Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Shy Goodbye

"There are two things you need to keep in mind here. Firstly, just how wrong the pollsters got it in GE2015 and secondly, this is not a general election."

After the 2015 general election debacle, pollsters strive to find more accurate ways to divine our voting intentions.

Herein lies an exercise in confirmation bias ... probably

I've found the recent polling on the EU referendum perplexing to say the least. Like many people who are invested in this whole process, in spite of last year's dismal failings, I've been captivated by the lure of the pollsters. Microanalysis of each and every poll released, looking for signs and portents that could indicate positive trends or changing opinions; correlating shifts with topical events, campaign strategies, the weather and the phase of the moon etc etc.

Let's be honest here, it would be foolish to accept them as accurate and they should be, at best, taken at a high level - as roughly hewn chunks of indication rather than well chiselled out masterpieces of national voting intent. But amongst the polls, there's a schism emerging. On the one hand, we have the online polls which show an intertwining closeness between Leave and Remain, and on the other we have the phone polls which seem to give Remain significant margin.   

Shakespeare Vs Singh

Explaining this apparent anomaly we have polling analyst and Number Cruncher ( Matt Singh who has become somewhat of a guru in the field after, amongst other things, rightly predicting the surprise outcome of the 2015 general election. On the other side of the ring, Stephen Shakespeare, the big gun at Yougov who, along side most other pollsters, is fighting to regain credibility in the wake of 2015. Shakespeare takes aim at Singh in this Yougov blog post ( ) suggesting that the golden child's recent explanatory report on EU referendum phone polling is off whack.

Singh believes that there are inaccuracies in both online and phone polls, but that the online polls are out by a wider margin. His thinking? Apparently online pollsters are inclined to be socially conservative (caused by sampling bias) meaning they lean towards Leave by circa 3%. Phone polls lean 5% in the other direction (Remain - weighted towards more socially liberal types), yet another factor over-rides all this because phone polls are more likely to push for an answer than accept an undecided response. When this happens, Singh and his co-author James Kanagasooriam believe that people, presumably in a fit of honesty, opt for the status quo. Because this confrontation doesn't take place online polls, it means that the 'fit of honesty' effect doesn't happen, leaving them a further 5% out in terms of accuracy.

When I heard this, it threw me somewhat. I don't have the wealth of data that Singh drew his report from but I felt that there were other social factors at play that meant the exact opposite was likely. More later.

Shakespeare has a counter argument. Although he respectfully suggests that Singh should be listened to with care, he's adamant that he's wrong in his perception. Shakespeare believes that it's wrong to attribute trust (honest responses) to the phone polls based on the fact that they tend to show greater social liberalism. Instead, he believes that a process of social satisficing is happening, where people are delivering the message they think people want to hear rather than saying what they actually feel. So where there is direct contact, this causes a pronounced increase in 'safe' responses, where as the lack of confrontation in online polls allows people a moment of un-pressured heartfelt honesty.

Intriguingly, he continues by underlining the fact that British Election Study polls (apparently Singh's gold standard of polling) under-represented the UKIP vote by 2% and similarly other significant phone polls were out by as much as 4%. The Yougov blog isn't entirely clear here but I take it that this refers to GE 2015.

There are other elements of Singh's report that Shakespeare questions, yet for my purposes, it's these initial challenges that I think are most relevant.

No Sword of Damocles here

It's nearly impossible to find parallels between this referendum and other recent political events. It's not a cozy, well worn and intellectually brainless party flag waving exercise like a general election. And the dynamics are entirely different from the Scottish Referendum that Cameron no doubt has drawn his confidence and bravado from; whereas the SNP were effectively neutered by the sterling argument, we have no such 'Sword of Damocles' hanging over us. In fact, it could be argued the opposite.

So why do I feel that long standing polling stalwarts and GE2015 star flops Yougov are right and the new David Beckham of polling, Matt Singh is wrong? This is where accusations of confirmation bias could creep in but in my own defence, I'll offer a subtle observation.

I get to travel and meet a wide array of people attached to different industries. It's not part of the job spec, but I like to do a bit of am-dram whilst I'm there, where I present the question of the EU referendum, posing as someone genuinely flummoxed by the whole matter needing illumination. I'm never going to learn anything by leading with my own Eurosceptic credentials so I leave the door wide open, waiting to see what people have to offer.

The pattern I've seen has been interesting to say the least. People who admit to wanting to vote Remain don't wait to make the point. They may share some preliminary concerns in the first breath, but they're quick to come out behind Remain in the second. With Leavers, they're much more guarded and tend to deliver a long winded and apparently thoughtful appraisal of the pros and cons before eventually closing in on Leave. Any sign of sympathy with that position breaks the dam, with surge of concerns about the EU bursting forth when it's seen as safe to share them, confirming their earnest Leave credentials.

Acceptable thought and social media

There's a definite hesitancy when it comes to people fessing up to being a Leaver and I think it's rooted in the perceptions of social acceptability. Remain is spun as a matter of international inclusivity whilst Leave as an act of recoiling self interest. In this world, where everyone can become a casual activist on social media by holding up a board and virtue signalling (whilst pouting like a thoughtful trout), the boundaries of social satisficing are being set. The mistake that these couch campaigners are making is to think that by controlling what is perceived as a socially acceptable position to take, they're actually influencing the decisions that people will make. And I'm sure this is what lead to over confidence by the Labour party at during GE 2015.

What we feel and what we're comfortable talking about in public are two entirely separate things, for most people at least. In fact, the mind prison that both legacy media and social media activists roll out in order to contain and control debate is only likely to fuel resentment and determination by those who feel oppressed, making them more energised than the Facebook 'share and like' generation to get out there and exercise their rights on referendum night. Barking? Well, take a look at how long it took for politicians to finally accept that concerns about immigration are not rooted in racism. Better still, Justin Welby finally conceding to the same fact as late as March 2016 only to be leapt on by the Independent newspaper who, with some zeal, used quotes from the Twitter thought police in order to discredit a perfectly reasonable message. (

Apparently, newspapers reporting what people said on Twitter = journalism. Hence the Independent had to go.


It seems to take much longer to crack open the Leave egg than the Remain one. The perception of self interest is one which doesn't resonate well in the echo chamber era of social media virtue signalling, so it's masked and guarded. As a result, Leave may well be the shy Tories of this referendum. Whether it's a game changer is yet to be seen.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are right Dan. Brexit is the love that dare not speak its name. I would say ~80% are not keen on EU. Much of the Remain vote relies on the social signalling you discuss & perceptions of where the risk lies i.e. they dont want to take a risk with the economy and they dont see (dont want to see?) the risks associated with staying.