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Reading the Political Map (April 15 2010)

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Reading the Political Map (April 15 2010)

Posted on 15 April 2010 by admin

Westminster voting intention polls in Scotland show that remarkably little has changed since 2005, particularly in the gap between Labour and Conservative where there seems to be a swing of between 0 and 2 per cent. The principal difference seems to be a fairly strong swing from Lib Dem to SNP. What appears to be happening (although the reality is that movements in public opinion are always complex and flow in many directions between any two points) is that there is a floating centre-left vote in Scotland that has chosen differently in different elections. In 2005 the SNP was at a low ebb and the Lib Dems performed strongly with voters critical of Labour on Iraq and the apparent centre-right drift of UK Labour policy. In 2007 the SNP benefited, but in 2010 Labour seem to have rallied some of it and the SNP has also picked up.

In terms of seats, projecting the trends across Scotland shows only one seat changing hands since 2005 (other than Glasgow North East going from Speaker to Labour). This would be an SNP gain from Labour in the highly marginal Ochil & South Perthshire constituency.

However, swing is unlikely to be uniform and there may be changes during the election campaign. In particular, assuming that a drop from 23 per cent to 14 per cent for the Lib Dems in the Scotland polls will lead to a 9-point drop in their support everywhere will give wrong results. The Lib Dems tend to gain support during campaigns, and are also good at playing the First Past the Post electoral system to target the seats they need to win. It would be foolish to count them out in the marginals despite their apparently poor poll showing. One seat where they stand a very good chance is Dunfermline & West Fife, where they won the by-election in 2006; they are also strong contenders in Edinburgh South and not to be dismissed in a few others such as Edinburgh North & Leith, Aberdeen South and maybe Glasgow North (although they may have maxed out their appeal there  in 2005). On the other hand, they risk losing a couple, such as the Berwickshire seat and Argyll & Bute, which went to the Tories and SNP respectively in 2007.

Scotland would contribute no Tory gains at all on a uniform swing, even if the UK polls are correct and the Conservatives end up on the cusp of an overall majority. This would naturally have significant implications for Scotland’s place in a Tory Britain. At least, thanks to devolution, the Tories would not need to staff a full Scottish Office.

The Conservatives can hold out the hope that their Scottish MPs could fit into a taxi rather than a phone box, but the target of 11 Tory seats in Scotland is extremely wishful thinking. They have one highly realistic target (Dumfries & Galloway, although even there they face a canny local politician in Russell Brown) and a couple of seats where there is a Tory vote to be mobilised but where they start a long way behind or face other competition – Edinburgh South, after all, has Morningside and Fairmilehead within its boundaries, and there is also Stirling which sent Michael Forsyth to Parliament in 1983-97. They have some hope of ‘decapitation’ of two leading Scottish Labour figures, Jim Murphy in Renfrewshire East and Alistair Darling in Edinburgh South West, but neither looks likely at present. As well as Lib Dem Berwickshire, they might also try to sneak a win in an SNP seat such as Perth & North Perthshire.

The puzzle of the Westminster election is perhaps why the SNP are so poorly rewarded for a significant increase in their support since 2005. The problem for them is that their vote is fairly evenly spread in urban Scotland, so the main result is becoming a slightly better second to Labour across the Central Belt. They start from miles behind even in some seats where they performed well in the 2007 election, such as Falkirk and North Ayrshire. Other than Ochil, Dundee West and perhaps Kilmarnock & Loudoun, they need monster swings to get anywhere. They achieved such a swing in the by-election in Glasgow East in 2008, but the SNP has never before held a Westminster by-election gain from Labour and it would be surprising if Glasgow East did not revert to its usual Labour colours.

The election in Scotland is therefore highly likely to confirm Labour’s dominance in Westminster representation, and see the Lib Dems, Tories and SNP chip away a marginal seat or two each on the basis of local factors. It may set up a rather awkward situation for Scotland, in which a UK Conservative government and a Scottish government run by the SNP have to work together, despite neither party having many MPs at Westminster.

http://www.scotlandvotes.com/blog/reading-the-political-map

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Push Me, Pull Me (April 14 2010)

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Push Me, Pull Me (April 14 2010)

Posted on 14 April 2010 by admin

Election polling has evolved since the 1970s and pushes parties towards the centre ground

Election campaigns have always been changing and evolving.  The idea of an election campaign as a coherent story, unfolding over time, does not really apply to some contests such as 1950 and 1955, when there was an almost aimless meandering across the policy landscape punctuated by the big speeches by the party leaders and other main figures.   The election campaign took more shape in 1959 – essentially the first television election – and through the 1960s and 1970s. There have been polls since 1945, but the close election of 1964 was arguably the first in which the ‘horse race’ aspect of an election started to dominate in the media with polls providing the evidence for the state of the race every few days.  In 1970, the Conservative campaign deployed the first effective use of modern negative campaigning.  Nine years later, Saatchi & Saatchi famously revolutionised election advertising.  But in between the fall of Edward Heath and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, there was another important development.

Perhaps the first poll-driven election campaign was Harold Wilson’s Labour campaign of February 1974, which used MORI to pilot the party to a narrow and somewhat improbable victory. Wilson was brilliantly reactive, responding to campaign events such as bad economic figures and government missteps and changing the terms of debate from the Tories’ ground of ‘Who Governs?’ to Labour’s – the government’s record on prices and industrial relations. Wilson astutely dodged around the contents of Labour’s manifesto, which was a left-wing programme of nationalisation he had no intention of implementing. The purpose of the polls in this election was not to look at headline figures, but at the underlying attitudes and opinions on the issues that were driving political choice. The polls have been used to craft the parties’ narratives during the election ever since. Although focus groups were used in the 1970s, their real heyday has been since 1997 when they have tested party messages and the electorate’s perceptions exhaustively.  The 1990s also saw the rise of the ‘grid’, in which party messages, issues and leading figures are deployed in a rigorously planned fashion.

On one level, a modern election campaign is a fierce contest for control of the narrative.  Each party is attempting to tell their story about the state of Britain and what needs to be done, and calculates that if they are able to do so unobstructed then their narrative will convince people to vote for them.  However, it is never possible to get the message across unobstructed.  The parties compete with each other, with the media (now in all its electronic wildness) and with events (both ‘known unknowns’ like announcements of economic statistics, and ‘unknown unknowns’ that happen unpredictably) for control over the agenda. Crudely, a party ‘wins’ a day in the campaign if the real events that are prominent in the media conform to what was planned in its grid. As well as all this chaotic competition, there is also feedback – that the profusion of public and private polls is giving everyone nearly instant knowledge of what is going well or badly, and who is ahead and behind. Polls can change a campaign instantly, with a good poll creating confidence or complacency, and bad ones causing lurches into despair. It is not without reason that they are sometimes compared to mood-altering drugs.

The 2010 campaign has more published polls than ever before, with the almost-daily YouGov series for the Sun being a notable innovation. To continue the drug analogy, the political classes are getting habituated through heavy use, and this is perhaps not a bad thing. Every now and then there is a ‘rogue’ poll outside the normal range of sampling error, and these tend to attract the most interest in the media for the standard ‘man bites dog’ reason that the unusual is news. In past elections, rogue polls have sometimes had major influence, famously so in 1987 when one precipitated ‘Wobbly Thursday’ in the Tory campaign. But thanks to the sheer weight of polling, rogues are now likely to be swamped by polls that are closer to the mark. It will take a proper trend, not an outlier, for voting intention polls to change the tone of an election.

It is at a deep level that the parties’ strategies are influenced by the findings from their private polling about what the public wants to hear. One cannot blame the parties for using the best available techniques for crafting and putting out their messages. Nor can one blame the electors for thinking that the parties sound the same, because they are all talking at the same swing voters in marginal seats in the same sort of language. It is a consequence of the electoral system.  And a question, perhaps, for another day.

http://www.critical-reaction.co.uk/2562/14-04-2010-push-me-pull-me

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