A new year – time to take stock: What Opinion Polls teach us from being in Government and what it says we should do in 2012

As we say good bye to 2011, it is time to take stock and look forward to what we need to do in 2012. As politics is all about the poll on polling day lets have a look at what we can learn from the polls since we have been in Government.

Polls are relative to the opinion poll company undertaking the poll so if you look at polls, make sure you compare like for like i.e. the same poll against the same poll. Also look at the poll that gets it right most often as a comparison to the actual vote. For this reason I use ICM and I have written about using the ICM polls to chart how we are doing here.

What we can do from historical charts is see how we are doing from a historical perspective (good poll ratings in green, poor in red):

We can then use the opinion polls since being in Government to have a look at patterns of when we are doing better and worse in the polls to see if this helps inform what we need to be doing:

I have put the events that were happening at the time next to where it happened so we can look for patterns and what we can see if this:

I’m not sure there is a distinct pattern for falling opinion polls but there are lessons. In the first year we had the budget, spending review and the tuition fees to deal with. In all of those cases the general perception was that we were ineffectual. While we know that there have been some Lib Dem gains and improvements to the proposals, the major issue in all of them was the shock at the extent of the cuts and rise in the fees. We failed to get a Lib Dem headline through the shock and we generally came across as very defensive, particularly Clegg (to be mocked for it). From February 2011 to June 2011 we were seriously attacked by the Tory machine in the run up to the referendum and elections and the extent of the cuts continued to create fear. The Lib Dems failed to show we were making a difference.

Interestingly, the attacks on the NHS reforms didn’t really give the Lib Dems a boost. Only once the issue had gone away did things start to improve. Equally, September to October saw falling poll ratings too, despite the conference. This was a relatively quiet period for the party and we failed to get many headlines which showed we were making a difference. The conference generally came over as defensive of our record (not easy, but right) and if there is anything to learn from the down periods in poll ratings it is that being defensive on our record does not work.

The upward poll ratings are more interesting. January 2011 to March 2011 saw the largest improvement in poll rating since we have been in Government yet this was perhaps the period where the leadership was least in control. Lord Oakeshott made significant criticisms of the Government and resigned from the Government. He was making regular appearances on the TV and radio and had a knack for easy one liner. At a similar time there was a lot of criticism of the cuts from local Lib Dems and Shirley Williams and others in the Lib Dems started to give serious criticism of Lansley’s NHS reforms. Together this seemed to give a sense that the Lib Dems were different from the Tories and had influence in Government – even if Clegg didn’t want them to be making these criticisms.

The phone hacking and the response to the summer riots saw the Lib Dems assert our more distinct identify which stood out from those of the Tories and from Labour, although I notice that Miliband did try and copy the Lib Dem positions (a new threat). And more recently we have seen a new assertion of Lib Dem values from vetoing the Beecroft proposals on employment law changes, attacking the eurosceptics and setting out the open society i.e. liberal society, which has benefited our poll ratings.

So what have we learnt?

  • Owning all decisions the Government makes does not work. This has been the biggest mistake we have made since the formation of the Coalition.
  • On big decisions announced by the Government, there needs to be at least one major Lib Dem concession, directly attributable to the Lib Dems, which shows our influence.
  • Asserting how we are different to other parties, including attacking the Tories, works.
  • Having the leadership attempt to control the party does not work. When other people have set out Lib Dem positions, even when it has been against Clegg, the message has got through.

So what does this mean for 2012?

  • Lib Dems should disown what we don’t like that the Government is doing.
  • Lib Dems should aggressively promote policies we have implemented.
  • Lib Dems should speak with more than one voice.
  • Lib Dems should continue to set out independent values.
  • Lib Dems should not be defensive of decisions we have had to take.

Good luck.

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15 Responses to A new year – time to take stock: What Opinion Polls teach us from being in Government and what it says we should do in 2012

  1. Andrew Suffield says:

    Polling went up after the tuition fees vote? That’s fascinating. It indicates that almost all of the loudly held opinions about the implications of that vote are wrong – that when it’s not the big media story, voters don’t actually care.

    • Hi Andrew, thanks for the comments, media certainly seems to play a big role despite what people say about its diminishing role

  2. ChrisB says:

    Happy New Year Matthew!

    Hope you had a good festive season and you’re ready for 2012.

    I’d be shocked if you found direct correlation between the input and output of a complex non linear system with this many points of interaction. Occasionally you see direct correlation on polls from real world events, but they’re few and far between and usually short lived.

    Also, ICM were no more accurate than MORI or Populus in the 2010 election. If we look back to 2005, NOP/Indie got the result spot on. I think you’re swimming in a sea of chaos and seeing patterns; whilst not unusual, you can’t base anything on these noise apparitions. If you chose one of the other 2 that were within 2% at the general election, you’d get a completely different narrative.

    • Hi Chris, Happy New year to you too and I hope whatever you did was just what you needed. I am hoping 2012 will be a better year for the Lib Dems but only time will tell. It would be interesting to have a look at other polling as you suggest, perhaps if I have time I will? In this complex non linear system that we find ourselves in, we only have ourselves which we have some element of control over and it is with us that we may (or may not) be able to make changes to the national voting picture?

      Thanks for commenting

      • ChrisB says:

        Hey Matthew,

        I had a great New Years, thanks – my family and I stayed on a friends farm, miles from humanity with enough cheese, whiskey and music to keep me happy. No phones, TVs or computers. Yourself?

        I don’t think you have to worry too much about this stuff – with any luck Milliband will become the new Clegg this year and that will probably do more for our fortunes than anything else. The media have burnt out their anti-Clegg rhetoric, they’ll move on to something else to drive sales; Cameron saved himself with the EU “veto”, Milliband is surely the next target. I’m going to tentatively suggest that 2011 was the low point. Sooner or later Lib Dem voters that hate some coalition policies will sober up and take a hard look at the alternatives (if Nick announces tomorrow we should ditch the NHS, can I edit this post?). By the next election they’ll look at the 3 candidates and have nothing good to think of any of them, and normality will be (nearly) restored.

        I don’t think you can find narratives (or causation) in data with proven margins of error bigger than the recorded dynamic range of the data – it’s like predicting the future by watching sand blow around a beach. To change the numbers beyond that (>3%) you’d have to change the subtext. Create several online identities, start rumours that Clegg is well endowed and that Milliband is a practicing adult baby. If you do it right (you’ll need some erroneous proof, “shopped” pictures, chopped audio, etc) it’ll get picked up by the press within a fortnight. I think most people are interested in simple aesthetics as regards politics (look how popular many fascist regimes were initially); few would want to be governed by an adult baby and many would be more comfortable knowing the guy in charge had a big shlong. As regards method – I learnt it from watching a lib dem start the ball rolling against Kennedy, and have seen it happen several times since. 1 person can certainly make a difference, just rarely with anything sensible.

        The thing that disturbs me most is political intellectual bankruptcy – the lack of fresh, innovative ideas from government. I used to really respect many politicians, even ones from other parties sometimes, but that is fading for me. Maybe I’m just getting old and cynical, but I don’t remember the last time I heard a politician say something that made me feel better about the future. This is why we’re controlled by media and perceived virility – because real politics seems like a distant memory. Where are the visionaries? Does nobody dream any more?!

        I need to do some work… :)

      • Hi Chris, I had a good New Year thanks. Spent it with friends in Oxford, the only person I didn’t know there walked away from me when we discussed politics! She didn’t like the Lib Dems very much. I do hope you are right that normality will be restored and I hope Labour don’t ditch Miliband before the next election – he is our best hope (which is bizarre).

        Do you know anything about Elliot Wave Theory? I presume you will know something about it, not that I know much about the stock market, but the theory makes the point that the market reflects the social mood and as we are in a bad social mood right now, perhaps the politicians are reflecting that and this is why there is no one making us feel good about the future? Or maybe the future isn’t going to be better, which is probably more accurate but depressing? I also think that we live in a bullying culture and anyone with good ideas gets ridiculed pretty quickly – I think it wasn’t so bad in the past. Now everyone wants to be the same, but a little bit different to stand out, but essentially the same. Having a vision means standing out and you get your head knocked off if you do that.

      • ChrisB says:

        Hey Matthew,

        EWT – these ideas were all superseded mathematically by Mandelbrot, but people in financial sectors rediscover them once every 20 years or so (because someone needs “new” snake oil to sell). If you search around you can find mathematical critiques of EWT, including debunks. Wow – just Googled it….never realised how many Snake Oil salesmen there are, makes Black-Scholes look good. :) The main modern exponents, e.g. Prechter, have been called out many times in the past few years as their predictions became less robust and they have often jettisoned large parts of the theory to try to make the numbers fit.

        As I understand it, EWT may seem to work in some cases because it contains the achievable peaks of a chaotic system (the fibbonacci series), however, it’s not a chaotic system and so could never be analogous to what it’s trying to represent and predict. Since wave phase is arbitrary in EWT it’s gambling with the slight advantage of knowing likely patterns of subsequent waves in either direction. Also, if it were true, it would change the market prices itself and thus negate its own effect, making it impossible to predict the market.

        My preferred book to explain the failures of such techniques and the real guiding forces of markets is “Fooled By Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb; can’t recommend this enough, it’s really easy to read. I believe Taleb also debunked EWT, although I’m pretty sure it’s not in that book. Saw this a second ago, didn’t read it fully but at first glance it would seem mainly right : http://www.tacticalinvestor.com/elliotwavedebunked.html Also, more broadly (Taleb/Mandelbrot) : http://www.silentpc.org/university/risk.pdf . Markets do not necessarily reflect the social mood – there are lots of bleak days in history that the market performed well on, similarly there are often no social correlations to big market crashes; such concepts are a misunderstanding of the systems and their interactions.

        This is essentially the same topic I always get at you for – Newtonian Systems vs. Complex Non-Linear Systems as descriptions of the universe and everything in it. It’s worth checking this stuff out because it can change your perspective on everything, and has the best answers to the biggest questions, like “where did we come from”, “how does morphogenesis work”, etc, and “what do polls mean”; you’d never write or think about politics the same again.

        You’re certainly right about ridicule – a lot of ideas are suppressed now because nobody wants to look stupid. Ironically this means we collectively look stupid.

    • Dominique says:

      Could you ealpxin what use are our achievements in the human rights field when we are proposing to take half over a million people’s legal problems out of legal aid entitlement? Rights need access to justice if they are to be effective.

  3. Nicola Prigg says:

    I agree with ChrisB. Also how would you suggest us to not be defensive when someone asks about cuts or tuition fees?

    • Hi Nicola, thanks for the comments and I hope you had a good festive season. When someone asks you about tuition fees or the cuts, what is your answer? And what is their response? Often a defensive position, in an attempt to persuade them that what we have done was the best/only option it creates the opposite of what we intended (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactance_(psychology)). There are many other techniques that can be used instead.

  4. Peter Hirst says:

    Perhaps if we orchestrated more rebellions giving the impression that we are willing to consider voting against government policy it might help.

    • Hi Peter, thanks for the comments. I think you are right, we need to show people we stand for something which means voting against things we don’t agree on. More rebellions?

  5. ChrisB says:

    Just stumbled across an interesting EWT fact – if you had tossed a coin to make stock market calls over the past 10 years you’d would of done over twice as well as if you followed Prechter, who has an accuracy of under 23% :


    So, don’t use EWT to “Play Your Cards Right”!

    On rebellion – whatever happened in the Lords seemed like an orchestrated abstention; since the public don’t know what agreement the coalition makes for these votes it all seems a little too cosy.

    • Hi Chris, thanks for this, very interesting. I have read some on EWT and it is not something that I am into. I don’t really have the time or money to be able to choose a method of investing anyway! I just thought the social mood concept was an interesting one considering what you had said about feeling depressed about political ideas these days. People were more excited about politics and things in general in 1997 than they are today and I wonder if there is something in the social mood aspect of it. If we live in a depressed social mood these days then everyone and everything is seen as terrible by people. Perhaps when the social mood/markets/economy picks up then the Lib Dems will have a chance of being seen in a better light than they are these days? But then it comes back to your point of needing some good ideas.

      On rebellion – we are beginning to look very uncaring, a bit like Thatcher?

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