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Labour are ahead! No, the Tories are ahead! Do opinion polls matter?

There’s a good case for “no”, opinion polls are useless, at least this far out from a general election. 

Choose your narrative: despite their various difficulties, the Conservatives are only one or two points behind Labour in the polls. The party will surely be back to winning ways once it [insert commentator’s hobby horse conclusion here].

Alternatively, Survation, the only pollster to call the result within the margin of error, shows Labour are eight points ahead. The Conservatives are surely doomed, in a validation for [insert commentator’s preferred politician here].

However, I don’t think that voting intention is particularly useful, certainly not this far out and perhaps not at all.

We know that for a variety of reasons – changing work patterns, different uses of phones, the difficulty of reaching non-political respondents – that it is getting harder and harder to do voting intention correctly. 

That’s one reason why Populus has stopped doing voting intention entirely and several other pollsters privately agree that modelling, such as that done privately by Populus for the Scottish Conservatives at the last election, or YouGov’s model which correctly predicted the 2017 election result, is where the action will increasingly be in elections to come.

Although one of the repeated errors that pundits, including me, tend to make at elections is refighting the last war, you might – if nothing else because it’s good to have a system, trust Survation if you really want to trust one, as they got the last one right, or trust the average because that has a better overall success rate than any one pollster.

However, despite the fact they got it right, I don’t think Survation are exempt from the secular problems with voting intention. Indeed, their “correct” polls pre-election all exhibited similar problems to other companies under the hood. Their 5 June poll had too many people down as “certain to vote”, and all three polls understated Labour’s advantage among Remain voters in the election itself.

The industry problem is that they are finding it hard to talk to the right people. Occasionally, talking to the wrong people will get you the “right” result but it doesn’t mean that the methods aren’t flawed. If you polled the offices of the Spectator and the New Statesman, you would get a big Tory vote, a big Labour vote and a Liberal Democrat rump: but that doesn’t mean this is a reliable way of predicting elections.  

That Survation doesn't appear to be exempt from the problem (and polling too many of the politically motivated almost certainly accounts for the underestimation of Labour’s performance among Remainers) means that I am not persuaded that we should expect it to be any more or less accurate than other pollsters at the next election, whenever it may be.

In addition, as I’ve explained before, the trouble pollsters have this far out is it’s a bit like asking if you want red or white wine. The context may change depending on how expensive the wine is, what the food being served is, and so on. Pollsters have the added problem that they are asking not what wine you want tonight or even next week but in five years’ time.

It’s probably better to focus on what polls can reliably tell us, which is how different demographics are moving: we know from the 2017 election that the Conservatives have a problem with the young, social liberals of all types and socially liberal Remainers in particular, while Labour has a problem with the old, the socially conservative, and socially conservative Leavers in particular. We know that to win the next election, both parties need to protect their most vulnerable flank and advance into the others’ territory. And there is plenty of information in polls, modelling, and indeed in local council election results about that in particular, without worrying much about what voting intention alone is saying, particularly this far from an election.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.