2017 General Election Diary Day 21: Polling, polling, polling

Let’s talk about one of my least favourite innovations in recent politics: the Twitter poll. I understand the thinking behind Twitter introducing it – ‘interact with your friends and get their opinions’ – but like all seemingly benign social media inventions, its taken on a new and more twisted life of its own complete with the annoying accompanying phrase ‘please RT for a larger sample’. While as a social scientist I’m glad that people have understood that sample size is an important aspect of polling, it’s only been taken on in the way of a cargo cult, where the more click offerings one makes to the gods of polling, the more accurate the poll will magically become.

The problem is that it doesn’t work like that – your sample size can be as large as you like, but if you’re not sampling the right thing, you’ll not get the right result. The classic example of this is the 1936 US Presidential election, where the Literary Digest predicted Roosevelt would lose based on asking millions of its readers to respond to a poll. Their results – from a sample of over 2 million people! said there’d be a clear victory for Alf Landon over Franklin Roosevelt by 57% to 43%. The actual voters went decisively the other way, giving Roosevelt a 60%-37% victory. The Literary Digest sampled lots of people, but it didn’t cover a wide enough range of the population to get a genuine picture of how people would vote. Actual opinion polling is more concerned with getting a representative sample of the population rather than the size of it because if you properly strike the balance between a random sample and a representative one you’ll get a broadly accurate response. There’s still a chance they’ll get it wrong – that’s the problem with taking any sample rather than the full amount – but they’ll usually be in the right range. Any poll with a self-selecting sample is only going to be right by accident, not by design and trumpeting that your Twitter poll shows the result in a constituency or that the Bus Pass Elvis Party are about to sweep the country isn’t far away from demanding to know just why Wikipedia’s page on Alf Landon doesn’t mention his Presidency.

and no, I’m not going to discuss the more accurate polling right now because the numbers are just far too depressing and we spent far too much time in 2015 obsessing over variations that were firmly in the margin of error than was ever healthy.

In more important news, the retreat into Potemkin campaigning continues with Theresa May now apparently only taking pre-approved questions from journalists while Buzzfeed are now barred from Corbyn events for the the crime of having reported something he said to them. However, we will get the spectacle in a couple of weeks time of seeing Paul Nuttalls of the Ukips being interviewed in primetime by Andrew Neil. But not Caroline Lucas, either because the party with an MP that won more than one council seat last week isn’t important, or because the death stare she’d give Andrew Neil after half an hour of his patronising nonsense pretending to be questions might harm the audience.

And finally, it’s time for Election Leaflet Of The Day, and we have out first independent General Election candidate to be featured. Ajmal Masroor is standing in Bethnal Green and Bow, and his leaflet makes much out of the fact that he came second to Labour there in the 2010 election while standing as a Liberal Democrat candidate. He also, in a rare event for someone standing who’s not previously been elected to Parliament, has his own Wikipedia entry which indicates he’s quite well known and unlike many other candidates we’ll likely see over the next few weeks, understands enough to get his leaflets properly designed and written. That may make him a candidate worth watching for a surprise result, or it may just indicate an independent who’ll achieve the rare feat of keeping his deposit.

Thirty days till he, and many hundreds of others, discover just what’s happening to that £500.

2017 General Election Diary day 6: Record breaking

Two bits of ‘things not seen in many years’ news coming out today. First up, Liberal Democrat membership has passed 100,000 for the first time since 1994. The milestone was passed at some point today, and the 100,000th member has yet to be revealed, but it’s another example of the way the party’s membership hasn’t just bounced back after the coalition but rocketed on to levels no one was really expecting to see again. The record membership for the party was just a little over 100,000, so expect to see that record broken at some point in the next day or two as well.

It will be interesting to see how this new membership affects the party, given that now over half of the party has joined (or rejoined) since the 2015 General Election. Will these new members be active campaigning in their local parties? Will they all want to come along to the party conference and use their right to vote? Of course, this is only a modern record for the party, as the old Liberals had membership in the hundreds of thousands up until the 1960s, but as I explained in an earlier post on why people join political parties, a lot of that membership was strictly local and more based on wanting to use the facilities of the local Liberal Club than any political tendency.

(For fans of international comparisons, I believe this makes the Lib Dems the largest party within the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, but still behind the Canadian Liberals in the contest to be the largest in Liberal International)

Our second bit of record-breaking comes in Welsh polling news. (Yes, I know I ranted about obsessing over polls yesterday, but I’ve got space to fill and tenuous links to make) Just as Labour look set to head back to early 1906 in having no MPs at all in Scotland, so the Tories are looking to head back to the 1920s in Wales. Which is when they were the largest party. It’s starting to feel like as well as John Curtice for the psephology, the BBC’s election night coverage is going to need a team of historians to keep up with all the ‘first time since’ news that breaks during the night.

With most political commentary looking over the Channel and processing the French Presidential first round results (if you missed it, my take is here), there’s been a slightly muted quality to election campaigning today, which might explain why no one’s seen Theresa May out taking the arguments to the people at all in the last twenty four hours. However, this morning did give us the now traditional first election sighting of Michael Fallon saying that Labour will be bad for Britain’s security. The real challenge for interviewers now is seeing just how long they can keep him talking for before he lapses into that soundbite, though anything longer than a few seconds seems frankly impossible.

In ‘maybe this is the moment that finally collapses this reality back into the real timeline’ news, Ed Miliband has started following the Miliverse Twitter account, which tells us what would have happened in a world where he’d won the 2015 election. Spoiler alert: there’s a lot less Brexit and a lot more arguments over biscuits.

And finally, it’s time for the return of the regular feature that at least one person mentioned on Twitter in the last week so I can claim it’s by popular demand: Election Leaflet Of The Day! And when it comes to the General Election, that title is even more descriptive than usual because we have just one General Election leaflet on the Election Leaflets site – and it’s from Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth South candidate for the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, Gerald made the classic error of being in such a rush to get the leaflet designed, printed and delivered that he forgot to include anything in it that makes for easy mockery from a blogger like me looking for cheap laughs. However, as the candidate of the first Election Leaflet Of The Day, he is now assured a place in a very, very, tiny footnote in the most meticulously detailed history of this election, should someone choose to write that.

And even though this isn’t a local elections blog, I do feel someone has to draw attention to this leaflet’s ‘we’ve paid for the stock footage of a magician, so yes, we’re using it, I don’t care how little it connects to the text’ aesthetic. I expect to see those principles applied to General Election publicity in the next few days, or I’ll start believing people aren’t really trying.

2017 General Election Diary day 5: Whatever you say, it’s wrong

It must be great to be the person in charge of the Tory smear campaign, because you have to do so little work of your own. Just nudge out a little bit of disinformation and wait for the circular firing squad (motto: ‘the good is always the enemy of the perfect’) of the left to pick it up and deploy it far beyond any reach you might have managed yourself. Having tested out the appratus on Tim Farron, which has now – despite the voices of many LGBT people – got elements of the left denouncing him as though he spends his weekends out with Westboro Baptist Church, we’re probably getting close to the time when the opposition research they’ve been doing on Jeremy Corbyn for the past two years finally gets deployed. It’s not as if we didn’t know from the US that a well-coordinated smear campaign can turn everything about a candidate upside down, but the sheer amount of material they can dump on Corbyn.

In short, if you’ve been cheering on the attacks on Farron, then be prepared to experience the same thing happening to your leader. It’ll make what happened to Miliband last time and Clegg in 2010 look like nothing.

In other Lib Dem related news, Tim Farron has ruled out the possibility of joining a coalition with either Labour or the Tories, which you would think is what all those people who were saying the party would go into another coalition with the Tories would want to hear, but it turns out that just because he’s said something, that doesn’t mean anyone has to actually accept it. I’m starting to think there are some people out there who have decided that they’re not going to listen to anything he or the Liberal Democrats and will denigrate the party regardless. Like Clegg before him, he could come out tomorrow and announce a cure for cancer, and the legions of keyboard warriors would soon be at the barricades to tell us how it shows he hates people dying of heart disease.

Right, that’s enough Lib Dem ranting for now, let’s talk about polling instead. One thing that characterised the 2015 general election was the inordinate amount of time people took to discuss every new opinion poll as it came out. Every night on Twitter was a countdown to the day’s new polling coming out, which would be dissected in detail, plugged into one of the election calculators, while each of the seeming dozens on polling aggregators and prediction sites updated their figures, and we all discussed which of the models might be the most accurate. Then the result came in and it turned out that all the polls had been out throughout the campaign and all those hours we’d spent discussing them during the campaign had been a complete waste of time.

So, what with that and the referendum, you’d think we’d have learnt our lesson and to an extent we have as there aren’t (yet, at least) the plethora of sites devoted to election number-crunching but it’s still been interesting to watch political Twitter grind to a near halt as the latest polling results come out and everyone pounces on them to dissect them. Sure, there might be some interesting things in them (Scotland could be without a Labour MP for the first time since 1906, for instance) but turning the entire discussion about the election into a discussion about what the polls say about the election didn’t work out too well for us two years ago, so why are we content to watch it happen again?

OK, that’s all for today, time to catch up with the new series of Versailles so I can use it as an ill-advised metaphor for analysing the French Presidential results tonight. Does Louis XIV represent Macron, the young man challenging the way power is used in France; Fillon, the traditional Catholic values of the nation; Le Pen, the appeal to a France that controlled its borders; or Melenchon, because the Sun King wanted a France that was unsubmissive to the rest of Europe? Or is it merely a nicely-made TV programme, the background to which reveals interesting things about Franco-British media relations? All hot takes can be catered for, once we get an idea of the results come in.

Are there just too many opinion polls?

It’s the afternoon of the 19th of January as I write this, not long after Lord Ashcroft released his latest voting intention poll for the general election. According to the New Statesman’s database, this is the 22nd opinion poll released so far this year, and there’s at least one more to be released today. We’re still almost four months from the election and we’re currently averaging over one opinion poll being released a day, not forgetting the many different polling aggregators and polls of polls that update regularly based on the new figures that come in.

Given that I’ve blogged, tweeted and discussed polls many times before, and I’m a student in a department that has consistently used various types of polling data, this may be a somewhat heretical question, but are there just too many polls out there now?

It seems to me that we’re in a situation where we’re getting much more polling information than we’ve ever had before but there’s so much that it’s almost impossible to distinguish signal from noise. Minor up and down movements in daily trackers are dissected and analysed by a Twitter crowd of thousands, and that discussion is then forgotten the next day when the reverse movements are treated with the same reverence, despite it being just a return to the norm. Most of the polls are all within the margin of error with each other, giving us the oddly paradoxical result that only those that are significant outliers from that norm get properly remembered.

The other problem is with that so much polling out there it comes to dominate the conversation because everyone can find a little snippet of polling data that supports the argument they want to make. Want to argue that everyone should note the rise of the Greens? Ashcroft’s latest has them at 11%. Want to argue that UKIP are the main threat to the establishment and the Greens are nowhere? ComRes have UKIP at 18% while the Greens are just on 3. Looking to argue that as the election comes closer, people will stop flirting with minor parties and go back to voting Tory or Labour? Populus have them both over 35%. Want to argue about different polling methodologies and the effect they have on the results? Take your pick, and go for it.

This is in January for an election in May. As everyone steps up their operations as the election comes closer, and more and more attention is paid to the polls that do come out, they’re going to dominate the election discussion even more. We could reach a point in April where there’s a different poll showing opinions UK-wide, in Scotland, for a region, a constituency or the important left-handers under 35 demographic every hour of the day.

Yes, data is a good thing, but too much data thrown at people without the time to process it all is going to lead to everyone cherry-picking the results they like best and ignoring the rest. No one needs to change their mind because everyone can find support for what they want to believe.

We’re about to be buried under an avalanche of data, from which I’m not sure anyone will be extracted without injury. At least the election actually happening might give us a break for a few days, right until someone decides they need to know what the result would be if the election had been held a week later.