Saturday, October 24, 2015

Could the Lib Dems win even fewer seats next year?

I was asked by The National yesterday for an opinion on how many seats the Liberal Democrats are likely to win at the Holyrood election next year.  I don't think what I said has made it into the paper, so I thought I'd briefly explore the point here, because it's an intriguing one.  The Poll of Polls last weekend had the party on exactly 6% on both ballots - meaning that in comparison to the 2011 result they're up a trivial amount on the list, and down just a couple of points in the constituencies.  So essentially nothing much has changed, and on the face of it they should be on course to at least hold their five current seats.  But the complicating factor is that nobody knows what impact the Alistair Carmichael affair has had on Lib Dem support in their traditional fortress of the Northern Isles, which provides them with a full 40% of their current representation.  It's not impossible that their iron grip on the Shetland and Orkney constituencies could be loosened this time around.

If they did lose either or both of those constituency seats, could they make up for it on the list?  This was the list result in the Highlands & Islands region in 2011 -

SNP 47.5%
Labour 14.5%
Liberal Democrats 12.1%
Conservatives 11.6%
Greens 5.1%

Of the eight constituency seats, the SNP took six, and the Lib Dems took the other two.  The SNP claimed an additional three seats on the list, while Labour and the Tories took two list seats each.  So superficially it might look as if the Lib Dems were safe enough - ie. they would have ended up with two seats in the region anyway, regardless of whether they had won the Northern Isles constituencies.  But of course the snag is that a significant minority of their list votes in the Highlands also came from Shetland and Orkney.  If they take a hit on the constituency ballot in the Northern Isles next year, it's highly likely that they'll take a hit on the list vote there as well - and any sort of slippage at all will render them highly vulnerable to losing one of their two seats in the region.  On the 2011 result, a 2% drop would cost them a seat, but in reality even a smaller drop than that would leave them requiring a lot of luck - they'd be relying on the Tory and Green votes not increasing very much.   Even the SNP could conceivably snatch the seat with an extra few points of support. (I'm excluding the possibility of a Labour increase, because that's probably less likely, but you never know!)

The counter-argument is that the Lib Dems could compensate for a declining list vote in the Northern Isles by growing their support in the rest of the Highlands & Islands region, and doubtless their more optimistic activists would point to a recent local by-election result as evidence that a recovery is underway in that part of the world.  But one swallow doesn't make a summer, and all that.  My own view is that the loss of either Shetland or Orkney would probably leave the Lib Dems with even fewer MSPs across Scotland than they managed to cling onto after their calamitous campaign four years ago.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Unveiling the Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls for the EU referendum

I know this falls into the category of "he would say that, wouldn't he", but I always felt that the Poll of Polls I ran on this blog during the independence referendum campaign gave a much more meaningful indication of the direction of travel than John Curtice's Poll of Polls. The Curtice version was an average of the most recent few polls, regardless of which firms had conducted them, or what methodology had been used. That meant it sometimes gave the illusory impression that Yes or No were making progress simply because the newest update included a larger number of polls from Yes-friendly or No-friendly firms. By contrast, the Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls only included the most recent poll from each firm, meaning that any statistically significant changes were more likely to reflect real movement on the ground.

Professor Curtice is sticking to his preferred method for his new EU referendum Poll of Polls, and if anything that's going to create even bigger problems this time, because the gulf between telephone and online polls is absolutely enormous at the moment. Telephone firms are suggesting there is a hefty lead for 'Remain', while online firms think it's either a statistical tie, or very close to that. Online polls are likely to appear more frequently, because they're cheaper to conduct, so any Poll of Polls that gives equal weight to all recent polls is automatically giving greater weight to the 'Leave'-friendly online data collection method. In fact, the current update of the Curtice PoP is almost entirely comprised of online polls, producing a result of Remain 54%, Leave 46% (with Don't Knows excluded). Unless there is some rational reason for concluding at this early stage that the online method is far more reliable (and there isn't), those figures don't meaningfully reflect the totality of current polling evidence. And because the exact weighting given to online polls will vary from update to update (sometimes it might rise to 100%, occasionally it might drop to 50%), future results will fluctuate in an almost random way.

So I thought it might be a good idea to once again run a Poll of Polls here that is designed to be better at picking up the trend. I'm not going to replicate the method I used for the independence referendum, because I think that might get too complicated - some firms will be regularly conducting both telephone and online polls, so I would have to decide whether to count "ICM (telephone)" and "ICM (online)" as separate firms. Instead, I'm going to produce three averages - one for all telephone polls conducted at least partly within the last month, one for all online polls conducted at least partly within the last month, and a composite 'headline' set of figures that give an equal 50/50 weighting to telephone and online. Obviously the latter average will be a bit artificial, but at least this way we'll get a sense of what the real state of play is if telephone polls are correct, or if online polls are correct, or if both types of poll are wrong by roughly an equal amount. Under the current circumstances, I'm not sure it's possible to do a whole lot better than that.

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?


Remain 48.7%
Leave 37.2%


Remain 43.8%
Leave 38.3%


Remain 53.5%
Leave 36.0%

(The online average is based on six polls - five from ICM and one from YouGov. The telephone average is based on one poll from ComRes and one from Ipsos-Mori.)

As big as the gap between the two component averages looks, it could easily have been much bigger - the new telephone poll from Ipsos-Mori caused a surprise by showing a slump in the 'Remain' lead. That can't be explained away simply by the introduction of the new question, because they also asked exactly the same question that was posed in the firm's previous poll in June, producing much the same result. It could be that the swing is being exaggerated due to normal sampling variation, but unless either this poll or the last one was an outright rogue, it seems likely that it's picking up some kind of genuine shift.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Canadian TV fails to learn the lesson of the 2008 debacle

At this time last night I was watching a live-stream of the Canadian election results programme on CBC. It was mostly a pleasurable experience, with one of the nastiest right-wing governments in the democratic world being shown the door at long last.  The pro-independence and left-wing Bloc Quebecois also made a partial recovery, jumping from two seats to ten, which will nicely complicate the (bogus) narrative that the Quebec sovereignty movement is in relentless decline.  The main disappointment was that the Liberals unexpectedly won an overall majority, because that will probably turn Trudeau into a conservative on the subject of electoral reform.  As we know in this country, it's very hard to convince a leader who has just won a majority under a majoritarian system that it would be far better to make it almost impossible for anyone to win a majority again.

And I had one other little bugbear.  I really hoped that the Canadian broadcasters had learned the lesson of their 2008 debacle, when they nonsensically "projected a Conservative minority government".  What they meant by that, of course, was that the Conservatives would be the largest single party in a hung parliament.  But their loose use of language had serious repercussions a few weeks later, when the Liberals and NDP entered into a coalition agreement with Bloc Quebecois support.  Some people were outraged : "This is a coup!  Didn't we just elect a Tory minority government?"  Well, actually, no you didn't.  You elected a parliament in which the Liberals, NDP and Bloc held a majority between them, and therefore what was happening was entirely legitimate, and should have been considered unremarkable.  But the confusion was understandable given that TV networks had fed viewers the fiction that it's somehow possible to "elect a minority government".  That may well have played a part in the coalition agreement failing to stick.

I regret to say that they've learned nothing.  When the moment came to project a Liberal government last night, the CBC host added as an afterthought : "we're making no call on whether it will be a majority or minority government".  In which case they weren't in a position to project a Liberal government at all - merely that the Liberals would be the largest party.  If there's any chance of a hung parliament, you don't yet know for sure who will be forming the government - it's as simple as that.

So why did they do it?  It was probably an infatuation with the idea that an election programme is only complete when viewers can be presented with a clear-cut winner.  But the reality is that if voters decline to choose an outright winner on the night, the TV networks have no business choosing one for them.

Monday, October 19, 2015

If "SNP sources" are saying a second referendum cannot be held until Yes have been on 60% for a full year, they have utterly lost the plot

There. I've said it. As you know, I've had concerns recently that the SNP might be preparing to make itself the hostage of the polling industry. I've also been a tad worried that the party might be listening to siren voices like that of John Curtice, who if memory serves me right once suggested that a second referendum shouldn't be held until Yes had topped 60% in the polls for more than two years. (Although I naively thought the latter concern was a lesser one, because it was self-evidently such a ludicrous proposition.) My fears eased during the conference, because no specific target figures were mentioned - it was simply stated that a significant and sustained shift in public opinion would be a potential trigger for a referendum. That left plenty of leeway for common sense interpretations as the next parliamentary session progresses.

But now we suddenly learn that an "SNP source" has told the BBC that (barring Brexit) the party does not intend to hold a second referendum until Yes support has been at 60% for twelve months. That's almost as extreme as Curtice's suggestion. I hardly even know how to begin explaining just how daft this 'strategy' is.

1) The strategy doesn't inhabit the real world. I'm sure we all wish Scotland was like Norway in 1905, ready to euphorically link hands and vote for independence almost unanimously. We're not that fortunate, but everything is relative, because we are lucky enough (unlike civic nationalists in Wales and Northern Ireland) to live in a country where a majority is at least open to the idea of backing independence. However, that potential Yes majority is a relatively narrow one. Probably 40% of the population have such a strong emotional attachment to Britain that they are totally unpersuadable under any realistic circumstances. The 60% strategy therefore insists that practically every single person who is even theoretically persuadable should be firmly in the Yes camp for a full year. That is simply not going to happen.

Why should we even think that is a problem? In a democracy, 50% + 1 is sufficient. Obviously there are legitimate concerns about slippage in support once a referendum is actually underway, but if you ever want independence to happen, you have to work with what you've actually got, and what can realistically be achieved. 60% will not be attainable in anything close to the foreseeable future. Unless the SNP leadership is just cynically cooking up a mechanism for putting off a referendum indefinitely while allowing the grassroots to live in hope, the unofficial target figure should be considerably lower - probably more like 55% at the absolute most.

2) The strategy is driven by an extremely unsophisticated understanding of how public opinion is likely to shift during a referendum campaign. The Curtice suggestion seemed to be based on the hoary old myth that voters always swing dramatically back in favour of the status quo as a referendum approaches, and that you therefore need a mind-bogglingly enormous buffer before you can risk firing the starting gun. But as we've discussed before on this blog, the more important the issue being decided is, the less likely that this supposedly "iron law" will apply. There are several examples around the world of crucial constitutional referendums, not least our own vote last year and the Quebec referendum of 1995, in which there was actually a swing against the status quo over the course of the official campaign period. The reason is simple enough - the initial Yes vote is less likely to turn out to be 'soft' if it's an issue that people care about and have already thought about in quite a bit of depth.

So quality of support matters, not just quantity. I'd rather go into a campaign with a 55% Yes vote comprised of 51% 'firm' supporters and 4% 'soft', than have a 60% vote comprised of 40% 'firm' and 20% 'soft'. Presumably the reason for stipulating that the Yes vote has to be implausibly high for a full year is the belief that support can be assumed to be firm if it holds up for a long time, but that's entirely wrong-headed - look, for example, at the sustained lead Neil Kinnock had in the polls in 1989-90. A soft vote can very easily look consistent. You simply can't get a sense of how deep your support is by looking at headline voting intentions only - for the really useful information you have to drill down into the results of supplementary polling questions.

3) The strategy is looking for absolute safety which will never be available, even at 60%. If you catastrophise by looking at past examples of referendums where the Yes campaign has haemorrhaged support as polling day approached, the only rational conclusion to draw is that no level of Yes support is ever enough. I'm afraid we just have to accept that the electorate tends to behave unpredictably in referendum campaigns, and that it will never be possible to know the result in advance. We do not, thank God, live in North Korea.

4) The strategy hands far too much power to polling firms and their potentially questionable methodology. During the referendum campaign, there was a huge gulf between Yes-friendly and No-friendly pollsters, which simply couldn't be explained by margin-of-error effects. To this day, we have no way of knowing which camp was more accurate, because all of the results suddenly converged at the close of the campaign. But if, for the sake of argument, the Yes-friendly firms were closer to the truth, that means the methodology of No-friendly firms (most obviously YouGov's notorious "Kellner Correction") was artificially dragging down the average Yes vote by several percentage points. There's no reason to suppose that can't happen again, because a big divide has already opened up again between different pollsters (albeit we now have a completely different line-up of Yes-friendly firms).

So I can't deny it - I'm extremely disheartened by what we've heard today. The only consolation is that nobody in the SNP leadership has yet mentioned a target figure on the record, so there's still scope for them to quietly revise their position over the coming years as they realise how crazy it is. That might happen, for example, when Yes has been consistently hovering at 54% for a year or two, and people start scratching their heads and wondering aloud why that isn't enough.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

SNP lead by 32% in the first Scot Goes Pop Poll of Polls for the Holyrood election

There wasn't much point in updating the independence Poll of Polls after last week's YouGov poll, because the numbers hadn't changed at all.  But with just over six months to go until the Holyrood election, the time is now ripe to unveil a Poll of Polls for that contest.  The rules are much the same as for the independence PoP - just one poll from each firm is counted (the most recent one).  Only firms that have reported in the last three months are included in the sample - which means that ICM are missing from the familiar line-up of six.  The active pollsters at the moment are TNS, YouGov, Ipsos-Mori, Panelbase and Survation.

Constituency ballot :

SNP 53.4%
Labour 21.4%
Conservatives 14.2%
Liberal Democrats 6.0%

Regional list ballot :

SNP 47.4%
Labour 21.2%
Conservatives 14.0%
Greens 7.2%
Liberal Democrats 6.0%
UKIP 2.8%

No great surprises there.  The five firms are pretty consistent in their assessment of Labour's standing, but there are sharp disagreements on the fortunes of the SNP, the Tories and the Greens.  For example, the Tories are estimated to be as low as 12% on the constituency ballot by TNS and Ipsos-Mori, whereas YouGov have them as high as 19%.  So Ruth Davidson could be leading her party to a second unmitigated catastrophe in the space of twelve months, or she could be masterminding (ahem) a mini-recovery.  The average is obviously somewhere in between those two extremes, although it's closer to the lower end of the scale.

The SNP's showing on the list ballot is a cause for some mild concern.  For all the talk about how they're doing far better than last time, their average on the list is in fact only 3.4% better than the 2011 result, with a long period of hard campaigning still to go.

Three of the five polls in the sample were conducted before Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader.  That's not as serious a deficiency as it might seem, though, because the evidence so far is that the state of play has barely changed at all since he took over.