Not as shocking as we might have thought. Photo:Getty
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Late swing? Labour's private polls showed Tories ahead before Christmas

Labour's polling position was worse than it looked in the public polls, reveals Labour's official pollster.

Polling for the Labour party over the last five years, the great mystery was why the newspaper polls consistently showed a much more favourable position for Labour than we were finding in our internal data. While the lead in the public polls suggested Labour had got past the issues that sunk the party in 2010 - its perceived record on the economy and immigration - we knew we had much more work to do and were still dogged by a loss of trust.

From January 2011 to Spring 2013, Labour’s average vote share in the public polls rarely dropped out of the low 40s. We consistently had it around 7 points lower. While the public polls had Labour ahead until early spring of this year, in the party's internal polls cross-over came right after conference season in 2014.  A four point Labour lead in early Sept, turned into a tie in October, followed by small Tory leads; prompting the party to put reassurance on fiscal policy and immigration at the heart of the campaign launch before Christmas. This plan worked through the opening weeks of the short campaign, with Labour pulling ahead in the English marginals following Ed Miliband’s strong debate performances and the non-doms row.

Our final poll, in late April, told a different story. As focus groups showed the SNP attacks landing, we had Labour behind in the marginal seats among likely voters. A public poll in a similar set of seats at the same time showed a 3 point Labour lead.

The campaign strongly toughened our stance on the SNP before the final Question Time, but it was not enough. The Tories successfully used the fear of Scottish influence as a way of catalyzing pre-existing doubts about Labour in a way that had not been possible earlier in the campaign.

One area where we were wrong was the belief that the Tories were facing even deeper structural problems than Labour. Their surge against the Lib Dems in the west country was invisible to us. Labour’s collapse in Scotland gave the Tories an unexpected weapon with which to squeeze Ukip. Labour's relative inability to reach into the Tory vote proved even more costly than expected.

As several major polling companies have acknowledged, the 2015 election was a collective failure for the British polling industry. It isn’t yet possible to be sure of the explanation and the industry will work hard to make sure it does better in the future. My sense is that the answer lies more in the questionnaire design than who gets interviewed. Whenever we tried weighting our polls to match what other pollsters do, or tried a telephone rather than online methodology, our Labour share remained stubbornly low.

The main difference between our polls and the newspaper polls is that we don’t ask the voting intention first. As Politicalbetting.com’s Mike Smithson found out when he accidentally participated in our only telephone poll of the last 4 years, we first ask respondents to think about the country, the economy, their top issues, the parties and the leaders. We think it gets them closer to their ballot box mindset.

This technique delivers a much lower don’t know number – generally half the level found in the public polls. We treat this ‘don’t know’ group differently to most of the public polls, asking them questions about who they are likely to vote for rather than assuming they are likely to vote for whoever they voted for last time. Of course, that requires many more questions and so is more expensive to implement especially for a phone pollster where every minute costs money. If we had run a final poll close to election day, would we have got the Tory margin right? It’s hard to know. But if this explanation is broadly true, it means the drift to online polling remains valid.

The more optimistic public polling helped Labour at various points, giving us momentum in the face of a hostile media. Ultimately, however, it proved costly, allowing the campaign to become a referendum on the popularity of a putative Labour/SNP government. If Labour had been seen to be a couple of points behind, false Tory claims would have had less bite and scrutiny on the parties would have been more balanced, asking as much about the future of the NHS and living standards as they did about the role of Nicola Sturgeon. A key challenge for the next Labour leader is to make sure the party’s electoral position is robust to such vagaries.

The British polling industry is full of people with great integrity and deep understanding of survey methodology. It is the most open industry in the world when it comes to data.  It has rightly recognized that it got this election wrong, and that error had a real impact on the reporting of the campaign. The last polling inquest in 1992 provided some major innovations in the way polls are conducted; this time I hope that is matched with a change in the way the media report on them.

 

James Morris is a partner at GQR and former pollster to Ed Miliband and the Labour party, who tweets as @jamesdmorris.

 

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and worked as a pollster for Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era