Do you trust the opinion polls?

Yesterday there was something of a minor earthquake in political circles when the figures were released for the latest opinion poll by Lord Ashcroft – which showed a quite incredible six point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. To date most polls had showed either a narrow Labour lead, or the two parties running neck-and-neck, so the figures were a quite literal bolt from the blue. But as Mike Smithson on Political Betting pointed out, the figures were also highly confusing, as an opinion poll by Populus showed a five point lead for Labour. They were conducted at the same time – so surely they can’t both be right, can they?

Opinion polls have taken a bit of stick over the years – not least since they predicted a Labour win in 1992 and completely missed the evidence of a fourth Conservative victory. But as Lord Ashcroft himself points out – polls are snapshots, not predictions, and they are only intended to give an indication of the general view of the public. So for those readers who don’t follow the polls, I wanted to share a few remarks to help you untangle this often heavily misused political device.

First of all, let’s clear up the Margin of Error. Politicians often bandy this about to dismiss polls that they disagree with, but it misses the point. The margin of error stresses accuracy – you only need to sample 1,000 respondents (provided the sample is balanced) to get a result that is accurate to within 3% either way – which isn’t bad at all (for those who wonder, you need a sample size more than double to reduce the accuracy to within 2%, and therefore pollsters decide it isn’t worth the expense). Taking the Ashcroft poll for example – the figures show the Tories on 34% and Labour on 28% – but it may well be both parties on 31%, or indeed the Tories on 37% and Labour on 25%. The margin of error simply means that it is not a perfectly accurate measure – but you can’t simply dismiss the figures out of hand.

Secondly, polls are snapshots of opinions. The question respondents are usually ask is “How would you vote if there were a General Election tomorrow?” – but there isn’t a general election tomorrow! If you look at historic polling (I recommend the UK Polling Report website for this – it is very user friendly!) you will observe that incumbent governments do very badly while in government but then recover as the election draws nearer. That is because voters don’t often like what governments do, but when forced to choose at the ballot box, prefer the government to the opposition!

All of these mean that the most important thing is not a specific poll but the overall trend. Politicians are very prone to take an isolated poll and shout about it from the rooftops when it suits them, and then turn around and dismiss another poll when the figures do not suit them. The truth is that polls can be useful for indicating whether a party’s message is sticking or having any impact – if their numbers are generally going up for example, even if the poll is not accurately guessing what percentage they will get in the end, the poll is demonstrating the party is becoming more popular. Based on that, the party that should have the most to worry about is Labour. As I anticipated in an earlier post, there is a swing heading back towards the government, and the Labour lead in the polls has been falling month on month. Phrased another way – their lead is nowhere near big enough for a party looking to win an election in less than five months.

A final word of warning is this – polls predict a national share of the vote, but elections are decided locally at each constituency, and do not account for variations in vote change – while the Lib Dem vote is likely to collapse from 23% to 10% (or worse) their vote isn’t necessarily going to collapse in every constituency – especially where they have sitting MPs. You should not be surprised if there are huge swings to Labour in some of their heartlands for example, but much smaller swings in the marginal seats. So we have to treat opinion polls with care, yes – but they can also be a useful barometer into just how well a party is resonating with the electorate. And at the moment, the barometer is not showing the kind of support that makes me think we will wake up to a Labour majority in May.

The Christian heritage of voting

2015 has been marked red in my diary for the last four years with one clear message: ELECTION YEAR.

With the election only 124 days away, I am opening this crucial year with a feature on one of the very first articles I read for my course on Voting Theory, which acknowledged a rather surprising contributor to development of electoral democracy – the adoption by the medieval Church of the conclave to elect a new Pope. Now, with my reformed Protestant theology I was not expecting that I would be very warm towards the article, but the explanation of how the Conclave came about was a fascinating insight into how the historic church used a form of democracy to achieve unity – while of course acknowledging that when the church was to divide in the reformation, one of the issues at stake was Papal Primacy! If one sets aside the religious aspect however, the problem faced by the medieval church was rather similar to what all modern democracies face – making a choice.

If you will forgive a brief history lesson – the Conclave was introduced in the first instance because the Church had to reconcile the fact (notionally at least) that God had appointed one person to the role of Pope, but that the Cardinals held sincerely different beliefs whom that man should be. A democratic vote was judged the means of acknowledging there was a division, and achieving a united result. In actual fact, the subsequent development of the distinct features of the Conclave vote, namely the necessity of a two-thirds majority, a secret ballot, and the Cardinals being locked away until a decision is reached, were all intended to achieve a final result that would be clear, achieved quickly, and would not be challenged afterwards.

The church may have been authoritarian in nature, and the era described many centuries previous to us, but there are some good lessons to learn from the choice by the medieval church to adopt a voting mechanism to choose their leader:

1. Division is to be expected
One of my favourite quotes is attributed to former Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour: “Democracy presumes a people sufficiently united as to bicker.” There is a worrying trend in modern politics to criticise opponents for daring to have a contrarian view – which in my view is both an attack of freedom of expression, and also what Sir Humphrey would refer to in Yes Prime Minister as ‘playing the man, not the ball.’ Let’s not be disheartened that division occurs, but rather be glad that we can enjoy earnest debate, reassured that every government will be challenged and held accountable for the decisions it has taken, and embrace the opportunity each of us has to assess the personal performance of our local MPs.

2. Elections are meant to ultimately unite
The intention of the Papal Conclave was (and still is) to unite the church in support of the man elected as the Pope, regardless of whom the man might be. The General Election of May 2015 will be exactly the same – it will tell us whom the country has chosen to entrust to the task of governance for the next five years, whether they should govern alone or in some form of coalition; and potentially even whom the principal opposition should be, or with whom the largest party should form a coalition. At the moment we can only guess, but by the morning of Friday 8th May 2015 we will know.

3. The choice is ours
With that in mind, we should remember what a great privilege it is that we have the opportunity to choose who represents us in Parliament, and therefore to determine indirectly whom will form the next government. The obvious flaw of conclave was the limitation of the franchise to certain Cardinals – whereas the vast majority of us enjoy the right to vote for our MP. We’re going to be divided in our sincerely held beliefs, but we’re also going to achieve a clear outcome by the end.

I would not be so arrogant as to attribute sole success of democracy to this part of the Church’s history – but when we ask what Christians have done for us, we can certainly learn from this aspect of their history, and take to heart the lessons for today.

The Constituency Effect

In a number of posts so far I have referenced tactical voting and the distorting impact of the First-Past-The-Post system we use for Westminster elections. I did not want to assume that everyone is automatically familiar with why this is the case, so I am very briefly going to touch on how votes turn into seats. If I were to compare my previous post on the likely composition of the House of Commons with the actual projected vote shares of the parties, there would be an obvious disparity – that is to say, the Greens and UKIP would only have a collective 4 seats with around 21% of the vote, while the Lib Dems with a projected 8% might end up with 32 seats! This of course is deeply ironic given the Lib Dems past history – in 1983 (as the Liberal/Social Democrat ‘Alliance’) they finished 2% behind Labour on 24% of the vote, but won a mere 21 seats to Labour’s 220! The reason is simple – they finished a strong second in lots of seats, but you don’t get seats for finishing second!

On Political Betting there is an excellent article explaining how the Lib Dem vote could collapse, but they could still remain major players post 2015. While their vote is likely to collapse everywhere, and especially where a sitting MP does not run again, they only need to poll about 35 to 40% of the vote to stand a chance of holding on, especially if UKIP or the Greens take votes off Labour and the Conservatives – they only need to finish with more votes than any other party in these core seats. It is a bizarre truth that the Lib Dems might crash to 8% of the vote overall, and in many seats finish with less than 5% of the vote – but in a crucial 30 odd seats, sneak a win with 40% of the vote. That’s the constituency effect – as ABBA would have put it: “The Winner Takes It All.”

Now it is not the purpose of this particular post to visit the long-running debate on whether our present electoral system is unfair and should be replaced by a proportional system, as is used for devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is simply to highlight that if you do vote for a particular party, it only impacts your given constituency – and even if a party is bombing nationally they still might pull out a strong local showing. I suspect this will contribute to a lot of disappointed voters based on current trends – imagine for example if UKIP and the Greens outpoll the Lib Dems, but Nick Clegg ends up choosing the next coalition partner because the Lib Dems have enough MPs to do so?

This is why my advice on making your own vote count is very simple – judge the incumbent MP. If they have done a good job, and you are happy with the party leader they would endorse as Prime Minister, vote to re-elect them. If not, then vote for the candidate who is best placed to defeat them. As I mentioned in my last post, you do not gain bonus prizes for voting for a different opposition party member. In much the same way, it doesn’t actually matter (directly – but I will revisit this!) if you decide to vote for the candidate who will finish 3rd (or 4th, or 24th) in the election. Your vote still won’t impact the final outcome, except to prevent the candidate in second from beating the winning candidate. Although you can vote expressively for a particular party I would encourage you to make your vote count – endorse your MP, or vote for the candidate most likely to hand them their P45!

Your MP has less choice than you think

I commented earlier in this blog about the increased fragmentation of the British electorate. This is not a new development, but it is a striking one – in 1951 the two largest parties won 97% of the vote between them; by contrast in 2010 they won 65%! Rather than comment on how this has come about, I’d like to argue that voting for a party other than the big two is less of an alternative choice than you might think.

One of my lesser celebrated modules during my master’s course was called “The Theory of Voting” – but being a political anorak I thoroughly enjoyed it! The core of the course is how you use voting mechanisms to reach decisions – recognising that voting is the fairest way to resolve differences. And one thing that we have to bear in mind is this – when decisions are reached, it ultimately comes down to a binary decision of yes or no – either you support the measure, or you don’t. Let us take the Budget – in practice you cannot accept 60% of the Budget bill. You can vote yes or no on amendments, but when the whole Budget is submitted, it is either accepted or rejected.

Let me briefly illustrate why this is important. There are (usually) 650 MPs sitting in the House of Commons – so you need 326 to have a majority. Advocates for third parties like to argue that they can argue for a moderate position compared to the bigger parties – to use a fictitious example: Party A argues for a 20% base tax rate, and Party B argues for a 40% tax rate. Party C, which is smaller, argues for a 30% tax rate. However, let’s consider what that would look like based on a House of Commons loosely based on the 2005 election results:

Party A has 202 MPs
Party B has 355 MPs
Party C has 62 MPs
And there are 31 ‘Others’ belong to other parties

Even if you put Party A, Party C and all the ‘Others’ together, you can’t come to 326 votes. In short – Party B will always get their way. Now – I recognise the capacity of sections of Party B to rebel against the government and help the opposition to defeat a government motion – but by and large they won’t do this – they represent the party they do because by and large they agree with their party’s platform! It doesn’t matter that there are (at least) three different parties in opposition – their collective opposition cannot defeat the government and doesn’t impact the outcome.

Of course, we currently have a so-called ‘hung Parliament’ in which no party has a majority. I still maintain that despite this, variance in opposition has no real impact. In the first instance – you still have the ‘majority’ problem. The coalition parties (at least on government business) vote as one bloc. That bloc has more than 326 MPs, and so even if you put all the opposition MPs together, they won’t win. Secondly however, if the smaller coalition partner is willing to rebel against the larger party, as the Lib Dems did when they voted with opposition MPs to amend changes to the Spare-Room-Subsidy reform, this makes for extremely unstable government. No government can plan fiscally responsible government if they consistently have to accommodate demands from Parliament. The upshot of this and final complication, is that a coalition government therefore will seek tight and binding agreements when they form a coalition to effectively prevent such rebellions – again bringing back the majority vote problem.

Your MP really has only one choice – to support the government or to oppose it. That is why I have argued, and will go on arguing, that you should choose your MP based on whether they will endorse the government or not. Having a different flavour of opposition MP won’t actually make any difference to the outcome in Parliament.