Bob Worcester on the MORI 28% Tory lead

Bob Worcester on the MORI 28% Tory lead

bob worcester.JPG(This is the second guest slot that Bob Worcester, the founder of MORI (now Ipsos-MORI) has produced for PB in which he reviews the polls from his experience of nearly 40 years conducting and observing polls and how they are reported.)

    “Brown doomed as Tories head for 330 majority”

Have I got news for you, as they say, especially directed at the sub-editor on the Express who used the latest Ipsos MORI poll showing a 28% Conservative lead with the Tories at 52% share to write the ludicrous headline above over the story on 18 September by their political editor, Macer Hall. In his otherwise excellent copy, he talked about the ‘forecast’ represented by our poll. Have I got news for him, and many other journalists, print and broadcast, who so mislead their readers, listeners and viewers?

Polls don’t ‘predict’, ‘forecast’, or show anybody about to ‘head for 330 majority’ at the next general election, probably 20 months hence. Polls measure, within statistical reliability of c. plus or minus 3% how each party stood at the time the fieldwork was conducted.

Pollsters don’t read tea leaves, gaze into crystal balls, read politicians palm or the like, but they do read polls pretty carefully, and pay close attention to what people say in focus groups and other means by which they gain their information, and if they are any good, they rely on objective and systematic, hopefully reliable, information to inform them what the mood is at the moment, and if they take it upon themselves to forecast, they do so with good humour and the knowledge that inevitably they’ll be shown up at some point, and with the knowledge that the media will jump on it and not let them forget it.

I’ll never forget blowing a by-election years ago, and when confronted by the inevitable demand by the media to fess up to my mistake, said at the first question from the presenter, Peter Jay it was, “I blew it”. After the filming, he shared with me the list of half a dozen follow up questions he’d prepared to get me to admit just that, and laughed that I’d left him with not a lot to question, especially since his next question was ‘why?’, to which I replied that it had only happened the day before, and we didn’t have a clue, but would turn every stone until we knew exactly why we’d failed to reflect the likely outcome from a poll published the day before the by-election (not 20 months hence).

This month’s findings, was taken the weekend that the Labour Party was reeling from the first of its series of defections and resignations, calls for a leadership contest, and general malaise with Gordon Brown’s leadership, at the end of the lacklustre Liberal Democrat conference.

With political news ‘hot’, and before the worldwide financial crisis took over the front pages and lead items on the broadcast media, the poll received widespread coverage and comment. Much was made of the fact that the Tory lead cracked the 50% ceiling for the first time in 20 years, when in August 1988 the Tories reached 51%. But what happened then? Just over a year later, Mrs Thatcher lost her leadership contest, and John Major’s early lead slumped and he barely won the 1992 election. In fact, if one person in two hundred across the country who voted Conservative had voted for the second party in their constituency, it would have been a hung parliament instead of the 21-seat majority he received.

The Daily Record’s sub-editor who wrote the headline saying ‘Poll leaves Labour facing a wipe-out’ should also be listed in the “Sinners List”, as it is no more true necessarily now than it was in November 1981 when Mrs Thatcher was the least popular Prime Minister and the Tories tied a 27% share with Labour’s 27% and the Liberal/SDP Alliance went to 44% in the MORI poll (and to 51% in Gallup’s), yet she went on to win her famous 1983 general election victory when the Conservatives got the 44%, Labour was unchanged at 28%, and the Alliance came third, with 26%, a 9% swing in under two years (of course the Falklands War intervened.

There’s much more in the poll to interest, and indeed surprise, the careful reader. That for instance a majority of the public agree that Gordon Brown is doing a reasonable job in difficult circumstances, that by two to one people say they would prefer a Prime Minister who mainly acts on the views and opinions of the general public to make decisions (64%) to a Prime Minister who mainly trusts his own judgment and experience to make decisions (32%).

Finally, one journalist seemed to be puzzled by the fact that the bid jump in the Tory lead was mainly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats rather than Labour. Have I got news for him? Yes, it’s because the 16% lead among the 81% who might vote does soar to 28% among the 55% who say they are ‘absolutely certain’ to vote. This illustrates how many ‘natural’ Labour supporters are saying now they’ll not turn out to support Brown when the election does come. Labour’s 24% standing in the impossibly high 81% rather than at the 29% of certain voters at the 55% turnout represents my “30%/30%/20% rule”, that the core vote for Labour is about 30%, the core vote for the Tories is about 30%, and the core vote for the t’others is about 20%, leaving the 20% of ‘floaters’ to decide the outcome and size of majority of every general election.

Keep taking the polls…

Bob Worcester

Ipsos MORI interviewed 1,017 British adults 18+ by telephone 12-14 September 2008. Data were weighted to reflect the adult British population.

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