The only people sadder than Ed Miliband? YouGov. Photo:Getty
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Twilight of the pollsters: what should the polling companies do next?

The polling industry is at a low ebb after the disastrous result on Thursday. What can they do next?

After every election comes a period of mournful soul-searching for those who lost. Unusually, however, this time the group of losers includes not just defeated parties and their crestfallen leaders, but also a class of people who normally remain untouched by the vagaries of political fortune: opinion pollsters. For better or (as it turned out) for worse, this has arguably been the first ‘opinion poll election’. More polls were conducted than ever before, in more granular detail than ever before, and more attention than ever before was paid to how each shift and shimmy might translate into parties’ Westminster seat shares. Coalition flirtations, threats, and accusations dominated the ‘short campaign’—driven almost exclusively by the apparent ‘truth’ revealed by the polls, that a hung parliament was inevitable. As the public opinion scholar Lindsay Rogers might have put it, vox pollsteri seemed to have become synonymous with vox populi, and (equally inexorably) vox dei.

And yet, just as in 2010, as what looked initially like a wildly implausible exit poll was proved agonisingly (for the left), spectacularly (for the right) accurate over the course of the night, weeks’ worth of simulations and poll aggregations were seemingly discredited in the blink of an eye. The British public delivered a result that wholly confounded (nearly) all predictions—and the polls went from deified to vilified in the space of less than 24 hours, while John Curtice and his team of exit pollsters reigned supreme. Worse, that most sacred of things, the pollsters’ professional neutrality, was called seriously into question, and the British Polling Council took the remarkable step of setting up an independent enquiry into structural bias towards Labour and against the Conservatives within the industry. By any lights, a truly dramatic reversal—and one that raises the very real threat of a Pollsterdämmerung, a ‘twilight of the pollsters’.

In the corridors of power, the knives are out—as they already were well before the election—with indignant elites arming for a showdown with the polling industry. As in 1992, there have been calls to ban polls in the weeks before polling day, with the added sting of corruption accusations thrown in for good measure. It goes without saying that restricting opinion polling in this way is an overreaction, and an extremely dangerous route to take. Polls are a force for accountability in a democracy, as a regular reminder of the immense power that lies in the population, and of the political weight which its endorsement or rejection of an issue, party, or candidate carries. Without them, the ways to keep government informed of public opinion are reduced to rallies and protests, the media, or occasional fortuitous moments of personal contact. So rather than seeking to remove the influence of polls from our electoral cycle—which only benefits the powerful—the priority (as in 1992) should be to fix their problems. And the good news is that there are plenty of options for doing so.

One of these is what opinion researchers call ‘priming’, where pollsters ask the people they survey to think about specific important factors before asking them their voting intention. It is an inconvenient truth among both academics and professional pollsters that while polls can try to predict voting behaviour, they can never hope to explain it. This means that when polling companies contact their samples, their questions are not supposed to find out why people vote the way they do, but instead replicate how the average person might think if they were in the voting booth at that very moment. The effectiveness of ‘priming’  may have been been shown by Labour’s private polling in the run-up to the election, which asked respondents to “think about the country, the economy, their top issues, the parties and the leaders” before saying how they would vote, and produced Conservative and Labour relative vote shares that were far closer to the eventual outcome. Opinion polls in future must use such approaches much more. The focus on party leaders is especially important, and not just because of the rise of TV debates. Party elites personify what parties stand for, ideologically and strategically—just compare the mental pictures conjured up by ‘Tony Blair’s Labour’ versus ‘Ed Miliband’s Labour’—which factors into voters’ decisions even when they are primarily choosing between candidates for their constituency MPs.

But a far more sweeping reform concerns how pollsters measure the level of support parties enjoy within the population. Nothing can replace the situation of actually being in a voting booth, so even the carefully-framed forced choice of ‘voting intentions’ may really reflect much vaguer feelings of sympathy or allegiance towards the parties. What is needed is a way to determine how ‘intense’ support for different parties is—going beyond questions of ‘likelihood to vote’ (code for notoriously asymmetric turnout between party supporters) and the controversial exclusion or reallocation of ‘don’t knows’. Rather than simply asking respondents whether they support the prompted parties, pollsters should include ‘attitude scales’—either ranging from ‘weak’ to ‘strong’, or expressed as a numerical scale—to allow people to qualify their stated support: ‘weak Liberal Democrat’, ‘strong UKIP’, ‘ out of 10 Green’, and so on. While this would not rule out a recurrence of the famous ‘shy Tory’ factor, it would allow pollsters to identify more accurately the number of ‘switherers’ whose support for their parties might not be entrenched enough to prevent them switching their vote in the last instance.

A further addition would make pollsters’ analysis of voters’ conviction even more sophisticated, covering the ‘degree’ to which they back particular parties. Apart from a few die-hard supporters, most people are open to voting for more than one party, depending on their circumstances. Yet the closest the polling industry has come to modelling this is by adding questions about how respondents voted at the previous election—as with the apparent dependence, well documented by Politicalbetting.com, of projected Labour support at this election on ‘2010 Liberal Democrats’. As well as their partisan attitude scales, voting intention surveys should also include some measurement of ‘additional party preference’: either ordinal, like a poll equivalent of AV—‘1st choice Green, 2nd choice SNP, 3rd choice Labour’—or as a percentage distribution—‘70% Conservative, 30% UKIP’. This would allow pollsters to work out not just how many ‘switherers’ there are, but also where these voters might switch to—information which party strategists, at the very least, would surely be grateful for.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen quite what recommendations the Polling Council’s enquiry will produce. At the very least, however, the 2015 election has been a warning shot for the polling industry, which now knows that it needs (yet again) to up its game. The position of opinion polls as a staple feature of our democracy is far too precious to be wasted by methodological corner-cutting, or to be lightly abandoned in the face of political hostility. Their role of clarifying to society its own collective views about the pressing affairs of the day is not easy to fulfil. They have doubtless suffered a setback for now—but their situation is far more hopeful than the current narrative about them would have us believe.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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