OPINION12 February 2015

ELECTION BLOG: Bursting the polling bubble


A growing detachment with the main parties means voter intent for ‘others’ grows, but that doesn’t always translate to actual votes on polling day says Martin Boon.

Twenty-seven per cent. That’s the number of people who told ICM/Guardian this January that they intend to vote for what we used to call ‘another’ party. It’s probably not news to anyone that UKIP, the SNP and the Greens are all making the kind of in-roads into traditional voting patterns that many commentators think could result in a complete overhaul of the political map.

But is this real, or merely the latest manifestation of polling bubble syndrome, an over-statement of likely election shares as a party rides the latest wave of anti-incumbent or anti-party sentiment, only for it to die down or completely dissipate when reality sets in and real ballots need to be cast? The answer to this question will determine whether the polls have got it right or wrong come May 8th

Let’s look at how General Elections have worked out for the smaller parties in the past. The net share of ‘others’ has indeed risen over time, from only 4% in 1987 to 10% in 2010, so there is evidence of a growing detachment from the main parties.

But 27% is a different league to 10%+. Will all these people who tell pollsters that their cross will go against an emerging party actually turn out and vote for them? Here are a few examples of when the answer was ‘no’. Most will remember Cleggmania in 2010. Some final polls had the Liberal Democrats on 29% and the average was more than 27%, but the Lib Dems ended up with roughly the same 23% they achieved five years earlier.

The main polling feature of the 1990s of course, was an overstatement of the Labour vote. The good old Spiral of Silence that I’ve written about here before – is it still lurking under another guise? During those years we also saw the Greens climb to significance but fail to convert when the General Election came round, we saw the petrol crisis of 2000 give Tony Blair his first (but very brief) polling wobble, and we even saw paranoia over the BNP a few years back, but that turned out to be hype.

While committed support for smaller parties is evident now, and we should see some big surges for them, let’s recognise that a General Election is a different animal in the public mind to second order elections like the Europeans.

I’ll leave you with a couple of stats. ICM re-interviewed UKIP and Green intenders after the 2010 election to understand what they ended up doing: only 60% of UKIP intenders voted for them, only 42% of Green intenders voted for their own pre-election choice. For these surges to occur, smaller parties need to convert at much higher levels, or what we have, is just the latest polling bubble.

Martin Boon is director at ICM Unlimited



9 years ago

Hi Martin, As you say, it's going to be a potentially difficult time for pollsters in the run-up to this year's General Election, as John Curtice also described on Radio 2 yesaterday lunchtime. To remind people what the 'spiral of silence' is all about, we re-published Nick Sparrow & John Turner's IJMR paper on this topic that won the MRS Silver Medal in 1996 as the quarterly IJMR Landmark Paper last month.

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9 years ago

Interesting analysis, and it will be intriguing to compare the polls to the results, come May 9th. The rising "other" intent does reflect discontent with the three main parties, seen across Europe, so this isn't a blip of polling. But the difference will be down to how many voters actually follow through with their logical preferences, rather than defaulting to the least bad option of the big three. And, of course, turning those predicted voter levels into actual seats is an additional layer of complexity...

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