Thursday, August 24, 2006


Oh No / Hooray (Don’t Inhale As Applicable)!

Woe, woe! Lib Dems at 17%; let’s implode! Hooray, hooray! Lib Dems at 24%; let’s celebrate! Relief, relief! We’re now on 22% with the pollster who gave us 17; it proves they were wrong / we’ve made spectacular gains (delete to taste)! Yes, well. Liberal Democrats really shouldn’t inhale polls. They’re a very blunt instrument, and the only convincing one I’ve seen recently showed declining ID card support: the only one with a clear long-term trend instead of an hysterical margin-of-error blip.

(Oh, by the way, I’ve updated the last Avengers review, if you want to take a peek.)

The 24-hour news cycle pumps up opinion polls and the blogger’s desire to find something interesting and up-to-the-minute to write about (guilty!) makes them seem even more important. They’re really, really not. They’re a very rough guide to a changeable public, all measuring slightly different things, and unless there’s a really blatant trend over many months and many polls, experience demands you can’t take them remotely seriously. What’s the vague direction from the polls? That Labour are suffering a bit; that the Tories are up a bit; that the Lib Dems are pretty much where they’ve been for the past few years, after a rough Spring. Well, gosh. It seems the polls tell us at great expense and with many hysterical headlines, er, exactly what any remotely competent observer of British politics knows just by sticking their finger in the air. Looking at the detail of the polls reveals, shock horror, that people don’t believe a word the government says about terror. Well, again, ask someone at the bus stop after so many cries of ‘wolf’, and can anyone honestly expect anything different?

So, when the Guardian splashed on Tuesday that in their latest ICM poll Labour were at a 19-year low (31%, down 4), that the Tories were doing brilliantly to open up a nine-point lead (40%, up 1), and downplayed the Lib Dem figure when everyone had howled about it the month before (now 22%, up 5), Lib Dem bloggers went on the attack to talk up our recovery / ICM’s unreliability / whatever they thought sounded best (sorry to single you out, Stephen, but at least you had both a digest and a sense of perspective). As they should, of course, because our opponents will make the most of polls for political warfare, and so must we. If I was putting out a leaflet, I’d stick “Poll shows Lib Dems surge up 5% while Labour collapses!” on it, because that truthful report of the poll makes a good headline. But I wouldn’t hold my breath that that poll truthfully reports anything but, er, its own polling data, just as I felt a complete lack of panic when last month’s poll was ‘bad’. I’m sure propagandists for all three parties will find something to hit with in the latest figures (Lib Dems: ‘Didn’t we do well!’ Tories: ‘Didn’t we do well!’ Labour: ‘The Tories might get in and they will eat your babies!’). But people will believe each of them about as much as they believe, well, the opinion polls.

And, yes, I know the media have a bias towards seeing everything as a two-party story, and I know it’s unfair that we got far more coverage for a ‘bad’ poll last month than for a ‘good’ poll this month. It’s terribly unfair… But it’s not necessarily proof of an anti-Lib Dem conspiracy. Think of it this way. Which is more exciting, good news or bad news? Bad news (I know, what a nasty world we live in). Who is the news worst for this time? Labour. Is it worse news for them that one party is now only nine points behind them or that the other party is now nine points ahead of them? It’s worse that a party is nine points ahead. And so, while it’s only moderately good news for the Tories, that’s the story any journalist will pick. Last month the even-the-Guardian-now-suggests-it-was-a-rogue poll said we were the big losers, and, gosh, that was the headline.

So while it’s fine to use a poll as a campaigning point, please, please, don’t believe they’re actually some great truth that you need be genuinely bothered about unless there’s some really huge, dramatic change that shows across a range of polls and reflects something actually happening in the country, rather than a few percentage points waggling up or down. I didn’t blog when some people were running round in small circles last month saying “We’re doomed, doooooomed I tell you!” in part because I didn’t want to sound too much like Michael Winner, but now that our two most recent poll figures have been pretty good ones at 24% and 22%, I feel I’m less likely to be accused of only trying to put a brave face on it when I say, “Calm down, dears, it’s only an opinion poll.”

Indeed. You can't take opinion polls too seriously.
They're a rough measure which can hilight trends, but they're statistics, not to be relied upon as gospel truth.

A much more interesting fact is that the Tories have been getting more donations than Labour for 1/2 a year now, hinting that those with money think it a better bet to put it behind the Tories to gain influence/promote their interests, ie they think the Tories will form the next government.
You're quite right, Alex. (And, btw, I'm enough of a blog-tart not to worry about who links to me or why!)

I think what annoyed me about the media reporting of this poll was that they did pick out some good news from it - but gave all the credit to the Tories.

Especially aggravating was thegrauniad's view that Labour's 'collapse' was shared equally between the Tories (+1%) and Lib Dems (+5%).

[Breathes deeply.]

Right, done now. No more mention of opinion polls.

... isn't the Telegraph's YouGov due out tomorrow?
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