Pollwatch – State of the parties (summer 2010): Reasons to keep calm and carry on

by Stephen Tall on August 21, 2010

There have been a rather astonishing 36 opinion polls in the six weeks since LDV’s last polls round-up at the beginning of July. Thirty of those 36 originate from just one polling company, YouGov.

So let’s bring you up-to-date with July and August’s polls in chronological order of publication:

    Con 40, Lab 36, Lib Dem 16 (YouGov, 4-5 Jul)
    Con 41, Lab 36, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 5-6 Jul)
    Con 40, Lab 36, Lib Dem 17 (YouGov, 6-7 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 35, Lib Dem 16 (YouGov, 7-8 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 34, Lib Dem 17 (YouGov, 8-9 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 35, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 11-12 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 35, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 12-13 Jul)
    Con 43, Lab 34, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 13-14 Jul)
    Con 43, Lab 34, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 14-15 Jul)
    Con 40, Lab 37, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 15-16 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 35, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 18-19 Jul)
    Con 43, Lab 35, Lib Dem 14 (YouGov, 19-20 Jul)
    Con 44, Lab 35, Lib Dem 13 (YouGov, 20-21 Jul)
    Con 43, Lab 35, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 21-22 Jul)
    Con 41, Lab 36, Lib Dem 14 (YouGov, 22-23 Jul)
    Con 38, Lab 34, Lib Dem 19 (ICM, 23-25 Jul)
    Con 40, Lab 38, Lib Dem 14 (MORI, 23-25 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 35, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 25-26 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 37, Lib Dem 14 (YouGov, 26-27 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 36, Lib Dem 14 (YouGov, 27-28 Jul)
    Con 42, Lab 38, Lib Dem 12 (YouGov, 29-30 Jul)
    July average: Con 42%, Lab 36%, Lib Dem 15%
    Con 42, Lab 38, Lib Dem 12 (YouGov, 1-2 Aug)
    Con 41, Lab 36, Lib Dem 13 (YouGov, 2-3 Aug)
    Con 42, Lab 36, Lib Dem 13 (YouGov, 3-4 Aug)
    Con 44, Lab 36, Lib Dem 13 (YouGov, 4-5 Aug)
    Con 42, Lab 36, Lib Dem 13 (YouGov, 5-6 Aug)
    Con 39, Lab 33, Lib Dem 16 (ComRes, 6-8 Aug)
    Con 40, Lab 36, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 8-9 Aug)
    Con 42, Lab 38, Lib Dem 14 (YouGov, 9-10 Aug)
    Con 41, Lab 37, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 10-11 Aug)
    Con 42, Lab 37, Lib Dem 14 (YouGov, 11-12 Aug)
    Con 38, Lab 36, Lib Dem 16 (Harris, 12-13 Aug)
    Con 42, Lab 37, Lib Dem 13 (YouGov, 12-13 Aug)
    Con 37, Lab 37, Lib Dem 18 (ICM, 13-15 Aug)
    Con 39, Lab 33, Lib Dem 15 (ComRes, 13-15 Aug)
    Con 41, Lab 37, Lib Dem 15 (YouGov, 15-16 Aug)
    August average (to date): Con 41%, Lab 36%, Lib Dem 14%

Anthony Wells’ UK Polling Report blog’s current polling average shows the following scores on the doors:

    Lib Dems 15%, Lab 36%, Con 40%

As Mark Pack rightly noted recently here, “with the next general election years away, national voting intention questions don’t mean very much this far out.” But, regardless, the polls will be closely scrutinised by politicians, the media and supporters alike to try and discern how voters are reacting to the ‘new politics’. So let’s take a look at the figures from each of the main parties’ perspectives …

Conservatives:

the Tories will be reasonably cheered by their current polling, with the party enjoying a narrow but clear lead over Labour in most polls. Compare the current polls with 1979, the last time they came to power, when Labour had moved into a narrow lead by August.

However, it’s noticeable that in August only YouGov is showing the party polling above the psychologically important 40% mark, with ICM, ComRes and Harris all showing them below. Perhaps more crucially for the stability of the Coalition, no poll has yet shown the Tories in a commanding enough lead to win an outright majority.

Labour:

there’s no doubt Labour is buoyed by the opinion polls showing them within touching distance of the Tories, and level-pegging according to ICM’s August poll. Three factors suggest they should put the champagne on ice.

First, as I pointed out this past week, Labour is losing the economic argument, with the majority of the public signed-up to the Coalition’s austerity measures. Assuming the economy moves out of recession before the next election, therefore, Labour risks being blamed for the slump and receiving none of the credit for recovery. Given most elections are determined on the basis of the Government’s economic credibility, this should worry Labour: all their leadership contenders appear to be playing a very short-term game.

Secondly, as the 1979 polls show compared with the 1983 result, it’s quite possible for an opposition to be in the lead at this point in the election cycle and still crash to a heavy defeat at the ballot box next time round.

And thirdly, Labour has yet to elect its leader, and so is currently a safe repository for most anti-Coalition/Government dissatisfaction. Once a leader is chosen, they will be subject to scrutiny, the media will challenge them on their response to the economy, and they will start having to make choices, not all of which can be popular.

Lib Dems:

Clearly at the moment the Lib Dems have most reason to be troubled by the polls. Compared with our general election performance of 24%, we have shed a significant number of votes. That there has not been greater angst to date is a product of two factors.

First, the party knew full well what it was getting itself into when it signed up for the Coalition: a rocky ride, with ups and downs – and that applies to the polls as much as it does to policies.

And secondly, we are a long way out even from next May’s crucial polls in Scotland, Wales and English councils. As we all recall from the last parliament, the news media was at pains to write off the party every time a bad poll came out – and then came the general election campaign, and the party’s traditional polling resurrection as the news broadcasters were forced by law to do their jobs properly, and report politics fairly for a change.

ICM v YouGov: you pays your money…

There is a further factor. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, these peacetime polls are utterly dominated by YouGov. Only two other pollsters in the past six weeks have published more than one poll to enable us to show how different methodologies can produce significantly varying averages in the Lib Dem share of the vote:

    ICM = 18.5%
    ComRes = 15.5%
    YouGov = 14.5%

The difference between YouGov and ICM (which most poll-watchers regard as the industry’s gold standard given their consistent accuracy in predicting vote shares over successive general elections) is more than should be expected.

But it’s not hard to see why if you look at the weightings used by each pollster in order to achieve a balanced sample of responses. As Mike Smithson’s PoliticalBetting.com recently pointed out, YouGov is alone among the main pollsters in using a party ID weighting system which pegs the Lib Dems at 12%, with Labour and the Tories on 32.5% and 28.5% respectively. This is a stark contrast with ICM which uses past vote recall to peg the Lib Dems at 16%, with Labour and the Tories on 21% and 25% respectively.

Of course, such subtleties are not reflected in the news media reporting of opinion polls which simply pounces on the ups/downs* (however marginal) and produces an automated headline with the words boost/slump* (*delete as appropriate).

So let LDV offer readers something that the news media usually forgets when it comes to polls: context. Let’s look at ICM – the mainstream pollster which produced the most accurate general election prediction – and its Lib Dem polling figures in August over the years:

    ICM’s Lib Dem scores:
    Aug 10 – 18%
    Aug 09 – 19%
    Aug 08 – 19%
    Aug 07 – 18%
    Aug 06 – 22%
    Aug 05 – 22%
    Aug 01 – 17%
    Aug 97 – 12%
    Aug 92 – 14%

Notice anything there? Well, what sticks out to me is the consistency of recent years’ Lib Dem poll ratings according to the most reliable opinion polling company in the UK.

So there you go… you have your choice. If you’re a glass half-empty Lib Dem or a Coalition-sceptic/hater then read the YouGov runes and enjoy. If you’re a glass half-full Lib Dem and a Coalition well-wisher, take heart from the fact that ICM suggests Lib Dem support holding steady.