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28 September 2018

No, the Conservatives are not six points ahead

People need to stop getting excited about outlier polls, in one direction or another. 

By Stephen Bush

There is some excitement about the latest YouGov poll, which shows a Conservative lead of six points over Labour.

I know I’m at risk of sounding like a broken record on this, but really, it is just one poll and we should always treat any one-off polling with caution, particularly when the rest of the polls are showing the same post-election pattern: ie, deadlock.

However, it’s a good opportunity to go over some useful things to remember about polling in general.

The margin of error is three percentage points. That works both ways

Any poll has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points. But crucially, that margin of error applies to all the parties’ vote shares, not just the gap between them.

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Let’s say for argument’s sake that the real political picture is that both parties are level on 39 per cent each. That means that you’d expect the odd poll to throw out a result in which one party is exaggerated by three points, on 42 per cent, and the other is underrepresented at 36 per cent: a six-point lead.

So far, all of the big leads for either side that people have got excited about have been within this range and all of them have been immediately contradicted by the rest of the polls and the pattern in actual elections, whether they be local by-elections or council elections, which suggest a deadlock.

In general, we should always sense-check these things

I’m not saying it isn’t theoretically possible that party conference hasn’t triggered a major shift in the minds of British voters, but it is highly unlikely if you think about it for longer than 15 minutes.

It’s important to remember that very few people watch party conferences and even fewer remember them. Of those who watch them, they are mostly sympathetic to the party in question. To put it in perspective, BBC Parliament – which airs the party conferences – pulled in 0.4 per cent of the viewing audience last September.

As I’ve said before, Populus Polls’ “Most Noticed” tracker is a useful corrective here: if an issue is not charting on that, it is hard to claim that it has moved voters in any way, shape or form.

Don’t forget that most people aren’t paying attention

Most people follow politics only when they are about to be asked to make a decision: not, in other words, a year after an election when they have a reasonable expectation there won’t be another until 2022.

There is plenty to worry about in the polls for both sides, regardless

If I were a Labour strategist, I wouldn’t pay much attention to voting intention this far out, but I would be alarmed that Jeremy Corbyn’s personal ratings, having soared during the general election campaign, have returned to their pre-election lows, and that the party is still not seen as competent. (Bluntly I don’t think it matters all that much if people like your policies if they don’t think you can implement them.) In a generic electoral cycle, I’d be very, very worried for Labour that the party is not further ahead this far out from an election. 

Equally, however, were I a Conservative, I would be troubled at how popular the overall Labour brand is now. It could easily be that the popularity of the party and its platform carries an unpopular leader through. And while Labour’s position is not what they might wish in any other electoral cycle, there are a lot of reasons to suppose we are not in any other electoral cycle: the huge pressures on the public realm caused by years of cuts, and the looming crisis over Brexit, from which it is difficult to see the government escaping without suffering economic damage, political damage or both. 

Both parties have plausible lines to take on this: the Labour line is that election time broadcast rules transformed Corbyn’s personal ratings and will again, which could be true, could be false. The Conservative line is that at the next election, the fact that a Corbyn government is a live possibility transforms the nature of the contest, which again, could be true, could be false. Both parties have solid plans for their best case scenario. Neither is yet seriously tackling the downside risk.