile pollster, publish in the Sun andSunday Times, and have UK Polling Report’s Anthony Wells manning their numbers (not to mention Peter Kellner, Nigel Farage’s favourite pollster).

So far in 2015 they’ve published 33 polls. The leads they’ve given each party have all been within the margin of error (± 3 per cent). They swing between showing ties and small Labour leads, with the occasional small Tory lead.

If they had put Labour ahead by 7 today, it would have been news (their little noticed overnight poll put Labour up 1). It would still have been an outlier. But if they were to consistently put either party ahead, by say 3-4 points, something will have changed.

2. Populus start handing the Tories’ leads

Populus, the UK’s second most-prolific pollster, have given Labour a lead in every one of their thirteen 2015 polls. On average, they give them a 2.3-point lead. That’s in-line with the 2-point leads they gave the party throughout late 2014.

A series of polls showing the reverse, with the Tories in front by a few points, would be news.

3. Ashcroft … becomes more consistent

The Ashcroft polls that make news – Labour up five in late November, Tories ahead by six in mid-January – have proven to be outliers. Eight of his past twelve polls have shown a tie or put the parties within a point of each other.

It would news if he started putting one party ahead regularly, or stopped occasionally putting either ahead by a bunch. Not that a series of ties will win much coverage.

*

YouGov, Populus and Ashcroft are the most regular pollsters. But there are six others. Here are three general rules for when any poll is released:

1. Compare it to all the other polls

ICM and Ipsos MORI are the oldest pollsters, and they publish once a month (in the Guardianand Evening Standard respectively). The rarity of their polls and platform these papers give them – along with their name recognition in Westminster – makes their numbers newsworthy.

But they should always be compared to other polls at the time. If we look at how ICM’s numbers have compared to our Poll of Polls each month, we can see how this week’s ICM poll was more different than any other in the past year.

On average, they had been different by 1.9 points across the eleven polls before this week’s. So on Monday we should have expected anything from a 2.9-point Labour lead to a 1-point Tory lead.

That’s why the 4-point Tory lead was news. It suggested a shift for ICM. But because they only poll one a month, we can’t put too much stock in the number. They put the Tories ahead twice last year (in May and July) before reverting to a Labour lead.

2. Compare it to that pollster’s previous polls

We can’t put too much stock in individual polls, but we should track the trend. The trend among each pollster’s numbers is what really tells a story, not the specific lead they’ve shown that week or month.

Plugging every poll into a ‘Poll of Polls’, as we do, is helpful, but it irons out the way each pollster is shifting over time.

Ipsos MORI’s monthly polls are a showcase for tracking the trend. Since January 2014, they’ve gone from showing a consistent and comfortable Labour lead to showing a mix of small Labour leads, Tory leads and ties.

In other words, we’ve gone from a 6-7 point Labour lead to a 1-2 point Lab lead, which is what our Poll of Polls shows.

The specific monthly numbers are really approximations. MORI are saying “This is the state of the race, ±3 points”. [1]

3. Be aware of each pollsters’ past ‘outliers’

We treated TNS’s 7-point Labour lead lightly today because they’ve put Labour ahead by at least 6 points in three of their last four polls.

If Opinium, the Observer’s pollster, published a similar poll we’d have a fairly similar reaction. They have put Labour ahead by 5 or more three times in the past three months, although recently they’ve had fewer outliers.

The precedents of ComRes and Survation, two of the industry’s newest firms, shape the way we think about them too.

When Survation put Ukip on 24 per cent again in a few weeks, it won’t mean much.

Survation, who poll irregularly for theSunday Mirror and privately for Ukip, think Ukip are polling 23-25 per cent. These aren’t occasional outliers so much as systematic differences. Our Poll of Polls puts Ukip on 14-15 per cent. So when they put Ukip on 24 per cent again in a few weeks, it won’t mean much.

Correspondingly, they give the Greens 2-4, rather than 5-6, per cent. It’s the same story with ComRes’ monthly-ish poll for the Independent on Sunday. [2] They put the Greens low and Ukip high (close to 20 per cent).

If Survation or ComRes started putting Ukip on 10-12 per cent and the Greens on 8-9 per cent, that would be news.

For a broader look at why pollsters differ, check out Anthony Wells’ recent take.

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May2015 is the New Statesman's new elections site. Explore it for data, interviews and ideas on the general election.

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.