Month: November 2019

Performing the Poll-Dance

Why opinion surveys and voter outcomes are often polls apart 

Note: This article was originally published at The Conservative Woman on Thursday 21 November 2019

The British electorate is becoming ever more wary of trusting political opinion polls. Ever since-

  1. the 2015 general electionwhen all polls predicted a hung Parliament but the voters delivered a clear Conservative majority;
  1. the 2016 EU Referendum, when most polls confidently predicted a Remain victory; and
  1. the 2017 general election, when few polls predicted the hung Parliament which resulted but differed merely on the size of the majority Theresa May was expected to gain,

a growing number of voters have treated the polling industry’s prognostications at best with an increasingly large pinch of salt, and at worst with an outright cynicism that many are biased, being intended to influence public opinion rather than merely to measure it.

And not without reason. As political academic and psephologist Matthew Goodwin of Kent University says, Brits are cautious about the current Brexit election, given that memories of 2017 are still comparatively fresh.

In a recent article for CapX, Number Cruncher Politics’ Matt Singh gave an informative technical explanation of why opinion polls tell such different stories, especially at election time. There’s a surprising amount of difference between both the methodologies which polling firms employ, and the statistical models which they use to interpret them; surprising in the sense that, in a competitive industry, sampling methodology hasn’t converged towards that which has been found to deliver the most accurate predictions.

But there’s also a human factor. As Singh says, when attempting to compare views and voting patterns across different periods, many people are actually quite bad at remembering how they voted on a previous occasion. Not all pollsters try to adjust for poor recall, and those which do tend to ‘weight’ respondents’ recall of their previous votes in different ways.

To that I’d be inclined to add the additional potential for error which comes from the likelihood of respondents not answering truthfully, for whatever reason. I’d also suspect that, with the far more fickle, politically-volatile, and less traditionally tribal electorate that seems to be the inevitable consequence of Britain’s developing political re-alignment, more people have genuinely not yet made up their minds about which way they would vote in three weeks’ time.

YouGov’s Anthony Wells, meanwhile, also offers an interesting perspective at UK Polling Report on the how the different methodologies used by the different polling companies affect their results. Significant variations occur in the choices given to respondents; some prompt only for the main parties, not even giving an ‘Other’ choice for minor parties, some prompt only for the parties most likely to stand in a specific constituency, and some even allow second preferences.

Moreover, what Wells terms ‘house effects’ mean that, currently, ICM, ComRes and Survation tend to show lower Conservative leads, while Deltapoll, YouGov and Opinium tend to show higher ones. What I found particularly interesting is that it’s consistently the pollsters who publish their polls timed to hit the Sunday press which report the highest leads for the Tories, while those timed for the midweek press show smaller ones.

Bearing all this in mind, it’s perhaps worth considering two of the latest polls published to see what can be gleaned from what they say. Or maybe from what they don’t say.

First, the Ipsos MORI poll on Britons’ top concerns in the run-up to the election, published on Monday 18 November, and in particular the following:

Twenty-one per cent of the public mention the environment and pollution as a major issue for Britain – the highest recorded score since July 1990.”

Ipsos Mori concens

So 79 per cent of the population don’t. The wisdom of crowds in evidence, perhaps. But it was the breakdown by socio-economic grouping of that 21 per cent, mentioned lower down in the press release, which looked significant to me.

Ipsos MORI concerns 2

It’s very noticeable how concern for ‘the environment and pollution’ – now conveniently conflated by both the Left and the Green movements to encompass both genuine, anti-pollution environmental stewardship and political ‘climate-change’ activism – as a ‘major concern’ is disproportionately concentrated among ABs socio-economically, and in the south of the country geographically.

Whether the Tories’ willingness to embrace Green-ery and so-called ‘de-carbonisation’, via higher enviro-taxes and making energy more expensive, in order to try and retain their potential LibDem defectors in Outer London, the South-East and the South-West, is going to play well among the the less-affluent working-class votes they are chasing in the Midlands and North, and whom the impact of higher Green taxes and dearer energy will disproportionately fall, is a moot point.

Next, the update from Kantar, published on the afternoon of Tuesday 19 November, in follow-up to their previous polling report published on Wednesday 13th November, and summarised in their latest press release:

Kantar Capture composite

The effect of Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage surrendering to Conservative pressure – or alternatively, depending on your viewpoint, recognising electoral reality – by standing down Brexit Party candidates in all 317 currently Conservative seats, is clearly shown. But how come 43 per cent of respondents think that no party will get an overall majority, when, in the same sample and survey, the Conservatives have a polling lead of 18 per cent over Labour?  Is that because of the possibility of inbuilt priors – the ‘house effects’ – corrupting in the statistical sense the methodology, as described earlier in the articles by Matt Singh and Anthony Wells? Who knows?

Possibly the most astutely prescient polling comment this past week, however, has come from polling guru Sir John Curtice; he observes that, with both the Conservative and Labour parties led by politicians disliked by most voters, this election is actually turning out to be an unpopularity contest. Presumably, our next Prime Minister will be the party leader who is least unpopular with voters.

For years we’ve mocked politicians who, in response to media challenge about adverse poll ratings, have robotically intoned the mantra “The only poll that matters is the one on [insert election date]”. Perhaps we should have given them a little more credit?

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The Declaration Deadline Day Dilemma

With Farage’s withdrawal of the Brexit Party from all 317 Tory seats, what should Brexiteers in a Leave-voting constituency in which a Tory-Remainer MP is squatting do to avoid in effect being disenfranchised?

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Thursday 14 November 2019

Imagine being a committed Brexiteer in the parliamentary constituency of Tunbridge Wells today. At 4.00. pm yesterday afternoon, the deadline for the nominations of General Election candidates was passed, so the options of where to cast your vote are now set in stone.

Obviously, a vote for any of the pro-EU, leftist parties, whether formally part of the so-called Remainer-Alliance or not, would be out of the question.

But the ‘Conservative’ Party candidate re-standing for election in your constituency is arch-Remainer and former Business Secretary Greg Clark. Along with former Chancellor Philip Hammond and former Justice Secretary David Gauke, Clark was one of the most prominent members of Theresa May’s Cabinet arguing against, if not actually working to undermine, any EU exit deal other than, in effect, a Brexit-In-Name Only.

Clark Hammond Gauke Noakes

Moreover, in 2018, Clark was reportedly Theresa May’s backstairs fixer of pro-EU crony-corporatist Big-Business’ endorsement of, and participation in, that period’s iteration of Project Fear, designed to scaremonger voters with dire warnings about the dangers for jobs and exports of a No-Deal Brexit.

More recently, of course, he was one of the 21 Tory Remainer-Rebel MPs suspended and deprived of the Party Whip in the House of Commons for voting to allow the anti-Brexit opposition to seize control of the Parliamentary agenda, pass the so-called Benn Act making a No-Deal Brexit illegal, and force the PM to seek an extension to the Brexit negotiating period. His inclusion in the MPs allowed back in to the fold in advance of the election rightly caused eyebrows to be raised.

The 21 Tory whip-deprived Tory rebels

Not an appealing prospect, is it? Yet for a strongly pro-Brexit voter in Tunbridge Wells, that’s the consequence of the concession made to the Conservatives by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage in agreeing to stand down its candidates in all 317 Tory-held seats

The Brexit Party’s seat-contesting policy since this election was called has been muddled to say the least, oscillating between near-invisibility and overkill. MEP John Longworth’s suggestion of fighting a mere 20 seats was incredibly unambitious for a party purporting to be a major factor in bringing Brexit about, as well as having the disadvantage of almost guaranteeing that the party would get little if any media and Press coverage, and certainly no presence in any TV debates.

At the other end of the scale Farage’s initially declared aim of contesting up to 600 seats – but not one for himself – erred in the opposite direction. It would have diluted resources instead of concentrating them to greatest effect, and in many cases it would have been a wasted effort. What would have been the point of contesting an inner-London seat that is both solidly-Labour and solidly-Remain? What conceivable benefit could there have been in fighting against a staunch Tory Brexiteer who has consistently voted against May’s (non)-‘Withdrawal’ BRINO, thus running the risk of splitting a genuinely-Leave constituency-level majority?

But Farage’s decision to withdraw from all 317 Tory-held seats is potentially misguided. For a start, the excuse he gave – that PM Boris Johnson has committed to pursuing a Canada Plus-style trade deal and to leaving the EU by the end of 2020 with no extension of Transition – looks suspiciously thin and contrived. In practice this means by the end of June 2020, because if it became apparent that it wouldn’t be possible to negotiate a trade deal in such a short time, the UK’s one-off option to extend the Transition period would have to be made on 1 July 2020.

As valid as the need is to avert the horrendous prospect of a Corbyn Labour or Corbyn-led Remainer Alliance government, and as much as the risk of jeopardising Brexit happening at all is real, Farage would have been perfectly justified in declining to withdraw in seats held by ardent Tory Continuity-Remainers (or possibly even, but mainly as a bargaining chip, reluctant soft-Brexiteers). Despite several of the most prominent Usual Suspects in these two categories standing down, there’s no guarantee that several of their successors won’t be similarly inclined, given the background of some of them, as has already been remarked.

It’s notable that, as Kathy Gyngell, Editor of The Conservative Woman, wrote yesterday, the reaction of the Tories has been, not gratitude and an offer of reciprocation in Leave-voting seats with large Labour majorities which, given their conventional electoral brand-toxicity, the Tories, even with a promise to enact Brexit, could probably never ever hope to gain, but instead to bank the concession and demand that the Brexit party stand aside in even more seats.

When Farage, quite reasonably in my view, provisionally refused, the Tories changed tack, offering an ‘eleventh-hour’ electoral pact whereby they would undertake only minimal token-campaigning in 40 Labour-held seats on the Brexit Party’s target list.

But in view of this proposal’s inherent drawbacks – Tory candidates being on the ballot at all would undoubtedly draw some votes to them and away from the Brexit Party, while agreeing and subsequently abiding by mutually-accepted criteria for ‘minimal’ campaigning looks fraught with uncertainly and fertile ground for dispute – as well as the Tories’ hitherto contemptuous dismissal of previous overtures, it’s difficult to criticise Farage for being sceptical.

On the calculations of the informative Leave Alliance blog, there are about 43 vulnerable seats which the Tories hold on slim majorities, but also, crucially, about 50 almost all Labour-held and Leave-voting seats which look ripe targets for the Brexit Party, it having come first there in the 2019 Euro-elections.

Caroline fff Labour BXP targets fullThe key statistic here, to my mind, is that in Column 9 – the percentage vote-swing needed for the Tories to capture the seat from Labour. In no case is it under 10%, and in some cases it’s over 20%.

Do the Conservatives really think they’re in with a good chance of persuading sufficient Labour voters – even pro-Brexit ones who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum and have since been frustrated with both their Labour-Remainer MPs’ and the Labour Party itself’s policy vacillation and obfuscation on Brexit – to change the voting habits of a lifetime, hold their noses, and vote Tory in big enough numbers to achieve the magnitude of swing required to turn the seat from red to blue?              

I’m doubtful. In my view, therefore, in no circumstances should the Brexit Party agree to stand aside in these. In fact, it’s already announced a very strong candidate for its top Labour-Remainer target seat of Kingston-upon-Hull East, which voted Leave by 73:27 in 2016 and where the Tories trailed Labour by nearly 30% in vote-share in 2017, in former The Apprentice winner and broadcaster Michelle Dewberry.

I’d even be inclined to provisionally add the next 20-30 Labour seats on that target list, but no more. Farage however, appears to have committed the Brexit Party to standing in all Labour-held seats, even including those of the few Labour-Leaver MPs. What is the point of opposing someone like Caroline Flint, who has risked and received such opprobrium from Labour-Remainer MPs for insisting that the democratic verdict of the electorate to leave the EU must be respected and implemented?

I can also see little reason at this stage why ardent Tory-Remainer MPs should enjoy an immunity from other, genuine-Leaver, competition in this election. We risk forgetting too easily how many of them were by no means reluctant to repudiate the manifestos they stood on to get elected in 2017, and, even if not openly opposing a meaningful Brexit by rebelling, nonetheless managed to dilute and soften it by signifying their potential opposition.

It wouldn’t have been unreasonable, therefore, for the Brexit Party to have opposed, say, between 20 and 30 Tory-Remainer MPs squatting in the most heavily Leave-voting seats. That would have added up to something like 90-110 seats in total for the Brexit Party to target, However, the concession having been made, it would be an act of bad faith to withdraw it. But no further concession should be extended.     

Powerful arguments are already being made against the effective disenfranchisement of thousands of Leave voters which the Brexit Party’s standing down in all 317 Tory-held constituents represents. In addition, it puts Leave-voters in the invidious position of having to balance two unpalatable alternatives to decide which is the lesser of two evilsThat being the case, it’s hard to see why anyone could object to Brexit Party PPCs now deprived of a candidature shouldn’t instead stand as Independent Brexiteers.   

Couple the still unresolved horse-trading over who should or should not contest which seats with growing disquiet about some of the new candidates being selected in Tory vacancies, and an hitherto mere unwelcome suspicion starts to harden: that, despite their pre-election blandishments, the Tories’ principal objective in this election is to procure a metro-’liberal’ Tory majority, rather than a pro-Brexit majority, in Parliament, and the former even at the expense of the latter.

Where is this leading? Well, time will tell, but I’m personally becoming more and more convinced that the Tory Party hierarchy’s strategic priorities are:

  1.  ram through something which can plausibly be labelled Brexit, so they can claim to have ‘got it done’, as if it was just a box to be ticked and then forgotten; and
  1. once having done that, get back to business-as-usual in terms of the political system substantially unchanged, which suits the entrenched Westminster elite down to the ground.

That, it strikes me, is not the outcome most critics of the last Parliament wanted in calling for its dissolution. If correct, it seems likely that people may opt instead for their own ‘withdrawal’ option, manifested by the attitude of, as The Conservative Woman‘s Editor Kathy Gyngell put it yesterday, “A plague on both their houses.”

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Conservative Party Candidates: Local Consensus or Centralised Conspiracy?

A discernible pattern of preference being given to parachuted-in favoured Party-insiders, in the selection of Conservative candidates for the General Election, is emerging

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Saturday 9th November 2019 

The selection of “Conservative” Party General Election candidates by local associations is now in its final phase before the 14th November Declaration Day deadline. However, some intriguing claims are emerging, especially from constituencies where the sitting member is standing down, about Party HQ attempting to micro-manage the selection process in favour of its own preferred choices, even to the extent of excluding a local candidate whom the local CA would choose.

First, to a currently Tory seat in the South-East whose MP is standing down. I was told last week, by a friend who happens to be a stalwart of the local Conservative Constituency Association that ructions were very likely to occur at the CA meeting scheduled to be held shortly to discuss the new candidate.

She alleged growing disquiet at what she described as Central Office trying to impose, over the head of an eminently suitable local councillor, a favourite of the Candidates’ Board on their central list with no constituency connection whatsoever. As she put it to me, if objecting causes fireworks, then so be it, but she’s damned if he’s going to rubber-stamp the selection of some chinless-wonder staffer who’s coming straight from being a Central Office gofer after getting a 2nd-class PPE, and who’s seeing the constituency solely as the first step on his or her political career-path.

Second, let’s move to Mid-Sussex, where archetypal patrician Tory grandee Nicholas Soames, one of the 21 anti-Brexit rebels deprived of the Conservative Whip for in effect voting to stop Brexit happening on 31st October, is bequeathing a current majority of over 19,000. In the frame for this are a current Government SpAd with pro-Brexit credentials but who, reportedly, nevertheless supported May’s BRINO (non)-“Withdrawal” Agreement: an educationalist  whose both current and recent political activity, as well as residence, is centred on London: and the current Tory MP for Eastleigh, Mims Davies.

Is there really no suitable local candidate? In the case of the first two, any connection with the constituency is perhaps rather more claimed than it is immediately obvious. Davies, however, does appear to have some genuine connections with the county, having been a Conservative town councillor and as a district councillor on Mid-Sussex District Council from 2011 to 2015 before becoming an MP.

Yet despite this, it’s Davies who turns out to be the most intriguing case. Despite sitting on a 14,000 majority in her Eastleigh seat that voted 54:46 in favour of Leave, she’s definitely trying to up sticks and move to Mid-Sussex. Her somewhat disingenuous previous statement that she “would not be a candidate” in her current constituency originally gave the impression she was quitting Parliament altogether, so the revelation that she is instead seeking a safer seat has given rise to speculation that fear of losing to the LibDems is her real motivation.

UPDATE: Davies was selected to contest the seat for the Conservatives.

Third, let’s journey westwards, to Devizes, which, although voting Leave by 51.4 per cent to 48.6 per cent, was, at least until the dissolution of Parliament at 00:01 am on Wednesday 6th November, the domain of the wildly over-promoted and eco-gullible Claire Perry, with a majority over 21,000. There, elements of the local association are objecting in no uncertain terms about the possible selection of Danny Kruger, Eton-educated former speechwriter to David Cameron and current Political Secretary to PM Boris Johnson, to the extent of circulating annotated (mostly unfavourably) copies of his CV to all members. 

Kruger is clearly perceived by his detractors as one of the favoured metropolitan-‘liberal’- Cameroon glitterati, and it’s arguably difficult in the current climate to imagine a more damning assessment than “definitely on the Nicky Morgan, Amber Rudd, side of the party”. But that’s their verdict.

Meanwhile, the Chairman of the Devizes Constituency Conservative Party has resigned, allegedly in protest  about the undue influence the Party’s Head Office has had on the choice of candidate for the safe seat. The original shortlist of six has apparently been arbitrarily reduced to three, none of whose connections with the constituency appear especially strong, or particularly convincing.

Perhaps many local Tories in Devizes are just not prepared to have what, rightly or wrongly, they see as a Cameroon carpetbagger imposed on them by Central Office willy-nilly. Is there really not a good, genuinely-Conservative local councillor who would make a good constituency MP? After years of being “represented” by Claire Perry, one can understand Devizes’ local Tories being wary.

UPDATE: Kruger was selected to fight the seat.

Fourth, let’s travel north, to the East Midlands and Bassetlaw, the seat vacated by staunch anti-Corbynite Labour Brexiteer John Mann when resigning as a MP on 29th October. In the 2016 EU Referendum, Bassetlaw voted 68:32 for Leave, a margin of over 2:1. With Mann’s majority of only 4,852, and Labour having all but formally declared itself to be a Remain/Second Referendum party, it’s obvious that mere 2,500 voters switching from Labour to Conservative would turn it blue.

Bassetlaw 2017 GE result

Yet from Bassetlaw comes the allegation that the 2017 Tory candidate, apparently a former local councillor and previous Tory CA chair, who campaigned for Brexit in 2016 and significantly reduced Mann’s majority in 2017, thus turning it from a safe Labour seat into a marginal – but was, it’s claimed, critical of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit – has twice been rejected as its 2019 candidate by Tory Central Office, despite being originally admitted to the candidates’ list. The expectation is that an external candidate, presumably acceptable to Tory HQ, will be parachuted in.

This is doubly troubling when the Labour candidate selection process in Bassetlaw is itself in near-total disarray, following a Momentum/NEC decision to overrule the local party and de-select its choice of candidate in a manner more reminiscent of a kangaroo court than adherence to due process. Objections have predictably followed, and the Labour selection process now appears mired in complete confusion.

Presented with an open goal in Bassetlaw, therefore, Tory Central Office appears to be kicking the ball off the pitch.

Fifth, back to the South-East, and to Sevenoaks in Kent, which until the dissolution of Parliament was the seat of former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, with a 21,917 majority. Included in the Party HQ approved shortlist for it was a self-employed local councillor: the former Number Ten 10 adviser to David Cameron, Laura Trott (not our quadruple-gold Olympic cyclist, sadly, but her namesake): and the former MP for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson, a staunch Brexiteer who latterly was David Davis’ Chief of Staff at DExEU.

UPDATE: Trott was selected to contest the seat.

Sixth, again in Kent, and to Orpington – Jo Johnson’s old seat – which over the weekend chose Gareth Bacon, current Tory leader in the London Assembly, to contest the general election for the Conservatives from a shortlist of three. My mole at the selection meeting tells me that, to his intense dismay, and despite Bacon’s local government experience in the area, Bacon nevertheless “turned up with his fan club in attendance”, and that it was obvious as soon as he entered the room that he would win.

Which prompts the thought: if Bacon chaired the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority for the final two years of Boris Johnson’s mayoralty, i.e., from 2014 to 2016, was he not involved, at quasi-political level at least, in formulating the Fire Service’s what we now know to be highly contentious advice to residents of high-rise residential blocks like Grenfell Tower to stay put in the event of a fire, and not try to get out of the building? Has anyone made that connection yet?

Does anyone see a pattern here? Now it may or may not be coincidence, but there has recently been an abrupt change at the top of the Party hierarchy, with the resignation from both the Candidates’ Committee and the Party Board of a senior MP over “rising tensions in the Candidates’ Committee about the controversial approach to selections which CCHQ is pursuing”, amid mounting fury over the Candidates’ List, with local associations increasingly pushing back against central control.

Awareness, and anger, even among Tory candidates seeking re-election as MPs, is growing.  The allegations of “doing a chicken run” have duly followed the selection of Mims Davies for Mid-Sussex, and complaints are reportedly being aired on MP’s Whatsapp groups of “lots of special advisers on shortlists, and many more poor, but connected, candidates“.           

One would have thought the “Conservative” Party would have learned from the débacle of the Cameroons’ now notorious A-List, which eventually was quietly killed off. Evidently not.

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