How much can we rely on early polls?

How much can we rely on early polls?

Is Labour’s election a pollster’s nightmare?

With Labour leadership polls expected in the next few days it’s worth reminding ourselves that we should not pay too much attention, or risk too much cash, on findings so far ahead of the ballot.

At this stage, three months before the ballots went out, in the 2005 Tory race the Betfair price on then shadow home secretary, David Davis had tightened to 0.47/1. YouGov polling had him emphatically beating David Cameron in a match-up by 53% to 35%.

Of course the two parties and their leadership selection processes are very different but the point remains – you can’t come to too firm a conclusion this far out.

This is underlined by the only modern experience of Labour’s complex structure from the 2007 Deputy race when Hilary Benn was the overwhelming early leader in polls of Labour members and those in trade unions who were able to take part.

By the time of the final such poll at the end of May Alan Johnson had edged into the lead and he became the tight odds-on favourite – a position he retained until conference delegates heard three and a half weeks later that Harriet Harman had won.

This was the final YouGov poll of Labour members and those in trade unions who were entitled to vote. The comparisons are with the actual shares in the first round.

Candidate Unions actual Unions YouGov Members actual Members YouGov
Cruddas 27.27% 15% 13.89% 12%
Harman 13,05% 16% 19.62% 17%
Johnson 13.65% 26% 24.24% 24%
Benn 14.79% 22% 12.81% 24%
Hain 19.92% 15% 14.43% 13%
Blears 11.31% 7% 14.97% 9%

We then, of course, went through the exhaustive ballot as the bottom candidate got knocked out and the next preferences redistributed.

With the exception of the Benn figure YouGov did reasonably well with party members. Also the polling did not pick up how well John Cruddas was doing amongst trade unionists

In this race a lot could depend on the TV debates – the first of which has been scheduled for next week.

Mike Smithson

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