Monday, 9 January 2012

Political strategy mistakes

So, as previously covered, Ed Miliband wants Conservative voters, but isn't willing to defect to the Tories to get them.

How's that working out for him?

According to YouGov polling, not well. The polling is mainly about the Lib Dems loss of voters, but there's a bit about the change from May 2010 vote to current voting intention.

According to the polling, 3% of those who voted Conservative in May 2010 would now vote Labour. Yes! Clearly the strategy of drifting rightwards is paying off!

Unfortunately, also according to the polling, 3% of those who voted Labour in 2010 would now vote Conservative. So allowing for margins of error, the net move from Conservative to Labour is indistinguishable from zero. Oh.

I can't say I'm entirely surprised. The second preference polling - back when AV was in the news - always gave extremely low proportions (around 5%) of Conservative or Labour voters who were willing to give their second preference to the "other side". Those voters are naturally also the most likely to transfer their first preference from one party to the other. And there's hardly any of them.

Similarly, page 5 onwards of the poll results gives "like/dislike" figures for each party, broken down by 2010 and current vote. Only around 10% of the 2010 or current voters for each party even slighty likes (6 or above out of 10) the other party. There's really not a lot of scope for persuasion there.

Now, the right wing of Labour will say, Blair won 3 elections by drifting rightwards. And this is somewhat true ... but, on the other hand:

  1. Correlation is not causation. Pretty much any manifesto would have beaten Major's Conservatives in 1997, and given their disarray, 2001 as well.
  2. Sooner or later, voters are going to decide that if they want Conservative policies, they might actually just as well vote for the Conservatives.
  3. The Conservatives can tactically retreat and win by losing.
  4. There's a major confusion between "position" and "rate of change of position" in the argument. Even if you accept that it's true that Labour moving to the right both caused their 1997-2005 wins and was a good position for Labour to be, that doesn't mean that a further move rightwards is still good strategy.
    For a sports analogy, football players in their 20s tend to perform better than football players in their teens. So, says the Labour election strategist, the team with players in their 50s will be even better.
  5. The usual comparision is with Labour's terrible 1987 election performance. But the Conservative party have not moved so far to the left since then that there are no meaningful political positions between "nationalise everything" and "the Conservative manifesto".
    Meanwhile, there isn't a lot of viable space between the "current Conservative position" and the "current Labour position" on a lot of issues.

The polling figures

...but then, what about the polls? Lib Dem and Other support has been roughly constant, and the relative levels of Conservative and Labour support seem to go up and down as you'd expect from good and bad things for one party or the other hitting the news.

The thing that's forgotten there is that the headline polls exclude1 "don't know" and "wouldn't vote".

Good or bad news for a party will probably cause some voters to prefer or drop it - but for or from "don't know", "wouldn't vote", or a minor party. When the impact of the news fades, then they might well drift back to their previous position. Because the polls are normalised, then this effect can look like one party is gaining at the direct expense of another - but, at least with the Conservatives and Labour, this is not actually happening on any detectable scale.

The relative positions of Conservatives and Labour have changed by roughly 10 points since the election, based on current polling. Essentially none of this net movement has been direct transfers. (Indeed, currently, both parties are doing better in percentage share terms than they did at the election itself)


1 Some polling companies instead attempt to reallocate these people instead, to improve the accuracy of their forecast. The overall effect is similar, though.