18 July 2016

Referendum opinion polling after a tragic event

This post attempts to identify the impact of the tragic death of Jo Cox MP on opinion polling prior to the outcome of the 2016 UK EU referendum (“Brexit”). 
If any reader considers this to be distasteful, please accept my apologies and go no further. 

Jo Cox MP died on 16 June 2016 and her death was announced by West Yorkshire Police at 17:00 that day. Referendum campaigning was suspended and Parliament was recalled on 20 June. The campaigns resumed on 21 June. The polling took place on 23 June with the results as shown below:

Among those who voted (the turnout was 72%), Leave had a lead of 3.8%; among the total electorate this would be equivalent to a 2.7% lead.

On Monday 20 June in a Guardian interview Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, is quoted as saying (my emphasis on her first two, apparently contradictory, sentences):
I think it inevitably will [affect voting decisions]. It’s too early to say whether it will have a direct impact on the result. I think there was a bit of disgust setting in on Thursday morning about the Farage poster. I started to detect a sense of ‘if you’re voting leave, are you associating yourself with that?’. 
Obviously nobody knows whether the debate around the referendum had anything to do with what happened to Jo, but the sense that the debate had become a little bit poisonous and a little bit intolerant and focused on fear of foreigners as opposed to legitimate debate about immigration, I suspect what happened will have intensified those feelings.
The chart below shows the data from opinion polls conducted in June 2016 in terms of the lead for Leave. Polls which did not report “Don’t know/Won’t vote” numbers are excluded. The horizontal lines through the data points indicated the duration of the polling in each case. A typical polling error of ±2.5% is indicated as well. The extent to which polls adjust for voting intention is not always clear so both the leads identified above are shown.

Looking across the month, the polling prior to 17 June can be regarded as being spread around the actual outcome as would be consistent with their inherent margin of error. Polls after this date tend to indicate more support for Remain as the preferred outcome.

One explanation for this might be that, while Cox’s death had little effect on most voters’ real intentions, there was a tendency for them to conceal their intention to support Leave in responses to opinion polling between her death and the vote. So perhaps there was not such a contradiction, after all, in canny Sturgeon’s two sentences.


YouGov's Anthony Wells has now posted on UK Polling Report an interesting review of what lessons can be drawn from opinion polling for the UK EU referendum.  The possible impact of the tragic death of Jo Cox is not discussed.


4 July 2016

Such STRANGE times

The last few weeks of the EU referendum campaign in the UK and the days since the result became clear on 24 June have been some of the strangest I’ve known, the political sphere reaching into private life in an unprecedented and uncomfortable way. Life may revert to something nearer normal when the new Prime Minister* is in place and the country becomes more settled on its future path, uncertain though it is sure to be.

By the end of the year there will be books galore attempting to explain what has been going on. The journalist Tim Shipman, for example, is promising All Out War, the inside story of Brexit. By then the strange affair of the email sent on 28 June by Sarah Gove (Michael Gove’s wife, better known as the journalist, Sarah Vine) will probably be little more than a footnote, some background to her husband’s decision to run for the party leadership and Boris Johnson’s to withdraw. For the record though, here it is:

The email originally came into the hands of Sky News, though the clearer image above comes from Guido Fawkes. According to Sky:
An email sent to Michael Gove by his wife reveals concerns about the support Boris Johnson has in the party and the media. The email, which was also sent to the Justice Secretary's aides, was passed to Sky News.
Oddly, the email refers to “you” and “your” three times each, but also to “Michael”, as if he were a third party like “Henry” and “Beth”. Or as if all those three were copy addressees, not the main one.

When Gove emerged as a candidate, Ian Leslie, quite justifiably drew attention to a long New Statesman article presciently titled Michael Gove, the polite assassin, which he wrote back in October 2015. Fascinating throughout, one passage struck me:
…[Gove’s] closest adviser, Dominic Cummings. It is impossible to understand Gove’s time at Education, or indeed Gove, without considering his relationship with the man described by Nick Clegg as “loopy” and by others as brilliant or bullying, or both. … 
Cummings, like Gove, has a love of argument, as well as a suspicion, bordering on contempt, for those who compromise, muddle through and fail to pick sides. But he doesn’t have Gove’s politesse. He cares little – or even notices – what people think of him. In a departmental meeting, Gove might make his dissatisfaction clear by his tone, but it would be Cummings who told the civil servants they were a shambles, or who shut meetings down abruptly, and Cummings who sent around hectoring emails, with liberal use of capital letters, to staff in the department.

*The new PM – see my post in 2013, The Oxford Incumbency. From the Table there (2015A was, of course, the outcome last year), it would seem almost inevitable that the next Prime Minister will be either Teresa May or Michael Gove, the other three contenders not having gone to Oxford. May currently seems the far more likely of those two. However, these are strange times when referendums overturn the status quo – so who knows?


Teresa May will become Prime Minister on 13 July – the Oxford Incumbency continues, things must be getting back to normal!