Six months from 7th May 2015: how the polls are looking and what to look for

by Stephen Tall on November 7, 2014

There are three key things about opinion polls.

The first is what matters are trends, not individual poll fluctuations.

The second is they’re snapshots, not forecasts. (A point made by Lord Ashcroft, to his credit, every time he publishes his latest poll finding.)

The third is the next general election won’t be decided by national party vote shares but by who wins in 650 individual seats. (A point often made by PoliticalBetting’s Mike Smithson.)

Here are the trends…

Here’s a graph which focuses solely on the first of these. It shows the result of every single opinion poll – courtesy Mark Pack’s invaluable spreadsheet – in the 12 months from October 2013 to September 2014 (incl.):

poll trends 2014

What it shows is clear enough:

The Labour vote is declining, down from 39% to 35%. Once October’s polls are included this will show a further fall. It is this trend which is the explanation for the last two days’ Mili-madness, with Labour MPs’ private grumbles about their leader being publicly aired with no particular purpose in mind.

The Tory vote is static at 33%. To state the obvious, as this is down on their 2010 result, it means the Conservatives almost certainly would not win an outright majority.

The Ukip vote is up sharply, from 11% to 15%. This is drawn from all parties (and none) but primarily still from the Conservatives.

The Lib Dem vote is down a bit, from an already low-base of 10%, to just 8%.

Here’s what explains the trends…

Blogger-pollster Anthony Wells has come up with a very handy infographic which illustrates the net movements between parties*.

What it shows is clear enough: “In 2012 all arrows pointed to Labour, they were picking up support from everywhere and holding on to what they had. Today they still have the benefit of a strong transfer from the Liberal Democrats (though even that’s declining), but they are leaking support in every direction – to the Greens, to UKIP and to the SNP.”

Similarly the Lib Dems have bled support in all directions — mostly to Labour, but also (in order of loss) to Ukip, the Conservatives and Greens.

antony wells 2014 polls shifts

Beyond the trends: forecast and individual seats…

To return to my initial three points. What the charts above show are the poll trends. But they are not forecasts, and they don’t in themselves recognise (nor are they designed to) that the general election will be decided by who wins in 650 individual seats.

Another pollster, ComRes’s Adam Ludlow, has assessed where he thinks the parties stand six months out from the general election. His take on the Lib Dems is fair and balanced, ranging from optimistic to pessimistic:

Liberal Democrats – losses almost certain, but well known to do better in their own seats. Key issue will be whether one of the main parties will have enough seats to reach 326 or be forced to form either a minority government or coalition with Lib Dem MPs.

Win: History repeats itself and the party does better in the campaign time than mid-term, getting a vote share in the mid-teens. They do especially well in their own areas, end up with 35-40 seats and enough to form a majority Coalition with one of the main parties – or ideally either. Possible but not currently looking likely.

Draw: Poll around the 8-12% mark, do well in seats where they already have MPs. End up with c.30 seats and enough to form coalition or some form of confidence and supply agreement. Looking likely except for the coalition scenario which is heavily dependent on the performance of the main parties.

Loss: Nick Clegg has banked everything on making the Liberal Democrats a “party of Government”. With significant vote and seat loss almost certain, the worst case scenario for the party is therefore that it is not possible to form a coalition. This could actually happen if the party performed as well as in the medium outcome above, but the rest of the Parliament is so hung, no party can combine with the Liberal Democrats to reach an absolute majority. Alternatively, the Liberal Democrats could face electoral decimation, left with around 7% of the vote and only 20-25 MPs. Perhaps unlikely given the historical formidability of the Lib Dems’ local campaigning organisation.

Win, lose or draw. Which of those outcomes it will be in large part depends on what happens in the Lib Dems’ 75 battleground seats. However, the difference between a national party rating of 7% or 15% (and both currently are plausible) will also be crucial. I realise that’s stating the obvious, but I’m not sure what else you were expecting six months out…

* Anthony notes: “percentages are of the whole of the sample, not of each parties support, and because the sample also includes people who say don’t know or won’t vote things don’t add up to 100%”.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.