Saturday 29 April 2017

The Absurdity of Theresa May

British politics has long had an absurd streak, and in this regard we should commend the Prime Minister for preserving this fine tradition. Consider these exhibits from the last week of general election campaigning:

Theresa May visits a factory. She refuses to take questions from the press and the employer forbids workers from talking to the hacks.

Theresa May visits North Derbyshire and is interviewed by BBC Radio Derby. Asked about what Boris Johnson meant by calling Jeremy Corbyn a "mugwump", she replied "What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership."

Theresa May drops into another workplace in Leeds. Rather than engaging with members of the public, the party takes over the building after the doors close and a few dozen party members are bussed in. Interestingly, all of their paraphernalia is branded with Theresa May as opposed to the Conservatives.

Theresa May takes a helicopter ride to a wee hut in the forest near Aberdeen. The press are invited, but it's miles from anywhere and there's no mobile reception, hence live coverage is impossible. Questions are from pre-approved outlets and, again, Tory activists are substituted for the public.

You have to ask yourself, what the hell is going on with the Conservative Party general election campaign?

When the Tories are polling ridiculous numbers, their fear is they can only head down, and those taken from the last couple of days show Labour's vote appearing to firm up. Not enough to challenge the Tories at this stage but hey, a year of political volatility and all that. Hence the absurdity of the most control freakish election campaign ever mounted by a mainstream party. For all her 'strong and stable leadership' talk, she knows - and Crosby knows - that she would not survive first contact with the public. Everything must be done to keep her aloft and remote. Campaign images surrounded by adoring Tory activists are serviceable enough for the news. As far as her team and the pollsters are concerned, she could spend the next five weeks going from one invited audience to the next. The votes are in the bank, so why do anything else?

Also, the disappearance of the Conservatives from the branding in Yorkshire and now in Scotland isn't a new thing. It was road tested at last year's Holyrood elections. In Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tories found a personable vessel unencumbered by politics or scandal onto which all kinds of things could be projected. With their name mud after the Thatcher years and near destruction at the hands of Labour, to have a genuinely well-liked politician at the helm saw them dump their branding. It was Ruth Davidson's Conservatives. If you don't like the Tories but you like Ruth, why not give her as opposed to the party a punt. It was a clever pitch and it worked. Now look how the Tories are doing. Out rolls the same approach again in the North and Scotland. Theresa May is more than a Conservative politician, she's fighting for you to make sure the EU doesn't take Brexiting Britain to the cleaners.

May's appeal is her confected grown up, serious image. Some voters, older voters especially, find this reassuring. She might be a Tory, but she seems to be a safe pair of hands. Especially when you half-listen to her speeches about poverty, workers, inequality, etc. The 'strong and stable leadership' appears to contrast sharply with the other parties, and, of course, after the 18 months of backbiting, whingeing, sabotage and, in some cases, scabbing in the Labour Party. This has to be tackled head on, especially when May's leadership is anything but strong, let alone stable.

With nothing to lose, Jeremy Corbyn's energetic campaign is outward facing and engaging - the polar opposite than our "strong" PM's. That's one dart in the wallet. Another is how this looks like askance. For people leaning decidedly toward May, the fact this man the press, the Tories, and some of his own side have derided and traduced is making a good fist of it might be enough to give pause. He is, after all, not running away from a chance to debate May on television. These voters might not like him/think he's not up to it, but at least he's having a go. Ordinarily in politics, this wouldn't matter. In the dynamics of an election, between May and Corbyn poll after poll have shown a big preference for her. However, as we've noted previously, Labour's campaign is following a twin track approach. Jeremy is doing his leadership campaign on steroids thing, and sitting Labour MPs dubious of the leader's vote catching creds are going all-out local. Who's going to stand up for Stoke, for instance? Rob Flello, Ruth Smeeth, and Gareth Snell or a Conservative Party that has spent seven years cratering the Potteries with brownfield sites? Others are going one step further with Ben Bradshaw in Exeter arguing that Labour aren't going to win, but you can safely continue voting for him to provide opposition knowing Jez won't be entering Number 10. These local tactics, which result from Labour's difficulties, can play out in constituencies where the MP is dug in in who knows how many ways. In other words, if doubt is put into enough voters' minds about May's leadership, it could be capitalised on by Labour localism.

May's campaign, her person herself is coming across as absurd and frit. If that can be made to stick as much as her strong and stable nonsense, there is a chance the Tories won't have it all their way on 8th June.

Eurovision 2017 Preview

We may be bidding farewell to the European Union, but thankfully Britain remains a fully committed to the one supranational body that matters: the European Broadcasting Union. And so, with two weeks to go, it's time for our annual trudge through the highlights of this year's Eurovision Song Contest. Remember, I don't do predictions any more. Especially as Theresa May has gone and done one all over my there-won't-be-a-general-election-in-2017 forecast. Arrgh.

Enough ado, bring on the musics.

To get it out of the way and fly the flag, here's what we're sending to the contest:

"Together we'll dance through this storm" sings Lucie Jones. A message voicing our Brexiting malaise? Penned by previous Eurovision winner, Emmelie de Forest, it's alright. Forgettable but alright. Still, I don't think it's likely to trouble the other competitors and the UK will emerge as an also-ran, again. Something our country is going to have to get used to after 2019.

Patriotic service performed, who's next?

Israel had a very good Eurovision last year. Hovi Star's Made of Stars was easily their best entry in the contest since Dana International cleaned up back in the dim and distant. 2017's doesn't match the heights of either, but it's passable:

IMRI's ditty should give full credit to the Israeli tourist board. It's a nice, summery number with a tropical vibe. Definitely not a show beater but I Feel Alive should get through the heats and perform creditably in the competition. It will do better than our entry.

Next up is Macedonia's entry. Dance Alone by Jana Burčeska is a clubby number haunted by melancholy, which is just how I like it. Definitely one of the few standout tracks from this year's field:

What's next? Let's have us a bit of Iceland:

Going by the number of YouTube views, Svala's Paper is an interesting piece. Combining light EBM sensibilities with pop-friendly melodies, it's probably going to get overlooked and not make it through the heats. Interesting doesn't necessarily mean successful.

Okay, here's the moment you've been waiting for. Who's my pick? Again, perhaps an obscure choice but it definitely does not deserve to be. My favourite is ...

The Montenegran team know the Eurovision audience! What can you say? If Slavko Kalezić takes to the stage in black pants and nothing else, he's going to run away with it. And the braid. The braid. Fantastic. As readers know, it's all about the music in the end and Space is simply brilliant. A bit house, a bit 90s boy band, nonsense lyrics, once the wider Eurovision public get a taste surely love - and points - will come Montenegro's way.

Those are my picks for 2017. Have any caught your eye?

Friday 28 April 2017

Local Council By-Elections April 2017

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Mar 16






* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes
**** No Others this month

Overall, 13,498 votes were cast over eight local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Four council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with March's results, see here.

Only a few contests this month, so it would be foolish to read much into them. Though I will note that among the smaller parties, April 2017 is the first time the Greens have outperformed UKIP in a monthly round up. It's interesting. When Corbynism was at its shiniest new, the Greens suffered but managed to hold it together. Their vote wasn't unduly affected, and now they're doing relatively well. UKIP however are not at all. While you can put their poor result this month down to a blip, it comes in the context of their voters deserting them and going back to the Tories, a collapse in their organisation, and their tumble down the opinion polls. Perhaps their fate as a fringe racist party is upon them already.

There might be more interest in the outcome of next month's by-election what with a general election imminent. Across the spread of seats and local authority areas, it will be interesting to how much May's results approximate the outcome in June.

General Election 2017 Overview

Here's a wee piece I did for work. Readers will be familiar with some of the points made below, but there are a couple of new ones made here too.

The general election has been called and Britain is in for another six weeks of politicking before polling stations open on 8th June. When Theresa May made public her intentions, it did catch all the experts and pundits on the hop – me included. Yet when you sit back and think about it, you have to ask why no one saw it coming. The Conservatives have a slender majority, making the Prime Minister vulnerable to backbench rebellions. There are the investigations into alleged electoral fraud, which have the potential for by-elections in around two dozen seats. The Labour Party remains divided, and the Conservatives have a massive lead in the polls. Under this set of circumstances, any Prime Minister would want a general election. And so we have one – not even the 2011 Fixed Term Parliament Act stood in the way.

How then can the political parties expect to perform? The polls are unanimous about the outcome of an overwhelming Conservative win, but this also has its dangers. The 2001 general election, for example, was widely perceived as a foregone conclusion for Tony Blair’s Labour, and as a result large numbers of voters remained at home. Turnout was 59.4%, a post-war low. For Theresa May, who called the election ostensibly to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, an endorsement from the British electorate significantly below the EU referendum turnout (72.2%) would do nothing of the sort. Hence one strand of Conservative Party strategy centres on turning out its support, which is why they have pushed stories about the inaccuracy of polling, how the election might be closer than the polls suggest, and that there’s a chance a “coalition of chaos” between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and nationalist parties could be victorious.

The Conservative Party are also running a very tight campaign. The Prime Minister has faced criticisms from journalists for refusing to take questions during public meetings, to even go out to meet the public and, of course, her point blank dismissal of television debates. This speaks to a belief that the party is beginning from a position where they have everything to lose. A misstep here, an unguarded comment there, this could ripple out with consequences for electoral performance. Labour in the lead up to the 1997 election also adopted a very cautious approach, particularly with regard to policy announcements, though not to the point of actively fighting shy of the public.

If they believe they have everything to lose, in many ways you could assume Labour has nothing to lose, and is campaigning accordingly. Unlike the management from the centre of key constituencies, local parties are enjoying – if that is the right word – autonomy to determine the scope and emphases of their own campaigns. This has led to a twin track approach. Conscious that Jeremy Corbyn’s polling is much worse than his opponent’s, many sitting MPs and candidates are drawing on their campaigning record and are effectively trying to turn a general election into a local election. Expect to see plenty of literature along the lines of ‘who do you trust to stand up for you? The local MP of XX years or a Tory Prime Minister?’ The second thrust of Labour’s strategy is a populism-heavy barrage of simple but hard-to-disagree-with policies. Who, for example, can dispute four extra bank holidays to commemorate the patron saints of the UK’s four nations would be welcome, especially when we have fewer holidays than the rest of the EU? Who doesn’t want to see the rich pay more tax? Who can disagree with more funding for hospitals and schools? Labour know it has a good hand here as polling on Labour policies finds consistent support, and so if there is hope, it lies in the issues. And, in contrast to the Conservative campaign, Jeremy Corbyn is visibly out campaigning, engaging with the public, taking questions (sometimes hostile) from the media, and generally following the same tactics his team employed to great effect during the last two leadership contests. Compare and contrast: a leader comfortable with the people versus a leader who hides away from them.

Will this be enough to shift the polls and snatch an unexpected victory? Generally speaking, British electorates very quickly make their minds up about leading politicians. Unless a major event impinges or scandal erupts, it’s very difficult to envisage the distance being made up before polling day. However, as recent developments in politics remind us the unexpected can happen.

What about the smaller parties? The Liberal Democrats are set to have a good election, despite the campaign getting bogged down in questions over leader Tim Farron’s commitment to gay equality. They recruited heavily in the days following Theresa May’s announcement, and now lay claim to over 100,000 members. The party also has an excellent local campaigning record in the local authority by-elections over the course of the last year, winning seats from all parties and pulling off stunning victories in areas that heavily voted to leave the European Union. They are confident of winning back some seats lost to the Conservatives and Labour in 2015, and with some evidence that people who voted remain in the referendum are motivated to register their displeasure over Brexit in their party choices, this is a reasonable expectation.

The Liberal Democrats’ boon has been UKIP’s wake. Although their support had been declining before the referendum, it accelerated once their overarching policy objective was achieved. With a summer of leadership chaos and resignations behind them, their new leader, Paul Nuttall, was put to the test of the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election and was found wanting. Without that breakthrough, the party’s support has spiralled down further. The latest IpsosMORI poll puts UKIP on as low as four per cent, for example. To avoid a rout, they desperately need to carve out new niches for themselves. Previously, they made a great deal of the running on immigration, arguably pushing all the parties’ policies toward more restrictive positions. Hence this week, in an attempt to generate headlines and create new space for themselves, UKIP announced that it was in favour of banning burqas and subjecting “at risk” young girls to routine medical examination to check for genital mutilation. While most people would find these positions objectionable, it reflects the fact that the Conservatives now “own” the Brexit issue, and the party’s previous support is draining back to them on this basis.

Away from England and Wales, Scotland operates with a different party system, one in which the supremacy of the Scottish National Party is unchallenged. However, two polls last weekend suggest the Conservatives could win between eight and 12 seats. Some of this can be put down to the youthful and mercurial figure of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader whose tenure has, at least until very recently, avoided embroiling her in controversial political issues beyond Scottish independence. SNP incumbency also must have a bearing – they have been the Scottish government since 2007 and a number of long standing social problems remain unresolved. And lastly, Nicola Sturgeon has identified the clear remain vote Scotland cast last year to justify renewed plans for a second Scottish independence referendum. This has meant leaving remain-voting unionists and Brexit-voting yes’ers without a political home. Because Scottish Labour remain very badly damaged after the 2015 elections, and with the Conservatives as the official opposition at Holyrood, they effectively have a new constituency that didn’t exist until recently on which to build their support.

By way of a summary then, the general election is the Conservatives’ to lose. Apart from an unexpected crisis, there are only two other circumstances I can see them returned with a narrow margin of victory. One is where their new support resides. It’s all very well returning polling figures in the high 40s if the switchers are in seats the party already holds. For instance, going through the constituency-by-constituency scores from 2015, support for UKIP was much higher here, on balance, than their tallies in Labour-held seats. If that goes to the Conservatives, the expected flood of seats may dwindle to a trickle. Secondly, there are potential local deals between anti-Conservative parties. In places where the Green Party vote, for example, scored more than the Tory margin of victory in 2015, or that a renewed candidacy might subtract votes from Labour as the tide swings to the Conservatives, local Greens have been standing down their challenges. In Brighton Kemptown and Ealing Central and Acton this has already happened. We might see it in Derby North too. In addition to this, there are various tactical voting initiatives that have received varying publicity. Gina Miller’s anti-hard Brexit campaign, Best for Britain, has raised £300,000 and will seek to persuade voters to support pro-EU/pro-2nd referendum candidates. While such campaigns haven’t had much traction historically, they certainly did in Canada’s 2015 federal elections. With politics in a state of flux, could this thwart an overwhelming Conservative majority?

All the questions raised here will be definitely answered on 8th June.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Waiting for Jolyon

Political parties are more or less the expression of classes or class fractions. They organise classes, articulate and arrange their interests, and are a means by which they become conscious of themselves. The durability across nearly all the advanced nations of parties that represent business, that represent labour, that represent small employers and layers of professionals, and how all party systems have seen the eruption of left and right populisms tied to changes in class composition confirms the durability of that insight. Even in the more open party systems of Continental Europe, where parties seemingly appear over night and carry all before it, Emmanuel Macron's En Marche, Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, and previously Berlusconi's Forza Italia, do not escape this sociological truism. These parties and movement/party hybrids succeed where they succeed because they speak to and condense constellations of interests and conflict that exist in the real world. Politics is concentrated economics, and why it's a nasty, filthy, unprincipled affair.

If only politics wasn't like this. That, instead, it was a nice debate among nice people who only mean nice things. Is there a saviour among us who could transcend chronic division, cast aside the muck of ages and guide us along the golden path to full liberalism? Readers desperately casting around need not worry any more. There is a man, and what's more, he has a plan. I give you Jolyon Maugham, Queen's Chambers and Graun/Twitter celeb, and the Westminster-trembling news that he's (sort of) launching a political party. Yes, if liberal ex-ministers with loads of insider experience and a big media profile can get through to the final round of the French presidential elections, so an occasional guest on the Daily Politics sofa can shake up politics. And like Macron and sundry others, Jolyon's even given his party its own stupid name: 'Spring'.

Jolyon originally intended to stand in Theresa May's Maidenhead constituency but, after telling us he has "some great friends in the music and creative industries. Serious people ...", he reluctantly decided that Spring will not get its outing at the general election. Come now Jolyon, to announce a new party and then declaring an intention not to stand, what have you to lose apart from your deposit? If it had stood, it would have been a corker alright. Honest. Theresa May, politics as a whole would not know what to make of it. His shtick? According to the strategy document, Spring's debut campaign was about throwing a party. This would be
a joyous, optimistic thing. Not political.
Not talking about politics then, during an election. Great start. 

He goes onto say his party's, um, party would be about
celebrating unity. 28 days long, each day ‘hosted’ (food, drink costume) by one of the member states. We have bands, and comedians, and writers, and thinkers, and artists, and designers.
Foreign stereotype cosplay is perhaps best left for UKIP socials.
And to deliver focus, and urgency, and to frame the contrast with the nation at large, and to make the party a national event, we stand a candidate (Jo Maugham QC) in Maidenhead against Theresa May.
Are you going on the doorstep with your berets and bicycles?

On the feasibility of toppling Theresa May, Jolyon knew he was against a sheer face with jellied eels for grips. But he has positivity on his side, a can do mentality!
There are local pro-Remain groups. The seat has great symbolic value. And – most importantly – if we can inspire people with our celebration they will come again. They will come early, tomorrow. And knock on residents’ doors, and smile, and talk
I can imagine what most residents will say back when you let on you're part of the 28 day freak show parading through town.
The celebration will lay the foundations for a new political party. The strength of those foundations are our metric of success. We will collect members. We will build a brand. And we will raise funding. Spring. A new start. A brighter future.
Inspiring. Sign me the fuck up.
Spring is a party of the radical centre. Solutions for the world today and tomorrow. Not yesterday.
New Labour sloganeering to stir the soul.

After saying they're honest, fair, and progressive, he subjects the mainstream parties to withering critique.
Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Labour’s left and moderates are bent on one another’s destruction.
Hark at that on trend telly reference!
No one knows what the Lib Dems are for – other than the Lib Dems.
Nope. Everyone now knows Tim Farron very definitely, definitely loves gay people. But not in a gay way.
And we vote for the Tories reluctantly, lacking an alternative.
Do you now, Jo? Such declarations make your progressive creds look ropey ...

Then he moves to wrap up the strategy document.
Step One: Jolyon announces to The Maidenhead Advertiser that he’s standing. It filters out to the National Press. The website goes up, with a short biog, a teaser, a ‘register’ button and a ‘donate’ button.
Step Two: We announce the festival and some acts.
Step Three: We begin to release policies.
All of which would have got Spring off to a flying start.
There is a lot to do. But. If you build it, they will come.
Field of Dreams. Generations of political people who've read all the notorious tracts from The Prince to What is to be Done? have been doing it wrong.

Yes, there are a layer of people who'd love to see the EU referendum result reversed. And if it wasn't for the utterly foolish and downright dangerous precedent ignoring a clear majority result would be for a democracy, it might be a good idea. The problem is for these folks, remainiacs if you will, the European Union is more than a trading bloc with an opaque bureaucracy. It's their Soviet Union, their City on the Hill, their Jerusalem. In their minds, the EU condenses Enlightenment values and liberal internationalism. It's an achievement standing above the nationalisms and tribalisms of old, that proves we can all get along on the basis of common humanity. And they have the nerve to look down their noses at Leave voters and call them deluded. It's stop-the-world-we-want-to-get-off, liberal-stylee.

Jolyon might think he's putting down a flag and showing leadership, but the laughable awfulness of his foray into party politics shows he's rudderless and without ideas. The remainiac milieu not drawn into the LibDems haven't a clue what to do next, and from that flows confusionism and sense-denying idiocy. At least those taken in by the yellow party, albeit under a false prospectus because they think the referendum result should be honoured too, have a focus. They're getting stuck into politics and helping shape the post-Brexit landscape. What is Jolyon and his oh-so modest "party" doing, apart from parading his naivete?

Tuesday 25 April 2017

The Scottish Tory Resurgence

This general election is very interesting. Particularly Scotland. Last weekend, Survation for the Sunday Post had the Tories on 28% to the SNP's 43%. This could net them eight seats at the nationalists' expense. Panelbase for the Sunday Times has them down for 33%, or 12 seats. As this is a social science blog that prefers facts over nice illusions, how can this uptick in Tory fortunes be explained?

Let's backtrack to the Britain-wide fall out of the Brexit vote. For some time, we've noted how in England the losing side has acquired a political dynamic of its own. The Liberal Democrats - the party most associated with staying in the EU - are surging in council by-elections and piling on the members. They sailed past the 100,000 figure this week and look set to bust through their all-time record. Had the referendum gone the other way, no doubt Leave would be pulling in and motivating a layer of voters. Rather than getting a battering in Stoke, UKIP may well have taken the seat and it could have been them surging in local contests, instead of dwindling away. Careful what you wish for indeed. We saw a similar dynamic unfold in Scotland after the independence referendum, and the blood price the SNP extracted for their defeat was the destruction of Scottish Labour.

Remain voters are energised and leave'ers are less so, the majority of the latter appearing to line up behind Theresa May. In Scotland, the shoe is on the other foot. With the utter dominance of politics by the SNP who, lest we forget, have been running the Scottish government for almost a decade, and are pushing another independence poll on the basis of the Brexit vote, the SNP is clearly the party of remain. It then begs the question where to go if you don't feel the nationalists speak for you on independence nor the EU? With Labour down for the count, it has to be Ruth Davidson's Tories. After all, they're not the Scottish establishment and, rape clause notwithstanding, Ruth is so personable and warm that the Tories can't be too bad.

With the cohering of the Leave/No vote around party lines, so the SNP could well lose seats to the Conservatives. A disaster for Scottish nationalism? Not in the slightest. While Sturgeon would rather not bid farewell to however many MPs, a viable Scottish Tory party suits her party's interests. They can be singled out as a warning against complacency, a visible enemy to overcome. And it allows her to burnish the SNP's social democratic creds regularly, strengthening the binds of irrelevance keeping Labour down. If you want a progressive alternative to what the Tories are doing at Westminster, Our Kez and friends aren't in a position to deliver it are they?

The looming problem the SNP have, however, is the danger they may have overplayed their independence hand. When all people hear is independence, 2nd referendum, independence, 2nd referendum, voters can get fed up. That leaves the SNP vulnerable once the shine starts to dull because their time in power has been less than stellar. Education inequality in Scotland is shocking, and the SNP appear powerless and clueless about what to do. That and other issues can leave them vulnerable to the Tories and their specious - but effective - rhetoric of one nationism and having plans for everything.

We will see if the results bear the polls out in the local elections, and then on June 8th.

Monday 24 April 2017

How Opinion Polling Works

Which of these is most representative of public opinion at large? A heavily gamed voluntary poll of 160,000-odd people done on the behest of This Morning that shows a commanding lead enjoyed by Jeremy Corbyn over Theresa May; or any of the recent spate of polls by professional polling companies who show very much the opposite consistently on the basis of samples between 1,000 and 1,800 people. I have to ask because lots of people have been pushing ITV's poll as more representative than anything YouGov can come up with. After all, it covers more people. The latter? Pah. It was founded by a couple of Tories and provides findings politically convenient for Jeremy Corbyn's opponents. If they were free and fair it would show more support for Labour because I know loads of people who support Labour.

If you happen to share these views, you're wrong. The methodology of opinion polling has been refined over decades of research, and why pollsters and other researchers (including distinctly un-Tory sociologists like me) can make confident generalisations from seemingly small pools of people. This operation has two dimensions to it, but both kinds of test deal with probabilities.

Before anything, we need to start with the ‘null hypothesis’. This is the assumption that when we approach two social phenomena there is no relationship. The maths underpinning statistics are set up to confirm or refute this hypothesis. In the case of polling, tests of statistical significance show the likelihood that claims of no relationship between the cases under study and the results can be rejected. Hence when a poll is compiled, characteristics reflective of the population at large are selected for. For a typical poll, the sample group of, say 1,000 respondents, represents in miniature the population at large or the segment of the population the operation wishes to survey. If we don't do this, then a huge validity question mark hangs over the subsequent claims made. A sample should approximate as much as possible the age, income, gender, ethnicity, etc. profiles of the group or sub-group to be studied. If 30% of the population are over the age of 60, then that should be the case with the sample. If 10% are from a non-white ethnic background, it needs to be reflected. I’m sure you get the picture. Selection then is never completely random but is within the parameters set by the research design. If you’ve never been contacted by a polling company, don’t take it personally!

We have our pool of demographically representative respondents then, but how can we surmise that the views of the sample are equally as representative? This is where tests of statistical significance come in. These are mathematical procedures designed to establish the likelihood that observed characteristics – in this case political opinions – are random (i.e. the null hypothesis is true) or infer a pattern of views that really exist “out there” in wider society. All surveys compute statistical significance tests, which you can usually find by burrowing into the data sets polling companies release along with their results. These tests ask a simple question: if a hundred representative samples were taken, what number of the observed results could be put down to chance alone? If the computed figure returns 0.6, then 60% of cases can be put down to randomness, for example. If it’s 0.05, then five per cent of the sample cases are likely to be random, and so on. The lower the level of significance, the more confident researchers can be that observed data reflects real proportions existing in real populations. When it comes to statements about samples, researchers typically use either 0.05 or 0.01 depending on sample sizes (large for the latter, small for the former). i.e. We are 95% or 99% certain that observed patterns really do exist and are not an artefact of the maths.

This isn’t the only test of statistical significance available. Instead, one can produce an ‘interval estimate’ which, instead of identifying the probability of sample patterns mirroring those of general patterns, looks at errors in sampling. For instance, if 48% of our sample say they’re going to vote Conservative, and such polls have done the rounds recently, how close to the real figure is this finding? This can be inferred by computing a standard error statistic. This means multiplying the Tory figure (48) by the non-Tory figure (52). This gives us 2,496, which is then divided by the sample size. Assuming a sample of 1,000, this equals 2.496. We then apply a square root, which gives us 1.578. This is all very well, but why? This standard error can be used to suggest the real number will be circa 1.6% above or below the polling figure. We have already seen that >0.05 (or 95%) is taken as an acceptable level of certainty in our previous significance test providing, of course, the sample is representative. If it is, we can say with 95% confidence that the numbers of people planning to vote Conservative will be 48%, +/- 1.6%. For example, this is why pollsters in the lead up to the first round of the French presidential election found it very difficult to call because the four front runners were, at times, all within the margin of error of one another.

Sometimes pollsters weight their samples in a particular direction. For example, rather than going for an accurate snapshot of the general population, they sometimes ensure older people are over represented and younger people underrepresented because, as we know, the old are much more likely to vote than the young. Likewise, people from low income backgrounds, have lower levels of formal qualifications, and so on might be scaled down for exactly the same reason.

There you have a very basic overview of polling. There are criticisms of significance testing, and in this age of Big Data a growing clamour suggesting that sampling of this sort may have had its day now huge data sets are available (though, it has to be said, most of these are under the lock and key of public bureaucracies and private business). There are specific criticisms one can make of polling companies. YouGov, for example, is reliant on a database of voluntary sign-ups. There are about 800,000 who’ve joined their UK panel, so while they are likely to not reflect the general population the company has enough data about their demographic characteristics and preferences to construct representative samples out of them. However, they have got into murky waters when they’ve tried polling members of organisations. For one, they have no hard data on the characteristics of their wider membership and so have difficulties generating representative samples. And also, they sometimes have very low numbers of people belonging to certain organisations. I can remember them conducting a poll on Jeremy Corbyn’s support among trade union panel members, and arrived at the CWU’s result after asking just 50-odd people. The union has around 190,000 dues payers.

As a mathematical discipline, statistics have two centuries of scholarship behind it. Polling might get it wrong occasionally, but again that's because it deals with probabilities. Researchers and pollsters can learn from these mistakes, methods can be refined, techniques can be calibrated, improved. Unfortunately, rejection of polling because a leading firm is owned by Tories, because they are used for self-serving political reasons, and because they show Labour plumbing the depths doesn't mean they're wrong. To pretend they have to be because they contradict your experience and views is naive cynicism. The problem is this gets us nowhere. Clinging to illusions is only setting yourself up for a fall when reality crashes in.

If we want to change the world, we have to ask questions, analyse, think, and explain. If things aren't going our way, why? And on that basis, what are we going to do about it? That's the route to making things better because it's the only way.