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20 February 2019

What polling can and can’t tell us about how the Independent Group will do

For once, trusting your gut might be a better yardstick.

By Stephen Bush

How will the new Independent Group do at an election? The first slew of polls since the Gang of Seven split from the Labour party and announced the formation of a new grouping puts them within the range of 8 to 14 per cent of the vote – above the Liberal Democrats, but well adrift of Labour in second place and nowhere close to overhauling the Conservatives in first.

Is that good news, considering they have barely been in existence for a week and only the most politically committed could pick any of its members out of a line-up? Or bad news, considering that most people hear the word “centrist” and think “like me” yet just one in ten voters say they’ll back it?

The answer is “neither”. The figure is meaningless. Added to the usual problems of voting intention when the next scheduled election is so far off, and several potentially game-changing events – the resolution to the Brexit crisis, the condition of the economy, the next Conservative leadership race – are as yet unknown, there are a number of challenges to polling the fortunes of the Independent Group.

It is smart politics on the part of the Independent Group to get one hit of free media when it announces as a group and another when it emerges from its chrysalis as an official party with another name, just as the Gang of Four did (they left the Labour Party in January 1981 and formed the SDP in March of that year). But the Gang of Four had a big advantage in that Margaret Thatcher had a comfortable majority and the parliament was certain to run until 1983 at the earliest and potentially all the way to 1984. This parliament could keel over at any moment.

The good news from a predictive perspective is that this eventuality need not trouble us: if there is an election before the Independent Group becomes the Radicals, Mike! or whatever name it picks, it will be swept aside, and will only be of interest to nerds like me in quantifying the size of an MP’s personal vote.

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The more difficult problem is that no-one has heard of any of its members. That is, I think, unlikely to change in a significant way absent a general election. That was one of the underappreciated dynamics of the 2017 election: that while Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were well-established in the minds of most political journalists, neither of them (nor Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader) were at all well-established in the minds of most voters. Corbyn took advantage of that opportunity and changed opinions about him for the better (though his approval has since receded); while May and Farron fell victim to it and ended the contest in a worse position than they started it.

I usually say that polling, for all its flaws, is a better analytical starting point than gut instinct, but on this occasion I think there is an exception. The fate of this new group depends so heavily on what voters think of the Independent Group’s members that you are better off eyeballing the group and trying to work out what you think prolonged exposure will do for their prospects.

What polling can tell us is what the upper limit of the Independent Group’s appeal might be – by studying who is telling pollsters they would consider voting for a new party. That consistently shows that, if they play their cards right, they could succeed in becoming a national force. They are in a very different political position to the Liberal Democrats, who have a big problem: they can only really win the votes of the half of the country that either thinks the coalition was a good thing or is happy with the Liberal Democrats’ role in it; but of that half, only half are Remainers and only half of that half wants to stop Brexit. That isn’t a big enough pool to become a serious political force of the kind they were until the 2015 election without a major shift of attitudes on Brexit, the coalition government or both.

The Independent Group don’t have that problem. The pool of voters they are fishing in is big enough to be a serious national proposition.  But can they pull that off? That’s a question you are better off answering with your gut, rather than what the polling says at this stage.