Why David Laws was right

Appearing on the BBC earlier today, David Laws made the point that the Conservative Party’s lead in the opinion polls is fairly modest at the moment compared with Labour’s in the run-up to 1997.

This led Mike Smithson to blog:

Why’s the LD schools spokesman getting it so wrong?

You’ll have to indulge me if you think I’ve banged on about this too much – but I have a real “bee in my bonnet” about the phoney invalid polling comparisons that journos, pundits and politicians are rushing to make when they compare the polling position at the moment with what went on in 1996/97…

Mike went on to point out how most pollsters over-estimated Labour’s support before polling day in 1997, adding that:

One pollster was totally out of line – ICM. Then, as now, it mostly had higher ratings for the Lib Dems and much smaller shares for Labour. And guess what happened on election day? Its approach was proved right.

I’d agree with that praise for ICM. But David Laws’s comments are fully justified by the ICM figures.

Since last summer (i.e. August 2008-March 2009), the Conservative lead in the ICM polls has varied between 5% and 15%.

If you look back at August 1995-March 1996*, the Labour lead in the ICM polls varied between 14% and 22%. There is a small overlap between these two ranges, but overall the Labour lead in 1995/6 was much higher than the Conservative lead in 2008/9, averaging 18% for Labour compared to 12% for the Conservatives.

Moreover, due to the way their respective vote shares are distributed across the country, the Conservatives need a larger lead to have an overall majority than Labour – so in fact the relative position for them is even worse than the 18% vs 12% figure suggests.

Sorry Mike, but on this one I think you’ve got it wrong: the Conservative lead is consistently significantly lower than the comparable Labour lead was.

* This is the comparable period for a 2010 election. But the point also stands for a 2009 general election, for example if you take the period August 1996-March 1997 instead.

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Polls.


  • David Laws was badly wrong. What you are both ignoring is that pre the 1997 GE the polls tended to grossly overstate Labour because of errors in polling analysis including little/no adjustment was made for liklihood of voting. Now the polls tend to be adjusted for this factor and are much more reliable in consequence.

  • And what happened in the last year? The polls moved, as ever, in the Tories’ favour.

  • LS spot on. Mike Smithson and an expert guest of his have published a lot of data which suggests the Tories tend to pick up at GE’s compared with the polls in the year or so pre the elections.

  • While you are right about ICM being accurate, those polling figures got Labour a landslide win, DC doesn’t need a landslide, just a majority, and he can do that without a 20 point poll lead

  • mark, I have no idea whether you are an expert on polls, but I think I’d rather listen to Mike Smithson, or Anthony Wells (www.ukpollingreport.co.uk) who do actually know what they are talking about. 1997 is a quite ridiculous comparison anyway.It is unlikely that the electorate will ever be duped again into believing a change of government would deliver miracles

  • “It is unlikely that the electorate will ever be duped again into believing a change of government would deliver miracles”

    Perhaps the American electorate has been …

  • Mark I don’t like your very “selective” use of statistics. I could use different ones to support my points but think it may be more productive if you and your readers refer to several recent articles by Mike Smithson (political.betting.com)
    and analysis by Anthony Wells (ukpollingreport.co.uk,
    Please recognise that Mike S is a Lib Dem (but clearly more objective than you) and Anthony W is generally accepted as having little/no political bias.

  • Mike Smithson 19th Mar '09 - 1:29pm


  • Mike Smithson 19th Mar '09 - 7:30pm

    Mark – I think that this is a complete over-reaction because I did not make most of the points that you accuse me of.

    Before you go on the attack like this you must read what was actually said in my post.

    Look at it again. My ONLY criticism of David Laws was that “…he raised the comparative poll issue without mentioning that all but one of polls were different in those days.”

    I did not get into the detail of what Laws said on the programme – I just made a point that I have put repeatedly in recent weeks.

    Your response does not touch on my central argument that all polls apart from ICM from the 1990s are unreliable and you should not make comparisons with them.

    You then go on to use highly selective polling data, to try to refute something that I did not put. I made no mention anywhere of Tory leads, shares or anything specific about polling in the 90s or today.

    Your headline in completely misleading.

  • Polling Nerd 19th Mar '09 - 10:08pm

    There is also a separate point that regardless of whether David is right, the situation in which the Tories are ahead in the polls is much, much worse news for the Liberal Democrats than a Labour lead.

    On current general and marginal seat polls there are a lot of ‘working hard all year round’ Lib Dem MPs against Tories in the South who are going to have to beat the trend to survive. Similarly there need to be a great many ‘Manchester Withington’-like results in Labour heartlands to offset those losses. There are very few Lab/Lib marginal seats compared to Con/Lib.

    The party could be down to 30 seats without the typical bounce it gets during a general election campaign, and around 45 with that bounce.

    Either way looking for comfort in comparisons with 1997 might be reassuring for Labour ministers jockeying for position in their forthcoming leadership election and hoping for a serious shot of winning in 2014, it’s a bit of a mug’s game for Lib Dems though.

  • Mike Smithson 20th Mar '09 - 9:03am

    Polling Nerd is right – the big question for the party is how it deals fends off Tory attacks in the seats it is holding.

    Just remember this from this week’s Guardian ICM poll. “ICM asked voters which of two opposing thoughts they were more likely to agree with. Just one in four voters, 25%, said “continuity is important; stick with Labour” was closer to their view than “time for a change”. More than two in three, 69%, plumped for “time for a change”. Some 27% of Labour voters chose “time for a change”.

    Against such an overwhelming mood for change what is the Lib Dem strategy?

    I have yet to hear anything convincing.

  • Mike – “Time for a change”.

    Answer: –

    “Be careful of what you wish for, it might come true”?

  • “Polling Nerd is right …”

    Certainly. But whenever that blindingly obvious fact is pointed out here, the reaction seems to be that people yell “troll” and bury their heads in the ground (not necessarily in that order).

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Toby Keynes
    "if all Federal Council can aspire to be is another forum for Q&As, indistinguishable from those asked of the Board at Conference, then we are failing in th...
  • Nonconformistradical
    I thought Ed’s point was that given the still ongoing cost of living crisis now was not the time to push for an income tax rise. Especially given the exte...
  • David Symonds
    Lib Dems may have made a tactical error in abandoning the 1p increase in income tax. Whilst no one wants to see taxation any higher than what it is, the state o...
  • Martin Gray
    Another we know best nanny state posts ... Online betting limits & now this ... "As Liberals we try to avoid banning things "... We've seemed to have ban...
  • Peter Martin
    @ Joe, Technically what you say about the taxation process is correct in an accounting sense. The state imposes a debt on us all in the first place by demand...