The popularity of incumbent MPs like Simon Hughes is saving the Lib Dems. Photo: Getty.
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Introducing the New Statesman Political Index: Lib Dems to win at least 30 seats

The Lib Dems are polling more strongly than public polls suggest. They could hold onto as many as 35 seats in May.

The Political Index will run on May2015.com – our election site. Read this piece on May2015. 

Since launching in September, May2015 has tried to become a home for all the election data you might need. We began with a ‘Poll of Polls’ to keep on top of the 10-11 polls coming out each week. Then we used a version of uniform swing to turn that into a seat prediction.

In December we added ‘The Drilldown’: our unique insight into the polls, which allows you to break down voters’ attitudes to the economy, government and different issues by age, class, gender and political ID.

But our method for predicting seats was still too crude. Like all traditional models, it didn’t use all the polling Lord Ashcroft was doing of individual seats. So in January we launched a real election-forecasting machine: now we combine all the latest national and constituency polls to make our prediction. But we still have a problem.

That prediction is reliant on public polls. There is no way to plug in what we might know about individual seats. The parties are doing their own constituency polling, but those polls aren’t publicly released.

The Lib Dems are polling more strongly than public polls suggest.

But sometimes we can get a sense of how parties are faring in those polls. And we can add this to other information we have about specific seats – on how strong the parties’ ground campaigns are, how much money is being dedicated to each seat, and how favourable demographics are for different parties in certain places. By doing all this, we can expand on May2015’s polling data and offer a more precise forecast.

This is what we will now be doing until election day. May2015’s objective forecast, based purely on the polls, will still be our main model, but we’ll have a second prediction that we’re calling the “New Statesman Political Index”.

It will pool all the information gathered by the New Statesman’s political team, from May2015 editor Harry Lambert to NS deputy editor Helen Lewis, political editor George Eaton, ‘Staggers’ editor Stephen Bush, and NS writers Anoosh Chakelian and Tim Wigmore.

We will soon explain and add the Report’s ratings to May2015’s seat lists. But ahead of that, we can reveal that the Lib Dems are polling more strongly than public polls suggest.

The party has spent around £350,000 on private polling of marginal seats, conducted by the pollster Survation.

Current election forecasts, from academic models to the betting markets, predict the party will win just 23 to 28 seats in May. In other words, they will lose at least half of their 57 MPs. But the New Statesman Political Index now predicts they will win at least 30 seats.

In half a dozen seats – St Austell & Newquay, Cardiff Central, Solihull, Bermondsey, Leeds North West, St Ives – the party has reasons to be confident.

It is competitive in races where forecasters have written them off. The odds of a Lib Dem win in St Austell & Newquay are just 37 per cent. In Cardiff Central and Solihull, they’re even lower – 27 per cent and 24 per cent. (Via Firstpastthepost.net.) But the New Statesman Political Index now considers all three seats “toss ups”.

Current election forecasts predict the party will win just 23 to 28 seats in May.

The party is being helped by an ‘incumbency effect’ that May2015 first highlighted in early September. That effect may be ever stronger than Lord Ashcroft’s public seat polls suggest.

Ashcroft asks two questions: a generic and abstract national voting question (“Who would you vote for in an election held tomorrow?”), and a specific local question (“Thinking about your own seat…and the candidates likely to stand there…”). By comparing answers to these questions we can test whether Lib Dems MPs are out-polling their national party.

We have showed how they are, and how that is hurting Tory hopes of winning many Lib Dem seats. But the Lib Dems’ believe there is an even greater effect if an MP’s name is included in the question (as it is on election day), and this is giving them confidence in many marginal seats.

The party is also encouraged by its success in reaching out to young voters and women. They are seeing the significant impact that direct campaigning can have – a reminder to all forecasters that this election still needs to be fought.

The Lib Dems are not recovering in the national polls, and aren’t holding up well in seats they didn’t win in 2010 (that’s nearly 600 seats). But they think they can compete in almost every seat where they have an incumbent MP.

There is reason to believe the party could win as many as 35 seats.

47 of the Lib Dems’ 57 MPs are standing in May, and the party still believes it can hold onto 40 seats, although the rise of the SNP in Scotland has made that harder. The Lib Dems aren’t resigned to losing any Scottish seats, but nor are they certain they will win many.

The SNP are hurting them both directly and indirectly. Lord Ashcroft has shown how they trailing the SNP in Gordon and Inverness, Danny Alexander’s seat. But the nationalists’ rise is also hurting the Lib Dem in seats like East Dunbartonshire, a Lib Dem-Labour marginal until recently.

However the party’s most important battle will be with the Tories. They are competing with their coalition partners in 31 seats. That compares to 14 Labour contests, 11 against the SNP and one against Plaid Cymru.

The New Statesman Political Index has rated every single one of these contests. Doing so gives us a new overall prediction for the party: 30 seats. (There is reason to believe the party could win as many as 35 seats.) That contrasts with May2015’s polling-based prediction of 26, and all other forecasts for the party.

The difference may seem trivial, but four seats could prove pivotal in May.

Explore May2015.com.

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

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.