In the last few weeks, as ‘partygate’ and other Conservative party scandals have erupted, the opinion polls have gone into overdrive. Most pollsters have produced polls on a range of issues, at national level and at the level of individual constituencies. What do they tell us about the next election?
The general pattern of voting intention polls is very consistent. Last December, when all had been showing a small Conservative lead for a year, Labour began to overtake. Since then, all polls (well over a hundred of them) have shown a Labour lead.
In May, the Labour lead over Conservatives in all polls averaged 6 points, which on an even swing, would see Labour taking 112 seats from the Conservatives. But they would still be 11 seats short of a majority, which makes the most likely outcome a Labour minority government, with some kind of support from other parties.
However, national polls only tell us about national vote shares, and under our ‘first past the post’ electoral system, a majority of votes does not necessarily produce a majority of MPs. Because Labour voters tend to cluster in a small number of areas, while Conservative voters are more evenly spread, it takes fewer votes to elect a Conservative MP. So, to predict the result in terms of seats in Parliament, we need data about individual constituencies. However, on traditional polling, that would require a massive sample.
To overcome this problem, pollsters have introduced MRP polls. These estimate the voting in each constituency by comparing the population mix in each constituency with the known views of particular kinds of people, for example, the proportion of white men over the age of 65. Since March, four such polls have been carried out. All show Labour as the largest party, but only one suggests that they would reach the 326 seats needed for an absolute majority.
In March, Survation’s MRP poll showed Labour as the largest party, with 293 seats, 20 seats more than the Conservatives.
In May, YouGov examined 88 marginal seats . They predict that 85 of these would probably switch from Conservative to Labour, although 25 of them would be very close.
At the end of May, Electoral Calculus’ MRP poll showed Labour 7 seats short of a majority.
The most hopeful poll for Labour was Focaldata’s MRP poll for Best for Britain in April. This gave Labour a working majority of 10 seats. However, if the Reform Party stood aside for the Conservatives (as they did in 2019), Labour would need support from SNP and Liberal Democrats to govern.
A progressive alliance
Focaldata also asked voters how they would respond to a formal alliance between progressive parties, and found that this would bring Labour within five seats of a majority. They also found that a majority of Labour and LibDem voters were in favour of closer progressive cooperation, and the figure rose to three quarters among Green supporters. That suggests that there may well be considerable tactical voting to evict the Conservatives, whether or not the parties formalise any alliance.
Approval of leaders
Although, strictly speaking, people vote for their local MP, in reality they are often expressing a preference for a party leader. Who do they trust to lead the country and make wise decisions on complex and unexpected issues?
Eighteen polls since January have asked whether voters approve or disapprove of the party leaders. Although both have negative net scores (i.e. ‘approve’ minus ‘disapprove’), Keir Starmer, averaging -4 points, has a very clear lead on Johnson’s -31.
Another way of predicting voter behaviour is to examine the issues that voters think are most important, and how they evaluate the parties on those issues. Every month, YouGov asks people to choose the three most important issues from a list of 18.
Over the last seven years the pattern has changed dramatically. The list is now dominated by the economy (chosen by 62 percent) and Health (35 percent), while immigration (50 percent in 2015), has fallen below 25 percent, and Brexit has fallen from over 60 percent to under 20 percent.
On the economy, traditionally their strongest issue, the Conservatives have lost their 25 point lead, leaving the two parties equal on 23 percent. Furthermore, the two issues which played best for Conservatives in 2019 – immigration and Brexit – have dropped off the agenda. Health, on the other hand, is traditionally Labour’s strongest card, and here, Labour’s 5 point lead two years ago, has lengthened to 20 points.
Should we believe the polls?
People are rightly sceptical about opinion polling so far ahead of a general election. Unexpected events (like a change of Prime Minister) can change people’s views; voters do not always do what they say; and no polling system is perfect. But so far this year, seven recognised pollsters, using a variety of methods, and questioning well over 200,000 people, have all drawn very similar conclusions.
When polls of voting intention, leader approval and policy priorities are all pointing in the same direction there are grounds to believe that, barring some major change, they can be believed. If so, the next election is likely to give us a Labour government, possibly even with a majority.
In the East of England, between four and nine seats might change hands. Here, the MRP polls agree that:
- Labour will take Peterborough and Watford.
- Labour will probably take Ipswich and Norwich North.
- Three constituencies are finely balanced – Colchester, Stevenage and Welwyn/Hatfield.
- There is an outside chance that Labour would also take Harlow and Rochford.
- Liberal Democrats will take Cambridgeshire South.
A bit fairer
This would still not be a proportional result, but a much more representative one than what we got in 2019. And a minority Labour government, dependent on support from Liberal Democrats and Greens, might give us proportional representation and an end to the disproportionate dominance of the Conservative party which we have seen in the last half century.