Every pollster but Angus Reid insists that the Tory lead is well into single figures. They are all wrong: but Reid is less wrong than most.
I apologise for returning to this subject yet again, but it is so central to what’s going on at the moment, as a supposedly informed commentator on current affairs I feel it my duty to point out why everyone is getting worked up about nothing.
First and foremost, let me advance my view simply: nearly all the pollsters are overestimating the number of people who will really vote on The Big Day. There is much talk of ‘weighting’ and so forth, but this is no answer to those like me who say to the polling companies ‘you simply don’t know how high abstention will be’. This is because research respondents are notoriously bad at predicting their own behaviour. And like it or not, it is Labour voters who make up the great majority of those who simply don’t turn up. If Norwich North didn’t illustrate this, then nothing ever will.
It’s very much a rule of thumb, but my best estimate is that the Conservative Party is anything from 14 to 18 points ahead of Labour at the moment. This simply involves reweighting the numbers back to a new 100%, and then predicting a turnout around 55-60%, with allowance made for who will lose most from abstentions. But this isn’t the only consideration I’ve taken into account.
The most crucial factor is the average person’s propensity to fib to research executives. People tell lies for all kinds of reasons, but usually to defend the rationality of their decisions. On this basis, UKIP has consistently under-polled versus what it winds up getting on the day. UKIP is perilously close for many people to eccentricity: but they agree with many of its ideas – and in the privacy of a polling booth will do what they feel, not what they think people would prefer them to do.
It is often assumed that UKIP loses the Tories more votes than Labour, but I disagree. There has always been a powerful fear of foreigners and lost jobs among older Labour traditionalists. If they don’t abstain, some will vote UKIP.
Equally, for many people the Tories remain the ‘nasty’ Party. For others more recently, they’ve become the Toff’s Party again. Both Labour (and very young) voters dismayed by New Labour spin and daft right-on policies are uncomfortable telling a stranger they’d vote for a bunch of haughty Etonians…but they would. Without them, Margaret Thatcher would never have been elected Prime Minister.
Next, the marginals. This is not a Presidential popular vote election: seats are the only thing that counts. The Tories have been more scientific about polling marginals and focusing on them than the Government. Anecdotally, I am reliably informed by Conservative sources that they’re doing well there. The Times has picked up the same vibes. In that context, popular-vote polls offer nothing but guidance at best – and at worst, a skewed picture of what’s really going on.
The last public ICM marginal poll of three weeks ago found
‘….a swing of 8.3% from Labour to the Conservatives. In contrast the last ICM national poll showed a national swing of 6.5%, so once again we find a slightly larger swing towards the Conservatives in the Con-Lab marginal seats they need to win. This has been pretty consistent in all polls of marginal seats in the last couple of years.’
My penultimate point is that any poll before the actual day is a directional signpost, not an official sign that you’re entering the village. In one election after another, it is the exit polls that have been consistently reliable. This may seem a silly observation (what’s the point of predicting something that’s already happened?) but it’s only the Parties themselves who benefit directly from predictive polls: that doesn’t make them any more likely to be right. A poor performance by Brown at Chilcot or in the TV debates will render previous polls completely obsolete.
In the light of this observation, I think it undeniable that the Tory lead is narrowing. The point is, Labour is in reality so far behind it would take a miracle to rescue them on election day. If the Conservatives hold their nerve and focus on what The Slog posted on Nick Robinson’s blog earlier today, they will wind up with a working majority. What Cameron must stop doing is reacting to every wobble and swapping both statistics and economists. Stick to the amoral track record of the other lot: this election is about far more than a recession.**
Last and nowhere near least, there is the Angus Reid factor. Anyone who can be bothered should go to the company’s website; what they say there makes eminent sense to me. Reid does all its polling online.
‘Studies have shown’ says the site, ‘that people are more honest online than when talking to an interviewer – they are more willing to give what might be regarded as socially unacceptable answers.’
Reid always ask general issues questions before the specific voting intention. The pollster thinks respondents should be ‘warmed up’ with a non-partisan politics based question first. As they put it:
‘We want to know how they would vote at a polling booth following a period where they have been much more politicised than they are now. The issues question, in a very small way, helps to put people in context.’
Next (referring back to the point earlier) Reid put their sample in the context of where they are voting during the interview:
‘…when they come to vote, they occasionally look at the situation in their constituency. And they, for whatever reason, vote for [not their first] Party. It is important to remind them that they vote in a constituency not in one nationwide ballot…’
Finally, they also take behavioural history into account:
‘…The surest predictor of how people will vote next time is how they voted last time, and therefore ensuring that you have those people in your poll in the right proportions is vital…’
In short, my gut and experience tells me that Reid’s lower Labour vote and higher Tory vote versus the others is getting towards the truth. Add to this my own personal reweighting, and you get to what I believe: about one in four Brits will vote Labour, and even under our cock-eyed voting system, that is nowhere near enough for them to form even a minority Government.
The only thing that can derail David Cameron now is a mass switch of votes to UKIP and the Libdems. As nobody (not even Nigel Farage) is predicting that, I would humbly suggest that we get ready for a Tory Government.
** Interesting advice in the light of later developments along the ‘School Bully’ dimension….