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No, Labour aren’t six points ahead in the polls either

Please, stop getting excited about outlier polls. 

By Stephen Bush

Conservatives in crisis! A new poll from BMG Research puts the party six points behind Labour. Tories on a roll! A new(ish) poll from YouGov puts the party six points ahead of Labour.

As I wrote last week when everyone was getting excited about that big Conservative lead, these are the sorts of results you’d expect the usual margin of error to throw out when the two parties are deadlocked, which is the pattern suggested by most polls, council by-elections and the local elections last May. (Yes, there are some important differences between local and national elections, but they are on the whole a more reliable barometer than cherrypicking the odd poll or gut instinct.)

I don’t intend to go over old ground, but this new poll is a good opportunity to go over some more important factors about political polling at the moment.

Pollsters are asking about a contest that will never happen

Any voting intention question at the moment is based on the idea that there will be a rematch between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. The chances that May will fight another election have shrunk decisively thanks not only to her handling of Brexit but her general failure to set out a compelling alternative to Labour. There is a very small chance (say one in ten) that Jeremy Corbyn will opt not to fight the next election too.

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One difficulty that pollsters have is that asking how you’re planning to vote is a lot like asking “will you have red wine?”: the answer may be radically different depending on whether it is 11 o’clock in the morning or 11 o’clock at night, or if the meal you are eating is lamb, chicken or beetroot.

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Most people can’t identify anyone in the Cabinet other than Boris Johnson, Theresa May or Michael Gove, so most of the hypothetical “Corbyn vs Not-May” match-ups don’t tell us very much.

While there is a possibility of a Boris Johnson premiership, it isn’t a very big one.

You might say: well, it doesn’t matter that most people haven’t heard of the rest of the Cabinet, because they have heard of the man most likely to be the next Conservative leader: Boris Johnson.

It’s certainly the view of the bookmakers that Johnson is the favourite, but remember: the job of the bookmakers isn’t to predict the future, it’s to make money. A good example of this: in the 2015 election, betting that Plaid Cymru would win more seats than Ukip – a nailed-down, stone cold certainty – was a licence to print money. Bookmakers knew this to be the case, but they also knew that there was more money to be made from Ukip activists who didn’t know this to be the case.

The reality is that while it is certainly possible that Johnson will emerge as the victor from the next Conservative leadership election it isn’t particularly likely. Patrick has already detailed the obstacles facing Johnson at length, but the reality is that there are so many Tory MPs determined to prevent his accession – I have barely been in Birmingham for an afternoon and I have already had two conversations about his unfitness for office – in less every other semi-plausible Brexiteer detonates it is hard to see how he will make the latter stages of the contest.

Nonetheless there are some interesting questions that may be answered by them

That said, there are some interesting things we might learn about British voters from these hypothetical polls, not least how Sajid Javid does compared to say, any other Cabinet minister without a name that marks them out as part of an ethnic minority.

It’s striking that Javid does better in these match-ups than most of his colleagues. That could be because of a social desirability bias – people don’t like giving answers in polls they fear reflect poorly on them – or it could be because the argument advanced semi-frequently at Westminster, and not only by backers of Javid, that an ethnic minority candidate could help the Conservatives unlock a group of ethnic minority voters who are socially conservative and pro-Leave but are currently opting for Labour, while also softening some of the party’s rough edges with socially liberal voters.

I don’t know if there is any weight in this argument, but it’s one that will likely be made in the next Conservative leadership election, so it’s worth looking at the polls to see if there is anything behind it.