Conservative Diary

The Shakespeare Report

16 Apr 2010 07:27:32

Clegg won the debate before a word was uttered - just by virtue of being there

Stephan Shakespeare Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, gives his take on the first Leaders' Debate.

However much you were impressed by Cameron or Brown, the real winner before even a single word was uttered was Nick Clegg - just by virtue of his being there.

I've said before that I don't expect the debates to make a big difference, except to pump up the Lib Dems. Having a leader who has no chance of being Prime Minister up there with the other two genuine contenders greatly boosts his standing and reduces Brown and Cameron.

It won't push up the Lib Dem vote significantly, but it instantly makes Clegg a player. Remember, there are two more debates, and each time Clegg will become more important, and the other two will be diminished. Whatever they say, nothing will have as much effect as lining up these three as equals.

If we do end up with a hung parliament, and the Lib Dems gain a smaller share of seats than their share of the vote would give them under PR, then Clegg will have massively gained in his credibility to play the kingmaker. It's extraordinary that the two contenders allowed him to play along. Very generous.

I feel there was an unreal quality to the debate. It didn't feel like a fight, not a proper struggle to reach ordinary people. It's too polite, too fair, too clever, too veiled. Can't wait for the real battle to begin, maybe next week?

Stephan Shakespeare

14 Apr 2010 22:05:14

Beware of the immediate post-debate polls

The Shakespeare Report.

I have a little theory that can't be proven or disproven (a great advantage) but which at least reminds us to be cautious.

After a headline-grabbing show-case political event such as the annual conference of a party, you usually get a small sympathetic move in the polls, which tends to disappear a few days later - it happens after the Democratic and Republican conventions in the US as well. This doesn't surprise us, but perhaps it should: do we really imagine that significant numbers of people change their minds about who to vote for after a single staged event? And then reverts?

It seems unlikely. More likely, I believe, is that those who take least interest in political matters, but who feel they should give the pollsters an opinion other than 'don't know', are more likely to be swayed by whatever they happened to hear most recently. And are least likely actually to vote.

Think of that after the debates. It is of course possible that one candidate or other will make such a strong or hopeless performance that floating voters flip from one side to another. But for that to happen, we would have to suppose a very large, highly engaged and yet strongly personality-influenced audience. It strikes me as more probable that the majority of the audience have already committed and are watching as a spectator sport. Short-lived mini-bounces in the polls are therefore much more likely to come from people who don't really care but are picking up a little buzz from the papers the next day.

That, of course, is still worth noting; under the froth there may yet be a little substance; we just shouldn't over-interpret its significance.

Stephan Shakespeare is CEO of YouGov.

13 Apr 2010 22:11:31

Can we expect a different swing in the marginals?

Stephan Shakespeare Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, gives his take on the latest polling.

As the national polls continue to hover within hung-parliament territory, many are pinning their hopes for a decisive victory on differential swing in the marginals. Is that a reasonable hope?

All the parties concentrate their ground-war resources on the marginals and if we suppose one side or another is doing a better job at that, then obviously we would expect a better outcome for them than the national polls predict. There are good reasons for supposing that the Conservative campaign is better financed and organised than Labour's, so that suggests a rosier scenario for Cameron.

There may be another crucial factor: people are more likely to become aware that they are living in a marginal seat as the campaign hots up; this will make them more motivated to vote, and more willing to vote tactically.

People are influenced by each other's behaviour; as we have seen a clear swing to the Conservatives, and as they benefit from a (small) overall preference among the public, we might expect increased motivation to split disproportionately in their favour.

So there are two factors that give the Tories some grounds for increased optimism. But remember, even if they are real, they are likely to be small - in my view the highest possible expectation is an added 2% of swing (ie an additional 4% on the lead).

Stephan Shakespeare

12 Apr 2010 22:34:50

What to make of a 6% poll lead?

Stephan Shakespeare Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, gives his take on the latest polling.

Tonight both ICM and YouGov have the Conservative lead at 6%.

Whichever way you look at it, after what has been acknowledged as a relatively good week, that's not a great number for the Conservatives. Even if you put your faith in the marginal seats campaign, the best you can possibly hope for is a swing 2% higher in those constituencies that really count, and that could just possibly put you within finger-tip touch of a Conservative Majority.

It means that if Labour manage a decent few weeks, and the Conservatives make a few mistakes, we might really get a hung Parliament. From the Tory point of view, it's uncomfortably tight. One has started to hear the occasional suggestion that there should be a Plan B.

But no, forget about Plan B. There's a lot ahead: the reaction to today's launch of the Labour manifesto launch, the Conservative launch, and the first debate. (I think it's unlikely the debates will have much effect on the Conservative-Labour swing, as I've argued here, but it might just help the Lib Dems a bit and who knows how that could tweak the calculations).

We should not attempt to assess the situation right now. We must wait at least until the weekend to even consider any adjustment to the strategy. IF the average of the polls moves Labour's way then, one would have a reason at least to discuss it. Not now.

Stephan Shakespeare

10 Apr 2010 22:59:31

How much difference will the TV debates make?

The Shakespeare Report.

The-Leadership-Debates-boxi There's great excitement about what the effect the leaders' debates might have on the course of the election campaign. Everyone remembers how Kennedy v Nixon seemed pivotal in 1960, and we now have our very own debates with the first one just days away. As the race remains reasonably close, everyone is wondering: just how much will this direct TV confrontation between Cameron and Brown really matter?

Anything can happen; it's possible that there will be a surprise, a mistake, a knock-out punch. But my own view is, the odds are very much against it. The Chancellor Debate didn't exactly set the world on fire - or even get noticed by the great majority of the public.

The comparison with American politics just doesn't work: in America, people really do have to decide between two people, two individuals, very often two new candidates they hardly know. Not so in Britain, where we've had years of direct bear-pit confrontation at the weekly PMQs. And a significantly greater proportion of the American population is engaged with the political process compared to the British. Yet even in America, it's very rare for the debates to have a genuine impact. Notice that everyone goes back 50 years to remember one that may have made a difference. And yes, there was a good one-liner in 1984's Reagan v Mondale, but it changed nothing, and... that's it. Can you remember another moment?

It can hardly be over-emphasised: most people find politics profoundly dull and pointless, and putting it on prime-time won't change that. It seems unlikely that many millions will give up a big part of their evening to assess the qualities of Brown and Cameron in debate, even with all the media hype that is undoubtedly coming. I love the Danny Finkelstein/Phil Collins blog at The Times which runs an agony-uncle column, ostensibly to help its readers decide which candidate to vote for: we are invited to imagine a confused 'true blue' seeking advice from pundits on what to do in Buckingham. It's an amusing format precisely because it's so hard to imagine that anyone really makes up their mind in this way.

I don't suppose either Brown or Cameron will take much of a risk, as both would rather get a goalless draw than raise the stakes. That's very much the flavour of this campaign so far. I was out in the country today talking to a friend who said,

"It's like there's a conspiracy to make this race all about nothing. All the politicians are acting like a cartel, with a shared interest in nobody getting interested. Out here we hardly notice, because they don't talk about what matters to us."

Certainly all three parties in this first week have played it like a game only for the cognescenti, the knowing insider, the smart Westminster audience, not aimed at the wider public at all. So perhaps after all we do need these debates, just in case they inject something fresh - we need a stage for that accidental flash-point that sparks the real contest.

Stephan Shakespeare is CEO of YouGov.

8 Apr 2010 23:21:47

The value of daily polling is we can pick up trends more quickly

Stephan Shakespeare's Polling Report.

Just a short note tonight about 'margin of error': an obvious but widely misunderstood measure used with every poll.

When it says after a poll, "margin of error +/- 3%" it means that there's a 95% likelihood that the actual proportion of the total population that would answer the survey in the way indicated is within three percent of the number given. In 5% of cases the real number may be even more different.

Now what most people don't realise is that this margin applies to each of the percents. In other words, if the poll has the Conservatives on 40% and Labour on 30%, then it would still be within the given ‘margin of error’ for the Conservatives to be on 43% or 37%, and for Labour to be on 27% or 33%.

That means when the lead is given as 10%, the real lead can be between 4% and 16% and still be within the ‘margin of error’. Now of course it’s more likely to be in the number stated and not the extreme of the margins, but no pollster quoting a 3% margin of error (which is what you get with a poll of 1000) can consider, say, a 5% or an 8% as significantly different. When you see the polls bouncing around, it doesn’t matter there’s been a big shift in actual opinion.

The true value of daily polling is that when you look at a whole sequence of polls you can be confident that the trend-line is real. With a weekly or monthly poll, it takes much longer to know whether a particular 3-point jump means anything at all. Whichever time series you're looking at, make sure you watch for the pattern, don’t over-interpret small movements.

Stephan Shakespeare

7 Apr 2010 22:07:02

Prospect Theory and Type 1 Swingers

Stephan Shakespeare Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, writes his daily guide to election polling.

Yesterday I wrote about the three types of swing.

Let’s remind ourselves how swing is defined: at the last election, Labour had 36% of the vote and the Conservatives had 33%. If this time it turns out to be, say, Labour 31% and Conservatives 40%, that would be called a 6% swing from Labour to Conservatives (half of the change in the respective shares of the total vote).

But we need to remember that this does NOT mean 6% of people changed their minds and moved from voting Labour to voting Conservative. That nominal 6% swing actually consists of all kinds of churn, a significantly larger amount of movement between lots of parties, and between voters and non-voters. You could theoretically even achieve that swing simply by a big chunk of Labour voters staying at home, with no-one changing sides at all.

But let’s now consider only Type 1, those people who are actually considering changing their vote from Labour at the last election to Conservative this time around. I want to invoke Prospect Theory, which I first discussed here three years ago. I won’t rehearse this well-evidenced Nobel Prize-winning theory: in summary, people tend to over-value what they already have compared to a rational valuation of a new prospect. It’s a vital theory for elections as it explains the dynamics of hope v fear.

In a straight fight between giving up what you have in exchange for something new, the odds are heavily stacked against the new prospect. In order for people to vote for change, they must either (a) really dislike what they already have, or (b) really love the new offer. In 1992, they didn’t dislike the Major government enough, nor was the Kinnock alternative seen as very attractive. By 1997, they despised their government, and all that Blair had to be was likeable and safe.

So the choice for the Cameron Campaign depended on whether they thought our current mood towards the government was more like 1992 or 1997. They decided on 1997, and went for likeability and safety rather than the strong, highly differentiated offer they would have to attempt (and which Kinnock failed to provide) if it was 1992. About six months ago, it all seemed very 1996: things looked bad for Brown. But of course, history doesn’t repeat itself exactly, and we are neither in 1992 nor 1997. The twist was a fragile recovery from a frightening recession. People started to credit Brown - just a little - with steering the nation out of a disaster. His negatives reduced. The Conservative modern-young-man safety-first strategy started to seem a little shaky.

I think we’re delicately poised. The public, as measured by opinion polls, has certainly shifted towards change – but the 5% advantage to Labour that is currently built into the electoral map might mean the shift isn't yet decisive enough. Labour’s strategy is clear and simple: play hard on fear of loss, fear of change. But how should the Conservative campaigner respond?

Yesterday’s taunt of “we’ve experienced Brown’s experience” is too clever, too indirect, and should be dropped. A conventional professional strategist’s view, and possibly the right view, is that they should now go strongly negative, that they should hammer unrelentingly and viciously in a sustained attack on Brown’s fitness to govern.

Many people don’t like going negative, but they should remember that the finest and most successful example of negative campaigning in British political history was practised – albeit with attractive smiles - by Tony Blair, ably assisted by Brown and Mandelson. Day after day they ripped into Major as “weak, weak, weak,” mercilessly, hour by hour they pushed their unremitting assault on any remaining shred of respect for any living Conservative, the party of sleaze. And recall how they frightened pensioners by whispering in their ears that the Tories would clip their pension?

That was the very art of poison. It would be going too far, would feel too uncomfortable today, but if the Conservatives want to be surer of victory, they should realise that Type 1 Swingers need to be jarred out of their comfort zone, they need to be reminded of how they felt six months ago, and made to worry that it’s actually risky for them to stay with the old, the incumbent. And they should also be offered a carrot. Otherwise too many of them might just stick with what they’ve got.

We’ve seen the beginnings of a tougher Conservative campaign, but nothing approaching the toughness that Labour showed in 1997. And while they have already committed in their spending plans to a carrot or two, they aren’t yet putting them into their shop window bathed in bright lights. I suspect that will happen before long.

6 Apr 2010 23:04:24

The three types of swing

Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, writes the first of a daily guide to election polling.

Over the coming weeks, we'll be interested nor just in 'swing', but in three different varieties. In this space I'll be examining each one, but let me start today by defining them. They are not new, of course, but the lesser varieties may this time come into greater prominence.

The first type of swing is the most obvious: Type 1 is between the two realistic contenders to form a government, and we clearly expect this swing to be from Labour to Conservative, though we're uncertain about the size.

Second is the swing from major parties to minor parties, and vice versa. This can be divided into two sub-categories: 2a is the one we are well familiar with, 'tactical voting', where people vote for a party not because they support it, but because the party they prefer cannot win in their constituency, so they vote for the preferred of the two real contenders. And Type 2b, the non-tactical vote for minor parties (Green, Ukip, BNP etc).

We may see more of 2b in this election, because people are more cynical about politicians and parties than ever before, and express far lower levels of loyalty. "The main parties all say the same thing," some will decide, "So I might as well express my support for the party (or politician) that comes closest to my real views, even if they can't win".

Types 1 and 2 are ok for the pollster: we are reasonably well practised at measuring support for minor and major parties. The swing that really worries us is Type 3: between voters and non-voters. Many people who don't end up voting tend nevertheless to think of themselves and express themselves as voters, because they feel it's the right thing to do. They want to feel like active citizens, they may really believe they will vote, but on the actual day practical obstacles or plain laziness means they don't make the  effort. The drivers of voting behaviour may (or may not) be changing, for social as well as political reasons. And if the swing to or from non-voting is disproportionate - that is, if one party's stated supporters are more or less likely actually to make the journey to the polling booth - then that could make a significant difference between the opinion poll number and the election result. Pollsters often apply 'likelihood to vote' filters to their polls, especially on the eve-of-election when it's slightly more reliable, but there is no known reliable methodology for it.

It may not matter. We've been accurate so far, and we will probably end up with 'politics as usual'. But with the stated differences between the main parties perceived as narrow, and following the expenses scandals as well as the wider disillusionment with mainstream parties, this could be the election where Swing Types 2 and 3 become a bigger factor.