Thursday, 19 February 2015

Purples reined? The current polling and the betting implications for UKIP in 2015

By their usually noisy standards, UKIP have been quiet since the turn of the New Year.  Labour and the Conservatives have been knocking chunks out of each other on the NHS and tax avoidance, and their paroxysms over immigration have been forgotten for now.  What does that mean for UKIP's chances?
The polling
Is this period of subdued activity having any effect on UKIP?
We need to take this pollster by pollster, so that we don't get confused by differing methodologies.  But on this occasion, I'm afraid you're not going to get a clear answer.

Populus - since mid-November, UKIP have tallied between 12% and 16%.  Populus changed their methodology at the beginning of the month to prompt for UKIP.  Since then, UKIP have not polled below 14% with Populus, but we should be wary about drawing too many conclusions on a relatively small sample of five polls.

ICM - there is little pattern to UKIP's polling with ICM.  In the last year they have polled between 9% and 16%.  In the two polls since the turn of the year, UKIP have tallied 9% and 11%, but a sample of two is small.

YouGov - UKIP have tallied between 13% and 18% in 2015 so far with YouGov.  In the ten polls so far in February they have stayed in a tighter range of 13 to 16%. 
Survation - Survation are every kipper's favourite polling company.  Since the Euro-elections last year, UKIP have dropped below 20% with Survation just once and have hit 25% on one occasion.  The only poll so far this year from Survation has UKIP on a very healthy 23%.
Ipsos-MORI - Kippers are much less keen on Ipsos-MORI.  Since the Euro-elections, UKIP have polled over 15% with Ipsos-MORI just once and so far this year have polled 11% and 9%.
ComRes - ComRes show a more consistent picture than many pollsters, with UKIP registering between 15% and 19% in every poll since the Euro-elections.  In the two polls this year, UKIP have tallied 17% and 18%.
Lord Ashcroft - Lord Ashcroft has found UKIP in a 14% to 19% range ever since last May.  In 2015, this range has been 14% to 17%.
Opinium - Since the Euro-elections, UKIP have polled in a range between 15% and 21% with Opinium.  So far this year, UKIP have polled 20%, 18% and 15%.
TNS-BRMB - Aside from one poll where UKIP registered 23% in June, UKIP have tallied between 16% and 19% with TNS-BRMB since the Euro-elections.  The three TNS-BRMB polls this year have found UKIP polling 16% and, twice, 18%.

So in 2015, depending on which pollster you believe, UKIP could be as low as 9% or as high as 23%.  They could be seeing their support firm up if you believe Populus, or seeing it trend down if you believe ICM or Ipsos-MORI.

It is tempting to use an average or to try to proceed by consensus.  On this occasion, I believe that temptation should be firmly resisted.  We should not attempt to reconcile that which has been produced by methods which are incapable of reconciliation.  Ultimately, one approach is going to be right and others are going to be wrong.  We have four broad camps:

1) UKIP bears - ICM and Ipsos-MORI
2) UKIP glass half empty - Populus, YouGov, Lord Ashcroft
3) UKIP glass half full - ComRes, Opinium, TNS-BRMB
4) UKIP bulls - Survation

It is possible for all of these camps to be wrong and it is possible on the boundaries between these camps that two camps can claim to be right (camps 2 and 3 are not very far apart, for example).  But unless we see polling convergence in the last three months, at least two of these camps are going to be shown to have got UKIP wrong well beyond the margin of error.  Reputations are on the line.

In stark contrast to the Lib Dems, the pollsters have no consensus as to how to measure how UKIP are currently doing and whether UKIP are maintaining the progress that they made in the second half of last year. 

This is not the place to go into detailed analysis of the difference between different methodologies and their virtues (not least because the detail of that is well outside my knowledge).  I note only that good and reputable polling companies take very different views of how UKIP are doing right now.  If you are wise, you will keep your mind open to all possibilities.  We are in uncharted territory.

When we don't know where we are right now, it's much harder trying to work out where we might ultimately end up in May.  Even if you decide whether UKIP are going to hold steady, rise or fall, that information is of limited use if you don't know your starting point.

Constituency polling

There has been a lot of constituency polling.  Surprisingly little of it has focussed on seats of particular interest to UKIP.  Survation, at the behest of Alan Bown, have investigated the following seats: South Thanet, Eastleigh, Great Grimsby, Dudley North, Folkestone & Hythe, Bognor Regis & Littlehampton, Great Yarmouth, Rotherham, North Thanet and Boston & Skegness.  None of the Survation polls are particularly recent - the most recent ones are from last September.

Lord Ashcroft has surveyed the following seats (some of them twice) where UKIP were in contention:  Camborne & Redruth, Cannock Chase, Dudley North, Eastleigh, Great Grimsby, Great Yarmouth, St Austell & Newquay, South Thanet, Thurrock, Walsall North and Wyre Forest (and others where UKIP had hopes but which have not yet shown up particularly in the polling, such as Portsmouth South).  And today he unveiled results from South Basildon and East Thurrock, Boston & Skegness, Castle Point and Cambridgeshire North East.
UKIP have done well in many of these polls, but have a clear lead in only one: Boston & Skegness as conducted by Survation, where they registered a 20 point lead.  This contrasts with Lord Ashcroft's poll in the same constituency released today, which shows a small lead for the Conservatives.  We can't assume that there has been any kind of swing since September in this seat.  It may simply be differences in polling techniques. 
I have previously noted some peculiarities with the detail of the Survation poll in Boston & Skegness:

In any case should not rely too much on any one poll in isolation and try wherever possible to look at polls in aggregate to guide us. 

Both Survation and Lord Ashcroft also conducted polls in the four by-elections since the Euro-elections in May, which enables us to perform a rough sense-check on the likely accuracy of these polls.  I set Heywood & Middleton to one side, since it appears fairly clear that there was a late sharp swing to UKIP - as both Survation and Lord Ashcroft are at pains to point out regularly, opinion polls are snapshots not predictions.

Survation overstated UKIP in their final poll in all three of the other by-elections - by 1% in Newark, by 4% in Clacton and by 6% in Rochester & Strood.  Lord Ashcroft overstated UKIP in his final poll in Newark by 1%, understated UKIP by 4% in Clacton and overstated UKIP by 2% in Rochester & Strood.  On this very limited sample it seems that in by-elections both do fairly well in estimating UKIP's vote share in by-elections, but that Survation's house style may consistently tend to overestimate UKIP by a little bit.  (Both Lord Ashcroft and Survation seemed to underestimate the Conservative vote share in these by-elections by a bit too.  This meant that the margin of victory was greater for the Conservatives than anticipated in Newark and lower for UKIP than anticipated in Rochester & Strood.  But in all three cases they both predicted the right result.)

It's very dangerous drawing too many inferences from a sample of three, and we don't know how this  effect will read across to general election results or whether we have similar house effects to watch out for. Nor do we know how reliably the national polls relate to the by-election polls.  But I very tentatively draw the conclusions that Lord Ashcroft's constituency polls may well be there or thereabouts for the UKIP share of votes at least, while the Survation polls may be a bit on the high side for them.

Placing assumption on top of assumption

I feel as if I am placing a chair on top of a table that is balanced on a beachball now.  I have tentatively assumed that Lord Ashcroft's constituency polls are there or thereabouts on UKIP's share of votes.  I also am assuming that the Conservative vote share in Conservative/UKIP marginals may be understated by a bit.  With these assumptions in mind, I guess that UKIP are in the lead in only one seat right now: Clacton.  Possibly it is ahead in Thurrock and Rochester & Strood also: we don't know.  UKIP will hope that South Thanet will fall to them with Nigel Farage's high profile, though it remains moot whether that will be an advantage.

Even if it is not leading in many seats, UKIP seems to be close to the Conservatives in a handful of other seats.  (We have no external information to judge how UKIP's polling results in Labour/UKIP marginals reflect the underlying position, even on the most tentative of bases.)

So while UKIP may on a best guess be a bit behind the Conservatives in its key targets, it is breathing down the Conservatives' necks hard.  Two things may help them overtake the Conservatives from here: a good ground game and any improvement in the polls between now and 7 May.

In general, we should expect the Conservatives to have a better ground game than UKIP.  They are longer established, should have better systems in place and are better resourced.  Set against that, what are now Conservative/UKIP marginals have previously been safe Conservative seats, so the Conservatives may not have anything like the information available in these seats that they would have in previously-identified marginals. 

Castle Point looks likely to be an exception to the rule.  It was the first seat ever to be represented by an MP under the UKIP banner and UKIP have the local support of a long-established and well-organised group, the Canvey Island independents.  Lord Ashcroft's poll shows a statistical dead heat and that currently UKIP are well ahead on the contact rate.  The Conservatives are going to have to pull out the stops to hold that seat.

For UKIP to get more than four or five seats, though, my current guess is that they are going to need to make progress nationally.  But I must stress that this is a guess based on some fairly flimsy assumptions.  There are many alternative readings of the current state of play that are entirely plausible.  If you vehemently disagree with me in one direction or another, I will not be matching you in my vehemence.  Unless there's such a thing as vehement diffidence.

What we don't know

There's a contrast to be drawn here with the position of the Lib Dems.  There is much that we don't know about how the Lib Dems are going to perform, but the general battle lines are understood.  The Lib Dems are going to poll nationally nothing like what they polled in 2010, but will be trying to rely on their local reputation in constituencies where they are strong to salvage what they can.  The national polling from each pollster tells an internally consistent picture over the last few months and the various pollsters don't differ all that much from each other.  We have had a lot of polling from Lord Ashcroft in specific constituencies and the uncertainty is about how to interpret this information, not in the sense of how does it read across but in the sense of how accurate the polling actually is.  In the broadest terms we expect that the Lib Dems are going to do very badly against the SNP and Labour, can hope to hold the line a bit better against the Conservatives and the uncertainty is how far along each of these fronts the Lib Dems will be able to hold up.

We have none of these certainties with UKIP.  The pollsters are poles apart in their picture of how UKIP is doing right now.  We have limited constituency polling of seats in which UKIP have an interest and because the various national pollsters have such a radically different view of how UKIP is doing right now, we can't be confident about how to put this constituency information into an overarching picture.  Worse, we have no track record of how UKIP performs in general elections rather than by-elections, so we don't know whether UKIP will benefit from or suffer from tactical voting or whether its vote will be squeezed.  We have quite a lot of information and all of it is confusing.

How to use that lack of knowledge

We are used to betting by interpreting the knowledge that we have.  But on this occasion we can say fairly definitively that we don't have a clear picture of what is going on at a national level, that we don't have a clear picture of how that might change by May and we don't have a  particularly clear picture of how that will map onto individual constituencies.

Should we give up?  No.  The right decision may ultimately be no-bet, but just because we don't know anything doesn't mean that's automatically the right conclusion without further investigation.  Betting is a process of managing uncertainty.  This is just a different kind of uncertainty. 

From the betting reaction to the most recent polls from Lord Ashcroft, which has seen UKIP prices lengthen and Conservative prices shorten in Castle Point and Boston & Skegness in particular, it appears that punters had got ahead of UKIP's actual progress.  There may be a ripple effect into other constituencies where UKIP are short priced, though I will not be following that bandwagon if it happens.  UKIP seem to be decentralised as a party and it seems dangerous to extrapolate too much from constituency to constituency.

If you're very bearish on UKIP's chances, Ladbrokes' over/under markets are worth considering.  For example, you can get 11/2 on UKIP getting under 1.5 seats.  That doesn't appeal to me at all because of the decentralised nature of UKIP's operation, but if you take the view that both Survation and Lord Ashcroft are presenting a bit too rosy a view of UKIP's chances, there are worse bets.  You're taking one view of the uncertainty around UKIP's chances that stems from the polling chaos if you place this bet.  So long as you appreciate that view might very well be wrong.

At the other extreme, at the end of November I was able to back UKIP getting under 19.5 seats at 1/3.  The price for that is now 1/10 and I could if I wished close out this bet for a profit by backing the other side of the bet at 6/1.  I'm not remotely inclined to though, because UKIP's route to 20 seats looks at least as problematic as it looked then, and time is running out for the kippers to find that route.  7/2 for over 9.5 seats looks a little more tempting, but I'm still not tempted.

I don't feel the need to back UKIP in any constituency just now, but equally I don't yet feel the need to close off my current bets.  My expectation is that UKIP will hit the headlines again during the election campaign and that they will be backed in accordingly in seats where they are thought to have half a chance.  Punters have already got a bit ahead of themselves once in this direction, so I hope that they will do so again.

I hope to see more of that type of enthusiasm in the election period and if so I will be aiming to take advantage of that, but will probably ultimately be closing off most of my bets where UKIP are in the mix.  I'd need to be a lot surer of my ground than I am at present to leave some of the short priced bets open.

So my current position is indeed no-bet as regards UKIP, but I hope that it's a positive no-bet.  My position may change soon enough.

1 comment:

Dave B said...

Re: ground game.

The Ashcroft constituency polls asked a pertinent question.

"Q.8 I would like to ask whether any of the main political parties have contacted you over the last few weeks - whether by delivering leaflets or newspapers, sending personally addressed letters, emailing, telephoning you at home or knocking on your door. Have you heard in any of these ways from...? Base: All respondents"

Boston: Con 7%, UKIP 11%
Castle Point: Con 7%, UKIP 20%
NE Cambs: Con 7%, UKIP 4%
S. Basildon: Con 18%, UKIP 22% (Labour 18%)