It’s safe to say that polling industry as a whole didn’t emerge from this month’s election with a lot of credit. Most of the major companies predicted a vastly increased Conservative majority instead of the hung parliament.
One of the few exceptions was Survation, which was one of the first to pick up the collapse in the Conservative lead, with its final poll having the Conservatives only 1% ahead of Labour. Survation also correctly predicted the “No” result in the Scottish referendum and, of course, the triumph of the “Leave” campaign last June. While its final published poll in 2015 put Labour ahead, an unpublished poll on the eve of the election put the Conservatives in the lead.
We’ve therefore decided to talk with Damian Lyons Lowe, Survation’s CEO and founder, about what makes Survation’s polls so special, and recent shifts in public attitudes to the EU.Lyons Lowe believes that his polls have done consistently well for several reasons.
Firstly, while most pollsters take a random sample and then try to make a lot of adjustments for demographics, Survation tries to ensure that its original sample is demographically representative (what pollsters call a “random stratified sample”) to begin with, so there is less need for adjustment. It also works hard to reach groups like younger and older people. Most importantly, Survation does not make arbitrary adjustments to turnout based on previous elections, “because every contest is different”.
Lyons Lowe thinks the main reason his competitors overestimated the Conservative lead this time was because they didn’t really understand why they got things wrong in 2015. Instead of “shy Tories” or “a spiral of silence”, their big mistake was not trying hard enough to contact hard-to-reach voters and their failure to capture the late surge to the Conservatives.
As a result, they overcompensated by assuming that young people wouldn’t vote this time. Days before the election, Patrick Sturgis and Will Jennings of the University of Southampton were warning that the unadjusted Conservative lead was much smaller than the headline figures.
Ironically these errors of judgement by the polling industry meant that “both Labour and Conservatives ended up being badly served by their internal pollsters”, resulting in them running inefficient campaigns.
Public opinion is moving towards a softer Brexit
For example, if Labour had known that they were closer to the Tories they would have been more aggressive, putting people and money into campaigning in marginal and targets, rather than defending seats which turned out to be safe. Similarly, the Conservatives would have been much more defensive, “if they had known that they were at risk of losing seats like Kensington”.
In terms of the wider EU debate,Lyons Lowe thinks that there has now been a shift in public opinion towards a softer Brexit. A recent poll for the TV show Good Morning Britain showed that 55% of people want to keep Britain in both the single market and customs union, compared with 35% those who would oppose such an arrangement. While most Labour and virtually all Lib Dem voters support this option, around 40% of Conservatives are at least not opposed to considering such a solution.
Another recent poll, this time for the Mail on Sunday, found that only 27% want to leave the Customs Union. Even more striking is that 60% of the public want cross-party involvement in the negotiations, including even 25% of Conservatives.
When looking at questions about Europe, it’s important to consider what is being polled.Lyons Lowe notes that the public generally doesn’t want a re-run of last year’s referendum, with 57% opposing another vote on membership. However, when you change the question to a vote on the final deal once the negotiations are complete then 48% of the public would support such a move, with only 42% of the public opposing it.
Beware the Tory “headbangers”
Again, around a quarter of Conservatives, and a third of those who voted Leave, would be willing to support such a move. Interestingly, if the referendum was to be repeated then Remain would be ahead by 50% to 47%.
Of course, there hasn’t been a complete reversal in attitudes. Although Theresa May’s lead over Corbyn has narrowed considerably, the public still trust her more than the Labour leader – by 52% to 39% – to negotiate a good Brexit deal. Two-thirds of people, including around 45% of Labour voters and a majority of Lib Dems, want Brexit negotiations to proceed, rather than being delayed. Finally, while only 30% of people think that leaving the EU without an exit deal would be good for Britain, 49% of people would trust Theresa May’s judgement if she came out and said that “no deal” was better.
Overall,Lyons Lowe thinks that these results give the PM enough room to moderate her position and support a closer post-Brexit relationship with the EU, at least as far as the public are concerned. Certainly he feels that “she would have the support of the Conservative parliamentary party” and would probably be also able to carry Conservative supporters.
The problem is that the “headbangers” would almost certainly try and depose her and replace her with either Boris Johnson or David Davis. The outcome of that scenario would all depend on how the membership voted, though previous polling of councillors suggest that they would be sympathetic towards her.