The politics of polling: the report of the Committee on Polling and Digital Media

IMG_3616On 17 April, the House of Lords’ ad hoc Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media published a report, following its inquiry into the effects of political polling and digital media on politics. At an event organised by The Constitution Unit, Lord Lipsey, who chaired the Committee, discussed the report with a panel that consisted of Baroness Jay of Paddington, a Labour peer who served on the Committee; Will Jennings, of the University of Southampton; and Martin Boon, a professional pollster. Dave Busfield-Birch offers a summary of their comments.

Following an inquiry that took evidence from a variety of experts, industry professionals, and ministers, the Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media published its report on the subject on 17 April. The Constitution Unit organised an event to publicise the release of the report, which consisted of a panel discussion (summarised below) and a lively and interesting Q&A session. Committee Room 2 in the Palace of Westminster was full when Jennifer Hudson, Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour at the UCL Constitution Unit, introduced the panel, on which she served as Chair. Lord Lipsey and Baroness Jay of Paddington introduced the report on behalf of the Committee. They were then followed by Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science at the University of Southampton, and Martin Boon, who provided the perspective of a professional pollster.

Lord Lipsey

As chair of the Committee, Lord Lipsey noted that he had enjoyed working on the inquiry that produced it, although he did acknowledge that the report was ‘slightly unusual’ in one key respect. Normally, parliamentary inquiries examine government policy, and the recommendations in their reports are aimed at influencing it. This report, however, had focused its attention on the workings of the polling and digital media industries and it is they who are the targets of most of its recommendations. One recommendation that was intended to influence government policy called for the Electoral Commission to have a wider statutory role in regulating and monitoring polling during election periods.

Lord Lipsey then went on to offer some background to the report, saying that it had partially been prompted by the existence of three big polling ‘bloopers’ in recent British political history. In 2015, polls had widely predicted a hung parliament; instead, the Conservatives secured a parliamentary majority. At the next general election in 2017, the Conservatives experienced an unexpected result in the opposite direction: where polls had predicted an increased majority for Theresa May, the voters delivered a hung parliament and a government that now relies on DUP support for its parliamentary majority. Finally, the referendum on leaving the European Union produced a vote for Brexit that the polls had largely failed to predict. Lord Lipsey was careful, however, to point out that despite these three unexpected results, people should be careful of jumping to conclusions about the state of the polling industry. The Committee found no statistical evidence that polls are getting worse internationally. However, he did warn that the failure of polls to predict three otherwise unexpected results in succession would mean that pollsters should expect ‘not to get much sleep’ during the next general election campaign. Continue reading

How online quizzes could improve information during election campaigns: lessons from Germany

m.paleseOngoing Constitution Unit research is exploring how quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In recent years, voting advice applications have been promoted as a way of providing impartial, good-quality information on salient issues and parties’ positions thereon. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and relates early thoughts from a research trip to Germany, where the state-sponsored Wahl-O-Mat was used 15.7 million times during the 2017 federal election campaign.

Since last May, Dr Alan Renwick and I have been working on a project to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. In this context, I have been examining ‘voting advice applications’ (VAAs): online tools that aim to assist users in their voting decision.

In this post, I briefly contextualise the emergence of VAAs and consider the debate on the role of such tools in the UK. I then report initial findings from a research trip to Germany, where the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung; hereafter BPB) develops and promotes a voting advice application – the Wahl-O-Mat – for all federal and most state elections.

The origins of voting advice applications

The first VAA, the Stemwijzer, was developed in the Netherlands in 1989. Available on paper or on a diskette, it aimed to increase secondary school students’ knowledge of the differences and similarities among parties, and to aid the formation of party political choices. VAAs became available online in the mid-1990s in Finland and the Netherlands.

VAAs have spread particularly since the early 2000s, and almost all European countries now have at least one. While they take varied forms, all VAAs present users with statements to agree or disagree with and then match these responses to the positions of political parties. Developers generally use party manifestos or prior statements as a starting point, and often engage parties directly in the development process. Continue reading

Elections – onwards and upwards

Peter-Wardle

Outgoing Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission Peter Wardle reflects on the delivery of this year’s general election and considers what further improvements can be made.

This blog coincides with the launch of the Electoral Commission’s report on the administration of the May 7 elections.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the General Election under the headline ‘Expect the unexpected’. It wasn’t really the outcome I was talking about – but if readers want to credit me with clairvoyance on that front, that’s fine!

This was my third General Election as Chief Executive of the Electoral Commission – and after each one, we reflect on what happened, and what further improvements can be made.

We ask voters how it was for them – and we can take a good deal of satisfaction and pride in the fact that trust and confidence in our electoral system is so high. This year, nine in ten people told us they thought the elections in May were well-run. This is a real tribute to the team effort that is put in by Returning Officers and their staff, local police forces, and of course campaigners, to make sure the elections run as smoothly as possible for voters.

But the election world never stands still – there are major polls across the UK in May 2016, and a UK-wide referendum due before the end of 2017. In our report on the administration of the 7 May elections, we’ve made a number of recommendations that would further improve voters’ experience and sustain trust in our democracy.

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Was the 2015 election the most disproportional ever? It depends how you measure it

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The 2015 election has been described as both one of the most disproportional elections ever and one of the least. Alan Renwick discusses the notion of electoral disproportionality and weighs up the relative merits of the different indexes that have been developed to measure it.

In a report published earlier this month, the Electoral Reform Society declares the 2015 general election ‘the most disproportional election to date in the UK’. The ERS’s website cranks up the rhetoric further: ‘It’s official: this election was the most disproportionate in UK history.’ In marked contrast, my own first cut at analysing the election results, published a few weeks earlier, said that this was not the UK’s most disproportional election: that, indeed, it was the least disproportional since 1992.

So what is going on here? Which of us is right?

The simple answer to the first of those questions is that we have used different methods to measure proportionality. The simple answer to the second question is that there is no simple answer: it very much depends on what you mean by disproportionality.

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The age of the new Parliament

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The 2015 general election saw the election of the youngest MP since 1832. Chrysa Lamprinakou draws on Parliamentary Candidates UK data to highlight the slow but steady downward shift in the age at which MPs start their careers and the variation across parties.

In our previous blog, we discussed the new Parliament’s composition in terms of gender and race. Our analysis showed that compared to the 2010 intake, there are now 48 more women MPs and 14 more BME MPs in the newly elected House; women now constitute 29% and BME MPs 6% of the Commons. While the record number of women and BME MPs made headlines, much of post-election attention was focused on the electoral landslide of the Scottish National Party. The SNP elected 56 MPs to Westminster, 50 of whom were elected for the first time.

Among the new Scottish cohort, was 20-year old politics student Mhairi Black. The success of Ms Black, the SNP MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South, hit the news for two reasons; first, she defeated one of Labour’s most senior figures, Douglas Alexander and second, she is now the youngest Member of Parliament since the Reform Act of 1832.

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The campaign and general election in review

David-Ireland

This year’s general election result took almost everyone by surprise, including the pollsters, forecasters and other experts. On 3 June, Joe Twyman, Dr Ben Lauderdale, Dr Rosie Campbell, Professor Justin Fisher and Professor Matt Goodwin took part in a roundtable to discuss where the predictions went wrong and lessons for 2020. David Ireland offers an overview of the event.

The exit poll that came out at 10pm on 7 May took almost everyone by surprise. Over the course of Friday morning, the scale of the Conservative majority revealed itself, showing that even the exit poll had underestimated the Conservative support. What happened? How did the polls get it so wrong and what are the lessons for 2020? This blog highlights the key issues from a recent roundtable on GE2015 hosted by UCL’s Department of Political Science and the Constitution Unit and chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson. 

Joe Twyman, Head of Political and Social Research, YouGov

As one of many pollsters who had long predicted a hung parliament, Joe acknowledged YouGov didn’t get it right this time. He also, rather humorously, showed the range of Twitter abuse directed at him as a result.

Voting intention remained tightly balanced in the months leading up to the election, but YouGov’s polling revealed that the ‘fundamentals’ may not have been given enough weight in predicting vote share.Importantly, no party had ever come from behind on the economy and leadership to won an election before, and this election was not to be the first. The economy remained the single most important issue, and here, the Conservatives were significantly ahead. Similarly, Miliband never got close to Cameron on party leader ratings.  Continue reading

The Shy Tory: A credible hypothesis or mediatic oversimplification?

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Marco Morucci and Sally Symington test the ‘Shy Tory’ hypothesis that has been mooted as the explanation for the polls’ failure to predict the election outcome and find it unconvincing.

The release of exit polls on 7 May was a moment of shock and awe for political scientists, pollsters and forecasters across the UK: polls and subsequent predictions had grossly underestimated both the vote share for the Conservative party as well as their share of seats.

Hungry for a quick and simple explanation of the phenomenon, the mainstream media and commenting classes were quick in bringing up the ‘Shy Tory’ hypothesis. The adage dates back to 1992 and goes something like this: right-wing voters felt cornered by the adversarial and negative propaganda directed at them by the left wing, prompting them to feel safer in withholding their voting intention on surveys by either answering they’re undecided or won’t vote.

The theory has received little real scrutiny nor been critically evaluated despite the self-reinforcing coverage it has been given since the election, to the extent that it has now morphed into ‘Lying Tories’. However, some pollsters and experts have already manifested their doubts on its value. It presents a number of flaws that discourage its adoption as a principal explanation for the polls.

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