Opinion polls yadda yadda. OR “Does Nate Silver mean nothing to you? Did he write in vain?”

Two new polls last night: the daily YouGov tracker and the first post-local elections poll from Survation. The spread is interesting:

    Labour: 35% (Survation 39% (YouGov)
    Conservatives: 24% (S), 31% (YG)
    Lib Dems: 11% (S), 10% (YG)
    Ukip: 22% (S), 14% (YG)

As Anthony Wells points out, Survation asks whether people will vote Ukip (most other firms just ask about the main three parties and ‘Others’) so usually gets the highest Ukip poll numbers. This latest survey is in line with the bounce other firms have shown and which the perceived winner of an election often records.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Survation’s poll which has attracted most interest because it shows a gap if just 2% between the Tories and Ukip. Cue cries of ‘Tory meltdown!, ‘Cameron in crisis!’ and every other journalistic cliche.

At the risk of precipitating on the parade of those who love nothing better than to indulge in over-excited hyper-speculation, can I make the following point. Or rather can I ask the following question: Does Nate Silver mean nothing to you? Did he write in vain?

nate-silver-flickrOne of the very simple — I mean it: really simple — points he made in the run-up to the last US presidential election was that national poll ratings are not the best way of judging who was most likely to emerge the winner. Throughout that election campaign journalists and commentators (who are paid to understand this stuff and enlighten the public) termed the contest a ‘dead-heat’ on the basis that national polls showed a consistent but narrow Obama lead that was within the margin of error. Yet Nate Silver’s analysis of individual state polls showed Obama with an unwaveringly firm hold on the US electoral college.

Nate’s confident prediction was acclaimed here in the UK. Yet the lessons for us here are now routinely ignored. Just as the US decides its President through an electoral college, we decide our government through electing constituency MPs. The only way to work out who’s actually most likely to form the next government is to undertake more regional polling and then to extrapolate from that the likely number of MPs for each party, while also weighting for other facts such as incumbency boosts (which disproportionately aid the Lib Dems and first-term MPs). But, as I wrote last November:

The blunt reality is that the news media craves excitement more than it hungers for truth. It is much cheaper and easier to commission a monthly survey and then inflate the results way beyond what the data should allow. We’ve all seen the kinds of headlines newspapers revel in — ‘Poll blow to Tories as support plunges 1%’, ‘Labour to win 100+ majority says latest exclusive poll’ — and yet journalists continue to write them even though they know deep down how flimsy the evidence is.

I’ve read lots of adulation of Nate Silver in the British media in the past 24 hours. I wonder if any of those journalists who’ve penned those articles have thought, even for a moment: I wish I had the confidence to write about polls with the same kind of rigour he does. I’m not holding my breath.

(I’m glad I didn’t hold my breath.)

The reality is that first-past-the-post entrenches the status quo. If the Survation poll were actually to be reflected at a general election, then Ukip would (at least according to Electoral Calculus’s predictor) gain one MP in return for their 22% of the vote. Shades of the Liberal/SDP Alliance in 1983. Labour would win a majority of 122. (And for those who half-wish for such an outcome to show up the bankruptcy of our electoral system, let’s remember: the same prophesies were made in the 1980s, and 30 years later we’re still nowhere nearer to winning that argument.)

The easiest thing to write about the next election is that “it’s completely unpredictable”. That’s only half-true, though. For sure, we don’t know if the Ukip-mania will last for another two years; and if it does quite how that will play out in relation to the Tory/Labour/Lib Dem votes. That is unpredictable. But we can be sure that Ukip won’t storm the House of Commons. The Ukip phenomenon is interesting in all sorts of ways. But as for the next House of Commons, Plaid Cymru is more significant than Ukip will be.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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24 Comments

  • Quite. The UKIP “surge” is being gleefully over-egged in the press. UKIP aren’t building the kind of local support they need to win seats; instead they’re gathering a diffuse nationwide support that is likely to boost their standing as the most underrepresented party in the UK.

  • All fair points but ignoring the difference between US & British Politics, that ours is cyclical in a way theirs isnt. Interest in American politics stays at at a low but fairly steady level & is much more local. This is simply a reflection of our incredibly centralised system.
    As you point out US polls were fairly steady throughout the campaign, that is certyainly not what happens here. In Britain polls follow a predictable pattern which most journalists/commentators ignore. On the basis of past experience Libdems & Conservatives will go up as the Election approaches & Labour will fall. All those polling sites predicting Labour majorities are nonsense, on past experience they would need consistent leads of 16% midterm not the 8% they have been getting.

  • Peter Watson 21st May '13 - 12:39pm

    UKIP does not need to win seats to be considered successful. If it forces the conservative party to the right, or influences the selection of candidates by the conservatives (and Labour) by choosing whether or not to stand against them, then UKIP could achieve its aims without a single MP.

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st May '13 - 12:44pm

    Peter Watson

    UKIP does not need to win seats to be considered successful. If it forces the conservative party to the right,

    Why are people so unhappy with this government? Why are people deserting OUR party because of it? Because of unhappiness about its right-wing economic policies, cuts to public spending and services, wages going up (for the poor and the middle, but not the very top) at a lower rate than prices. So they are fooled into voting UKIP by the right-wing press, and as a result the Conservative move even FURTHER to the right? Is that what the people of this country REALLY want? More cuts, more privatisation, more super-rich-friendly policies? I don’t think so – so why aren’t we able to point out the lack of logic in all of this?

  • Geoffrey Payne 21st May '13 - 12:48pm

    However in the absence of regional polls we have the national polls to form a judgement. I think the significance of the national polls is that it shows where the momentum is, and even if UKIP only get a couple of MPs, the other question worth asking is where they get their votes from and what effect that will have.
    The national polls have been pretty good at predicting the number of Lib Dem MPs being elected, although they most certainly would not have predicted that we would have lost Montgomery or gained Redcar. It would seem the fluctuations from the norm cancel each other out for individual seats.

  • Time and again, people show that they just don’t ‘get’ UKIP strategy.
    All talk of FPTP, and seats won, is utterly bogus. UKIP voters don’t expect (or even want!), a UKIP government. UKIP voters, want UKIP policy.
    I’m going to let you into a secret. Even Nigel Farage doesn’t expect (or want!), a UKIP government. Let’s keep it simple. Nigel Farage wants to see the back of David Cameron. (and increasingly, so does the Tory party!). Farage then wants the Conservative party to install a new leader who is eurosceptic. He then wants that new Tory leader to adopt enough of UKIP policy, (and a referendum is a must!), so that the ‘stockpile’ of new UKIP voters will migrate to the Tories. At that stage, (and whilst it is not a given !), there is a much higher possibility of a Conservative government in 2015, having adopted UKIP policy, and the UKIP votes that come with it. Then having achieved UKIP policy, (which is the sole Farage mission), under a blue/purple banner, he [Farage], can get back to the bar, to finish off his beer and fags.
    In short. To deliver UKIP policy, you don’t actually need a UKIP government.!

  • Good article title, especially seeing as in an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour he stood as a Liberal candidate.

  • The thing about UKIP is that parts of the press and the Tories are hearing what they want to hear. They’ve been divided over Europe for decades. The kind of voters they attract and the party machine they’ve built is quite literally dying off. Contrary to popular misconception, they lost the more of the lower middle and workin class vote with every year of Thatcher’s government and have done every year since . UKIP is their idea of a popular people’s party. But the fact is that it was nowhere in the last general election and the votes they think will boost them to electoral victory in 2015 are really only the same people who voted for them in 2010. The big Tory obsession with Europe in fact ranks a dismal 10Th place in importance to the voters of UKIP, a party set up to put Europe at the centre of National policy!
    So lets say that 60% of the UKIP vote is Tory and around 50% swing back in 2015. This means that the Tories would get above the 35 – 36% of the vote and have stood still. But the reality is that Labour’s vote has climbed and governments tend to lose support in power. So their best cases scenario is a very close tie with seat numbers favouring Labour, The fact is the Tories are slowly dying, couldn’t decisively beat Gordon Brown at the height of a financial crisis and are leaking support. UKIP are in other words a purple herring.

  • Peter Chivall 21st May '13 - 6:07pm

    It would be useful to consider why, with so many brits of all ages travelling and holidaying in continental Europe, why the Europhobes have so much clout. Admittedly, many of my generation (born 1944) may hanker after a return to the 1950s (but with colour tv and central heating!). Noone seems to disabuse them of the fact that New Zealand Lamb will never be 17/6d per lb again while an ever more affluent Asian market can outbid our consumers.
    Sadly, Europhobia doesn’t rest on fact; it rests on sentiment reinforced by propaganda. Everyone of our mass cirulation (1million plus) newspapers is owned by europhobes, with the sole exception of the Daily Mirror. The largest group (you know, the ones who hacked Milly Dowler’s phone and have 50+ current and former senior reporters and executives facing Police investigation) is owned by a former Australian who traded in his Commonwealth citizenship for a U.S. passport so he could buy into U.S. media. The ‘quality’ Eurosceptic broadsheet of the right was owned by a Canadian who was jailed for financial irregularities in the U.S. until 2004 when it was bought by two alleged tax exiles who divide their time between Monaco and a small island in the Channel Islands which is linked to the formerly feudal island of Sark.
    The title with the broadest support and many would say the most successful commercially is owned by the same family that founded it in 1896 (they also have the best Rugby coverage!). Although its founder flirted with supporting Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s, his successors have shown no such tendency and loyally supported the war effort from 1940 on. Indeed, many would say it supported British entry to the then Common Market in the 1970s.
    The fourth member of the Europhobe quartet was owned by the ultra loyalist Lord Beaverbrooke and could claim to be the most consistent in it’s opposition to any formal ties with continental Europe preferring a return to trading with the Old Commonwealth.
    Between them, for better or worse, they have purveyed a continuous stream of ‘straight banana’ and ‘bent cucumber’ stories over the years which have built up a totally false picture of the European Commission and the real benefits of sensible pan-European action – of which the recent Petrol Price Fixing scandal is a significant example.
    Like most Liberal Democrats, I am aware of the limitations and failings of the current system of governance of the EU. But let the British people have an informed debate on the EU, not a knee-jerk reaction born of ignorance and prejudice.

  • Robert Eggleston 21st May '13 - 7:07pm

    This is all very well but, notwithstanding the fact that many Lib Dem may be entrenched, we seem singularly unable to break out of a 9% – 12% range (ICM excluded). Unless and until we are able to create a compelling narrative I can’t see that changing and that doesn’t bode well for 2015.

  • paul barker 21st May '13 - 7:46pm

    As Geoffrey Payne points out “The National Polls” Have been fairly good at predicting General Election results – as long as you only look at the polls that come out in the 3 weeks before Polling Day. If you take midterm polls they have always been consistently wrong. Opinion Polls arent meant to be some sort of psephological tool for academics, they are a story-generating tool for Journalists.
    Lets look instead at the likely background to the Election of (probably) 2015 –
    The Economy does now look as if its starting to improve
    The Tories are badly split & seem determined to display those divisions in public
    Labour are actually even more split than The Conservatives with a far wider Ideological divide but they arent the story so the media ignore them for now. There was a lovely example last week when 2 London boroughs saw the ruling party split, the Tories in Merton got lots of coverage for a local story, Labour in Harrow got none.
    In the conditions of a General Election the splits of both Labour & Tories will be exposed, we should be looking forward to the fight.

  • @Paul Barker
    Whilst I don’t think I would recommend donning hair shirts and a frown, I’m not overly convinced that just because government parties bounced back in the past means that the same will happen in the future.

    As an e.g. in days of old the LDP were the recepient of many protest votes, even from protesters who didn’t particularly like the EU. Now that you have been in Gov and may be in a position to form another coalition, I can’t see how you’re going to entice those people back.

    Like wise, having been put in the position of being in Gov. with the CP has meant that you’ve lost support from quite a lot of people on the left, they may not be willing to come back if there is even the slightest chance of the current coalition being put back in power. But even some of those who’ve stayed may well have reduced their subs and limited their assistance (e.g. the likes of Matthew Huntbach), meaning scarce resources are spread even further.

    Now I don’t think UKIP will do much in 2015 (although it may be worth a flutter at the bookies just in case), but I’m not convinced that their aim is still just to nudge the policy of other parties (as per the comments from John Dunn). I have a gut feeling that they quite fancy the idea of becoming a proper national party, as I’ve said elsewhere they’ve stated that they are going to try the Lib Dem trick of building a strong local base through hard work. I know that there is a feeling around here that most of their recent wins will be one term wonders, usually citing Notts and Staffs as examples. However if you look at what happened in those areas then it may be that UKIP were actually hurt by the collapse of the LD vote rather than anything they may have done. As an example, in Hutton (Notts) both the sitting UKIP councillor and 2 additional candidates increased both their vote share and vote count. But Labour leap frogged everyone and some of their vote may have come from the LDP (whose voted dropped from an already low level). In Staffs 3 of their seats went through a boundary change, the 4th was lost even though they had 31% vote share (down 6, but 31% would have won in 2009). They lost because Labour jumped from 10% to 37%, probably again taking a lot of LDP votes (who dropped from 19% to 4%).

    I know you love your polls and come across as an optimist, but aren’t you a little worried that you could be hit by the perfect storm? By that I mean not having enough funds for a big national campaign (I think you political folks call it “the air war”), not enough bodies on the ground to do the hard miles everywhere that’s needed, ex CP and Labour UKIP voters voting nationally for their old Parties (to keep the other side out) and locally for UKIP, thus chipping away at your local political base again as well as threatening your MPs.

  • Like you I don’t believe a high vote- low seat outcome for UKIP will necessarily ( or even probably) lead to any change in voting system. The more interesting dynamic is the effect on the Tory party, that will see its cherished status quo become more and more the obstacle to their ever winning on their own again..

  • Richard Harris 22nd May '13 - 8:10am

    @Stephen tall. Technical question…. Is it really true that most opinion polls don’t ask about specific parties beyond the usual three and just offer ‘others’ as a choice? I find that staggering given that they set out to find what people think.

  • Richard Boyd 22nd May '13 - 10:03am

    Perhaps I am missing a point,, that UKIP has perhaps seen.

    They needed a good % at the County elections ( feeding off the national media “let;’s form a posse and chase the
    next story” – to establish a jumping off ground for the Euro Election. Paid postage for leaflets (not like the County
    election) wall-to-wall media coverage, and a Tory squabble would give them the outcome of more Euro MPs than
    the Tories (or even Labour?) plus lots of Euro MP salaries and expenses and lots of continuing media mania.

    Not a bad outcome for a pint and a fag leader??

  • Paul Barker, as Chris_sh says, you are an optimist. You are, in fact a wide (?swivel) eyed optimist, when you point to Tory and Labour splits, and say “we should be looking forward to the fight”. Unfortunately, our splits are just as deep, and especially on the economic front. I have noted this over the years, and especially when I was a regular Conference attender over the period 1990 – 2005 approximately. Unfortunately that is even more obvious now “we are in Government”, and one end of our economic spectrum has taken (been given?) charge. We will continue to be hammered in the GE, as we have been for the last 2 – 3 years, precisely because we are trying to present a new face of Liberal Democrats, which looks much more like the “two old parties”.

    We are now in a “damned if you do, or damned if you don’t” situation. If we leave things as is till the GE, we will be hammered again next year, losing most if not all our MEPs, many London councillors, and others from other Councils. We will then take an ultimate hammering in the GE, and further losses in the Districts which, with high turnouts associated with GEs, will dilute any possible local advantage we may have, of well known trusted local councillors, who will just be swept away with the national tide. We have had enough warning of what will happen, and it doesn’t help when people hear Clegg saying the sort of things he has today about remaining in coalition till 2015. If the Party now takes action to return itself to something approximating to the positions we have argued over the years, we will go through a long period of regaining trust with the electorate, during which time we might find it electorally difficult. It would also be problematic considering the likely civil war within the party, and the acrimony likely to be generated between different groups of activists. Which is preferable? A bitter civil war, or a near death experience after 2015?

    PS A regional cynic like myself thinks that maybe a hammering in London next year may alert more attention with people who could influence the situation, than any other set of elections other than a GE.

  • @Richard Boyd

    “Not a bad outcome for a pint and a fag leader??”

    It’s not is it. 😀 We live in very interesting times, NF has got to be the greatest asset for UKIP, but he must surely be their greatest risk – if something happens to him then I think they will have serious problems. If you have the time, you may like to have a look at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/edward-docx-ukip-nigel-farage/#.UZyToLU4t4-

    Whilst I’m not a kipper, I do find this period in politics immensely interesting. The last paragraph of that article may yet prove true in the sense that it could cause politicians and the public to be “re-introduced” – even if UKIP doesn’t last the next 2 years.

  • @Tim13
    I’m happy to admit that I’m an amateur when it comes to things like politics, but a lot of what you’re saying seems to make sense.

    Because of the comments about ukip and Staffs I went and had a look at the results. I realise that Staffs may not be on a lot of Lib Dems radar, perhaps it isn’t much of a priority, but surely some of the things that happened there can not be good, i.e.:

    In 2009 the LDP competed in all but 3 seats, they had at least 10% vote share in 52 seats and ended up with 4 councillors.

    In 2013 the LDP didn’t compete in 24 seats, they only had 7 seats with 10% or more of the vote share and lost all 4 councillors (including one who had been in situ for 20+ years).

    Even if it was classed as a bit of a no hope area prior to the locals, surely this sort of performance must be a bit worrying?

  • paul barker 24th May '13 - 2:47pm

    I suppose my main point is that we need to be prepared for a very wide range of possible results in 2015, anything from 15% & 50 MPs to 27% & beating Labour into 3rd place.
    After the recent revelations about The Co-op Bank there is even an outside possibility of Labour going bust, since a few weeks ago its moved from nearly impossible to very unlikely. Its something to keep at the back of our minds.

    The problem is that grim pessimism is actually more comfortable than hope. Keeping your hopes up means possibly seeing them crushed, again.

  • @Paul Barker
    “The problem is that grim pessimism is actually more comfortable than hope. Keeping your hopes up means possibly seeing them crushed, again.”

    True, but the first step in healing is to recognise you have a problem. Like I said Paul, no hair shirt and frown, but look for answers within rather than rely on the failures of your opponents to provide the outcome you want.

  • Paul Griffiths 26th May '13 - 7:17pm

    I don’t know any Liberal Democrat who doesn’t think that 2015 is going to be a bloody hard fight. I’m forced to conclude that the so-called complacent optimists who get such a kicking on this site are fabricated from straw.

  • Liberal Neil 30th May '13 - 12:09pm

    2015 is going to be a bloody hard fight.

    But the prediction based on the County election results (by people with a good track record on such things) was that we would win fifty seats, and that wouldn’t be a bad result after five years of coalition in tough economic times.

    In my own non-held constituency our aggregate vote was 5% ahead of the Tories. Four years ago we were 2% behind them.

    So it is going to be a hard fight, but with the possibility of us doing much better than many expect, and two more years to work.

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