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General Politics Media Analysis Projects The Smokeless Room

So, I have launched a newsletter

The Smokeless Room is a newsletter by Rushaa Louise Hamid, with a special focus on all you need to know to sift the bunk from the gold of opinion surveys! Sign up here!

I firmly believe that polling should not be something made difficult for the average person to understand and critique. Unfortunately these days with the media being what it is it can be tricky to figure out just how accurate a figure being thrown out is. This is especially true when the issue polled in question is contentious.

As someone who has worked on and off in polling and socio-political market research for the past five years, most recently as Special Projects Manager for over two years at polling firm Survation Ltd (you may remember them for such hits as the 2017 and 2019 UK General Elections) I really appreciate just how difficult it can be for someone with no expertise to assess what they read. So I’ve started a weekly newsletter – The Smokeless Room – to help people navigate the topic in an easy to understand way, and whose archives you can find here.

The name ‘The Smokeless Room’ is a riff off the idea of “smoke-filled rooms” which the OUP’s Oxford Languages helpfully summarises as a term “used in reference to political decision-making conducted privately by a small group of influential people rather than more openly or democratically”. It’s at the core of my politics that information should be accessible, especially when it comes to important matters, and so making sure that the wider public are literate in polling is one way of promoting more open decision making.

If this catches your fancy, sign up here! Issues are out each Wednesday and I’m always up for receiving suggestions of items to cover.

Categories
General Politics U.K. Politics

Marginal No More; Reflections on the 2017 UK General Election and Polling

I was supposed to have voted yesterday in a high priority Tory-target marginal. Instead I voted yesterday as part of a majority of over 13,000. I watched as seat after seat was moved from a Labour held marginal to a Labour majority; from a Labour target marginal to a Labour gain; from a Conservative safe seat to a Conservative held marginal including seats held by prominent ministers, and in particular the case of Canterbury moving from a very safe Conservative hold to a shock Labour gain. Something big happened – in the short election campaign leftist messages cut through a hostile press, and voting turnout was up, especially amongst an engaged Corbyn-loving youth.

I was not expecting such a positive swell, even being the most optimistic of my friends. I entered the election hoping that there would be a pump in the Labour vote from 18-24 year olds yet ultimately believed that the parties would stay at roughly the same level, switching a few seats between them but with no substantial change. I did not think Corbyn would alienate Labour seats, but suspected he may not win over many people outside these areas. Still I appreciated politics done from a position of principle over likeability and thought that it was unfortunate that Labour’s internal politics had likely done some damage.

Having done work with Survation, and so knowing how they conduct their interviewing and knowing their 2015 fatal decision to not release their last “rogue” poll, I did not react with complete dismissal to their polling or final call like some. However I was nervous about whether the clear boost they were showing would actually transfer into reality and flipped seats. Instead of having more trust that the result could be better than I anticipated, I fell into the cynical trap of assuming hope always equals a profound naivety.

It’s a huge problem on the left, but also just with politics in general the we think optimism is the sign of stupidity. We don’t want to get hurt and then mocked for thinking the future is a great place. To enable us to put on an intellectual veneer we act as if banality is common sense, and as if common sense is the supreme dictator of how politics works. Our logic says that if Corbyn is passionate and states more divisive positions he can’t be electable, ergo there will be a Tory supermajority, ergo everyone who says otherwise is a deluded fanboy.

Survation’s bet was an intriguing one – they knew they messed up last time and decided to stake their reputation on what seemed to be the one huge outlier of all the polling organisations, having changed very little overall in their polling methodology since 2015. Unlike YouGov whose tweaking lead to them wavering in their final poll back to a prediction of a 7% Conservative lead, Survation called the hung parliament. It suggests that what happened in 2015, aside from some places suppressing polls that didn’t fit the general trend, was one of analysis. Rather than assuming that people’s views were in flux, we assume the polls were just plain wrong. It is entirely possible that every poll from 2015 was an accurate picture of a nation that changed its mind. With Brexit the margins were so narrow that pundits calling it for Remain was generally down to the “common-sense” assumption that referenda will always favour the status quo. In effect this general election people were picking the most “common-sense” option and then assessing the validity of the polls based on what would lead to that answer.

If this election shows anything, it is that cynical posturing no longer applies. Hope is not utopian, and if we have a fear of appearing naive then our problem is a lack of imagination. People don’t want a country where there is no true opposition, and are willing to transform themselves into voters when given a party that can offer them that coupled with a strong chance at creating a large parliamentary group. The opportunities now that we can see politics is no longer a game of just appealing with bland centrism to a sliver of floating voters are ones I relish. I was wrong to be so fatalistic this election; next time I’ll try to be better.