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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Stephen Fry & Eddie Izzard v the England Rugby Team - yes, it's Boris v Cameron

Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov. FolloStephan on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 19.51.14People are not good at predicting their own behaviour, so pollsters are wary of drawing conclusions from questions that ask "what would you do if...?" The standard voting intention question itself - 'if a general election were held tomorrow, which party would you vote for?' - is tricky to answer: it invites people to use the question as a proxy, to express approval or (more likely) disapproval for the government today, rather than make a realistic prediction about their future choice.

That of course is why oppositions need to be significantly ahead between elections if they are actually to win at the deciding moment, when the risk-averse impulse of 'better the devil you know' comes into full force.  That's why we often see a pro-government swing when the election campaign formally starts. Remember April 2010? The Conservatives were comfortably ahead in all polls, and everyone expected a clear win; but YouGov’s 'starting-flag' survey for the Sunday Times showed a sudden drop that indicated we were heading for coalition.

I say all that by way of introducing caution to an analysis of polling we’ve conducted on whether Boris Johnson would help or worsen Conservative prospects. Caution because firstly, Labour’s current 9 per cent lead means that Conservatives could well still end up as the largest party in the normal course of things. Secondly, the destructive drama of a leadership challenge would be likely to have a negative effect on the party's prospects. I present our Johnson findings for what they tell us about how Conservatives can widen their appeal, rather than as a prediction of what might happen if there was a different leader.
We analysed 6,000 responses to surveys conducted between April 19 and May 1this year, in which we asked how people would vote with the current leaders - then repeating the question with Boris Johnson instead of David Cameron.
  • 30 per cent of the intending voters in this sample said they would vote Conservative with Cameron in charge, and 36 per cent said they would vote Conservative with Johnson. Using the rich background data we have on our samples, we could find out a lot more about the added six per cent, and a striking picture emerges: although Johnson wins back a significant group from UKIP, his main added value is his appeal to the nation's centre - to younger, liberal, less political voters, exactly the people the Tory modernisers have been aiming to attract.
  • The Johnson 'gain' is on both flanks of the Conservative Party: yes, 40 per cent comes from UKIP, but the bulk come from the mainstream, and they are not of the traditional Conservative profile. If they voted in 1997, the Johnson switchers were much more likely to have voted for Blair than the Cameron Tories.

Of the Boris switchers:

  • 23 per cent voted LD last time.
  • 17 per cent didn’t vote.
  • Only 24 per cent see themselves as Conservatives (compared to 63 per cent of the Cameron Tories)
  • 39 per cent don’t identify with any party (compared to only 14 per cent of Cameron Tories)
  • 21 per cent are aged 18-24 (compared to 10 per cent of Cameron Tories)
  • 30 per cent earn under £25K (compared to 22 per cent of Cameron Tories)
  • 36 per cent are C2DE (compared to 25 per cent of Cameron Tories)
  • 51per cent work full-time (compared to 57 per cent of Cameron Tories)
  • 18 per cent work in the public sector (compared to 15 per cent of Cameron Tories)
  • 59 per cent are owner-occupiers (compared to 76 per cent of Cameron Tories)
  • They are more likely to be C4 and BBC3 viewers; more likely to use social media (both Twitter and Facebook); less likely to own a car; more likely to play video games (24 per cent v 19 per cent) and be interested in arts (25 per cent vs 18 per cent). On income, age, party ID, social grade, working status, property ownership, and personality traits they resemble non-Tory voters more than Cameron Tories. On region and media consumption they show the same traditional Tory distribution, not biased to London, for example.

To understand this group from a different angle, we also used a new technique that YouGov has been developing, Opigram. This is a technology that allows our panelists to tell us more about themselves (proactively rather than in a survey), and rate things similar to 'liking' something on Facebook (but more detailed and structured). As a result we know a huge amount about sections of our panel that allows us to explore populations in much more depth, and use statistical techniques to suggest essential differentiators.

I can give just a little taste here. For example, when we look at the words the Johnson-likers use to describe themselves, we find ‘individualistic, knowledgeable, disorganised’, versus Cameron-likers seeing themselves as ‘friendly, organised and hardworking’.

We can describe the differences between the two sets of supporters in terms of relationships to thousands of brands, books, movies, institutions, and personalities. There’s a significantly increased probability that fans of Boris Johnson are also fans of -

  • The Independent, Nigel Farage, Ross Noble, Bill Bailey, Dara O'Briain, the Evening Standard, Jeremy Paxman, Pulp Fiction, Ian Hislop, Green Day, Science and Technology Websites, Jeremy Clarkson, Clive Anderson, Muse, Eddie Izzard, Jimmy Carr, Brave New World, David Mitchell, Dylan Moran, Stephen Fry, David Bowie, Nirvana, Music/Video Streaming and Downloading Websites, Jimi Hendrix, Rob Brydon, and Aubergine Parmigiana. 

By contrast, among Cameron fans it’s -

  • Prince William, Margaret Thatcher, Just a Minute, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Anneka Rice, the England National Rugby Union Team, and Andy Murray.

True, much can be derived simply from knowing that Johnson has a greater appeal to younger voters. But there's more to it: the Johnson attraction has something of the 'outsider' to it, whereas DC is all about the establishment.

It would be stupid to propose changing leaders, but Conservatives should be much more serious about understanding the added reach of Johnson, rather than just dismissing it with irritation. To win the next election, Conservatives need to move outside their familiar comfort zones.

Why has Johnson got support from the very people the party has assiduously targeted but failed to win over? Is it just by magic that he became London mayor with a big chunk of liberal votes, and held on to them against trend? My own view is that the essence of Johnson is his ability to surprise: he is never quite as you expect him, either funnier, or cleverer, or bolder.  That’s why we always notice him and he enters our imagination. We thought he’d be amusing at the Olympics, but he was much more, encapsulating everything good about it.


Many Tory strategists think it clever to brush aside consideration of Boris' vote-winning appeal. When new votes are scarce, but essential for victory, that's crazy. And our analysis shows Boris succeeds precisely where the Conservatives must grow if they are to be a serious force in the future – among the young and unpolitical, and on both flanks of the political spectrum.


Continuity and competence are strong suits for Cameron, but he must take some risks to broaden his appeal. I saw him at an event recently and he oozed such complete command of his role; it all seemed too easy for him. Being Prime Ministerial doesn't have to mean being so comfortably establishment. He needs to find some of that edginess, some of that ability to surprise, that he had when he first went on his quest to be leader and challenged the status quo.



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