Polls apart – don’t believe the hype, Labour isn’t surging ahead

by Atul Hatwal

Labour’s lead has “surged” to 8 points. So says Anthony Wells at YouGov after the latest Sun tracker had Labour on 44% and the Tories on 36%. Time for champagne?

Not quite.

As Wells points out, given the margin of error, it’s no more meaningful than the narrow 2 point lead posted earlier in the week.   Lurking in the detail of YouGov’s latest weekly poll for the Sunday Times were some interesting figures that give a bit of insight behind why an 8 point tracker lead doesn’t signal lift-off.

One of the standard questions asked in this survey over the past seven months has been “how do you think the financial situation of your household will change in the next twelve months”?

It’s an important question in gauging people’s perceptions of how the cuts will impact them personally.

This week the responses were that 33% think their situation will either improve or stay the same, 38% think that things will be a little worse while 25% believe that their position will be a lot worse.

In comparison, the results of their poll in October, immediately following the comprehensive spending review were that 30% thought their situation would either improve or stay the same, 42% felt things would be a little worse and 23% believed their position would get lot worse.

This means that over 70% consistently think that the impact of the cuts on their income will be minor, at worst. And compared to when the cuts were announced, as policy has started to move from rhetoric to reality, the public have become marginally less concerned about how their incomes will be affected.

The total numbers worried about things getting worse (by either a little or a lot) has fallen by 2% whilst the numbers who think things will either get better or stay the same has risen by 3%.

This seems to be completely contrary to the popular mood and polling which shows massive public pessimism about the government policies.

Even in the same YouGov survey, 60% think that the next year will be tougher for their families than the last, 52% think the government is bad for people like them and 80% believe the economy is in a bad state.

For Labour’s political strategy, the question is, “what to believe”? Is the country in uproar or are people actually fairly sanguine about the cuts?

Or are people just irrational when answering pollsters’ questions?

The answer lies in the types of question being asked, specifically the difference between those that elicit a snapshot view or a considered opinion.

The former are casual, cost-free and often expressed strongly. The latter require measured assessment of the personal impact of a choice.

Pollsters often pack out surveys with questions seeking snapshot views to gauge immediate reactions to issues. Unsurprisingly, responses will be variable depending on the issue and its immediacy. These questions tend to fall into one of two groups – either they are one-way bets or they are so broad as to be of limited personal salience.

The latest Sunday Times YouGov survey included several one-way bets, for example –  “Do you think the government should be doing more to encourage growth in the economy”?

With little apparent downside to the choice, its no surprise that two-thirds of respondents thought that trying for some more growth was a good idea. Based on his recent statements, even David Cameron would agree.

Most questions on the country’s economic prospects are from the other group. They are so general that they float high above the reality of peoples’ daily experience. It’s perfectly possible for people to believe that recession is coming, things will be a bit harder and to not particularly like government policies, and still think that this will not be a major personal drama.

There is no automatic transmission mechanism that runs from fractional changes in macro-economic data like GDP rates to people’s daily experience. Half a percent national growth or contraction here or there doesn’t issue an immediate P45 or fundamentally change the economic weather for their employer.

In contrast, the question on future income asks for a considered opinion. It requires respondents to look through the prism of what they think will happen to their household over the coming year and then quantify that impact. As a result, the answers reveal something much more interesting than a general desire that things get better or a long-standing pessimism about the future economy.

People aren’t irrational and neither do they lie to the pollsters. They just answer the questions put in front of them.

In this context, Labour needs to not get carried away with sensational poll results. Rather than being tempted by the headlines we want to read, Labour needs to look at the question being asked before getting too excited.

The story of the polls is that considered opinions have remained settled for months whilst snapshot views have ranged wildly depending on the topic and its profile in the news.

The reason the public’s view on their future income is almost the same now as when the cuts were announced is that back in October, people came to a considered opinion on what it would mean for them. As the cuts are being implemented, their view has remained constant.

Until there is movement on fundamentals like this, flurries around 8% poll leads will be chimerical. Its why, at the moment, the average 5% lead looks more like a ceiling than a platform.

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9 Responses to “Polls apart – don’t believe the hype, Labour isn’t surging ahead”

  1. Diane says:

    “This seems to be completely contrary to the popular mood and polling which shows massive public pessimism about the government policies.”

    Have you considered that people may be concerned for others, not just themselves?

  2. I agree with the overall thrust of this. There’s a mid-80s feel to these poll leads. The actual impact of cuts (the axe is not yet in full swing) may change this – but then again it may not, for the reasons you suggest.

    I’d quibble with two things:

    – Firstly ‘people aren’t irrational’. They are sometimes, you know. I’m not sure it’s relevant here either way though.

    – It’s not quite true to say that 2% is no more significant than 8% because of the margin of error. While it may be the case, as here, that the lower end of one range overlaps with the upper end of the other, it is misleading to suggest there is no difference between the two findings. Wells’ cautionary note about margin of error was to “wait until it’s confirmed” – and his post today (another YouGov poll showing Lab +7) suggests he’s more convinced the Lab lead is indeed rising. This doesn’t alter your judgement (and mine) that the lead is fundamentally soft, but even so …

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    Very good argument, Atul. In any event if, in the middle of the biggest cuts program since the war, we *weren’t* leading in the polls, there’d be something wrong. The only polling that matters is that once the economy is back on its feet, near the next general election.

  4. Roland Haines says:

    Well Atul, as a life long Tory who would not urinate on the Labour party if it was on fire, I feel your comments are fair and accurate. Much more so than most of the partisan drivel on both sides of the divide.

  5. Richard says:

    Rejecting Labour last May is still fresh in the electorate’s mind. Simply replacing Brown (very unpopular) and Darling (popular) with two unpopular Eds is not enough to tempt voters back.

    If the electorate does conclude it made a mistake and voted the wrong way, it will only be after seeing the evidence first-hand. This might take several years if it comes at all.

    Remember – in those first few days the coalition never promised it would be popular. It promised to sort out the economy.

  6. AnneJGP says:

    You do write some good articles, Atul – thank you. It will be extremely interesting to see how the political situation plays out over the next 10 – 20 years.

  7. Alun says:

    “neither do they lie to the pollsters”

    Amusing. It’s an observable fact that, yes, they often do.

  8. mike says:

    Rubbish look at Gloucestershire vote lkast night

    you can feel the anger unlike in the 80s

    selling off the forsest has really pissed everyone off especially tories

    the economy is following US recivery but with no new jobs

    May Council elections Coalition smashed in first year

  9. Paul says:

    I would say the polls read extremely favourable for Labour right now, because in theory this should be their worst stage of the political cycle. They had four months without a leader, and Ed Miliband has yet to make a positive impact. The electorate still trusts the Tories more on economic competance – will this still be the case after a double-dip/slow growth/rising unemployment/inflation/interest rates + hardship? It is quite possible that in a year’s time, Miliband will have risen in stature and the coalition hated as people feel the effects of the cuts.

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