The New Welsh Political Barometer Poll

Just a brief post about the new poll. It was conducted on Tuesday to Thursday this week, and results will be released next week – starting with voting intention figures for the National Assembly election on Monday morning.

We have various other ‘goodies’ for you to look forward to: Westminster voting intention, EU Referendum voting intention, leader ratings for all the main UK and Welsh leaders (including those for the Greens), and a couple of questions about the main issues that people think are important.

A brief point about methodology. YouGov’s revised sampling and weighting scheme has not yet been rolled out. So for the next poll we will be following the same procedure as the last few ones in Wales, which includes weighting by 2015 general election vote. This does at least mean that there should be no problems with comparing the findings of this poll directly with those of our previous few Barometer polls.

I hope that I have whetted your appetite. Not long to wait now. And there is plenty of interest to come, I can assure you…

The State of Political Polling

Since Elections in Wales burst upon an unsuspecting and defenceless public in July 2013, one of the things I’ve sought to do with the blog is promote an awareness and intelligent discussion of opinion polls. By that I mean not only publishing the findings of polls, and trying to make the details available for people to examine; I also mean a discussion of the potential limitations of surveys and polling.

Some of those limitations were, of course, very publicly demonstrated at the general election. The errors made by pretty much all the pollsters in their estimates of Labour and Conservative party support have prompted several enquiries and plentiful discussion about opinion polls. Some of those enquiries have now issued reports. The interim presentation made by the official British Polling Council inquiry is available here. There have also been some very interesting reports published in recent times by the British Election Study; by the British Social Attitudes study; and by YouGov. There has also been a very interesting three-part Radio Four series presented by David Cowling.

I’m not going to attempt a detailed summary of all these reports here. If you can’t quite bear plunging straight into them, the radio shows offer, I think, a very good introduction to the pertinent issues. Another very helpful introduction has been offered by YouGov’s Anthony Wells at his excellent UK Polling Report blog here. Put very simply, the main problem with the polls appears to have been with the construction and weighting of the samples, which have not been sufficiently representative of the electorate – and, most particularly, that section of the electorate that end up voting.

Finding consistently reliable fixes to these problems may be far easier said than done. Bluntly, if the problems were easy to fix then I suspect most of them would never have arisen in the first place. Working more closely with various polling companies in recent years I’ve become acutely conscious that polling is not at all an easy thing to do well. Moreover, in some respects it is getting harder: telephone polling, in particular, is getting ever more difficult as more and more people screen out calls or simply refuse to respond to surveys. I would certainly agree with Lord Ashcroft, who observed on his polling website recently that “the polling world has been remarkably open and honest in facing up to what happened and trying to put it right”. Still, openness and honesty don’t actually provide solutions to the problems.

But while the pollsters have been getting plenty of flak over recent months (some of it, at least, probably deserved), I don’t think they are the only ones who have lessons to learn from last year. There are also important lessons for political journalism. Opinion poll findings should be reported to the public: if this information exists then the people have a right to know about it. But reporting on opinion polls well requires attention not only to the immediate details of how polls are reported (i.e. getting the numbers right, and showing an awareness of ‘margins of error’, the importance of question wording etc etc). It is also important to consider how polling can inform or shape the broader narrative within which the election is reported and understood. In retrospect, I think many political journalists – who I fully recognise are also people with a very difficult job to do – would acknowledge that the polls probably became too central to the entire narrative within which much reporting of last year’s general election was conducted.

Does any of this have any specific implications for Wales – and particularly for this year’s Assembly elections? In general, polling in Wales faces the same challenges as elsewhere. But there’s a couple of issues I’d like to draw your attention towards.

The polls – or rather, the poll, the Welsh Political Barometer – actually did pretty well in Wales in 2015, as I have discussed previously. But the fact that we got pretty close to the final result in 2015 doesn’t diminish the innate limitations and difficulties of polling. Moreover, some of those problems may be all the more pertinent to lower-turnout elections: as I have pointed out recently, since YouGov started working regularly in Wales their final pre-election polls have been more accurate in general elections and rather more prone to error in lower turnout contests. I suspect this reflects simply the greater difficulty of estimating party support in circumstances when very large proportions of the electorate are actually not taking part. Of course, such difficulties may be very pertinent this year.

Second, the point about the poll may also be significant. YouGov are the only company regularly conducting political opinion polls in Wales. (Or, at least, the only company doing polls whose findings are published). YouGov are an excellent company, and I’m delighted to work with them on the Barometer polls. But it’s no criticism of them to say that we should be at least open to the possibility that polls from other companies might offer a slightly different picture.

For example, since last May’s UK general election the five highest ratings for UKIP in Britain-wide polls have all come from YouGov polls – YouGov are the only company to have put UKIP support as high as 17% or 18%. Moreover, these results have not been simply instances of the occasional ‘outliers’ that are all-but-inevitable in polling; in general, YouGov have been putting UKIP on a rather higher level of support than most other companies. (Since the 2015 general election, published polls by YouGov have given UKIP an average support level of 16.4%; those from ICM, by comparison, have put UKIP’s support at an average of 11.5%, and those from Ipsos-MORI have averaged UKIP at only 9.0%). Now that could well mean that YouGov are getting it right and other companies are under-stating UKIP’s current support. But it’s also at least possible that YouGov may be tending to over-state UKIP support. And if the latter were true for GB-wide polls it might very well also be the case for their Welsh polls. In short, were other companies to be conducting polls in Wales as well, it is quite possible that they might be reporting a slightly less positive picture for UKIP in Wales than recent Barometer polls have been suggesting. We might have had polls projecting UKIP to win 3-4 seats in the Assembly, rather than the nine suggested by the last Barometer poll. Who is doing the polling can sometimes play a significant role in shaping our expectations of an election.

An Update on the 2016 Welsh Election Study

As some of you will recall, in September I mentioned on the blog that a research team I am leading had been fortunate enough to secure funding from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK to conduct a detailed academic study of this year’s Welsh Assembly election. Our study, imaginatively-entitled The 2016 Welsh Election Study, has three main dimensions:

  • A study of voters (based on several in-depth surveys of representative samples of the electorate)
  • A study of local campaigning; and
  • A study of social media activity.

I gave an outline presentation on the project in December: you can see the slides from that presentation here.

As we are now into the final 100 days of campaigning, plans are proceeding apace with various aspects of the study. In particular, we are looking to put together the content for the voter surveys over the next couple of weeks. And for this, I am hoping to draw on the collective wisdom of the Elections in Wales community.

The main subjects that the surveys will be seeking to address are the following:

  • Electoral Participation
  • Party Choice
  • Perceptions of the election campaign
  • Attitudes to the parties and their leaders (both at the UK and Welsh levels)
  • Attitudes to devolution and the constitution
  • Judgements of the policy record of devolved government; and
  • Respondents’ individual characteristics, identifications, broad political attitudes and media usage (including social media).

Put simply, I am inviting anyone out there who has any bright ideas regarding what we should ask about, or how we should ask about things, to put forward their suggestions.

We won’t have complete freedom of action in what we ask, and how we ask it. In particular, in some respects we will be needing to maintain questions asked in past surveys, in order that we can try to track change over time. You can see how we did things in 2011 by looking at the pre-election wave survey and the post-election wave survey.

However, that said we should still have a fair degree of scope to innovate. And as good ideas are never over-supplied, we’d certainly welcome any suggestions that people wish to put forward.

You can put suggestions forward in two ways. First of all, you can simply use the comment facility below this post. Alternatively, if you have some really lengthy suggestions, or if you wish to make them to me directly, you can email me: scullyrm@cardiff.ac.uk.

Be Lucky in Your Enemies

It was 2007 when things started to go seriously wrong for the Scottish Labour party. In that year they finished narrowly behind the SNP in the Scottish Parliament election (winning 46 seats to the SNP’s 47). Actually, that Labour performance, making a net loss of only four seats in an election held during the last, dog-days of the Blair premiership, was far from discreditable. And although the election result enabled the SNP to enter government, they did so as a minority administration holding only 36% of the seats in the Scottish Parliament. The SNP was in office, but barely in power.

But the platform of holding office helped the SNP establish a new credibility with much of the Scottish electorate. This provided the basis for the party’s much more resounding victory in 2011. As the most detailed analysis of that election has shown convincingly, the SNP’s 2011 majority had little to do with support for independence; it was far more about the reputation the party had won by then for effectiveness in government. In the language of political science, the SNP’s victory was about ‘valence politics’. However, the 2011 majority gave the SNP its mandate for an independence referendum. And though that referendum was lost, it nonetheless gave rise to further changes in the Scottish political landscape – changes which produced the SNP landslide victory in the 2015 general election, and at present appear to put them on course for an increased majority at Holyrood this year.

As we all know, and has been discussed at various times on this blog, the political landscape of Wales is very different from that of Scotland, in all sorts of ways. One of those ways is the much greater continuing strength of Labour in Wales than in Scotland. Yet here’s a strange thing. In the 2007 Scottish Parliament election, the share of the vote won by Labour on the constituency ballot was 32.2%. In the 2007 Welsh Assembly election, the share of the vote won by Labour on the constituency ballot was 32.2%. (For completeness, I should point out that on the regional list ballot Scottish Labour won 29.2%, while Welsh Labour achieved 29.6%).

These near-identical performances by the Labour party in the two nations, moreover, reflected a much more serious fall in the party’s support in Wales than in Scotland. Between 2003 and 2007, Labour’s support on the constituency ballot fell by 2.5 percentage points in Scotland, but by 7.8 points in Wales. If 2007 began a crisis anywhere, you might have thought, it should have been within the Labour party in Wales. And yet it is Scottish Labour that has spent much of the ensuing nine years in a steadily spiralling decline, while Labour continues to be much the strongest party in Wales.

Why? There are many elements to the story of the contrasting fates of Labour in the two nations. But a central factor to any explanation must be the very different nature of the opposing forces that Labour has had to face. In Scotland, of course, that predominantly means the SNP. In those 2007 devolved elections, the SNP increased their vote share on the constituency ballot by 9.1 percentage points, and by an even more impressive 10.2 points on the regional ballot, to narrowly edge ahead of Labour as Scotland’s leading party. By contrast, even as Labour’s support declined substantially in Wales there was no single party that emerged as a clear challenger.  Thus, Labour’s 2007 losses in support were distributed between several other parties: Plaid rose 1.2% on the constituency vote from their 2003 performance, the Conservatives were up by 2.5%, and the Liberal Democrats’ vote share rose by 0.7%, while minor parties (including People’s Voice, who won the Blaenau Gwent constituency seat) also saw a boost of 3.5% on the constituency vote. With the opposition so fragmented, even as their support declined much more substantially than in Scotland, Welsh Labour remained well ahead of all the other parties. This absence of a single strong challenger also protected Labour from substantial seat losses: six constituencies were picked off, and the party also saw its majorities slashed in other seats. But Labour still emerged from the Assembly election with more than three times as many constituency seats as the next-strongest party, Plaid Cymru, and in a position from which it could bounce back in more helpful circumstances in 2011. In retrospect, 2007 looks like the beginning of the sad decline for Labour in Scotland; in Wales it was little more than a bump in the road.

Does this lesson in electoral history have any contemporary relevance? Well, we know that Labour face yet another very difficult Scottish election in 2016. The more interesting situation, in many respects, may be that facing the party in Wales. As in 2007, Labour will be campaigning against the background of a difficult UK-wide political context. Having achieved great success in 2011 (and in the 2012 Welsh local elections) largely by positioning themselves in opposition to the Conservative-led government in London, Welsh Labour may find the going much stickier in 2016. The most recent Welsh Political Barometer poll put Labour on 35% for the constituency vote, some ten percentage points below where they were at this point in the electoral cycle before the 2011 election. Given also recent trends in local council by-elections, and Labour’s tendency to significantly underperform its opinion poll rating in Wales, it currently appears very likely that Labour will be losing ground in Wales in 2016.

Yet Labour could well be saved from a challenge to its position as Wales’ leading party by the divided nature of the opposing forces. Even if Labour does lose a number of constituency seats, those parties likely to pick off such seats will themselves be liable to losing regional list seats, particularly to UKIP. Indeed it is not totally implausible (although certainly towards the lower end of current projections) that Labour might fall below 30% on both the constituency and list ballots in Wales, yet still emerge with about twice as many Assembly seats as any other party.

Whether any such outcome would be good for Welsh democracy is one question (possibly for debate in another blog post). It would, though, be a pretty good outcome in a difficult year for Welsh Labour, a party that has enjoyed, and may well continue to enjoy, considerable good fortune in its political enemies.

All That is Solid…

I ended part two of my recent Electoral Review of 2015 by observing, rather portentiously, that “All that is solid about an opinion poll lead can melt into the electoral air…” I had been reflecting, as you may recall, on how an apparently sizeable opinion poll lead for Labour prior to the 2014 European election had largely disappeared by election day.

Looking back over the opinion poll numbers for that piece, however, set me thinking along slightly different lines. Even after seeing its poll rating edging downwards as the European election approached, Labour still remained some points ahead of its nearest challenger for those elections, UKIP. But on the day, Labour substantially under-performed its final poll rating in the election itself. And as I checked over some other numbers, it became clear that this was not a wholly isolated incident.

Comparing very different polling companies and methods over time can be hazardous. Moreover, it is only since YouGov began fairly regular Welsh polling in late 2009 that we in Wales have consistently had pre-election polls which we can compare to the actual election results. So in the table below I’ve looked only at the performance of YouGov in Wales, compared to the election results, from the 2010 general election onwards. I’ve taken the last pre-election poll prior to each significant electoral contest, and compared the figures produced from the standard voting intention question with the final result. I think the table is quite revealing:

 

UK General Election PollsLabConLib-DemPlaidUKIPOthers*
ITV-Wales/YouGov, 1-3 May 2010352723105
ELECTION RESULT, MAY 2010 36.226.120.111.3 6.2
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov,  May 20153826712134
ELECTION RESULT, MAY 201536.927.26.512.113.63.7
 EP Election Polls
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 20143316715237
ELECTION RESULT, MAY 201428.1517.43.9515.327.557.6
 Local Elections      
WGC/YouGov, May 2012481771415
ELECTION RESULT, MAY 2012#4213814 22
 NAW Constituency Vote      
ITV-Wales/YouGov, 2-4 May 201147209186
ELECTION RESULT, MAY 201142.325.010.619.3 2.8
 NAW List Vote      
ITV-Wales/YouGov, 2-4 May 2011431981813
ELECTION RESULT, MAY 201136.922.58.017.9 14.7

*Including UKIP until 2014   #Local elections covered all of Wales except for Ynys Môn.

 

Overall, the performance of these final polls was pretty good, without being flawless. As one would probably expect, the polls were more accurate in the highest turnout elections – the two general elections, where there was a mean average error per party of 1.5% in 2010 and 0.82% in 2015. (Rather ironically, it was in 2015 – supposedly the disastrous year for the pollsters – that YouGov’s Welsh polls were the most accurate of all the six ballots observed here!) The final poll was least accurate in the lowest turnout election, the 2014 European Parliament one, where there was a mean error per party of 4.31%.

But where did these errors come from? There are some fascinating differences that emerge when we compare the parties and how their electoral performance relates to the final opinion polls. Labour has under-performed its poll rating in all of the elections except that of 2010; for the Conservatives, the exact opposite was the case apart from the 2012 local elections. (And local elections may be a special case for the Conservatives, given the strong continuing tradition of small-c conservative Independent councillors in much of Wales). Plaid Cymru’s support has thus far always been pretty accurately estimated by YouGov, who twice have been within 0.1 percentage points of their vote share, and never more than 1.3% out; however, on four out of the six instances Plaid have been (slightly) under-estimated. The Liberal Democrats’ support has been over-estimated slightly more often than not, while on both occasions since they emerged as a major party UKIP’s vote share has been under-stated by YouGov – although the extent of the under-statement was much smaller in the general election than in 2014’s European election.

That 2010 was the one election in which Labour support was under-stated, and Conservative support over-stated outside of local elections, could well be more than just a coincidence. Before the May 2015 general election, Matt Singh of Number Cruncher Politics conducted an extensive review of the performance of the GB-wide polls against final election vote shares over recent decades. This review enabled Matt to be just about the only person I know of who publicly predicted, before the fact, the errors made by the opinion polls in last year’s general election. (Indeed, Matt not only predicted that the polls would get things wrong, but predicted almost precisely the magnitude of their error. And he apparently backed this up with some bets, so making money out of it!). Matt suggested that 2010 was something of an outlier to much longer-standing patterns; perhaps because of the turbulence caused by the mid-campaign eruption of ‘Clegg-mania’, it was atypical to the normal relationships between opinion polls and general elections outcomes, patterns which emphatically re-asserted themselves in 2015.

The 2010 general election aside, Labour’s recent record in Wales has been one of under-performing its opinion poll rating in elections. Moreover, that tendency appears more marked in lower-turnout contests like the Assembly and European elections. The Conservatives, by contrast, tend to do better than the polls suggest.

I’m certainly not saying that this is some sort of immutable, iron law of Welsh electoral politics. We don’t have nearly enough data points to indicate that. Moreover, recent changes by YouGov to their methodology – which should be rolled out in full for the first time in Wales with our next Barometer poll – may help to reduce the disparities we observe here.

What I am saying is that the evidence seems to suggest that Welsh Labour have been having some problems getting their vote out in recent years; moreover, those problems seem to have been of greater magnitude in those elections that generally attract a lower voter turnout. Unless Labour can successfully address that problem before May, this year’s National Assembly election might just turn out to be a little more competitive than the polls would currently seem to indicate is probable.

The First Leaders’ Debate of 2016

You could be forgiven for thinking that it was a bit early in the year – and, for that matter, a little early in the day – but the first leaders’ debate of the 2016 National Assembly election took place this morning. As a special edition of the Radio Wales show, the Sunday Supplement, we had a 45-minute debate, chaired by the show’s usual host, Vaughan Roderick.

Five parties were represented in the debate – unlike in last year’s general election debates, the Greens were not included. The party representatives were:

  • Carwyn Jones, the First Minister, represented Welsh Labour
  • Andrew RT Davies, Leader of the Opposition, represented the Welsh Conservatives
  • Plaid Cymru were represented by their leader, Leanne Wood
  • Kirsty Williams, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, represented them
  • And Nathan Gill, UKIP’s Welsh leader, spoke for them.

You can hear the entire debate here. A few general reflections from me:

First, clear winner of the debate, I thought, was Vaughan Roderick. These multi-party debates can get messy, and I think even more so on radio where there are no pictures (obviously!) and so people may have little to explain what is going on when they hear a cacophony of voices. Vaughan kept things – mostly – under control, which is not easy to do with five highly opinionated politicians all wanting to have their say. Da iawn, Vaughan.

Second, another reason why I say that Vaughan was the winner was that I thought that none of the leaders exactly sparkled. To borrow some terminology from my favourite sport, they pretty much all seemed short of a gallop. Perhaps it was the early time of the morning; perhaps it was also that some of them don’t want to make too much use yet of their key phrases and slogans for the campaign period. Whatever, while none of them disgraced themselves at all, I didn’t think we heard any of them really at their best either. Still, to continue the horse-racing analogy, I expect that they will all come on for the run.

Carwyn Jones started fluently, and perhaps was the leader to sound the most consistently well-informed. But then when you’ve been First Minister for more than six years, you ought to. At the same time, he was quite often forced into defending his government’s record – indeed, at various points in the debate having to defend it from all the other participants. It was also notable that – unlike in the 2011 campaign – he did not attempt to draw in the wider picture of UK politics. And for the second time in a week I heard him talking about the miners’ strike – something which concluded more than 30 years ago: I guess this is an attempt to help Labour re-connect with its traditional support, but it hardly seems particularly forward-looking. His closing statement was also not the strongest element of his performance, I thought – he appeared uncharacteristically hesitant a couple of times.

Andrew RT Davies performed quite well – he has notably improved as a speaker, in this sort of format at least, over the last few years. He sought to take the fight to Labour over subjects like health and education, and mostly avoided even discussing the other parties. At several points he and the First Minister traded blows directly; this would seem fine in terms of a general message that the Tories would likely want to develop, of the election being a choice between them and Labour. But over-done in future debates such tussles could get distinctly tiresome. His closing statement emphasised strong Tory themes of security, stability and opportunity well – though is there perhaps something of a contradiction in messaging between the emphasis on stability and calls for change in the government of Wales?

Leanne Wood also performed well, but not spectacularly. She also gave an outing to some of the themes that Plaid are likely to foreground in their campaign this year, at the same time as discussing some of Plaid’s specific policies. if I would have a criticism of her performance it would be that while she spoke quite well at times about specifics, and her closing statement did quite a good job on Plaid’s general messages, the link between the general messages and the specific policies was not made particularly clearly. An effective campaign wants to have a strong central narrative that is exemplified and reinforced by specific policies; Plaid may be able to develop that, but I didn’t think that quite came over this morning.

Kirsty Williams once again showed that, whatever other problems her party may have, it is lucky in its Welsh leader. As in previous debates, she sounded perhaps at her best when discussing health, a subject about which she has considerable knowledge. In general, though, this was probably not quite Kirsty at her best – she tended to speak just a little too quickly for radio, I thought, which made her sound a bit hurried. This was not quite the icy-cool Kirsty Williams that we have come to know from First Minister’s Questions.

Nathan Gill would have been the least experienced of the performers this morning, but in general that did not stand out. What did strike me, as it had in last year’s general election debates, was the contrast between his style and approach and that of his UK party leader. Nigel Farage tends to a highly combative approach in debates, whereas Nathan Gill is quite softly-spoken and conveys a much less abrasive style. This may be less effective at firing up UKIP’s core support, but potentially might it also play better with non-committed voters?

Anyway, that’s just what I thought – and as I have said previously on this blog, who cares what I think? Today felt rather like a warm-up for bigger confrontations to come. And we won’t have too long to wait for those.

The Electoral Review of 2015, Part 2

For this second part of my review of the electoral year in Wales, I turn to the state of the parties as revealed by the opinion polls. With the establishment late in 2013 of the Welsh Political Barometer, we now have more regular opinion polls conducted in Wales than has typically been the case in the past. But this can only be counted as good news if those polls are vaguely accurate! How informative have the polls in Wales actually proven to be?

Judging the accuracy of opinion polls is often difficult because of the lack of objective bench-marks against which to compare the polls’ findings. However, an election outcome provides one very good benchmark against which we can assess the accuracy of at least the final, immediately pre-election, polls on electoral voting intention.

The only company polling on general election voting intentions in Wales in the period immediately prior to the election was YouGov. That means that we can’t compare their performance with that of other polling agencies. However, we can compare the performance of the polls in Wales with that in the other British nations:

  • In Scotland, the final polls produced by the four main companies working there (YouGov, Survation, Panelbase and Ipsos-Mori) were very close indeed to the final result: they got the broad picture absolutely right, and their mean average error per party was only 0.74%, which is a very creditable performance indeed.
  • The final GB-wide polls (the vast majority of whose respondents would, of course, have been from England) all had the Conservatives too low and Labour too high, by around 3% in both cases. Most of these polls also mostly had the Liberal Democrats a little too high – estimating their support at around 10%, rather than the 8.1% they actually obtained across Britain.
  • In Wales, I think the performance of the final YouGov poll might be described as ‘good though not flawless’. (Although I acknowledge that, as I work with YouGov and ITV-Wales on these polls, I might not be viewed as unbiased!) None of the parties’ vote shares was estimated incorrectly by more than 1.2 percentage points; the mean average error was only 0.82%. That is a high degree of accuracy. The main problem with the poll was the direction of the error, in estimating the Conservatives’ support levels a little too low and Labour slightly too high. When this was combined with the Tories’ very effective campaigning in the key seats, it produced an outcome in terms of seats that was contrary to what the polls had long been leading us to expect.

 

In response to the election, the major polling companies have all been reviewing their methodologies. YouGov published a detailed report based on their investigations in December 2015, while the British Polling Council enquiry into the performance of the polls is due to report early this year. I’ll try to keep blog readers up to date with the main developments on this front as and when they occur.

YouGov have remained the only company conducting regular published polls in Wales since the general election. What have these polls been suggesting for May’s National Assembly election? The following table shows the figures, for both the Constituency and List votes, for all the polls published since the general election:

 

Constituency Vote

PollLabConLib-DemPlaidUKIPOthers
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June 20153523520143
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20153923618132
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 20153523520153

 

Regional vote

PollLabConLib-DemPlaidUKIPOthers
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June 20153222520147
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20153424518146
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 20153423418166

 

These figures clearly show Labour in a clear lead. But they also show the party some way below its vote share in 2011, on both ballots. Unless the party is able to generate a rise in its support levels over the next four months, the likelihood must be that Labour’s Assembly election campaign in 2011 will have to be largely a defensive one – focussing on retaining as many of the gains of 2011 as possible rather than looking to make further ground. Constituencies currently held by Labour in the Assembly but lost to the Conservatives in the general election – Cardiff North, the Vale of Glamorgan, Gower and Vale of Clwyd – may well prove particularly challenging for Labour to hold.

The Conservatives’ poll ratings in Wales remain, as they have done for several years, impressively robust. At the moment they must, I think, be strong favourites to finish the Assembly election as the second party in both votes and seats. Their performance in the 2015 general election also gives them a very strong basis from which to campaign in a number of constituencies that are currently Labour-held.

Plaid Cymru start the electoral year apparently little further forward than in 2011. They will need a significant surge in support to come close to realising their ambitions in the Assembly election. However, they begin the campaign with two potential assets. One is that, as revealed by the last Welsh Political Barometer poll, their supporters appear somewhat more motivated to vote in the Assembly election than those of many of their political opponents. Their second potential asset is their leader. In 2015, Leanne Wood’s profile and popularity grew significantly, though without that bringing her party many electoral gains. Plaid must hope that, in the context of an Assembly election, they can more effectively convert regard for the leader into electoral support for her party.

UKIP could well be one of the big stories of the 2016 National Assembly election. They have, in truth, talked up their chances of winning a seat in both the previous Assembly elections yet under-performed on the day. But in 2016 we are currently on course for UKIP to win not just one seat in the Assembly but several. Unless their support collapses, or they completely fail to get their vote out, we must now expect UKIP to be a significant presence in the fifth Assembly term. Whether the Liberal Democrats will still be there alongside them is another question. Back in 2011, Wales was a relative success story for the party – amidst a simultaneous local elections collapse in England, devastation of the party’s representation in the Scottish Parliament, and the heavy loss of the AV referendum, Wales stood out for the party holding almost all its ground. But recent times have been tougher for the Welsh Lib-Dems. In both 2014 and 2015, the Liberal Democrats’ vote share was lower in Wales than either England or Scotland. If such patterns persist, we may emerge from the 2016 election with the National Assembly still containing four parties, but the Lib-Dems having been replaced by UKIP.

A final thing, however, to bear in mind. The inaugural Welsh Political Barometer poll, in December 2013, put Labour on 41% for the European Parliament election the following May, and apparently on course to win three of Wales’ four European seats. Even a poll done only a month before the election had Labour on 39%, and seemingly very likely to win at least two of the seats. In the end, Labour won only 28.15% of the vote, and one European seat. In my next blog post I’ll discuss that in more detail. The point for now is that opinion poll leads – particularly in low-turnout elections, which those for the National Assembly will, sadly, probably continue to be – can sometimes be less secure than they appear. All that is solid about an opinion poll lead can melt into the electoral air…

The Electoral Review of 2015, Part 1

[Note: The original version of this piece, posted on 01/01/16, contained two errors in the list of council by-elections results, and the summary table. These have now been corrected].

 

After an extraordinary 2015, there’s certainly lots to look forward to, electorally, in 2016. But before we look ahead, a brief glance backwards. I will begin 2016’s electoral blogging in the same manner in which I began 2015 – with some reflections on the electoral year that has just passed.

Electorally, 2015 was, of course, dominated by the UK general election in May. As all Elections in Wales readers will recall, the polls had for many months, if not years, been indicating a very close election overall. That was, indeed, what happened in the end – but not in quite the manner that the polls had generally been suggesting.

For the first time ever, a general election produced four different parties coming first, in votes and seats, in the four nations of the UK. In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists remained the largest party. In Scotland – and, to their credit, very much as the polls had been suggesting for months – the SNP achieved an extraordinary electoral surge to go from having 6 of Scotland’s 59 MPs in the previous parliament to 56 of the 59 in the new one. In England, the Conservatives retained their significant lead in both seats and votes.

In Wales, the Labour party got the most votes and a majority of the seats – for the twentieth general election in a row (a run going back as far as 1935!). However, the outcome was a disappointment to the party, and not only because of the electoral failure of their colleagues in England and Scotland. Despite every single one of the 27 Welsh opinion polls on general election voting intention published during the 2010-15 parliament having indicated a net swing from the Conservatives to Labour in Wales, the final outcome was a small (0.2%) net swing in the other direction. The table below summarises the general election result in Wales:

 

Party                        VotesVote Share (Change on 2010)MPs (change on 2010)
Labour552,47336.9 (+0.7)25 (-1)
Conservative407,81327.2 (+1.1)11 (+3)
UKIP204,33013.6 (+11.2)0
Plaid Cymru181,70412.1 (+0.9)3
Liberal Democrats97,7836.5 (-13.6)1 (-2)
Greens38,3442.6 (+2.1)0
Others15,6161.0 (-0.2)0

Turnout 65.6% (+0.7)

 

Even with the small net swing to the Tories, however, uniform swings would not have suggested that Labour would lose any seats in Wales. In the end they lost two, with the Conservatives pulling off shock, narrow gains in the Vale of Clwyd and in Gower. Despite Labour gaining Cardiff Central from the hapless Liberal Democrats, and fending off Plaid Cymru’s strong challenge in Ynys Môn, this left Labour on its lowest proportion of Welsh MPs since the 1983 general election.

By contrast, the election was a considerable success for the Welsh Conservatives, who contributed to David Cameron’s surprise parliamentary majority by winning the highest number of Tory seats here since the fourteen won in 1983. As in England, the Conservatives in Wales proved more successful than their opponents at getting out their votes in the seats where they most needed them. Plaid Cymru, despite their leader Leanne Wood having a good election campaign, only increased their vote share by a modest amount and made no seat gains although they did hold their existing seats comfortably. UKIP made substantial ground in terms of votes, relegating Plaid Cymru to fourth in vote-share, but came nowhere close to actually winning a seat. Still, the party may feel that they have put down some foundations for a strong performance in the National Assembly election. And for the Liberal Democrats, the general election in Wales was, as pretty much everywhere else, an unmitigated disaster. Indeed, the party’s vote share in Wales was even lower than in either England or Scotland.

The general election was not, however, the only electoral contest in Wales during 2015. There was a steady stream of local government by-elections for seats across the 22 Welsh local authorities: some 27 by-elections in total. My friend Harry Hayfield has very kindly prepared for us a detailed list of the results. The overall patterns are summarised in the following table:

 

PartyTotal VotesN of candidatesSeats WonNet Gain/LossAverage Swing#
Labour18,4542215+1-7.3 %
Conservative6,201194+4.1%
Lib-Dems3,709122+2-0.5%
Plaid Cymru7,548214+6.1%
UKIP1,13370
Greens70870
Independents/Others5,420312-3

(#Mean average swing from the previous election, for all by-elections where a party stood candidates in both the by-election and the previous election. This measure therefore does not include cases where a party failed to stand a candidate either in a by-election or the previous election. It has only been possible to calculate this measure for the four main traditional parties.)

Observing detailed patterns in these local results is hampered by the fact that parties are somewhat selective in where they stand. No party stood candidates for every by-election, and only Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru even stood in the majority of them. However, at least some observations can be made.

  • Labour saw their vote share decline in more than two-thirds of the 22 local by-elections where they stood candidates in 2015, and only increase in four. However, Labour were declining from a high base – their very strong performance in the 2012 Welsh local elections. And they clearly remained the leading party in Welsh local elections in 2015.
  • The Welsh Conservatives, in line with their robust showing in the general election and the Welsh polls, performed noticeably more strongly in 2015 in Welsh local elections than they have done in previous years. They stood candidates in most places, and were generally moving forward. Certainly these results do nothing to counter the general impression that the Welsh Tories are on the march.
  • The Liberal Democrats have made two highly encouraging by-elections gains since May’s general election debacle. But their performance overall has been very patchy. So also has been their presence: they stood candidates in well under half of Welsh council by-elections in 2015.
  • Plaid Cymru maintained a strong presence of candidates, and put in plenty of good performances. These results show them continuing to be the second strongest party in Welsh local government, and generally moving forward. In more than three-quarters of the seats where they had stood in the previous election Plaid increased their vote share, and they more than matched the Conservatives for the average increase overall. But their performance was still a little inconsistent, and does not yet indicate a major surge in their support.
  • UKIP’s presence in local elections continues to be very patchy. They stood in fewer than one third of the elections, and came nowhere winning a seat anywhere. They did have the odd encouraging performance, notably in a Caerphilly ward in August when, standing for the first time, they won 24% of the vote and nearly beat Plaid for second place. Yet UKIP stood candidates in none of the last seven Welsh council by-elections of 2015.

In the second part of my review of the year, I’ll turn from actual elections to the opinion polls in Wales, and consider both how they performed in Wales during 2015, and what they suggest about the parties’ prospects for the National Assembly election in May.

Message in a Ballot Box

This article was written by Aled Morgan Hughes, a PhD student in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. You can follow Aled on Twitter: @AledMorganH

 

Forgiveness is on offer to those who might have forgotten that Wales’ next Government won’t be the only thing decided at the polling box on the 5th of May, 2016. It will also be judgement day for Wales’ four Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC).

It’s fair to say that the idea of voting for their PCC hasn’t exactly caught the imagination of the Welsh and English electorate. When the first elections were held, in November 2012, turnout across the four Welsh Police areas was a measly 14.9%. And one polling station in Bettws, Gwent, proudly achieved a 0% turnout! Recent PCC by-elections in England haven’t suggested any growing interest either, with a turnout of 14.8% in South Yorkshire last November – albeit this was an increase from the 10.4% witnessed in the West Midlands in August 2014. Some people remain opposed to the existence of PCCs, while others complain about their cost, the decisions taken by PCCs, or the occasional scandal.

Across Wales in 2012 it was, unsurprisingly, Labour who came out on top. The party was riding high in the Welsh opinion polls at the time, and they won 144,805 of the First Round votes. (As you may recall, PCC elections use the Supplementary Vote system). Across the regions, however, Labour’s fate proved mixed. Former First Minister (sorry, Secretary) Alun Michael won in South Wales. But it was a different story for his son, Tal, in North Wales region, where he lost to independent candidate Winston Roddick. There was a similar story in Gwent, where another independent candidate, Ian Johnston, claimed victory. And in Dyfed-Powys Conservative Christopher Salmon narrowly overcome former Labour AM and Agriculture Minister, Christine Gwyther.

However, PCC elections in 2016 are likely to be very different from the 2012 vintage, for three main reasons.

Turnout: Although not reaching the levels we find in Westminster general elections, turnout for National Assembly elections has averaged a little over 40%. Whatever people think about the idea of PCCs, therefore, we are likely to get a far greater number of people voting in the elections than in November 2012.

Party Competition: Another major difference from 2012 will be the increased level of party competition for the roles. Plaid Cymru refused to put up candidates for the election in 2012, a decision that may have helped the independent candidates. But in 2016 Plaid will field candidates in all the four regions. It is also likely that the Liberal Democrats will field candidates; while representatives of UKIP (who stood unsuccessfully in North Wales last time) may also stand.

Political Context: As well as raising turnout, holding PCC elections on the same as the Assembly poll will also shape the broader political context in which these elections are held. Two of the four races were won in 2012 by independent candidates. Success may be harder for such candidates against a general political context dominated by the parties campaigning for the Assembly election. We don’t yet know much about how voting patterns may differ between the Assembly and PCC elections, particularly when they are held simultaneously.

On this latter point, we can at least look at how people voted in past Assembly elections, and try to map these results onto the four PCC regions – which, of course, differ from the five regions we have for electing party list representatives in the Assembly. In the following tables, I map the results of the constituency vote in the 2007 and 2011 National Assembly election as closely as I can onto the PCC boundaries. (The main complication is the Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, the majority of which is in the South Wales PCC region, but some of which is in Gwent. I hope no offence is caused by my including Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney in South Wales here!)

 National Assembly 2007 Results (Constituency Results by Police Region)

Police RegionLabourConservativePlaid Cymru
North Wales60,76753,79963,492
Dyfed-Powys39,10245,85564,400
South Wales156,96480,76769,272
Gwent58,09238,30921,898

 

National Assembly 2011 Results (Constituency Results by Police Region)

Police RegionLabourConservativePlaid Cymru
North Wales73,16263,46554,085
Dyfed-Powys46,61952,37651,901
South Wales199,66883,37755,525
Gwent78,75037,61521,196

 

This exercise indicates that, had people voted in PCC elections in remotely similar ways to how they voted in the National Assembly, Labour would have won both the Gwent and South Wales PCC regions comfortably in 2007, and even more so in 2011. This suggests that Labour must start as strong favourites in both regions in 2016.

The picture looks much less clear-cut in the two other regions. Plaid Cymru must fancy their chances in Dyfed-Powys. Not only did they top the constituency vote there in 2007, and come very close in 2011; this area will include both current strongholds (Ceredigion and Carmarthen East & Dinefwr) and target seats (Llanelli and Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) in the Assembly election; Plaid’s levels of activism within the area should, therefore, be strong. However, the Conservatives came top of the constituency vote in this area in 2011, and with their support levels in Wales generally looking robust, plus with whatever benefits come from PCC incumbency, they will have realistic hopes of holding the region.

North Wales also promises to be an interesting race. In the 2011 Assembly election, Labour came out on top here comfortably, whilst Plaid (who won the most constituency votes here in 2007) slipped to third behind the Conservatives. This time round, the region could well be within the grasp of all three parties. And the incumbent independent candidate will probably also be standing! North Wales could well be the region where second preference votes are most likely to decide the matter.

Thus, when we look forward to next May, most people in Wales are currently focussing on the National Assembly election. It may grab most of the headline. But the Police and Crime Commissioner elections could indeed prove to be an interesting sub-plot!

Wales and Syria

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, WalesOnline ran several additional questions on the recent Welsh Political Barometer poll.

The first of these questions asked directly about whether people approved or disapproved of the idea of the “RAF taking part in air strike operations against Islamic State/ISIS in Syria?” The poll found 45% saying that they approved compared to 38% who disapproved, and 18% who chose the ‘Don’t Know’ option. There were substantial differences by party on the question. Most supportive of airstrikes (by 69% approving to 15% disapproving) were Conservative voters, although UKIP voters were almost as strongly in favour. Supporters of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and, especially, Plaid Cymru, tended to be opposed to air strikes.

How do Wales’ attitudes on air strikes compare with those in the rest of Britain? This is difficult to judge, not least because attitudes on the issue seem to have been shifting – in the direction of greater caution about air strikes – in recent weeks. About the best we can do is to compare the attitudes in Wales revealed in our Barometer poll with those in the YouGov GB-wide poll whose fieldwork was conducted at about the same time: that had a 48%-31% balance in favour of air strikes, compared to the 45%-38% balance in our poll. The substantial majority of the GB sample would, of course, have been those living in England, although just over five percent of the sample should have been Welsh. Looking at the regional sub-samples of YouGov and other polls on the issue (something which should always be done with some caution), Scotland generally seems to stand out as the ‘region’ most cautious about air strikes. Overall, my reading of the data is that England has tended to be the nation in Britain most favourable to air strikes, and Scotland the least favourable, with Wales somewhat in between. But this is only a tentative conclusion: both because we have lacked regular full-scale samples asking questions about Syria air strikes in all three nations, and because opinions have been shifting. Moreover, any differences in public attitudes between the three nations appear to be relatively modest ones: we are not talking about night-and-day contrasts, but about gradations of difference between the nations.

There were two other WalesOnline questions included in the poll. The second was directly related to the first: asking people whether, in the event of the RAF participating in air strikes against IS in Syria, it would “make terrorist attacks in the UK more or less likely, or will it make no difference either way?” Even though a plurality of respondents to this poll had supported air strikes, a majority (54%) chose the ‘more likely’ option, while only 7% apparently believed that air strikes would make attacks on the UK less likely. Some 29% of respondents thought that air strikes would make no differences, while 11% chose the Don’t Know option. Differences by party preference for this question were less stark, although clear majorities of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Plaid Cymru voters all chose ‘more likely’.

In addition to these questions about air strikes, WalesOnline also chose to include a question about refugees and migrants:

“Do you think Britain should admit new refugees/migrants in each of the following categories?”

This question was asked about three different types of refugees and migrants; the table below shows the pattern of responses:

ResponseRefugees fleeing the war in SyriaRefugees fleeing conflict or persecution in other countries like Libya, Ira or EritreaPeople not fleeing conflict or persecution, but wanting to come here in search of a better life
Britain should admit higher numbers than recently20%15%3%
Britain should keep the numbers coming here about the same23%21%15%
Britain should admit lower numbers than recently21%23%24%
Britain should not let anyone from this group come here at all29%33%49%
Don’t Know7%8%9%

 

The overall pattern of responses shows, fairly clearly, slightly greater sympathy for refugees from Syria than from other countries, and substantially greater inclination to admit such refugees than those ‘wanting to come here in search of a batter life’. These overall responses, however, mask very considerable differences by party. Unsurprisingly, UKIP supporters are the least sympathetic – fully 61% of them did not believe that any refugees from Syria should be admitted to Britain at all. At the other end of the spectrum, the most liberal in their attitudes were clearly supporters of the Liberal Democrats and, to an even greater extent, supporters of Plaid Cymru.

Comparing Wales’ position on these refugee/migrant questions with that of other nations in Britain is difficult because of the lack of comparable data. However, YouGov did run these three questions to a GB-wide sample about two weeks prior to the Welsh Barometer sampling being conducted. This showed very little difference between attitudes in Wales and elsewhere to refugees and migrants. Indeed, if anything – and perhaps to the chagrin of many on the centre-left in Wales – Welsh attitudes to both refugees and migrants appear to be very slightly harsher than the average across Britain as a whole. However, these minor differences may well reflect simple sampling variation, or indeed the different times at which the surveys were run.

You can find all the detailed data tables on these questions here.