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 a pollster for Labour. 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle