Wednesday, 27 April 2011

YouGov! What, MeGov?

If opinion polls are to be believed, Labour is heading for an embarrassing dip in votes and seats at the forthcoming Holyrood elections. Some more excitable commentators have even been moved to predict a ‘crushing defeat’*. However, as most activists and politicians know, polls are more useful as weapons than as sources of clear information. They may (as these recent ones undoubtedly will) be used to galvanise Labour’s notoriously sluggish turnout. They will be used to glorify the name of Salmond. But in all cases polls are deceptive. They were when predicting a Labour lead of up to 10 points early in this campaign, they were when predicting a Lib Dem surge in 2010’s Westminster election, and they are now.

Anyone remember last year, the incredulity with which both media and politicians dismissed the TV exit poll, because it gave the lie to the polls’ prediction? For the record that exit poll forecast Con - between 303-306 seats; Lab - between 251 and 262 seats; LibDem - between 69 and 55 seats (the figures were revised as the night went on) The actual result? Con - 306; Lab - 258; LibDem - 57.)
There are at least three reasons why opinion polls need to be treated with caution. Pollsters themselves recognise that,  unless the sample is huge, a margin of error factor of plus or minus 3%. So a poll predicting a 6% lead could equally suggest a neck-and-neck race. But this is well-known (although not well-reported). Less well considered are methodology and sample taking. YouGov for example, selects its respondents from an internet panel of people who have chosen to volunteer for this work in exchange for cash. The company, says it uses demographic information to balance its results, but there are two or three chances for skewing the sample here, and their methodology remains hotly debated.
Less obvious recently has been the introduction into Scotland of differential swings in local areas. It has been very obvious in Westminster elections that swings vary considerably in different parts of the UK - the increasing Westminster vote for Labour last time being a glaring example . It has been less so within Scotland. I suggest that this is changing, and will make this election virtually impossible to call by extrapolating from opinion polls. It is not just where the disenchanted LibDem votes go. The SNP will surely do best in rural constituencies if that vote does implode, but it may well be different in places like Dunfermline and possibly in Edinburgh. And in the second vote, any shift away from the LibDems will surely benefit the Greens. It seems also clear that the Tory vote will largely hold up - even if only because it has been bumping along the bottom for some time.
It isn’t simply the potential melt down of the LD vote (and in any case I suspect that the polls overestimate this likelihood too.) but the impact of local party politics via local council control. For the first time we have a Scottish Election being fought with councils under a variety of party and coalition controls. This may play out differently in different areas. Again Edinburgh, with the LibDems and SNP in coalition presiding over the debacle of the tram project, and proposals to outsource huge rafts of council services, will LD votes go to their SNP partners? Has the recent controversy over education cuts in Renfrewshire, and the SNP council leader’s climbdown scuppered his chances in Renfrewshire North? What will be the impact of the Aberdeenshire Council LibDem’s public fallout over the Trump development - particularly in the list where Cllr Martin Ford now tops the list for the Greens? 
Of course the final reason that opinion polls never tell the whole story is that they are never told the whole story! The recent YouGov poll for example - even now finds that around 30% of those asked are either uncertain whether they will vote, or certain not to. That is a large undecided area to exclude. (YouGov also has a very low incidence of ‘won’t say’s - almost certainly because their sampling comes from the self-selected panel referred to in para 1).
So, while the trends are important and justify the Labour Party’s attempts to rejuvenate their campaign, the details of recent polls are no more (or less) significant than the earlier ones.
As ever, oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. Only May 5 will tell whether the Scottish electorate is sufficiently annoyed with the SNP government for them to have ‘lost’ this one. I suspect that it is going to be a much closer call than opinion pollsters tell us.
*Peter Kellner in a commentary on his own organisation’s poll

1 comment:

  1. Should any of us be surprised that wee eck's managed to pull off a majority?

    The SNP present as a 'competent Scottish Labour Party'. Their policies are Labour (or left-leaning) policies - popular with a democratic socialist voting populace. They were sensibly silent on the independence referendum question (it's not much of a go-er for them - ironically). The LibDem/Conservative vote collapsed just as anticipated. And Scottish Labour managed a spectacular car crash of a campaign.

    It's partly personality politics. Salmond, the punchy wee Scottish bauchle, standing up to the English Goliaths. And Gray-by-name-Gray-by-nature Iain - running a lack-lustre defensively negative campaign. Who best represents your vision of yourself? 'Fraid wee Eck is 'it'. Our representation of ourselves. The man who reflects a vision of what we Scots always best identify with: plucky underdog fighting the good fight against the big yins, telling us what a great bunch of folk we really are and how we can do it for ourselves...

    It's also partly the consequence of coalition in Westminster which results in the destruction of the Liberal Democrats. 'Their' votes going to any party as long as it's not Scottish Labour.

    And it's partly that the electorate are tired of a Scottish Labour Party which is run like a rotten burgh. Scottish Labour politicians who seem not to have any sense of what it was they came into politics to do. The stench of arrogant establishment entitlement defining who they are.

    The West of Scotland Labour hegemony of 'conservative' trade unionist men carving up political positions based on preservation of their personal power and protection of their cultural and religious interests becomes a double-edged sword. Spend too long 'in power' you lose the political fire that fueled your desire to get there in the first place. You risk complacency. You also find that crony-ism doesn't deliver the best candidates - so you end up with a dearth of quality...and the inward-looking promotion of only those who see things your way results in a catastrophic failure of the intellect and of idea-generation.

    It's an unfortunate fact that the bulk of the Holyrood Labour MSPs (mostly men)just come across as 3rd rate; tied to the old pre-Holyrood Scotland; unable to argue without shouting and defaming; misogynistic (McAveety's resignation over the 'dusky maiden' remark speaks volumes). As a woman it makes me despair.

    The SNP take Scottish people seriously. Or at least they sound as if they respect the Scottish electorate. The quality of their representatives mirrors Labour's. Mostly poor. But think about what message Labour so-called 'big-hitters' send when they scorn the opportunity to stand as candidates in the Scottish Parliamentary elections. Not for them the mickey mouse Scottish Parliament. They're big boys who want to play with the other big boys in Westminster. Where the real power is.

    And that's the rub. Whilst the SNP take the Scottish Parliament seriously - and by extension, they take the idea of Scotland and Scottishness, seriously - they will shit all over Scottish Labour.

    The Scottish public were never annoyed by the SNP. They were annoyed with Scottish Labour.

    As it stands, in the near future Salmond is onto a winning formula: blame the unionist Westminster parties for the cuts which he will have to impose; exploit the fact that Labour don't have any alternative to offer and play up the 'plucky Scots' card...

    As a Labour Party member - I'm off to slouch despondently in some dark corner...

    Enjoy reading the blog Chris...