Archive for December, 2015


Three words pollsters would rather you didn’t mention; differential non response

Monday, December 28th, 2015

A special column by ex-ICM boss & polling pioneer, Nick Sparrow

While trumpeting the fact that samples are representative of the adult population, researchers seldom, if ever, publish response rate data. Truth is that for telephone polls, response rates are frighteningly low and falling. The reasons for this are varied, but include the fact that many of us have become wary of calls from strangers, having been bombarded with unsolicited sales calls and by “suggers”, the industry term for people selling or list building under the guise of market research. The Telephone Preference Service which should stop these calls is ineffective. Meanwhile caller identification technology, and increased use of mobiles add to the problems.

Online pollsters cannot provide meaningful response rate data because they use volunteer panels of willing respondents who sign up in the hope of participating in polls. Nevertheless we might guess that respondents to internet panel polls are a vanishingly small proportion of all those who have ever given the pastime any serious thought.

Low response rates are not a problem in themselves, only if certain types of people are more likely to refuse than others. In this respect research by Pew in the US is not comforting. Unsurprisingly, they found that people who respond to political surveys are more interested in politics. A bias that could not be eliminated by weighting. That finding is also likely to apply here; people are more likely to participate in surveys if the subject matter interests them.

If we think about recent electoral tests here in the UK, the decisions could be simplified to change versus continuity. At the basic level, referenda on membership of the EU, or independence for Scotland, and even the General Election all ask voters to choose between the status quo and something new and different.

    For polls to be accurate we need the proportions of people interested in politics and wanting change or continuity to be the same as those who are not interested in politics. That might happen, but the tendency will be for people who haven’t really thought through all the pros and cons of change to opt in greater numbers for continuity. In other words the people who can be interviewed may easily have somewhat different attitudes to those who cannot

If this is a problem for the polls, then it will be most acute among groups we know are least interested in politics. For example pollsters find it very hard to interview 18-24 year olds, a group far less interested in politics than any other. It could be seen as evidence of differential refusal; the worry being that willing 18-24 year olds respondents are more interested than others in politics generally and in the subject of the poll, available for interview and most likely to vote. But pollsters treat the problem as one solely of availability, and simply work harder to get the right number in the sample, or cheaper still, just upweight the sample achieved to the correct proportion. But while this approach will, on the surface, appear to make the sample representative, it may well exacerbate the problem of differential non response.

If this theory is right then polls will contain a few more people in all age groups who are sympathetic to the idea of change than they should, and rather fewer people interested in continuity than they ought. What is the evidence? Polls in advance of the Scottish Referendum, the 2011 AV referendum, the 2015 General Election, and indeed the pollsters other debacle in 1992 all overestimated the appetite for change.

The obvious danger of polls exaggerating the mood for change is that they create a bandwagon effect. Alternatively they may promote a spiral of silence in which those tending to want continuity will perceive that their views are in a minority and thus become inclined to silence, thus further aggravating the polling error.

The problem for pollsters trying to wrestle with this problem is obvious; how can you interview by phone or recruit to an online panel those who aren’t interested in answering your questions?

The solution for vote intention polls must be methods that achieve much higher response rates, and thus include more respondents who are not particularly interested in politics. Achieving that is unlikely to make polls cheap or quick to conduct. Unwelcome news to editors accustomed to a regular diet of headline grabbing news stories from polls predicting sensational (if unlikely) outcomes.

Maybe the answer is to become far less obsessed with who will win, and focus instead on understanding the appeal of the arguments both sides are making, where appropriate the attributes of the personalities involved, and how these attitudes change over time. Such polls might point to likely outcomes, without risking the potentially false and misleading impression of deadly accuracy.

At this point, dare I mention that pollsters can ill afford an EU referendum in which they predict a better result for the “out” camp than it actually achieves?

Nick Sparrow


Clegg’s YouGov ratings were substantially better than Corbyn’s now getting just before the election that saw his party almost wiped out

Monday, December 28th, 2015


One of the polling elements that I’ve been highlighting in recent weeks is how leader ratings have proved to be a better pointer to electoral outcomes than voting intention polling.

The above charts seek to put into context Corbyn’s latest ratings. Clearly there’s four and a half years still to go and things can happen but I can find no example of a leader doing so badly on this scale who went on to turn things round. It is hard to see anything other than another CON majority.

Mike Smithson


Questioning the patriotism of Remain voters will not win the referendum for Leave

Sunday, December 27th, 2015

This week William Hague explained why he would vote for the UK to Remain in the EU in the upcoming referendum, as a former Tory leader and Foreign Secretary this inevitably led to a lot of comment about someone who has been considered a Eurosceptic voting for Remain.

For me the most illuminating comment came from Mark Reckless, the former Tory MP who defected to UKIP and subsequently lost his seat in May, Reckless said

“[Hague] used to be a patriot, now he’s selling out his country.”

The inference being Hague is no longer a patriot because he is planning to vote for Remain. Questioning the patriotism of Remain voters will ultimately backfire, insulting the voters is seldom a vote winner and will put off potential voters, and as Doctor Johnson observed, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel

People can hold different views for principled, honourable reasons. People also change their minds on major political issues, something Mark Reckless himself did when he defected from the Tory Party to UKIP, he would have been upset if senior Tories like William Hague had questioned his patriotism when he defected. As the picture in the above tweet shows, Tory leaders do have a history have of changing their views on the EU.

Language and tone will be important in this referendum, so as a corollary, Remain should avoid the language of David Cameron on UKIP when talking about Leavers, it will have the same impact as Leavers questioning the patriotism of Remainers.



Seasonal greetings from Marf and Ratty who’ll be returning in the New Year

Sunday, December 27th, 2015



The 2016 elections do not bode well for Labour

Sunday, December 27th, 2015


Corbyn is set to do worse than Ed Miliband in his first major electoral test.

In the Sunday Times (££)  Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have analysed the 60 local council elections since Jeremy Corbyn became leader.

The best way to measure what is happening, however, is to look at the changes in those places where a post-Corbyn by-election reprises a contest previously held on general election day earlier this year.

There are 27 such cases where Labour fielded a candidate on both occasions. They cover the two gains from the Tories, but also the two losses. Labour’s share of the vote is up in eight contests but down in the other 19.

After they’ve crunched the numbers, based on what we’ve seen so far, the NESV (National Equivalent Share of the Vote) next May will be Con 32% (-1) Lab 31% (-8) LD 16% (+1) UKIP 12% (+7), the figures in brackets represents the changes since the equivalent elections in 2012. This would translate to Labour losing more than 200 of the 1,200 seats they are defending.

Rallings and Thrasher also say “Labour voters who deserted the party at the general election are starting to back the Liberal Democrats rather than Corbyn” which should bring some cheer to Tim Farron’s party and give them grounds for optimism for retaking the parliamentary seats they lost in May.

Local council elections/NESV is a very useful tool to predict the general election, as Rod Crosby demonstrated in May 2014, where he used the NESV to conclude “So it seems clear now – the Tories are set to win most votes, probably most seats and have an outside, but not insignificant chance of a majority in 2015.” 

The below tweet by Matt Singh also shows how local council elections can be useful for judging Leaders of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.

But there are other elections next May as well, The Sunday Times say because of Corbyn and his policies, donors are no longer donating, which means cuts have to be made, so for the Scottish Parliamentary elections, Labour will be spending £200,000, which compares to the one million pounds they spent in 2011. For those betting on the Tories finishing second in Holyrood, this is great news.

All of this matters because some in Labour will use dire results in May to try and topple Corbyn. But if this story in the Independent on Sunday is true, then the attempts to topple Corbyn may come sooner, with Corbyn reported to be planning sacking/demoting disloyal shadow cabinet ministers like Maria Eagle and Hilary Benn. Diane Abbott is the favourite to be the new shadow Foreign Secretary.

Jeremy Corbyn is intent on making 2016 as exciting and interesting for us as 2015 was.



Coinciding with the traditional Boxing Day meets the traditional Boxing Day fox hunting poll

Saturday, December 26th, 2015


There doesn’t seem much support for a change in the law


The PB/Polling Matters end of year podcast. Looking ahead to 2016 (WH2016, EURef & May elections)

Saturday, December 26th, 2015

In part 2 of the PB/Polling Matters End of 2015 special, Keiran, Rob and Matt look ahead to 2016 and discuss the race for the White House, EU referendum, May elections and more including:

1) Is identity politics replacing class as the number one issue defining our politics in the UK and elsewhere?
2) What is the best and worst case scenario for Hilary Clinton in terms of the opponent she faces in 2016? Will it be a ‘security election’ or is it ‘the economy, stupid’ once again?
3) Why David Cameron is crucial to the outcome of the E.U. Referendum but may lose his party in the process? What are the messages that each side should be using to win over swing voters on the issue?
4) What should we really be looking out for in May’s elections in the UK?
You can follow the Podcast team at @keiranpedley, @robvance @MattSingh_


StJohn returns with his annual Christmas Day Crossword

Friday, December 25th, 2015


A welcome return to what was a PB Christmas Day tradition

There was a time when Christmas Day on PB wasn’t Christmas Day without the annual crossword by St John. We’ll this year he’s back and here it is. Enjoy and have a great day.

Thanks to everybody who had made the site what it is. To my son Robert whose hobby since for nearly 12 years had been keeping the technical infrastructure working a big thanks. Also to TSE who’s my stand-in and let’s me have regular holidays as well as providing regular insights from his Conservative campaigner perspective.

Since the general election I’ve sought to extend the range of regular contributors to join Harry Hayfield who does the local by-elections and David Herdson who has been contributing here the longest.

We’ve now got the pollster Keiran Pedley with the excellent PB/Polling Matters podcasts; my former BBC news colleague Don Brind, Alistair Meeks, formerly Antifrank, as well as many others.

A thank you to Mark Hopkins of Nojam for the excellent competition widgets and also, of course, the many commenters on the site who regularly share their views, insights and occasionally betting tips that prove to be winners.

Finally there’s the moderation team who are there to keep me out of the law courts and to try to ensure the conversation remains civilised.

Everybody works on a voluntary basis.

I should add that I’m hoping that we’ll see the return of Marf in the New Year.

Happy Christmas to everybody.

Mike Smithson



1 Former parliamentarian attends Point to Point as Prime Minister (10)

6 Preserves King out East (4)

8 State banks are broken (8)

9 VW reportedly hid a carbon problem ultimately abhorrent to nature (6)

10 Prime Minister briefly identified with his opponent’s wife (4)

11 Red Queen is a female chess piece (4,6)

12 Michael Collins was one revolutionary leader eliminated over a Union (10)

14 With old age society decreases (5)

17 Condition of second philanthropist (5)

19 Writer is a woman’s MP (9)

22 Liberal Democrat leader, surprisingly sure at replacing Left, is of

variable quality (7,3)

23 Collaborators in a Northumberland village (4)

24 Intellectual Prime Minister nearly retired holding a speciality (6)

25 Reagan’s campaign message was characteristically negative (8)

26 Blooming short Prime Minister (4)

27 Governing while wearing political colours is Panglossian (4-6)


1 Right wing was caught up in dodgy conflicts (5,4)

2 Pitched battles over Clause Four in the past? (3,4)

3 Franklin Island or resort (8)

4 Republican Cat supports a pair of Democrats in America (8,7)

5 Whitehouse fought for this intern (6)

6 Rebel leader was a cabinet minister (4,5)

7 Chancellor said to be overly sentimental (7)

13 After retreating President Kennedy withdrew (9)

15 Disengaged and rejected Healey embraced idle action (9)

16 Tony Benn’s time as the most divisive figure (8)

18 Tory leader insulting to the French Prime Minister (7)

20 On course to overtake and expose Left wing extremist (7)

21 No single lover was once an MP (6)