The Only Certainty is Uncertainty: The Current State of the Polls

March 15, 2018

Since Theresay May’s failed attempt at increasing the Conservative Party’s overall majority at the June 2017 general election, there have been seventy-eight national opinion polls published. Prior to the election, the Conservatives were regularly polling astronomical leads of 15-20 points. The campaign resulted in a dramatic shift in public opinion with the Labour Party all but closing the gap and ultimately finishing just 2.5 points behind the Conservatives in the Great Britain wide National Popular Vote. Since then, the Labour Party has seen a strong showing in the opinion polls but with the dominance of the ‘big two’ political parties remaining strong, the Conservatives have also seen their base stay firm. There has been a lot of scepticism towards polls in recent times, with several notable and high-profile misses. Opinion polls remain, however, the best indicator of where voters stand at any moment in time.

Based on the current constituency boundaries, the Conservatives would require a tiny 0.3 percent swing from Labour to regain an overall majority. This would mean that the Conservatives would need to be around 3.1 points ahead of Labour in order to get to 326. A 1.25 percent swing from Conservative to Labour would lead to a tie between the two major parties on 42.25 percent of the vote. At that level, the Conservatives would remain the largest party but with only 12 more seats than Labour. For Labour, a 1.63 percent swing from the Conservatives would turn them into the largest single party and a 0.76 point lead would be required to do so. To swing through hung parliament and gain an outright overall majority, Labour needs a 7.24 point lead and a swing of 4.87 percent from the Conservatives. In practice, Labour may actually be able to get an overall majority on the basis of a slightly smaller lead if some of the key marginal seats were to have above average Conservative to Labour swings. The large requirement for a Labour majority is based on the lack of seats the party has in Scotland and the fact that for each point of swing between 1.63 and 4.87 percent, not an awful not of seats fall. The proposed boundaries would change this slightly but the net effect is relatively negligible, gaining the Conservatives roughly 15 seats and losing Labour around the same amount.

Immediately after the 2017 election, the Labour Party jumped into the lead, polling between two and six points ahead of the Conservatives with Survation, Panelbase, ICM and Opinium. A second Survation poll also showed a one point Conservative lead but this was widely ignored as an outlier. The good news for Labour seemed to continue with the party reaching 46 percent and registering an eight point lead over the Conservatives who had fallen to 38 percent in a YouGov survey. These early large Labour leads may well have come about because of methodology changes by the various pollsters in the wake of their 2017 performance but were certainly encouraging for the Labour Party who had turned an average Conservative lead of 17.8 points on 18th April 2017 (the day that Theresa May announced her snap election) into a four point Labour lead by 11th July. In short, the Labour Party climbed from an average of 25.5 percent to 44.2 percent in just 54 days, a remarkable turn-around for Jeremy Corbyn’s party. Support for the Conservatives, however, did not make any sharp decline, dropping a mere 3.1 points from an average of 43.3 percent on 18th April 2017 to 40.2 percent on 11th July.

As July went on the Labour Party lead began to shrink down to one or two points and was down to an average of just under one point by late September. By 5th October, the average Labour lead had ballooned back out to 3.8 points; coming about as a result of a decline in Conservative support and a slight incline in Labour’s share. All of October’s polls showed the Labour Party ahead or tied with the Conservatives, with six out of nine polls showing a Labour lead of two or three points, two showing ties and one poll from Survation showing a slightly larger six point lead. Labour’s average lead once again began to decline, down to a tiny 0.5 points by the end of November. Once again, November’s polls tended to show Labour ahead by one or two points, although a Kantar poll gave the Conservatives some cause for hope with a four point lead and Survation doing the same for Labour with an eight point lead. Both would be enough to give the respective leading party an overall majority in the House of Commons although neither majority would be in double figures.

The final seven polls of 2017 showed a broadly similar picture with no poll showing a lead greater than three points for either of the two major parties. Two polls, one by ICM and one by YouGov conducted between 8th and 11th December both showed the Conservatives ahead, by two and one points respectively whilst the remainder of December’s polls all showed small leads for the Labour Party. 2017 ended with the Labour Party clinging onto its post-election lead, albeit now down to a tiny 0.8 points with their average polling figure standing at 41 percent, their exact share of the GB-wide vote in June’s election. The Conservatives stood at 40.2 percent, down 3.3 points on the election and representing a 1.65 percent swing from Conservative to Labour.

The first poll of 2018 was by YouGov and showed another tiny Labour lead, this time of one point and Labour led or tied with the Conservatives in all of January’s polls, with leads up to around three points. In a complete reversal, every poll conducted between 2nd and 12th February showed the Conservatives either tied with Labour or ahead by up to four points. On 8th February 2018, the Conservatives overtook Labour in the average of the polls for the first time since the end of June 2017 and their average lead grew to 1.1 points by 13th February. Labour regained their average lead in late February and are currently sitting 1.7 points ahead of the Conservatives. The most recent five polls have once again showed a varied picture, with three showing the Labour Party ahead and two showing the Conservative Party ahead. A YouGov poll conducted between 5th and 6th March showed Labour two points ahead of the Conservatives, 43 to 41 percent, whilst an Ipsos Mori poll conducted 2nd to 7th March showed almost the mirror image with the Conservatives ahead of Labour by one point, 43 to 42 percent. The most recent poll, from Survation, has caused a stir and given many in Jeremy Corbyn’s ranks something to be cheerful about with the poll showing a clear Labour lead of seven points. Overall, the Conservatives have scored between 37 and 43 percent, with all but three polls showing the party below its 2017 share of the vote. Labour has scored between 38 and 46 percent, with 64 out of 78 polls showing them above the 41 percent they achieved in 2017.

For the smaller parties, the polls have remained roughly consistent. The Liberal Democrats have scored between five and ten percent in every poll whilst the United Kingdom Independence Party has managed between two and five percent and the Greens have scored between one and three percent. None of these parties have seen any surge in support although this could, of course change as the parliament gets further into its term.

Polls from Scotland and Wales have been relatively scant. Eight polls from Scotland have been conducted and all eight have shown the Scottish National Party comfortably in the lead by between eight and fourteen points. In the first poll of Scotland since the election, conducted by Panelbase between 31st August and 7th September 2017, the SNP registered a lead of 14 points over the Conservatives. The Scottish Labour Party then tied with the Conservatives on 26 percent, 13 points behind the SNP in the next Scotland wide poll before regaining second-place in YouGov’s October poll on 30 percent, seven points ahead of the Conservatives but ten points behind the SNP. In the latest five polls of Scotland, the Labour Party has polled in second place behind the SNP whilst the Conservatives have returned to third. The Scottish Liberal Democrats have failed to improve radically on their 2017 performance, polling no higher than seven percent. Interestingly, in polls for the next Holyrood election, the Conservatives and Labour are vying for second place in both regional and constituency polls with the Conservatives recovering somewhat in early 2018. Nonetheless, polls for both Holyrood and Westminster show that Scotland remains a three-party contest.

There have been even fewer polls of Welsh Westminster voting intention; with only two YouGov and one ICM polls published. All three have shown comfortable leads for Welsh Labour, with the Conservatives comfortably in second place and well ahead of Plaid Cymru. This situation has been mirrored in opinion polling for the Welsh Assembly although, the Conservatives have fallen behind Plaid Cymru in both the regional and constituency vote in ICM’s latest poll. All in all, Labour remain strong in Wales and in a considerably stronger position than the one that they were in after the 2015 election.

Despite the shredding of Theresa May’s authority following the loss of her party’s overall majority and the damage to her reputation in the wake of the tragic events at Grenfell Tower on 14th June 2017, the Conservative leader has continued to lead Jeremy Corbyn on the question of who would make the best prime minister in most surveys. In the YouGov’s first poll after the election, Jeremy Corbyn tied with Theresa May before overtaking her in the next survey. Of the 41 polls asking the ‘best prime minister’ question, Theresa May has led 35 of them, Jeremy Corbyn has led four and there have been two ties. Theresa May’s leads over Jeremy Corbyn have been higher in recent surveys, although they are considerably down on some of the eye watering leads that she achieved prior to the 2017 election. As had also been consistent prior to the election, ‘don’t know’ or ‘none of these’ began to poll higher than Jeremy Corbyn in some polls in mid-September and has done so in 17 out of 22 polls since. On nine of these occasions, ‘don’t know’ or ‘none of these’ has topped the poll, ahead of both May and Corbyn. In terms of approval ratings, Theresa May has slumped into negative figures since the election, scoring a low of -28 percent in a YouGov poll conducted between 4th and 5th October 2017. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has seen his approval rating in positive figures on nine occasions and in negative figures on 17. Both leaders recorded a negative score in the most recent Ipsos Mori poll with Theresa May on -17 percent and Jeremy Corbyn on -11 percent.

On individual issues, Theresa May retains her double-digit lead over Jeremy Corbyn on the issue of who would be the best to negotiate Britain’s exit from the European Union and has done so in all of the eight post-election polls that asked that question. On the key question of who would be the most trusted to handle the economy, May and Hammond have led Corbyn and McDonnell by eight points or more in each of the six polls that have asked the question since the election.

As things stand, we have a paradoxical situation that was previously seen in the run up to the 2015 general election. The party who's leader is most trusted to handle the key issues of the day is lagging behind the opposition on the question of which party voters would opt to vote for at a general election. That is to say, voters trust Theresa May on Brexit and the economy, and see her as the best candidate for Prime Minister but would also prefer a Labour administration.

 

Polls are, however, of limited significance at this stage of the parliamentary cycle and should only to be used to measure the political temperature at each stage in time. It should also be noted that every poll has a margin of error and at the moment, the narrow leads attained by either Labour or the Conservatives don’t tell us very much; a Labour majority, a Conservative majority or indeed a coalition or deal of led by either of the major parties is just as likely. Some within the Labour Party have pointed out that they should be further ahead considering the state of the incumbent government. Once again, that would mean very little and it should be remembered that from March 2012 to September 2013 the Labour Party consecutively lead 555 polls, by as much as 16 points, and still went on to lose the 2015 general election to the Tories.

There is a long way to go before the next general election in 2022 and at present, it is difficult to see the conditions arising in which a snap election could be triggered. It is, however, difficult to predict the future and British politics is currently in a rare state of flux. If, however, there was an election, it would currently be virtually impossible to predict unless there was a radical change. If Survation’s latest poll were to be believed, Jeremy Corbyn would leave an election just short of an overall majority on 324 seats whilst YouGov’s poll from 5th to 6th February would see Theresa May returned with an overall majority of two seats. So, there’s hope on both sides of the political divide. Maybe it is a coincidence, but one only has to look to @britainelects on Twitter to see the massive discrepancy between the number of shares that Labour led polls tend to receive compared to those led by the Conservatives. It is important, therefore, to look at the many averages that are available. But it is equally important to remember that the averages are only as good as the polls that go into them and just because a pollster was right at the last election, it doesn’t mean that they will at the next. There’s a good chance that Survation will be right next time, but there is an equally as good chance that they won’t. Many in the Labour Party, particularly those on the left, would like the government to fall and a general election to be held which they expect Jeremy Corbyn would win.

Based on the current rolling average of the polls, the central projection certainly suggests that Labour would become the largest single party with 300 seats. It is possible and within the margin of error that Labour could go further and reach 327 seats, a bare but workable overall majority of four. On the other hand, if the polls were to be correct and within the margin of error but favour the Conservatives, Theresa May is just as likely to be returned with 334 seats and an overall majority of 18. Labour could win the popular vote, but the Tories could come out on top in seats. Basically, there are a lot of possible scenarios based on the current polling and although there are methods of converting possible vote shares into seats, it is a difficult business and only as good as the data that goes in. With no election on the immediate horizon, the polls give an indication of the political environment and seat predictions are interesting, but neither should be treated as indicators of what will happen at the next general election

One final caveat is that it is currently difficult to know how voters will react when Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn is an actual possibility and the potential for reliance on the Scottish National Party could prove to be a toxic problem for the Labour Party if the polls remain close in the run up to the next election, whenever that may be. The Conservatives are also likely to dump Theresa May before fighting another election and it remains to be seen who emerges as her successor. It is unlikely, however, that the party will run the same poor campaign as in 2017 the next time around. Team Corbyn are allegedly unconcerned about their small or non-existent poll lead, citing their 2017 turnaround as evidence. Yes, the Labour Party could see a similar surge to 2017 and yes, Survation could be right. But there is just as much a possibility that no surge materialises and that Labour goes backwards. At the moment, the political landscape is very uncertain, and it is definitely not set in stone that Jeremy Corbyn will reach number ten. As many people often say, there’s only poll that counts and with so
much uncertainty in the air, that is very much the case at the moment.

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