“Normal” people do not follow politics very closely. As the Westminster bubble gets increasingly excited about an apparent narrowing of the Conservative lead in the polls, it’s important to remind ourselves of this fundamental insight about the British public.
At BritainThinks, our research consistently shows that very little gets through to the public during election campaigns – this is as true in 2017 as it was in 2015 and 2010. And often what gets through is not what strategists hope for or expect. For example, while commentators have spent recent weeks talking about the relative merits of the Conservative and Labour policy platforms, undecided voters that we have spoken to in our focus groups are often more likely to have noticed Diane Abbott’s disastrous LBC interview from several weeks ago and the Conservatives’ reinvigoration of the fox hunting debate. Voters are far more likely to pick up on stories that confirm their existing hunches (that Labour are chaotic and that the Tories are posh) than on the myriad of other announcements made each day.
Against this backdrop, it’s very important to distinguish between the signal and the noise in election campaign polling. Recent polls have shown a narrowing of the once mighty Conservative lead. This is a recurring theme at general elections and reflects what we’ve been finding in focus groups of undecided voters.
Many have been unimpressed by Theresa May’s interpersonal skills (“I’d trust her to look after my house while on holiday, but not my pets,” said one voter). They’ve also been concerned by her apparent indecisiveness, manifested in her U-turn on social care – “she’s overstepped the mark… and the public have reacted badly so she has had to back down or she will lose votes”. At the same time, we’ve found that many voters are surprised by Jeremy Corbyn’s “decency” and “warmth” – “if he looked after your house while you were away, he’d probably make friends with your neighbours”. The impact of these observations is accentuated by the fact that most voters professed to not knowing much about either candidate at the start of the campaign and that expectations were so low for the Labour leader when the election was called.
Last night’s YouGov seat projection (importantly, not a poll) generated much media excitement about the prospect of a “horse race” over the remaining week of the campaign. But YouGov themselves have emphasised that the margin of error is very wide – the Conservatives could get anything from 274 to 345 seats, according to their projection. And our research shows that on the questions that matter – such as who voters think would make the strongest Prime Minister – May is still far ahead of Corbyn.
This trend also has strong parallels with 2015, when Labour performed better in the polls than it eventually did because it had lots of attractive policies, which sounded good to voters but turned out not to add up to anything in terms of votes. Labour then also had a leader who surpassed (rock bottom) expectations in his pre-election media performances.
Labour’s growth in support in recent polls also looks soft – based on younger people, former non-voters and people who initially respond “don’t know” to a first voting intention question before opting for Labour when forced to make a decision (all of whom are less likely to turn up and vote on polling day).
And the narrowing polls may actually work to Theresa May’s advantage. While some commentators have said that YouGov’s figures will be causing alarm in Conservative Campaign HQ, some inside political strategist Lynton Crosby’s team might think these are exactly the type of headlines that they need – providing an opportunity to raise the spectre of a “coalition of chaos” and drive their core voters to the ballot box next week.
Tom Clarkson is associate director at BritainThinks.