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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

Posted on 06 May 2010 by admin

The polls have shifted no more than usual, but the result may yet be a surprise

One of the many strange things about this volatile campaign is how little it has actually changed most of the fundamentals that held when it started. A modest rise in the polls for the Lib Dems from start to finish is a usual feature of campaigns (up about 4 points) and in 2010 this is what has happened (albeit via a big surge in mid-campaign).

Even looking at the findings about what people think about the party leaders shows a fair amount of continuity despite the first Prime Ministerial debates in a British election. The main change is that more people have a high opinion of Nick Clegg than before, albeit mostly on the softer criteria of ‘charismatic’ (up from 12 per cent to 45 per cent over the campaign) and ‘in touch with ordinary people’ (up from 24 to 37 per cent). Neither Cameron’s nor Brown’s ratings (both pretty poor) moved much, with the biggest change being that more people now consider Brown good in a crisis (up from 18 per cent to 24 per cent). Compared to past movements during campaigns, in favour of Neil Kinnock and John Major, opinion about the Labour and Conservative leaders did not shift.

The post-debate polls, woefully misreported for the most part, confirmed merely that people thought the leader of the party they intended to vote for anyway ‘won’ (whatever ‘won’ means in a debate) but that most people were impressed by Clegg. The debates therefore amplified the usual process of the Lib Dems gaining from equal broadcast time, and compressed it into the few days after the first debate. Despite the media obsession with process, the debates did seem to pique the interest of voters and will have contributed to what seems likely to be a respectable turnout.

The debate polls were an example of how they can be misused, but on a more general level can one trust opinion polls? One of the more foolish objections to opinion polls is that each one only asks about a thousand people for their views. How can that possibly be representative of an electorate of 45 million? The science of statistics has a well established answer. You only need a sample to get the answer right, provided that the sample is representative of the whole. A common analogy is that you can tell how salty a huge vat of soup is by tasting a teaspoonful, provided that the vat has been stirred properly.

However, stirring the soup is an increasingly delicate art. It is remarkable to look back to how opinion polling worked back in the 1960s and 1970s. It was mostly done through face to face interviews, and got the results more or less dead on (with the notable exception of 1970). Despite its unsophisticated methodology, it worked until another surprise election result in 1992 when the polls showed the parties level pegging but the Conservatives were actually clearly ahead when the votes were counted (7.5 per cent). Since then, polling companies have tried ever more sophisticated mechanisms to get representative samples. The obstacles are formidable. Turnout used to be reliably somewhere around 75 per cent, and was also much the same regardless of class or region. Now it varies wildly – 72 per cent in 1997, around 60 per cent in the last couple of elections, and probably higher today. More people vote by post. More people are difficult to reach because they work long hours or live in gated communities. There are more parties in the game. The technology is constantly changing. Pollsters have to re-weight the raw figures to get a representative sample. It is a thing of wonder and beauty that they got it as right as they did in 2005, and that YouGov called the 2008 London election so accurately. But the electorate is a moving target, and at some point the weightings will go wrong. We shall know tomorrow whether the eve-of-election consensus of the polls is right or not.

http://critical-reaction.co.uk/2600/06-05-2010-a-familiar-pattern

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

Posted on 09 June 2009 by admin

The two electoral systems most widely discussed for Westminster are both less likely to elect extremists than first-past-the-post

As the dust settles on the county and European election results, one can take stock of what they mean for the parties and politics over the next year and in the long term.

The county elections are probably the more accurate measure of what might happen in the next general election, because they use the same electoral system and the considerations people have in mind when choosing their vote are more similar.

The county results point to the Conservatives being substantially ahead and in a position to win the next general election, although they have less of a margin of comfort than they did last year, when they were 43-23 ahead of Labour in national vote share, rather than this year’s 38-22. While Labour’s vote collapsed, the Conservative vote has been gently drifting downwards.

It is too easy to dismiss the Euro results as a freakish curiosity: while voters perhaps behave oddly in European parliament elections, the results can be consequential and indicative of future trends.

The 1979 European election produced a Conservative landslide, and the campaign was marked by ludicrous Labour infighting, a prelude to the divisions and disaster of the next four years. In 1984 Neil Kinnock proved that Labour was not dead, and in 1989 Labour inflicted Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in a national election. It was the first pillar of her rule to crumble; a botched reshuffle, the resignation of the chancellor and a stalking-horse challenge followed by the end of the year – and in 1990 she was out.

The 1989 election was also interesting for the 15% of the vote for the Greens, and the Conservative tilt to Euroscepticism. In 1994, John Major did not do quite badly enough to trigger a leadership challenge. In 1999, the Conservatives’ win, and the vote for Ukip, helped take joining the euro off the agenda, and the low turnout and strong vote for smaller parties was a sign of what was to come, confirmed by the fragmentation of the vote and the weak performance by both main parties in 2004.

The 2009 European elections will surely be notable for more than confirmation of existing trends away from the two (or three) principal British political parties.

The pre-eminent fact is the astonishingly low Labour share of the national vote, at 15.8%. Winning at the last general election in 2005, with 36% of the British vote on a 61% turnout, showed that Labour was on thin ice. Euro 2009 may be an important point on a long-term declining trend in Labour’s vote and vote share that has only been briefly interrupted for decades (in 1966, 1997, and arguably 1992).

The working-class vote is decreasing and becoming less unionised, less cohesive, less loyal to a party and less inclined to turn out.

New Labour found a new, but fickle, group of voters to add to the declining existing Labour electorate, but accelerated the alienation of the old core vote. Now the New and Old Labour electorates are bleeding away at the same time and the remnant of Labour stands cruelly exposed, unable even to win a plurality in Wales.

It seems a particularly severe case of the malaise that has afflicted the centre-left in other EU countries, including France and Germany (although Spain’s socialist government did not do too badly against a poor economic backdrop). However, the saving grace for the left of British politics is that the Conservatives are winning by default rather than because of a surge in their own support.

The 2009 elections present a possible future for British politics in which the Conservatives enjoy a huge parliamentary majority with only 35-40% support from the voters and a progressive vote divided between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, plus a more rightwing fringe vote split between Ukip and smaller parties, such as the English Democrats and the BNP.

This is, after all, what happened in a number of places last Thursday – including the former Labour county of Staffordshire, where the party is now fourth placed in seats, its three councillors outnumbered by four Lib Dems and four Ukip politicians, not to mention 49 Conservatives.

Labour is probably protected from such an extreme wipe-out at Westminster level because it has a number of very safe urban seats, which would withstand even huge swings, and the party’s Euro vote seemed to hold up a little better in some of these areas than it did in the counties.

The short-term reaction in some Labour circles, driven by an understandable dislike of the BNP, has been that the European results should end discussion of electoral reform for Westminster.

This would be a very short sighted approach. For a start, the systems most widely discussed for Westminster – namely the Alternative Vote (AV), and AV with a small proportional top-up as recommended by the Jenkins commission (AV+) – are both less likely to elect extremists than the present first-past-the-post system.

Other more proportional systems, such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV), create incentives for parties to campaign everywhere and not neglect areas; electors who feel ignored are vulnerable to the appeal of extremists.

It is notable that although there was disenchantment with the governments and traditional parties in Ireland and Malta, which use STV, in the European elections, the reaction did not produce a swing to extremism.

However, a longer term perspective would suggest that the next centre-left government after a Tory victory in 2010 might well not be a single-party Labour majority (and if it is, it might be based on a share of the vote too small to qualify as popular consent).

Electoral reform is more important than ever for the future of the centre-left in British politics because the progressive side will probably never again be marshalled behind a party as it was behind Labour in 1995-2003. Labour’s future needs to be plural and coalition-building, and electoral reform is a key part of that future.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2009/jun/09/bnp-voting-reform

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Labour’s problems run deep (19 August 2008)

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Labour’s problems run deep (19 August 2008)

Posted on 19 August 2008 by admin

If a change of leadership can’t help Labour, as today’s poll suggests, there is little the party can do to regain public support

Whenever you ask someone what they would do in a hypothetical situation, you should not be surprised if the reality turns out differently when it comes to the crunch. The same is true about the things people tell pollsters.

In the run-up to the 1992 election polls regularly found that Labour’s narrow lead under Neil Kinnock became a larger lead when voters were asked how they would behave if John Smith were leader. Just after the election, a Gallup study found that, according to voters, replacing Kinnock with Smith would have been worth about five points to Labour’s share of the vote. In that relatively close election, it would have been enough to make Labour the largest single party in a hung parliament, perhaps not far short of an overall majority.

However, while voters (contrary to myth) rarely lie to pollsters, they quite often lie to themselves. Saying they would have supported a Smith-led Labour party in 1992 was a way of reducing cognitive dissonance for people who were not going to vote Labour at all, but felt as if they should. This in turn stored up a massive potential for buyer’s remorse during the 1992-97 parliament.

In early 2007 polls started to show that a hypothetical match-up between Gordon Brown and David Cameron would produce a worse result for Labour than under Tony Blair. These polls were tapping into a sense of public weariness with Brown, and uncertainty about the economy, and can be seen as a prelude to the government’s current trough. But perceptions changed, twice in fairly rapid succession in summer and autumn 2007 as Brown first built a good reputation for competence and then destroyed it.

Polls about hypothetical situations are not very good at predicting what actually happens when that situation comes to pass, but they can give an insight into how people are thinking about the current state of affairs.

The hypothetical question about a David Miliband leadership in this morning’s Guardian-ICM poll indicates it would make very little difference. This suggests that there are not that many people who are put off Labour specifically by Brown’s leadership, and that the problems lie deeper – with the state of the economy and the spread of a “time for a change” feeling. It suggests that there is relatively little that Labour can do or say in the present circumstances to recapture public support.

If Miliband did seem to make a difference, then that would indicate not so much that there was decisive public support for him to replace Brown, but a sign that there was still something Labour could do to retrieve the situation, rather than sit tight and hope for better economic news. Public feelings about Miliband are, for the most part, only weakly formed and there are a lot of “don’t know” responses – but in most questions measuring Brown against Miliband more people thought “neither” was particularly good. This is frightening indeed for Labour – a lot of people seem to have given up on the party. To repair the damage done by the botched Brown honeymoon of 2007 would require a formidable display of political skills on the part of the prime minister – whoever that may be.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/19/polls.gordonbrown

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