Why the surprise? Labour’s poll slippage was predicted and is on trend

by Rob Marchant 

Ah, the panic. You can see it setting in as there is a blip downwards in the polls. Two consecutive polls show Labour and the Tories neck and neck, and we have a letter to the Guardian. As Uncut’s Atul Hatwal noted last week, there are now rumblings on the Labour right.

But while it is a perfectly respectable aim to ask Miliband to change course on a raft of policy areas, one cannot help but think it is a conversation we should have been having two or three years ago.

The good news is that this jitteriness is based on very little change in the actual prognosis.

To explain: political journalists are not, in the main, statisticians. Neither are politicians. And so both groups often subscribe to a mathematical fallacy, and it’s this: the polling of today is our best indicator of a general election result in X years time. It’s not. It’s a very rough guide which fails to account for the cycle of the parliamentary term, and in particular an opposition’s mid-term bounce. For the hard of maths, you can skip the next nerdy paragraph and trust us on this.

Our best guess – the expected value – of a general election vote-share lead is not equal to the value of our polling lead now. It’s equal to the value of our polling lead plus our expectation of how much that lead is going to change in between now and then. Trouble is, that second bit is crucial and historically, it’s not zero. In short, it is reasonable to argue that we shouldn’t just extrapolate today’s poll out to 2015 in a straight horizontal line. For an opposition party, it should be a line that inclines downwards.

A year ago, I wrote at Uncut about the research of Leo Barasi, from which one can conclude an approximate value of how much the polling lead would change over the last two year of a parliament, based on historical precedent: if you even out short-term fluctuations, on trend it would drop about 12%. Given that the lead – two years out – was then 11%, one might reasonably assume a 6% fall per year*.

Which is pretty much exactly what has happened.

Average polling now shows a 3% lead for Labour. And 5% is what one might expect from this model, one year out. It’s within a reasonable margin for error. We can also reasonably expect that it will be around -1% (call it zero, for the sake of argument) at the general election in a year’s time. It may fluctuate up and down a few per cent, but that’s about what we should expect to see.

So, on the one hand, we shouldn’t panic: the situation hasn’t suddenly changed.

On the other, there is another reading, from which we can take two lessons.

The first is that we should stop saying how there is a strong probability that Ed Miliband is going to be Prime Minister on the back of today’s opinion polls, whatever they say.

This has been the refrain on the left of the party almost non-stop since early 2012. But the assumption is not just restricted to the left: even my good colleague Stephen Bush, a centrist blogger of some repute, wrote in the NS two weeks ago of “an election that is overwhelmingly likely to send Ed Miliband to Downing Street”. But it is really not so. What’s more, we can argue that that has not been the case for at least the last two years, and probably well before.

The second is a lot more worrying: if we wanted to change the balance of probabilities to allow some margin for error in our success, we really should have started a long time ago. At this point, we seem to be less rainmaking and more at the mercy of cruel, fluctuating fate.

To play devil’s advocate, we can construct an alternative hypothesis for our polls to date: that we have been simply enjoying the fruits of a classic opposition mid-term bounce. That although we may feel we have been making the political weather from time to time, we have in fact more often merely been experiencing the near-random fluctuations in the polls that happen with the daily grind of politics. It may not be quite that bad, but we should reflect on the fact that it’s still a plausible explanation.

Now, the current prediction of Electoral Calculus is of a Labour majority of 40 seats based on current polling. For a start, even if we were to forget the trend effect of a further 6% loss of poll lead between now and the election, this is not any kind of a win Labour could want.

Anyone who disagrees need only take a look at the government of the unfortunate John Major, cursed with a majority of 21 and a constant hostage to his backbenchers. Not forgetting by-elections, which incumbents mostly lose, and defections, which make matters worse.

Furthermore, as pollster Deborah Mattinson noted at the start of this year, no party has ever won a majority from here. And if we do take into account this further above-mentioned loss of 6% on historical trend, we would easily be looking at some kind of a hung parliament with the Tories the largest party. Rather like 2010, in fact. A few more per cent short-term fluctuation – rain on polling day or whatever – and that could be a Tory majority. And that is if there is no additional trend downward between now and 2012, which might happen as a simple result of economic recovery or a collapse in the UKIP vote after the Euros.

In any event, as John Rentoul observes from the same Electoral Calculus front page, current polling is already hovering perilously close to a hung parliament anyway, even on the basis of today’s average poll.

It is quite simple: we cannot tell which of these scenarios will take place, and quite possibly will not until the poll itself. We are still on a knife-edge. The game has not changed.

But for Labour to have any kind of security about winning, let alone a majority, it needs to. Sharpish.

*Obviously we assume the downward trend is linear, but even if it is not (e.g. a steeper fall first then a shallower gradient, or vice versa), sooner or later it is likely to tend towards that linear trend line.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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20 Responses to “Why the surprise? Labour’s poll slippage was predicted and is on trend”

  1. swatantra says:

    More like ’74.

  2. BenM says:

    Good article following on from a similar one written by Janan Ghanesh in the FT yesterday.

    Assuming no major scandals, the kind of influencing events between now and next May include (but may not be exclusive to):

    1. Euro elections
    2. Party Conferences
    3. How the economy fares
    4. General Election run-in after conference season

    Number 1 – I think May’s Euros could blow the Tories off a little prior to summer recess if UKIP finish a good second or even first in poll share. But I don’t think the effects will be lasting if the Tories keep their discipline (which they should given by then we’ll be just under a year away from the main event).

    Coming back to 2 in a minute, number 3 remains the most critical and the biggest unknown. I think the economy is not going to do as well as some commentators think. I think there’ll be growth, but overall strength of that growth will be somewhat underwhelming. If however I’m wrong, and outturn is on the upside then chances of the Tories becoming the largest party in a hung parliament increase (the idea of a Tory majority is for the birds I think).

    Factors 2 and 4 are related. We’re all aware that the Conference season will sound the starting gun for the General Election campaign and I have little doubt – even writing here right now in April – that of all the leaders’ speeches, Miliband’s will end up being most severely savaged by a Tory press pack that will be much more focused on getting their guy into Downing Street.

    This will be in marked contrast to the inevitable swooning over Cameron’s speech a week later. And the fact Labour is first on in September, with the Tories following and Lib Dems last will mean an opposition pitch quickly drowned out by two Parties defending a record. The Tory conference poll bounce is later, and the press will be doing its best to keep it going right through to May.

    My prediction in poll share is Lab 34, Con 35, Lib Dems 15 and UKIP limping in at 7.

    I think that has Lab as largest Party in a hung parliament. The absurdities of First Past the Post voting system exposed again (no point whingeing Tories – it’s the system you love). Another Coalition.

  3. Pete says:

    I think this is perhaps unnecessarily pessimistic.

    First of all, the argument that no party has ever won a majority from here is at least a little bit flawed. The Conservative Party had an average lead of 4 points over Labour from mid-February to late March 1978, and would go on to win by nearly double that, despite Callaghan the clear favourite as preferred Prime Minister. Yes, both parties were much more popular then – but leads matter more than vote shares. 44% of the vote gave the Tories a majority of 43 in ’79; it gave Labour a majority of 179 in ’97.

    Furthermore, any election result after September 20th this year is without meaningful historical precedent. The last time a governing party waited 5 years to hold an election and increased its number of seats was in 1865 – no party has done so and increased its share of the vote against the preceding election. Both a Labour and a Tory majority would be astounding historic results, as would a second hung parliament after five years. If history is right as you say, then previous elections would imply the result in 2015 will be Con 38%, Lab 32%, LD 14%. But I would also make the point that I think the idea of natural mid-term fluctuation in the polls is something of a myth; not entirely, but I think at least partially.

    In the run-up to 1979, both parties were consistently neck and neck until the winter of discontent; it was only then that the Tories surged into the lead (they had over the IMF loan as well, but that subsided by ’78). At this point in 1982, all three parties were in dead heat – it was only the Falklands that gave the Tories the boost to win their landslide (and they still lost more votes in ’83 than they did in ’87 and ’92 combined). In the 1987 – 1992 Parliament, John Major becoming leader gave the Tories their much needed boost, and at this point in that Parliament Tory leads were still common (and we know now in hindsight that polling methodology underestimated Tory support). In the late ’90s, the Tories never recovered from Black Wednesday. The 1997 – 2001 Parliament was stable; 2001 – 2005 was much less stable than this Parliament, and 2005 – 2010’s pattern more or less matches this Parliament’s.

    Generally speaking, big shifts in popular support – the kind that turn election outcomes on their head – are tied to lasting, damaging events or a deteriorating economy. We are performing broadly in line with the Tories in the last Parliament; and though we know of course that the Tories failed to win their majority, we also know that it is dramatically easier for Labour to achieve what proved impossible for Cameron in 2010 thanks to the flaws of FPTP. It is also worth noting that no poll since March 2012 has shown the Tories beating their 2010 vote-share; that’s a lot of new votes they need to gain in not very much time.

    I also have to criticise your statement that Labour would not want a majority of 40 because it would be unworkable. Heath had a majority of 30 in 1970; Thatcher 44 in 1979 – it is perfectly possible to govern with such a majority.

    We shouldn’t be secure about winning, but we shouldn’t be pessimistic either. It’s still all to play for.

  4. Ex Labour says:

    @Rob Marchant

    A “blip downwards” ? I would hardly call an 8 – 10 % drop in the polls over the last year a blip. However in your calculations did you factor in the fact that the previous Labour government ‘gerrymandered’ the electoral boundaries which gives them an in built 6% margin?

    Personally I think we are heading for a hung parliament and it could go either way for Labour or Conservative. However the real unknown is what will happen to the UKIP vote at a GE. They are taking support from all parties but will a percentage of those return to the fold at the GE, probably yes, but who knows how many and for whom.

    The real problem for Labour right now is Miliband. As a 30 year Labour supporter I was hoping that Labour would give me something to vote for this time round, and by that I mean sensible centrist policies, not loony left wish lists. Sadly there is no sign of this happening anywhere anytime soon.

  5. paul barker says:

    The fact is though, that most Labour activists & voters will be surprised as they see the Poll lead evaporate. They may also be demoralised & angry.

  6. Tafia says:

    The absurdities of First Past the Post voting system exposed again (no point whingeing Tories – it’s the system you love).

    Actually the overwhelming bulk of the electorate prefer FPTP = including Labour voters. They like a clearly identifiable MP that belongs to their constituency.

  7. BenM says:

    Whoops forgot the Scottish independence referendum!

    But I assume a large vote for No.

  8. John Reid says:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/exclusive-how-did-labour-lose-in-92-the-most-authoritative-study-of-the-last-general-election-is-published-tomorrow-here-its-authors-present-their-conclusions-and-explode-the-myths-about-the-greatest-upset-since-1945-1439286.html

    Article from the independent, showing public feeling that the Tories weren’t the party they identified with, but voted for through not believing labour could be trusted, although they warmed to Labour policies on NHS, and that they felt labour were less extreme than anytime since 1974

    Worth noting that pre Blair, despite average 1-8% labour lead! that the Tories would win the 97 election, and that the failure of 1987 to increase on 83 was why labour lost 1992

  9. Dan says:

    “The first is that we should stop saying how there is a strong probability that Ed Miliband is going to be Prime Minister on the back of today’s opinion polls, whatever they say. This has been the refrain on the left of the party almost non-stop since early 2012….”

    That’s not what the Left of the party has actually said at all though, is it? What the Left of the party has said is that Labour SHOULD comfortably win the next election since (despite the media propaganda), the public have little understanding or tolerance of the supposed need for austerity, and they generally dislike the Conservatives intensely. But saying they “should” do it is not saying there’s a strong probability of it, when the leadership of the party are so woefully ineffective. Just as saying England SHOULD be able to win a penalty shootout is not the same as a prediction that they WILL do it…

    For all the demonisation he gets, Len McCluskey spoke more sense yesterday than any of the triangulating technocrats in the shadow cabinet. As things stand, with Labour set to offer simply the same economic policies as the Tories (a move which was originally cheered by Rob Marchant et al, before subtly distancing themselves when it became clear it was leading to a collapse in the polling), most people are going to conclude they might as well stick with the devil they know. There is no getting around the fact that, no matter what Labour says or does, people are going to think a Labour government carries a risk of bankruptcy – the Tory propaganda has been too effective, and it should be clear at this point that no amount of posturing about zero-based spending reviews or surpluses is going to change that. So if you want people to vote Labour, you have to atleast offer them an upside that makes it worth taking that risk. Right now, Labour are saying that their policies will essentially just deliver the same as the Tories. Why on earth would anyone vote for policies which would even in a best case scenario not be any better than what they’ve got now, and take the risk of (what they see as) less competence and more risks without even any potential benefits on offer?

  10. BenM says:

    “Actually the overwhelming bulk of the electorate prefer FPTP = including Labour voters.”

    That’s right.

    So no point whining when that system helps Labour to more seats on a lower vote share.

  11. Ex Labour says:

    @Ben M

    It’s not the FPTP system that helps Labour win, it’s the fact they moved electoral boundaries to give Labour an advantage, even before a vote is cast.

  12. @BenM: Largely agree, though not sure conference season will have very much impact at all – most people outside Westminster don’t remotely engage.

    @Pete: Deborah Mattinson was talking about more than a few months out – I think her observation stands. And “leads matter more than vote shares” – this is a bit glib and no supporting evidence – why? Finally, Heath did win but he also had a disastrous time in office which ended in ignominy. Thatcher got through her first couple of years by the skin of her teeth, largely saved by the Falklands.

  13. BenM – “Whoops forgot the Scottish independence referendum! But I assume a large vote for No.”

    Ben quite clearly hasn’t been paying attention to events up here, a trait shared by many here. Like with polling for the Westminster Election, the polling for the Scottish Referedum have been narrowing as members of “Scottish” Labour complete to shoot their beloved “Better Together” campaign in the foot. The latest being Jim Murphy’s condoning of businesses telling employees how to vote. Clearly forgetting the indignation expressed by Labour when this happened in the 1990’s.

    So if the results on September 19th showed a win for the “Yes Scotland” coalition, how would this change things. For starters, Cameron would be toast. There is no way that the PM would survive losing a referendum. It is possible in the turbulance that an election thought to be months away could be brought closer.

    And who would the English voters punish for the Independence vote. Would it be the Prime Minister that has ran away from every opportunity to debate with the First Minister of Scotland… or the inept Labour Party who could not convince people in their own Scottish heartlands to come around to their point of view… who endorsed Cameron’s cowerdice… who in their chase for votes in Middle England turned their backs on Scottish values.

    For all that Milliband gets painted as “Red Ed”, he is not that left wing. Labour would not be scrapping the Bedroom tax were it not for the referendum and the sight of their elected representitives being attacked by pro-Indy supporters for dithering. While, lets not forget that Labour voted FOR the benefits cap & have signed up to Osbornes austerity. Red Ed is remarkably New Labour, for many we don’t want to go back to that.

  14. Robert says:

    Ben M’s prediction for the next General Election looks likely and he is right to point out the absurdities of first past the post. The result will not be much less absurd if the coalition had changed the boundaries rather than falling out over the House of Lords.

  15. Danny says:

    We can win, these are rogue polls. We need a differentiated message of taking back whats rightfully ours. Labour the party of red distribution.

  16. Landless Peasant says:

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Labour is sliding down the polls. Who the hell is going to vote for an opposition party that emulates the very thing it is meant to oppose? All this talk of “tough Welfare reforms” means I’m voting Green, not Labour, and I’m a radical Socialist from a long line of Labour voters.

  17. BenM says:

    Ex-Labour

    “It’s not the FPTP system that helps Labour win, it’s the fact they moved electoral boundaries to give Labour an advantage, even before a vote is cast.”

    This is the problem with recalcitrant right-wingers.

    They just make up their own reality.

    The Boundary Commission review prior to the 2010 election favoured the Tories.

    From Anthony Wells’s excellent Polling Report site:

    “Nearly all boundary reviews favour the Conservative party. This is because the trend in population movement in the UK is for people to move out of inner city areas into the suburbs.”

    http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/guide/about-notional-results/

  18. The Original Danny says:

    Looks like there is another leftist Danny posting on Uncut. I’d like to point out that he is not the obnoxious, arrogant Marxist who derives so much pleasure from pointing out the hypocritical nonsense that is a regular feature of Labour Uncut.

    Incidentally, where is today’s entry about the latest polling figures? You know, the one that shows Labour’s lead up to 6%? Where it was yesterday. Up 1% on the day before, which was up 1% on the day before that which in turn was up 1% on the day before that.

    Any article covering that particular piece of polling evidence? Is it just a coincidence that polling only ever becomes newsworthy on Labour Uncut when it the lead starts to vanish? Are Atul and Rob Marchant celebrating YouGov’s latest polls, or are they secretly clenching their fists in anger?

  19. Tafia says:

    BenM – “Nearly all boundary reviews favour the Conservative party. This is because the trend in population movement in the UK is for people to move out of inner city areas into the suburbs.”

    A misleading answer if ever there was one. Any attempt at making the number of constituents roughly equal favours the tories as does any attempt at reducing representation from Wales, Scotland & NI.

    In short, equality favours the tories.

  20. @Danny: “these are rogue polls”. No, they’re not, much though you might like them to be. It is analysis taken from perfectly respectable polls and the figures are from “poll of polls” averages, therefore cannot be “rogue” by definition.

    @TheOriginalDanny: The same applies. You should not get excited about one poll, be it high or low. You should take a rolling average which smooths out these day-to-day blips, and that is what we did (3% is the poll of polls). So 6% is a blip, 0% is a blip, 3% is in the middle and is not. The analysis stands. By the way, nothing would make me happier than a Labour win, but that doesn’t mean I need to lie to myself about how we are doing.

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