Election 2017: What's up with the polls?

Why are the polls all over the place? Here's the answer.

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Is Labour heading for government or over a cliff? It depends on which pollster you believe. ComRes has the Conservatives 12 points ahead of Labour, enough for a triple-figure majority in the House of Commons. ICM has an 11-point Tory lead, again, enough to get Theresa May the thumping majority she must secure if she is to reboot her troubled leadership. ORB has the blues nine points clear of Labour, once again very firmly in landslide territory.

But YouGov, Opinium and Survation are showing a very different picture.  The latest YouGov has the Conservative lead at just four points, which would, if borne out, deprive Theresa May of her parliamentary majority, and enough for an anti-Conservative bloc of MPs to shut her out of Downing Street if the votes go the right ways in the right places. Opinium has a Conservative lead of six points, again putting May in jeopardy of losing her majority but not enough that the parties of the right wouldn’t bail her out. And Survation has the Conservative lead down to just one, which would leave them merely the largest party, thanks to first-past-the-post.

What’s going on? Actually, when you look beneath the headline figures, the polling companies are telling us very similar stories. What they say is this: Theresa May’s error-ridden campaign has transformed her standing in the country, sending her approval ratings into deficit – more now disapprove than approve of her leadership – for the first time since she became Prime Minister.  However, she retains a huge lead among voters over the age of 55 and voters over the age of 75 in particular. Thanks to her gobbling up of the bulk of the Ukip vote and a sliver of the Liberal Democrate vote, she is consistently polling in the mid-40s.

As for Labour they tell a similar story. Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings have improved significantly since the election began – he still has a net negative approval rating but he has become significantly less unpopular since the campaign began – thanks to his effective campaign. The Labour vote, which looked in danger of disintegration, has solidified behind Corbyn and the party has successfully gobbled up the Liberal Democrat and Green vote.  That’s why Labour are touching the mid-30s with all of the pollsters.

What’s driving those extra few points for Labour with YouGov, Survation and Opinium is that Labour has a significant generational lead of its own, among under 30s in general but of particular intensity among 18-24s. Jeremy Corbyn isn’t just becoming less unpopular with this group – he has become hugely popular.

The big difference is how the two groups of pollsters weight these votes. One of the difficulties of political polling is that people aren’t very good at giving us an idea of whether or not they will actually vote on election day. Across all ages and income brackets, people are more likely to tell a pollster they will vote than they are to actually go to the polling station. But older voters tend to vote more regularly than younger voters so pollsters tend to adjust their headline results accordingly.

So one of the big methodological changes that the various polling companies made after the disaster of 2015 was to change how they assessed turnout. That’s one of the things driving the big gap between ICM, ComRes, and ORB and YouGov, Survation and Opinium.

Who’s right? Well, we won’t know until 8 June. I’ve spent today talking to candidates and organisers across the country  and will continue to do so tomorrow in order to provide a broader picture of what the political parties are seeing on the ground.

But basically what it comes down to is whether or not you think this is an ordinary election in which young people will continue to vote at a much lower rate than their elderly peers, in which case, expect a big Tory majority on 9 June, or if you think this an extraordinary election, in which case: who knows? 

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.