Author Archives: Roger Scully

Roger Scully

About Roger Scully

Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University. Jazz fan and horse-racing follower. Dog-walker.

Sex and Lies

I get occasional suggestions regarding the content and tone of the Blog. One, which I suspect may not have been entirely serious, was that I should take the Blog ‘down-market’. More sex, more gossip etc. The person who made this suggestion might be, at least briefly, mislead by the title of this post into thinking that I have decided to follow that advice.

Sadly – for at least one of you – that is not so. The title is simply a reference to an excellent, recently-published book: Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: 50 Things You Need to Know About British Elections. Edited by my friends Phil Cowley, of the University of Nottingham, and Rob Ford of the University of Manchester, the book is based around a very simple idea: getting fifty leading analysts of elections (and related matters like public opinion), and asking them each to write a short chapter based around one key idea or finding from their research.

When I first heard about the idea of the book from Phil I was a little bit sceptical about it. I’m very glad to say that my scepticism was completely ill-founded. There’s a wealth of interesting empirical nuggets, and fascinating ideas, in the book. It’s also written in a simple, readable style – for once there are no thickets of academic jargon to have to cut your way through. Personally, I have found the length of the chapters make them perfect for a little bed-time reading. (You can insert your own jokes about going to bed with a psephologist here – although insert is perhaps a word best avoided in this context).

Among the many subjects covered in the book are:

• How meaningful are the answers that people give to opinion poll questions
• Sex
• How ethnicity has replaced social class as the key social division linked to voting behaviour in Britain
• The effectiveness of different local campaigning methods
• How distinctive are female and male political preferences and voting patterns
• What sort of characteristics people prefer in their elected representatives
• And cats. (Well, obviously cats).

There’s even one chapter about elections in Wales, written by someone who should be at least vaguely familiar to the readers of this Blog. (I’m not quite sure how that character managed to sneak into the list of fifty leading psephologists, but there we are). You can see a PDF of the final version of the Welsh chapter here.

I’m confident that anyone who finds this blog interesting reading will also very much enjoy reading the book. So I’d encourage you to buy one.

- From the publishers
- Or from Amazon here.

And while you’re about it, how about buying a few more, as the perfect Christmas present for all your friends and family? You know they’ll be grateful.

YouGov Poll for YesCymru and Cymdeithas yr Iaith

Running this blog in my spare time, sometimes significant events pass by without my being able to comment on them. Apologies. One recent one was a YouGov poll conducted in Wales during late October. This featured some questions commissioned by Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh Language Society) and YesCymru.

Cymdeithas asked two questions about the Welsh language and education in Wales. The first was:

“In principle, do you think Schools in Wales should or should not aim to teach all pupils to communicate effectively in Welsh as well as English?”

Some 56% of all respondents answered that they should, while 33% said that they should not, with the remaining 11% undecided. Interestingly, not only did a sizeable majority (72%) of Welsh speakers opt for a ‘Should’ answer; so also did a majority (though much narrower, at 52%) of non-speakers of the language.

A second Cymdeithas question asked:

“Generally speaking, would you support or oppose English-language schools teaching some subjects in Welsh?”

Here the balance of opinion was tighter, and negative. Some 42% of all respondents were supportive of this idea, but 48% opposed, with the remaining 10% saying Don’t Know. On this second question there was a similar degree of difference between Welsh-speaking and non-speaking respondents as with the first question: some 60% of Welsh speakers supported the idea (with 33% opposed), while only 39% of non-speakers supported it (with 51% against).

Overall, these findings seem broadly in line with a few others I have seen on the Welsh language in various polls over the years. There is clear majority sympathy for the language, support for the principle that the language should be passed on to all young people in Wales, and most people endorse at least some measures to support it. But that support is neither universal nor unconditional.

The YesCymru question concerned devolution in Wales. However, it used a rather different format from the questions asked in most polls. Instead of asking people to indicate their broad ‘constitutional preference’ from several options, or asking their views about the devolution of specific policy areas, Yes Cymru posed the following question:

‘Q. Which of the following comes closest to your view?’

with the following simple list of answer options being given:

- The powers devolved to Wales should be the same powers as Scotland
- The powers devolved to Wales should not be the same powers as Scotland
- Don’t Know

YouGov found 51% of all respondents choosing the first option, and 30% the second, with the remaining 19% as Don’t Knows. If we leave out the latter group then it is a 63%-37% split.

I think it’s useful that YesCymru asked a rather different type of question to the standard ones. People have occasionally asked my views on the ‘correct’ way to enquire into what people in Wales think about how we should be governed; my usual answer is there isn’t an obviously correct way. We benefit from having the subject approached from a number of angles.

Nonetheless, while the question format differs, the findings from this particular question can, I think, be viewed as broadly in line with those from the BBC-ICM poll conducted straight after the referendum. Several questions in that poll had suggested significant support for further devolution to Wales.

Looking at the detailed breakdowns of the responses to the YesCymru question, we see only quite small differences among Welsh speakers and non-speakers, or between men and women. There are slightly greater differences among age groups, and in the expected direction: older respondents were least likely to support parity for Wales with Scotland, just as they are generally most sceptical about devolution.

Among the parties, Plaid Cymru supporters – quelle surprise – are most strongly in favour of parity for Wales with Scotland. It’s also unsurprising that Conservatives are the least favourable. More notable is that a clear majority of Labour supporters support parity with Scotland; that Liberal Democrats, contrary perhaps to the long tradition of Home Rule Liberalism, tend to oppose the idea; while UKIP supporters, again perhaps surprisingly, lean slightly in favour.

A final point on this poll. Voting intention, for both Westminster and the National Assembly, was asked by YouGov. I assume this was because YouGov’s clients wished to examine the breakdowns for their questions among supporters of the different parties: to see, for instance, what proportion of Labour supporters endorsed ‘English-language schools teaching some subjects in Welsh’. However, the figures published by YouGov from this poll do not include the final, weighted vote intention numbers for each party; nor do they list the level of support for ‘Other’ parties, such as the Greens. Unfortunately, these subtleties seemed to elude at least one blogger, who posted supposed percentage support levels for each party – figures which were almost certainly incorrect.

If you look at the most recent Welsh Political Barometer findings – see the Opinion Polls section of the blog for details – then you will see that the weighted numbers on vote intention in recent YouGov polls in Wales have generally been fairly close to the un-weighted numbers. (This is good – weighting is a ‘second best’ solution for making a sample representative of the population. You’d always rather get a representative sample in the first place than have to resort to heavy weighting of an unrepresentative one). So the un-weighted figures reported from this poll are probably in the correct ‘ballpark’, as our American friends might put it. But without the full, weighted numbers from YouGov being published (which I don’t believe is going to happen), we can’t know this for sure.

For the little that it is worth, the un-weighted numbers reported seem to suggest that Labour support in Wales is continuing to ebb slowly downwards; that Conservative support is holding fairly steady; that the Liberal Democrats are making little or no recovery; that Plaid’s figures may be moving slightly upwards (although much of the fieldwork was conducted during or immediately after the Plaid conference, which may have given them a short-term ‘bounce’); and that UKIP continue to be showing quite strongly in Wales. But I wouldn’t want to put it any more strongly than that.

For the next full Welsh poll with published figures on voting intentions, we will probably have to wait until next month’s Welsh Political Barometer.

Just a Bit of Fun

Our mutual friends at YouGov have just come out with this: what they call YouGov Profiler.

You can use it to search through the YouGov panel of respondents, and explore the profiles of those who, in previous YouGov polls, have expressed support or positive attitudes towards various brands, organisations and people. It’s absolutely fascinating – indeed, bordering on the dangerously addictive. Basically, it seems to come up with the most likely ‘profile’ for what someone who likes something is like. (Some more details, explaining the system, are available here).

Of course, I immediately started using it to search the parties and major political figures here in Wales. Those who are identified as ‘supporters’ of parties must, I think, be those who have chosen that party when asked for their ‘party identification. (I say this because the number of panel members used to develop the profile of a Plaid Cymru supporter is far below the numbers of individuals who have indicated they voted Plaid Cymru to YouGov in their surveys in 2010 and 2011).

Some of the findings are fairly predictable: a Plaid Cymru supporter is most likely to live in Wales. (Who knew?!). Others are far less predictable. For instance, looking at the profile of supporters of the Labour party, the profiler suggested that their two weakest regions in Britain are central and northern Scotland.

But rather than me rambling on about this, I encourage you to explore for yourselves – and perhaps post below some of the more interesting snippets you find.

A bit more on Uniform National Swing – and an alternative

Blog readers will be pleased that the next Welsh Political Barometer poll is due soon. The results of our regular poll, conducted in collaboration with ITV-Wales and YouGov, will be available in early December. What better Christmas present could anyone hope for?

Undoubtedly attracting attention once again will be the seat projections, for Westminster and the National Assembly, that are generated from the raw polling numbers. To remind you all of what I have said previously:

  • The seat numbers generated are projections based on current polling numbers. They are not predictions of what will happen in May 2015 or May 2016;
  • The numbers produced are generated via a uniform national swing (UNS) assumption. No attempt is made to account for local factors that might produce deviations from the national norm within particular constituencies.

I’ve discussed UNS in more detail before. Suffice to say that I regard it as a useful rough-and-ready tool for projecting the broad implications of national polls. It is quick and easy to apply, and can be understood very simply. But it is not flawless, and can be downright problematic for parties seeing large percentage changes in their vote share.

We can illustrate some of these problems with reference to the last Barometer poll, which put the Liberal Democrats on 6%. This means they are down just over 14 percentage points on their support level at the 2010 general election. UNS suggests that we should therefore apply a 14% downwards adjustment in the Lib-Dem 2010 vote share to ever seat. But applying such swings uniformly for those seats where the Lib-Dems got less than 14% of the vote in 2010 generates a mathematically impossible projection! A corollary of this is that UNS must be under-stating the average swing against the Lib-Dems in other seats: if they are down 14% nationally, and it is mathematically impossible for them to be down as much as 14% in some places, then in the rest of Wales they must be down by an average of more than 14%.

Are there alternatives? One recently suggested to me by a helpful Blog reader is Ratio swing. Whereas UNS models changes as the absolute percentage shift in a party’s vote share, Ratio swing models it – as the name implies – as a ratio of the change in support.

To illustrate (and using an example that keeps things as mathematically simple as possible): imagine a party that scored 20% at the last election, but is currently polling at 10%. UNS would project the party to lose 10 percentage points in every seat from the previous election. Ratio swing would project the party to get half the vote share in every seat that it gained in the previous election.

Ratio swing can also generate obviously problematic predictions. Imagine a hitherto very small, but rapidly growing party that won only 0.5 of the national vote at the last election but was now on 5% nationally. Ratio swing would suggest projecting that party to get ten times the vote share in every seat. But what if they had won 11% last time in one seat…

One way to test these two approaches is to apply them to actual election results. I’ve worked through the 2010 general election and 2011 National Assembly (constituency) results. For both I looked at the change in national vote share from the previous election, and then examined whether either uniform or ratio swing would have predicted the ‘correct’ result: i.e. predicting the party that actually won the seat. The table below shows the overall figures.

UNSRatio Swing
2010 General Election37/4038/40
2011 NAW Constituencies33/4035/40

In short, there wasn’t much in it, but Ratio swing actually marginally out-performed UNS each time.

Those of you still awake may be thinking: yes, all very historically interesting. But does it make any difference to projections based on current polls? To answer that, I looked at the most recently reported poll in Wales – not a Barometer poll but the BBC/ICM poll done immediately after the Scottish referendum. To remind you, this poll produced the following general election vote intention figures for the main parties (unfortunately the poll didn’t ask about NAW vote intentions):

Labour: 38%
Conservatives: 23%
Liberal Democrats: 7%
Plaid Cymru: 13%
UKIP: 14%

This represents the following changes since 2010:

Labour: +1.8%
Conservatives: -3.1%
Liberal Democrats: -13.1%
Plaid Cymru: +1.7%
UKIP: +11.6%

As I mentioned at the time the poll was published, UNS produces the following projected seat changes:

Labour: 28 MPs. (Holding all 26 seats won in 2010, and also winning Cardiff North from the Conservatives and Cardiff Central from the Liberal Democrats).
Conservatives: 8 MPs. (Losing Cardiff North to Labour, but winning – very narrowly – Brecon & Radnor from the Liberal Democrats).
LibDems: 1 MP. (Losing Brecon & Radnor and Cardiff Central, but holding Ceredigion).
Plaid Cymru: 3 MPs (Holding their current 3 seats).

But what about Ratio swing? It generates the following projections.

Labour: 28 MPs. (Holding all 26 seats won in 2010, and also winning Cardiff North from the Conservatives and Cardiff Central from the Liberal Democrats).
Conservatives: 8 MPs. (Losing Cardiff North to Labour, but winning Brecon & Radnor from the Liberal Democrats).
LibDems: 0 MPs. (Losing all their three seats).
Plaid Cymru: 4 MPs (Holding their current 3 seats, and gaining Ceredigion).

In short, there is only one seat difference – Ceredigion. Despite the BBC/ICM poll having UKIP support more than four times the level won in 2010 in no seat does this get UKIP even close to winning a constituency. The main difference that ratio swing makes is that with regards to the Liberal Democrats: with their support running at only .35 of the level in 2010, ratio swing suggests that all three Lib-Dems seats would be lost (and lost quite decisively). Ratio swing also makes the Ynys Mon result closer, but doesn’t quite tip it the way of Plaid Cymru.

As can be seen, most of the time UNS and Ratio swing don’t produce very different findings. Differences are mostly notable only where there are big changes in the support level of a party. Personally – at least until I see strong evidence to change my mind – I think that the Liberal Democrats remain favourites to hold Ceredigion, and probably also Brecon and Radnor. So, in the figures that I report for ITV from future Barometer polls, we will continue to use UNS. This is the general ‘industry standard’ approach. But for readers of this site I will also produce ratio swing numbers, and we can see where and when they differ. That will be fun, won’t it?

Devolution: What We Expected

Sorting through some old files the other day, I came across something that struck me as very interesting.

It was a marked-up copy of the 1997 Welsh and Scottish Referendum Study surveys. (Yes, perhaps I should get out more). These two surveys were conducted face-to-face in the immediate aftermath of the September devolution referendums. Conducted by Social and Community Planning Research (the forerunner of the National Centre for Social Research), the surveys contained numerous questions trying to uncover whether or not people had voted in the devolution referendums; if they had participated, which way they had voted; their perceptions of the referendum campaign; their knowledge of the devolution proposals; and the main factors that may have been behind their voting choices. The detailed surveys, and the raw SPSS data from the Welsh study, are available in the Data section of the Blog. They are a veritable gold-mine of information. (NB: Declaration of non-interest: I was not involved at all in the design and conduct of the studies).

What struck me as most interesting of all the information contained in the document I dug out were several banks of questions regarding the consequences that people in Scotland and Wales expected to follow from devolution. Bear in mind that these questions were asked when people knew what results the referendums had produced, but before they had any actual experience of the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales.

Rather than comment on the findings at length, the rest of this post will simply reproduce the results from the various sets of questions. Where exactly equivalent questions were asked in the two studies, and because I think the comparisons are interesting, I’ll present the Scottish results alongside the Welsh ones.

I simply ask you to reflect upon the extent to which the various expectations that people had have actually been born out. Doubtless, at least some of you will have some thoughts on the matter…

 

Q. ‘Which of the following comes closest to your view about a [Scottish Parliament/Welsh Assembly]? A [Scottish Parliament/Welsh Assembly] would…’

ScotlandWales
Make it more likely that [Scotland/Wales] eventually leave the UK

Make it more likely that [Scotland/Wales] stay in the UK

Or would it make no difference?

Don’t Know

42%

32%

19%

7%

21%

28%

44%

6%

Give [Scotland/Wales] a stronger voice in the UK

Give [Scotland/Wales] a weaker voice in the UK

Or would it make no difference?

Don’t Know

70%

9%

17%

4%

50%

12%

33%

5%

Give [Scotland/Wales] a stronger voice in Europe

Give [Scotland/Wales] a weaker voice in Europe

Or would it make no difference?

Don’t Know

60%

11%

22%

7%

44%

10%

39%

7%

Give the [Scots/Welsh] more pride in their country

Give the [Scots/Welsh] less pride in their country

Or would it make no difference?

Don’t Know

77%

1%

20%

3%

54%

2%

39%

5%

Give ordinary people more say in how [Scotland/Wales] is governed

Less say

Or would it make no difference?

Don’t Know

79%

2%

17%

3%

54%

4%

36%

5%

Increase the standard of living in [Scotland/Wales]

Reduce the standard of living

Or would it make no difference

Don’t Know

50%

14%

26%

11%

29%

12%

51%

8%

Improve the standard of education in [Scotland/Wales]

Reduce the standard of education

Or would it make no difference

Don’t Know

71%

3%

19%

7%

50%

5%

37%

8%

 

Q. ‘Please say how much you agree or disagree with each of these statements. A Welsh Assembly would…’

 

Strongly Agree/AgreeNeither Agree nor Disagree/Don’t KnowDisagree/Strongly Disagree
Be dominated too much by the Labour party41%30%29%
Simply mean more jobs for politicians62%17%21%
Cost too much to set up and run57%20%23%
Pay too much attention to South Wales40%20%40%
Be dominated too much by Welsh speakers31%25%43%
Q. ‘As a result of the [Parliament/Assembly]…’ScotlandWales
‘Unemployment will become higher, lower or will it make no difference?’

Lot/Little higher

No difference/Don’t Know

Lot/little lower

18%

38%

44%

13%

61%

26%

‘Will taxes become higher, lower or will it make no difference?’

Lot/Little higher

No difference/Don’t Know

Lot/little lower

76%

21%

4%

41%

56%

2%

‘Will [Scotland’s/Wales’] economy become better, worse, or will it make no difference?’

Lot/Little better

No difference/Don’t Know

Lot/little worse

64%

24%

12%

41%

43%

16%

‘Will the standard of the health service become better, worse, or will it make no difference?’

Lot/Little better

No difference/Don’t Know

Lot/little worse

65%

29%

6%

46%

45%

9%

‘Will the quality of education become better, worse, or will it make no difference?’

Lot/Little better

No difference/Don’t Know

Lot/little worse

70%

26%

4%

49%

43%

8%

 

 

[EDIT, 9.18 am: For some reason the alignment of the tables in this post was incorrect. Two hours of fighting with WordPress has not rectified the problem. So, a PDF of the tables for this post is available here].

 

Easier Said than Done

My previous Blog Post discussed the recent constitutional debate in the National Assembly, in which there appeared to be a cross-party consensus that competence over the electoral system for devolved elections in Wales should be invested in the Assembly.

That debate also included some discussion about the size of the Assembly. Julie Morgan, Labour AM for Cardiff North, argued that “There is an absolute case for there being more Members”. This is a matter about which a consensus also appears to be emerging. A need for more AMs was a conclusion shared by the Richard and Silk Commissions, and has been advocated by the UK Changing Union project and the Electoral Reform Society. Much of the Labour party, including the First Minister, now seem to support this; Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats have long done so. Although the Conservatives do not yet seem convinced, nor have they closed the door on the idea.

However, these two matters on which the parties in the Assembly now mostly seem to agree – control over the electoral system, and the need for more AMs – could well come into conflict. The former could well obstruct the latter.

A brief reminder: we currently have 60 AMs, with 40 elected in single-member constituencies by First Past the Post and 20 elected from across five regions. The regional members are allocated in a manner which takes account of which parties won the constituency seats. However, with only one-third of the seats elected via the list, the system is only semi-proportional. (For a more detailed discussion, see here).

The easiest and most obvious way to expand the Assembly would be simply to increase the number of regional list members. We currently elect four members from each region. To expand the NAW from 60 to 80 members (the most commonly-mentioned number for a larger Assembly), we could just double the number of list members in each region from 4 to 8. Simples.

Or not so simple. Such a change would not merely increase the size of the Assembly. It would also enhance the proportionality of the system significantly. If you favour a broadly proportional electoral system, as I personally do, then that is unproblematic. But we can hardly expect Wales’ largest party to look at such a change sympathetically. Because Labour have always won a large majority of the constituencies in Assembly elections, the greater the proportional element of the voting system the less favourable it is to them. (It is thus wholly unsurprising, if still unfortunate, that some in the Labour party appear to resent even the modest degree of proportionality within the current system.)

Giving the Assembly competence over its own electoral system, with a two-thirds threshold to approve any change, would prevent any single party imposing change – except in the unlikely scenario in which a single party actually won two-thirds of the Assembly seats under the current electoral system. It is a very positive sign for pluralism in Welsh politics that the major parties all seem to recognise that electoral system change should have cross-party support. A two-thirds threshold would effectively give Labour a veto over electoral system change. It would also mean that at least one of the Conservatives or Plaid Cymru would need to agree with Labour on a change from the status quo.

However, this may render it very difficult to effect a move from a 60-seat to an 80-seat Assembly. Given that Labour’s self-interest would clearly be in making the system less proportional, while its opponents have an equally clear interest in a more proportional system, there is the potential for stalemate. Thus, something that most of the parties agreed – a larger Assembly – upon might be stymied by something else that the parties also agreed upon – the two-thirds threshold.

How might stalemate be avoided?

A classic negotiating tactic, when an impasse is threatened, is to craft some sort of ‘package deal’: ensuring that those who lose out on one matter gain compensation elsewhere. But the electoral system is something of such fundamental self-interest to political parties that it would be difficult to craft a package deal around this. What could Labour offer to one of the opposition parties that would be of such immense value that it would be worth tolerating an electoral system change that could lock in even greater Labour dominance of the Assembly for decades? Or, alternatively, why would Labour AMs agree to a change that would disadvantage their party – what could the other parties conceivably offer them to do this?

The only basis for an agreement that seems to me to be plausible is some revised system that maintains broadly the current level of proportionality. As I’ve discussed before, there seem two ways of achieving that. The first would be some version of the Single Transferrable Vote system (as recommended by the Richard Commission.) The second would be a re-worked version of the current system, in which the relative proportion of constituency and list seats remained the same: in other words, there would be an increase in the number of both constituency and list AMs. Neither change would be simple. STV requires adopting, and adapting to, a completely new form of voting (and, indeed, counting votes). Increasing the number of constituency and list AMs would mean breaking the link between Westminster and Assembly constituency boundaries (losing ‘co-terminosity’, in the technical lingo), and at least a moderately complex process of boundary revisions. And there might always be the potential for one party or another to baulk at change if they felt that the details were working out to their disadvantage.

I personally approve of the National Assembly acquiring competence over its own electoral system. I also strongly welcome the broad consensus that has emerged around a super-majority threshold, and what this means for electoral system change being a matter of cross-party consensus. And I support an increase in the size of the Assembly. But politics is often about dealing with the tensions between different things that we support or desire to see. Electoral system reform in Wales may offer the world yet another example of such tensions.

Elections to the National Assembly: Who Makes the Rules?

It is often said that the United Kingdom doesn’t have a constitution. (Thus, the renowned constitutional expert Prof Vernon Bogdanor has quipped that his entire career has been based on talking about something that doesn’t exist!) That is not quite true. The UK does not possess a single document termed a Constitution. But the functional equivalent of one does exist – albeit spread across various Treaties, Acts of Parliament and other documents, and placing far fewer restrictions on the law-making abilities of parliament than most democratic constitutions do.

The UK’s devolved institutions, however, are in a somewhat different position. The various Acts establishing them and revising their powers operate as the very close equivalent to a written constitution: a core text that does much to define the main governmental institutions, their shape, and the scope and scale of their powers.

Among the things that such legislation determines is how the institutions are elected. In Wales, the 1998 Government of Wales Act provided for a 60-seat National Assembly, with 40 seats to be elected on a constituency basis and 20 seats to be elected from five regional lists. The 2006 Government of Wales Act made one specific amendment to the electoral system: it prevented individuals from standing as candidates both in a constituency and on a party regional list (so called ‘dual candidacy’). The current Wales Bill provides for the removal of that ban on dual candidacy.

But common to all these pieces of law is that control over how the NAW is elected has been retained wholly within the hands of Westminster. The same is true for the other devolved chambers as well: while the Scottish Parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly have many powers, they cannot alter the systems under which they are elected. The electoral systems remain firmly under the control of parliament in London.

Things are different for local government. There was a major reform of the electoral system for Scottish local government introduced in time for the 2007 Scottish local elections. The Single Transferable Vote system was introduced – a very different system to the mix of single- and multi-member district plurality used previously. This was done entirely by an Act of the Scottish Parliament. In Wales, Local Government is one of the twenty subjects that are devolved to the Assembly; therefore, it would be possible for the NAW to alter the electoral system, and other aspects of how local elections are conducted, in Wales. Thus, the devolved chambers are in the slightly ironic position where they control the electoral system used by other entities – Welsh local authorities – but have no control over how they, themselves, are elected. (EDIT, 8.52, 27/10/14: Thanks to Peter Black for pointing out – see comments below – that, apparently, the National Assembly does NOT have the legal competence to change the electoral system for local government elections in Wales. I had misunderstood that point. I will try to track down precisely WHY the Assembly does not have the competence to do this).

In this context, it was interesting to read the following point within the recent joint statement made by the four party leaders in the Welsh Assembly:

“7. Calls on the UK Government to give the National Assembly for Wales the power to determine its electoral arrangements”

I welcome this statement, and would welcome the change if enacted. However, I do so with a significant qualification.

Political parties are, inherently and unavoidably, interested actors with regards to electoral systems. In any representative democracy that has political parties it cannot be otherwise. There will always be a temptation for political parties to try to change those systems to their own narrow advantage. Thus, the constitutions of many political systems include provisions to make this difficult. For Westminster, no written constitution inhibits a majority party in the House of Commons from seeking to manipulate the electoral system. But any temptation to try to do this is restrained by two key factors. The first is the House of Lords: an upper chamber where no party has a majority, and in which many members act with considerable independence. Any attempt to manipulate the electoral system for partisan advantage would almost certainly run into fierce criticism, and substantial parliamentary obstruction, in the Lords. Second, any such attempt would also face substantial scrutiny and criticism in the news media. The bad publicity that would be attracted by a party seeking to fix the system for their own benefit would quite likely outweigh any advantages gained from the changes made.

A problem we have in Wales is that both of these checks on potential partisan manipulation of the electoral system are absent. We have a unicameral legislature: there is no second chamber that can slow the legislative process down, or force reconsideration of proposed changes. Perhaps even more importantly, we do not have a sufficiently strong native media to raise widespread public ire against the unacceptable use of political power. The potential danger, therefore, is clear: if a party (or even a coalition of parties) with a temporary narrow majority sought to manipulate the National Assembly electoral system for their own benefit, there would be few significant obstacles in their way.

I would, therefore support the devolution of powers over the electoral arrangements of the NAW to the NAW if, and only if, the following condition were attached to the legislation. Any changes should require approval not merely by a majority of those voting within the Assembly, but by a ‘super-majority’. That super-majority should be significant: at least two-thirds, and possibly even three-quarters. We should not seek to make change impossible. But given the innate and substantial self-interest that parties have in electoral systems, it is essential that changes should reflect a broad, cross-party consensus.

The electoral system, in any political system, should never be the plaything of one political party. It was very welcome to see acknowledgement of this, by both Carwyn Jones and Andrew RT Davies, in last Tuesday’s Assembly debate on the future of devolution. Both appeared to agree on a two-thirds threshold for electoral system change. By writing into the relevant legislation a super-majority requirement, Wales would be provided with the equivalent of a written constitutional protection against partisan manipulation. That would be a very good thing.

Trends in Referendum Voting Intentions: the EU and Income Tax

Thanks to our friends in the north, referendums have been on the minds of many people over recent months. While there is currently no realistic prospect of Wales facing a referendum on independence in the short to medium term, there are other referendums that we may well be facing at some time in the next few years. The Silk Commission recommended that partial control of income tax powers be devolved to the National Assembly – but only after an affirmative vote in a referendum on the matter. Meanwhile, UK-wide debates about the European Union, the Prime Minister’s proposal for a 2017 referendum, and the continuing advances of UKIP, mean that there is every prospect of a referendum on British membership of the EU occurring at some point after the next general election.

Because both these referendums remain realistic possibilities, since the launch last December of the Welsh Political Barometer our polls have regularly been asking questions about voting intentions on these two issues. There have also been a few other polls, going back to February last year, that have asked about such matters. What have these polls been showing? Are any significant trends evident?

First, income tax devolution. YouGov first asked about this in a poll for ITV-Wales in February 2013. They used the following question: “If there was a referendum tomorrow on giving the National Assembly for Wales powers to raise or to lower the levels of income tax in Wales, how would you vote?”. That has been the same question formulation used in all other surveys, except for one carried out by Beaufort last December; the latter asked a slightly different question: “The UK Government says it will pass a law to enable a referendum to be held on whether the Welsh Government should be able to vary rates of income tax up or down in Wales. If such a referendum were held tomorrow, how would you vote?”

The following table shows the levels of support for Yes and No (as well as the level of ‘Don’t Know’/Wouldn’t Vote responses) in all polls up to and including September’s Barometer. (Full details on the sample sizes can be found in the Opinion Polls section of the blog).

Wales, Income Tax Referendum Polls

Poll% Yes% No% DK/NV% ‘No’ Lead
ITV-Wales/YouGov, February 2013393427-5
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 20133538263
Western Mail/Beaufort, December 2013323038-2
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 201431422811
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, May 20143339286
Walesonline/YouGov, June 20143441257
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 201432422610
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20143839241

There is no very clear trend in the figures here. But if there is any trend at all, it would seem to have been – up until the last Barometer poll, at least – a move away from support for income-tax powers. The only two polls to show Yes in the lead in the putative referendum were both conducted in 2013; those conducted in 2014, up until September’s Barometer poll, all had leads for No of six points or greater. The turnaround in the most recent poll could have simply been due to random sampling variation. However, it seems plausible to think that the findings may well have been affected by the prevailing public debate about the Scottish referendum, and the suggestions of greater powers over tax for Scotland that were very prominent in the news at the time when the fieldwork for this poll was being conducted. This may well have encouraged some people in Wales to see income tax devolution here as more possible or more desirable.

What about the EU? Here, all the polls carried out have used the same, simple question: “If there was a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, how would you vote?” The findings for all the polls conducted are contained in the table below.

Wales, EU Referendum Polls

Poll% Remain% Leave% DK/ NV% ‘remain’ Lead
ITV-Wales/YouGov, February 20134235227
Western Mail/Beaufort, June 2013293735-8
WGC/YouGov, July 2013394021-1
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, December 2013384022-2
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, Feb 201444332311
Walesonline/YouGov, June 20144138223
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, June-July 20144136245
ITV-Wales/WGC/YouGov, September 20144337206

Once again, the table does not show a very obvious trend. But it is possibly of some significance that the only three polls to show a plurality in favour of leaving the EU were all conducted in 2013; the four polls that have asked the question in 2014 have all shown the balance of opinion (fairly narrowly) in favour of the UK remaining within the EU. Some may consider this puzzling, given the strong showing of UKIP in May’s European elections and recent Welsh polls. I don’t think there is actually any contradiction. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, not all of UKIP’s supporters agree with their policy on the EU. Moreover, their success may well have prompted some counter-reaction amongst others in the electorate. Overall, the polls are consistent with the broad picture that GB-wide studies have tended to show – that on EU membership, the Scottish electorate is most supportive of continued membership, and the English most inclined to lean towards leaving the EU; the Welsh tend to be located somewhere in the middle.

In general, neither of these sets of polls show a very clear or decisive lead for either side with regard to these potential referendums. Nor do we see any very clear trends. This is a rather different picture than was seen prior to the 2011 referendum: every poll conducted on the issue of greater law-making powers put the Yes side ahead, with the gap generally growing over time.

Frankly, if I were a leading politician in Wales contemplating an income-tax referendum, these poll findings would make me very nervous. There is strong international evidence, as I discussed in my previous blog post and which the experience of the Scottish referendum did nothing to dispel, that constitutional referendums tend to favour the status quo. If in doubt, people are more likely in the end to plump for no change, for what they have and are familiar with, than they are to vote to alter things. To be confident of success when proposing change, you would want to have significant and fairly stable leads in the polls. The polling evidence here does not show that an income tax referendum would be wholly unwinnable; it does, though, suggest that a No vote in any such ballot would currently start the campaign as favourite.

In an EU referendum, Wales would only provide around 5% of the votes; our stance on the EU could only plausibly tip the balance, therefore, if the vote was extremely tight across the rest of the UK. Much would depend on the campaign, and the political context in which it was set. We can know little about such things at present. What we do know is that opinion on EU membership at present in Wales is quite evenly divided.

Error and Bias in Referendum Opinion Polls

During the current (2010-15) parliament there have been three major referendums on constitutional change: the March 2011 referendum in Wales on increased law-making powers for the National Assembly for Wales; the May 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote; and the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

Much has been said about many aspects of these referendums; and doubtless, much more will be said in the future. In this short piece I’d like to look at the record of opinion polls in the referendums. Overall, how successful were they at predicting the final outcome of the referendums?

First, though, a few words of definition and clarification.

Prediction: Prediction is not, in general, what opinion polls should be understood as trying to do. A poll is a measure – an attempt to assess the relative frequency of different attitudes within a given population. Of course, such measures can be used to derive predictions of some form, or at least projections (such as the uniform national swing projections I regularly make of the voting intention polls conducted in Wales.) Sir Robert Worcester, founder of the MORI polling agency, puts the point well: ‘polls don’t predict, even if many pollsters do’. Nonetheless, the final polls conducted by various companies shortly before a vote ought to be able to get close to the final result, unless there are some very dramatic late swings. In that sense, we might reasonably take an immediately pre-election or pre-referendum poll from a polling agency as their prediction as to the outcome of a vote.

Error and Bias: In looking at how close final polls before referendums may have come to the actual result, I want to distinguish two ways in which polls may get things wrong. When talking about the degree of Error in a poll, I will be concerned simply with the extent to which they diverge from the actual outcome of the referendum. Bias is a rather different concept: it concerns whether the polls are tending systematically to be wrong in a particular direction. As I’m using it here, the term bias does not imply any deliberate attempt to make the polls wrong in a particular direction. Deliberate manipulation might, I suppose, be one reason why the polls might tend to err in a particular direction. But there are plenty of others. It is, therefore, very possible that polls might tend to have substantial errors associated with them, but without any bias at all. It is also possible – as, indeed, we will see – for the polls to have only small errors, but with a clear bias.

So, how well have the pollsters done in the three referendums? In the tables below I’ve listed all the final, publicly-reported polls from British Polling Council pollsters where they conducted a poll in the final week of the campaign, for each of the three referendums.

Wales, March 3, 2011

Poll (including survey end dates)% Yes% No% Error
RMG/Media Wales, February 2869315.5
YouGov/ITV-Wales, March 169315.5
ICM/BBCWales, March 269315.5
FINAL RESULT63.5%36.5%

Mean error = 5.5%

AV, May 5, 2011

Poll (including survey end dates)% Yes% No% Error
ComRes/Independent, May 134661.9
ICM/Guardian, May 332680.1
YouGov/Sun, May 440607.9
Angus Reid, May 439616.9
FINAL RESULT32.1%67.9%

Mean error = 4.2%

Scotland, September 18, 2014

Poll (including survey end dates)% Yes% No% Error
Opinium/Telegraph, September 1548523.3
ICM/Scotsman, September 1648523.3
Panelbase, September 1747532.3
YouGov/Times/Sun, September 1748523.3
Survation/Daily Record, September 1747532.3
Ipsos MORI/Standard, September 1747532.3
FINAL RESULT44.7%55.3%

Mean error = 2.8%

What do we see? A first thing to observe is that we see the most error in the first of the three referendums and the least in the most recent vote. That may indicate a tendency for the pollsters to be getting better over time. It could be that the three referendums saw progressively more resources invested in them by the pollsters, reflecting the respective extent of UK-wide interest in the three votes. Or, quite possibly, the level of error may be related to turnout. Turnout was by some way the lowest, at 35.6%, in the Welsh referendum. It may simply be rather easier for the pollsters to get things right when more people are participating in a vote.

Given the standard margin of error of +/- 3%, the ‘mean error’ performance of the polls in the first two referendums, and that in Wales in particular, was undoubtedly somewhat disappointing. However, we might bear in mind that the mean error figure for the AV referendum is actually rather misleading: two of the final polls came very close to the actual outcome, while two of them were some way from the truth. For the Scottish referendum, the mean error was below 3 points, while none of the polls were significantly further away than that. More problematic is that while there was limited error in the polls, there was clear bias: all the final polls over-stated the final Yes vote, and under-stated the final No vote.

One might think that this bias in the Scottish polls reflected some factors specific to that vote – such as a late swing induced by the high-profile promises of more powers for the Scottish Parliament made by the three UK party leaders and by Gordon Brown. Yet when we look across all three referendums, we actually see that this problem with the polls in Scotland was not the exceptional case, caused by the exceptional circumstances of that vote. Actually, what we saw in Scotland was the norm. In all but one of the thirteen final week referendum polls conducted, across all three votes, the support for constitutional change was over-stated.

These findings actually fit in with broader international experience. As my colleague Alan Renwick from Reading University has shown, there is a general pattern that polls ahead of referendums tend to over-state the final level of support obtained for constitutional change in referendums. The main reason for this, Alan suggests, is “uncertain voters typically end up sticking with the devil they know. If you are unsure quite what effects a change will have, then it is safer to hold to the familiarity of the status quo.”[1]

Two broad conclusions, I think, follow from this. The first is that the opinion pollsters’ performance in the recent Scottish referendum was rather better than some critics have suggested. However, the polls did tend to over-state support for change. From this follows the second conclusion. As Alan Renwick puts it “unless you are already way ahead in the polls, you should be cautious of advocating a referendum on your pet reform idea.” The implications of this for potential referendums in Wales will be discussed in my next Blog post.

 

[1] This quote, and the following one, both come from the following: Alan Renwick ‘Don’t Trust your poll lead: how public opinion changes during referendum campaigns’, in (P. Cowley and R. Ford, eds.) Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box:(50 surprising facts about Britain’s politicians and voters) (London: Biteback, 2014), p.81.

Up-Dates to Opinion Polls Section

 

The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that I have made one or two small changes to the site over the last few days.

Most importantly, I have made some up-dates and improvements to the Opinion Polls section. I’d encourage you to look at that to see for yourself, but in brief what I have done is the following:

  • I’ve both up-dated and improved – I hope – the charts on voting intention. For both the general election and Assembly constituency vote charts, I decided that it made most sense for the charts to look at changes since the last election. So for the general election chart, the first data point is the May 2010 general election result in Wales; all subsequent ones are the opinion polls conducted since then. For the Assembly constituency vote chart, the first data point is the May 2011 result; again, all subsequent data points are from the following opinion polls
  • For the chart on regional list voting intentions, there is a problem: as discussed in a previous blog post , the changes in question wording that happened twice after the May 2011 election introduce considerable ‘noise’ into the signal offered by the polls. I have therefore chosen to present a chart giving the figures only from December 2013, when the current question wording used by YouGov was adopted.
  • For all these charts, the small chart visible on the screen should expand into a much larger chart if you click on it. Let me know if this doesn’t work for anyone.
  • The detailed figures on which the charts are all based, as well as the figures for earlier polls, are listed below the set of charts in Section 2 of the Opinion Polls page. There are links to several PDF documents here. This section also contains figures for a few opinion polls that have asked about National Assembly voting intention without specifying intentions for the constituency and list vote; and also figures from those polls which have asked about European Parliament election voting intentions in Wales.
  • If that were not enough to get you through the long winter evenings, Section 2 also contains links to PDF documents giving you the figures for all polls I am aware of that have asked about voting intentions in referendums: those conducted prior to the March 2011 referendum on greater powers for the National Assembly; the potential referendum on income-tax powers for the National Assembly recommended by the Silk Commission; and a potential referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.
  • Finally, I have also up-dated Section 3 of this page. This section contains links to a number of PDF documents with the detailed top-line results of major opinion polls conducted in Wales over the last year and a half. These include all the Welsh Political Barometer polls (up to and including the most recent one, conducted in September) and the most recent poll conducted by ICM for BBC Wales.

 Have fun exploring all this information!