Danyl McLauchlan

Labour and the moral high ground

Since Andrew Little began his tightrope walk regarding whether Northland voters should or shouldn’t vote Labour, there has been much philosophising as to whether a “dirty deal” did or did not go down.

To my mind, quite clearly, no deal occurred. A deal requires some form of reciprocity. It requires agreement between parties. In Epsom, over the last few elections, a fair amount of conversation obviously went on between National and ACT; in 2011, the stage-managed “cup of tea” made it perfectly clear that a deal had been done.

In Northland, however, Labour’s actions were unilateral (unless some extremely surreptitious and plausibly deniable discussions occurred, that will only surface in a decade’s time in someone’s political autobiography). Labour realised they had no show of winning, figured Winston had reasonable odds of severely embarrassing National, and changed their message to give him the best possible shot. Serendipitous for Winston, but not something he had sought.

Nonetheless, given Labour’s (in)actions in Northland, can they continue to claim a moral high ground when, in 2017, National again gives David Seymour and/or Peter Dunne a free ride in their respective electorates?

Many journalists, commentators and, of course, Right-aligned bloggers, have been happily labelling Andrew Little a hypocrite. Moral high ground lost. The right to lambast National for Epsom-style deals gone forevermore.

Such analysis has, predictably, enraged many of the good folk over at The Standard (see ‘By-elections are FPP‘), while others on the Left such as Rob Salmond and Danyl Mclauchlan provide their reasoning as to why Northland and Epsom are Different. As Mr Salmond writes:

Here are three core differences:

  1. Labour was never going to win Northland, whereas National could win Epsom just by clicking its fingers. Labour’s motivation is to engineer a loss for its major opponent, while National is trying to engineer a loss for itself. Which of those do you think is more legitimate in a competitive environment?
  2. Labour’s actions in Northland were quarantined to Northland only. They only affected who is the MP for Northland. National’s deals, on the other hand, are specifically designed to work around New Zealand’s rules about proportionality. National’s deals try to engineer a 5-for-1 deal on ACT MPs (which is exactly what they got in 2008.) National’s deals rort MMP; Labour’s avoid FPP vote-splitting. Those are not the same thing.
  3. Labour’s actions were unilateral. Labour did not receive any assurance of anything from Peters before making the call to change tack. Labour looked at the facts on the ground, and changed its plan accordingly. National, by contrast, makes a big show of obtaining a quid pro quo in advance. Labour had a strategy; National made a deal.

Personally, I agree with the reasoning of Salmond, Mclauchlan and Bunji at The Standard. Yes, by-elections are FPP. Yes, there was no “deal”. Yes, Northland was never Labour’s to win. Northland and Epsom are indeed different.

The problem though is that, at a glance, they also look suspiciously similar. Which is why Gower and Garner et al are so easily able to characterise Labour’s actions as hypocrisy. And explaining is losing.

For those who care, the distinction between Northland and Epsom is patently obvious. To the casual by-stander though, Labour and National are just as bad as each other. And no amount of explanatory blogposts are likely to change that…

Paying one’s debts (or The Ongoing Art of Political Stupidity)

No one likes being caught saying one thing and doing another. So it’s been more than a little embarrassing for Andrew Little to have been talking up the need for Labour to reach out to small business and contractors, only to be busted for not having paid a contractor’s $950 invoice for four months.

Many Labour supporters will argue that it’s a minor issue, blown out of proportion by Patrick Gower’s gleeful penchant for sensationalist reporting. Nonetheless, the problem for Andrew Little is that it’s a very simple issue that all small business owners and contractors can relate to: you do the work, you send out the invoice, and you wait, and wait, and wait. And while you wait, and pay your own bills, you think how nice it would be to have that money sitting in your bank account. Because there’s a rates invoice due in a few days, or a GST payment coming up fast, or the oven at home has just committed hara-kiri.

Of course, it’s unlikely that the invoice sat on Andrew Little’s desk for four months, with Little making a personal decision to obstinately not pay it. Instead, it will have been with any number of underlings, who are paid to sort such things out.

They’ve certainly dropped the ball on this one, and not merely in their handling of the (non)payment of the invoice.

For a start, the contractor, freelance journalist David Cohen, writes for the National Business Review, a publication not often known as a bastion of left wing journalism. Cohen’s latest NBR piece states that he was contracted to “take a few hours to talk with Mr Little and then independently distill his views as they might sound to an outsider”. Quite why anyone in Camp Little thought that the ideal independent outsider to hire was a right wing journalist is rather beyond me.

As The Dim-Post‘s Danyl Mclauchlan writes in the comments to his latest post:

Here’s how a similar conversation would go in the National Party:

Aide: We’ve arranged for Danyl Mclauchlan to interview you then distill it into key messages.
MP: Who’s he?
Aide: He’s a left-wing blogger, his wife was a senior staffer for the Greens . . .
MP: Let’s not use him. That’s just stupid.

Nonetheless, the political preferences of Mr Cohen presumably wouldn’t have been an issue had the invoice simply been paid. But it wasn’t, and according to Mr Cohen on Morning Report this morning, that’s despite him having contact with various Little staff members, including Chief of Staff Matt McCarten.

Did no one, especially Mr McCarten, think, “We owe an NBR journalist $950. We should probably pay that before he turns feral…”?

And so Mr Cohen writes a story about his shoddy treatment, exposing Mr Little’s hypocrisy and making Little and his staff look like a pack of extremely odd individuals.

And so Andrew Little is embarrassed in Parliament by Stephen Joyce, who gleefully lampoons Little’s “no payment contract”.

And so Patrick Gower makes Mr Little look like a fool on 3News, as Gower asks again and again when and why the bill was suddenly paid, and Little tries not to answer.

It’s an issue that should never have got to that stage, and it beggars belief that Little and/or his staff allowed it to end up on the six o’clock news. Reverting to type, Labour once again fluffs its basic political management.

Are you not entertained?

So life’s been rather frantically busy since my last post. A week and a half managed to flash by, filled with full Court days, interesting experiences with chainsaws, and visitations from Perth-based relatives. Sitting down at a keyboard to blog came a very distant second, third or possibly fourth in the ‘interesting things to do’ stakes.

Nonetheless, here’s a brief recap for those who were also avoiding the political world:

  • Much humour was derived from Green MP Steffan Browning and his advocacy on behalf of homeopathy as a cure for Ebola. For quite some time, the Greens had managed to project a face of relative sanity (setting aside Russel Norman’s flirtation with quantitive easing), only to end up the butt of innumerable homeopathy-inspired jokes on Twitter. On the plus side, the party leadership shut Browning down swiftly. And Middle New Zealand doesn’t give a damn about political jokes on Twitter, so no harm done… Or something. Regardless, it further interrupted Danyl McLauchlan’s blogging hiatus, placing it in the realm of Events of Great Significance.
  • Much less humour was derived from National’s Paula Bennett declaring that selling off state houses was “sexy”. Who knew? Personally, my definition of ‘sexy’ is a little different, but I accept that we all have our own unique peccadilloes…
  • And National decided that there should be flexibility in workers’ tea breaks. This bemused people like myself, who had always been fairly flexible already about when tea breaks were taken, even before I joined the ranks of the self-employed (at which point the issue became moot, and I discovered that four weeks’ holiday pay was a luxury that no longer existed). Frankly, I’ve never been part of a union, had always been happy to defer my tea break by half an hour if a job needed completing, and had always figured that workplace flexibility already existed if employers and employees had a half-decent relationship. Nonetheless, various unionists were obviously insisting on taking their tea breaks at contractually agreed times, and the power of the unions had to be broken… Productivity is key, don’t you know? That’s why we have (or was that had?) a Rock Star Economy. (It’s just a pity that the category Rock Star includes specimens such as Bono. Are we the Bono Economy, telling everyone what’s good for them?)
  • Oh, and the Labour leadership continues. Excitement has failed to abound, and charisma has been noticeably lacking. Perhaps Bono needs to become a New Zealand citizen and join the race…

So, predictions…

I’ve been keeping track of the polls with my Poll of Polls (final update here), but of course polls technically aren’t prediction devices. They ask the question, “If an election were held today/tomorrow”, and are therefore only so useful when it comes to predicting what people will do in a few days time.

Likewise, Poll of Polls’ are generally fairly slow at adjusting to sudden events. They help cancel out statistical noise, but sometimes when a party shoots up in the polls it’s not statistical noise; the party actually is significantly more popular than it was the previous day, week or month.

The rise of NZ First and the Conservatives is a case in point. The final pre-election polls from each of the five main polling companies shows a spread of 6.6% to 8.4% for NZ First (an average of 7.6%), while my Poll of Polls has them on just 6.3%, outside the spread altogether.

Likewise, the final polls for the Conservatives show a spread of between 3.3% and 4.9%, while my Poll of Polls has them on 3.3%, at the very bottom of the spread.

Then there’s the perennial issue of whether the polls are inherently biased. Are they missing important swathes of the voting population, resulting in fundamentally skewed results? My Poll of Polls adjusts each poll based on how far above or below the industry average that polling company is. It doesn’t adjust for whether the polls are inherently out in relation to election results., largely those results can change quite markedly from election to election.

There are a few bias-adjusted predictions out there. Over at the Dim-Post, Danyl McLauchlan Poll of Polls applies a significant downward adjustment to National, and a significant upward adjustment to NZ First (there are other adjustments, but those are the big ones). I think his adjustments are too large, but there you go… I guess we’ll soon know just right or otherwise he is…

Danyl has given his predictions for five parties, heavily couched with 2% bands:

  • National 42 – 44%
  • Labour 22 – 24%
  • Greens 13 – 15%
  • NZ First 7 – 9%
  • Conservatives 5 – 7% (although he further couches his prediction by noting that the recent controversy over the resignation of Colin Craig’s press secretary might drop the Conservatives below 5%).

And Gavin White has published his bias-adjusted predictions for the parties he has “good data” for:

  • National – 45%
  • Labour – 26%
  • Greens – 11%
  • NZ First – 9%
  • Maori – 1.3%
  • ACT – 0.8%
  • United Future – 0.6%

My gut feeling prediction?

  • National 46%
  • Labour 26%
  • Greens 12%
  • NZ First 8%
  • Conservatives 4%
  • Maori – 1%
  • United Future – 0.2%
  • ACT – 0.5%
  • Internet Mana – 1.9%

Now let’s see how wrong I am come Saturday night!

Can the Conservatives make 5%?

Back when John Key confirmed there would be no East Coast Bays deal for Colin Craig, I happily wrote off the Conservative Party. With no hope of winning an electorate seat, they had no choice but to make 5% of the vote, which was one hell of a long shot.

However, if I cast my eye around the internet, I’ve apparently been far too early to write them off. In the NZ Herald this morning, there’s John Roughan talking up the Conservatives in his opinion piece “Craig’s day in the sun may dawn“. The latest Herald Digipoll says National voters would prefer a coalition with the Conservatives, rather than NZ First. And over at the Dim-Post, Danyl McLauchlan publishes his bias-adjusted tracking poll and predicts “The Conservatives will probably cross the 5% threshold.”

Personally, I stand by my prediction that the Conservatives won’t make it. One poll has had them over 4%; the three polls released yesterday had them on 2.4%, 2.9% and 3.8% respectively. This site’s Poll of Polls has them on just 2.7%; increasing week by week, but not nearly with enough momentum to get even close to 5%.

Most of the recent polls have shown a combined NZ First / Conservatives vote of between 9.5% and 10%. The only time this year the two minor (small-c) conservative parties have got above 10% is in the second-to-last Reid Research poll, in which the Conservatives reached their 4.2% high point, and the combine NZ First / Conservatives vote was 10.9%. With NZ First reaching 6% or higher in four of the last six polls, that doesn’t leave enough of the natural small-c conservative constituency to get Colin Craig and his party over the line.

Colin Craig is losing the battle with Winston Peters. And although Craig may have benefited by a percentage point or two from the Dirty Politics fallout, that boat now appears to have floated, with the hacker, Rawshark, pulling the pin following yesterday’s interim injunction against media publishing any newly leaked material.

To my mind, the only way that the Conservatives will make it in to Parliament is if John Key gives National Party supporters an explicit statement that it’s okay if they vote Conservative. The reason John Key is unlikely to do that is that there’s still a risk that the Conservatives still only get close to 5%, without reaching that vital threshold, and a greater chunk of the centre-right vote is wasted.

Key will be hoping that with the minor party leader’s debates now over, the spotlight will shift back to the battle between Key and Cunliffe. Colin Craig will be left fighting for oxygen, and the Conservative Party’s rise will stagnate or even reverse.

It’s either that, or a vain hope from National that the Conservatives somehow surge on their account, cleanly making the 5% threshold, and allowing National to put together a coalition that doesn’t involve NZ First. I wouldn’t bet on it though…

Too many errors – why ‘Dirty Politics’ won’t convince swing voters

Rodney Hide has very publicly rubbished Nicky Hager’s claims that Hide was blackmailed into resigning as ACT Party leader. Here’s an extract from his Herald on Sunday column this morning:

It seems a character called Jordan Williams told another character, Simon Lusk, that I had sent inappropriate texts. Lusk and blogger Cameron Slater then apparently message each other about threatening me with the release of the texts unless I resign.

And then I resign.

Oh, and Don Brash in replacing me was – according to Hager – Lusk’s client. Ta da!

What hasn’t been reported is Hager writing: “The documents do not contain the texts and we do not know they exist. There is also no evidence that a direct threat was made to Hide.”

So he quietly admits his “explosive claim” could be a fizzer. Even with the admission our so-called investigative journalist never bothered confirming his story. Hager never rang to ask: “Hey, I have just come across the damnedest stuff and just have to ask, were you ever blackmailed?”

To which I would reply: “No, definitely not. I would never give in to blackmail. I would go straight to the police. It’s a crime. I have no doubt the police and the courts would take a dim view of any attempt to blackmail a political leader and Government minister. It never happened.”

But then if Hager had fact-checked, “one of the most explosive claims in the book” would evaporate. Far better to publish, run the story, make everyone scramble.

That’s the thing – the blackmail allegation seems a case of Hager playing join the dots with too few dots. A few political operatives emailing each other and saying, “We should blackmail Hide!” doesn’t mean that Hide was actually blackmailed.

The blackmail allegation was one of the big allegations that featured prominently in the media’s initial coverage of Dirty Politics, along with the allegation that Judith Collins had arranged for a prisoner to be moved at Cameron Slater’s behest. The media are now backtracking on the Collins allegation, with Nicky Hager clarifying yesterday that he’s in fact alleging that a prison officer arranged for the prisoner transfer, not Collins. It’s a misreading of the book by journalists, rather than a mistake by Hager, but it substantially reduces the culpability of Team Key.

The more allegations that are either proven to be false, or can be credibly argued to be an exaggeration, the less likely it is that the public (who haven’t read the book and are relying on media coverage for their information) will believe the credible allegations.

Just look at last night’s One News Colmar Brunton’s snap poll. Question two of the poll asks:

[Nicky Hager’s] book suggests smear campaigns and leaks were organised at the highest levels of the National Party, including the Prime Minister’s office. Do you believe these suggestions?

The results? Just 28% of respondents said yes, they believe these suggestions. 43% said no, while 29% didn’t know.

And question three?

Have these allegations positively or negatively influenced your view of the National Party, or have they not made much difference?

5% didn’t know, while 82% said “Not made much difference”. Just 9% said they’d been negatively influenced. (And I don’t even want to know what’s going on in the minds of the 4% who said their view of the National Party had been positively influenced by the allegations…)

Now one could argue that if those 9% of voters who have been negatively influenced were leaning National and were now leaning left, that that’s a huge impact. A 9% shift in the polls would likely hand the election to Labour and the Greens. However, we don’t where those 9% of voters sat, in terms of allegiance. It’s entirely possible that a good chunk of them are left-wingers who didn’t like National, and now like National even less. Or that some are National voters who may like National less, but not enough to vote for a different party.

It’s a pity that Colmar Brunton didn’t dig deeper with their questions, but I guess we’ll see impact of Dirty Politics with the upcoming polling cycle. But I’ll be surprised if the impact is substantial.

UPDATE:

For those interested in a complete summation of the Rodney Hide blackmail dots that can be connected, Danyl Mclauchlan at The Dim-Post has a useful timeline.

Also worth noting is Andrew Geddis’s comment on Danyl’s post:

The question isn’t so much “did Hide actually step down because he was frightened into it by threats of stuff being released?” It’s, “did these people conspire to bring about this result?” Because you can plot to do something and be criminally liable for doing so without actually bringing the plan to full fruition.

Dirty Politics – sunlight is the best disinfectant

Well, there’s only one political story today – Nicky Hager’s new book, Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment. And it’ll likely be the only political story for a wee while yet, as journalists digest the full range of allegations and try and pin John Key down on what he knew about what his office was up to.

I haven’t yet read Dirty Politics (although it’s definitely on my reading list, once I obtain a copy). I only know what’s been reported and debated online. (For a useful synopsis, check out Danyl Mclauchlan’s post at The Dim-Post.

There are a few allegations that seem to have captured the attention of the commentariat:

  • That Cameron Slater and Jason Ede accessed the Labour Party’s computers in 2011, in the lead-up to the election.
  • That the Prime Minister’s office, through Jason Ede, used classified SIS documents to damage a political enemy, Phil Goff, by de-classifying them and telling Cameron Slater to OIA them.
  • That Cameron Slater and political strategist Simon Lusk blackmailed Rodney Hide into resigning as leader of the ACT party.
  • That Judith Collins, when she was Minister of Corrections, arranged to have a prisoner transferred at Cameron Slater’s request.
  • That Cameron Slater is paid around $6,500 per month from a tobacco lobbyist, Carrick Graham, to publish pro-tobacco, pro-alcohol attack posts. Those posts are written by Mr Graham, and are published under Slater’s by-line without attribution.

Yes, everyone knows that politics is a dirty business. Political parties dig for dirt on their opponents (remember Mike Williams’ flight to Australia to find non-existent dirt on John Key?). Nonetheless, if the allegations are correct, there’s some seriously disturbing stuff taking place on the ninth floor of the Beehive. It’s taking negative campaigning to a new level. It’s a systemic abuse of power.

How much of Hager’s claims are based on incontrovertible documentary evidence, and how much on tenuously joined dots remains to be seen. Matthew Hooton has come out this morning and labelled as flat-out wrong and a lie an allegation that he arranged for a liquor company to sponsor David Farrar and Slater.

It’s worth noting that Slater has responded to some of the allegations against him, in his post “The three biggest lies of Hager’s book“. Firstly, he disputes that Labour’s computer system was hacked (which I’ll discuss in a separate post), and secondly:

The second big lie is that PM and/or the PM’s office told me about Phil Goff’s briefing from the SIS. They did not.  

I wrote my own OIA and boy did I get pressure to pull my OIA. Pressure came from very senior people to actually withdraw my OIA, very serious pressure…mostly by phone. I was told it wouldn’t do the Nats any favours.

I resisted that and basically told them to piss off, I was entitled to ask an OIA and I did, proving that Phil Goff lied about his briefing.

I’ll be interested to read Hager’s evidence to the contrary.

Certainly, I’m amused that thus far there’s no denial from Slater that he takes money from a tobacco lobbyist to run PR attack lines. As Mr Slater is fond of saying, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. Indeed…

But will the current furore result in any change in the polls? It’s hard to say. If John Key can distance himself from everything, there may not be much of an impact. Broadcasters such as Sean Plunket and Mike Hosking are busily running the line that there’s nothing to see here that no one didn’t already know. 

“Nicky Hager taking the moral high ground is nauseating.”

That’s a text message I received this morning from a swing voter. They’re not going to read Dirty Politics, and they undoubtedly assume that whatever National is alleged to have done, Labour will also have done. They just don’t care, and that’s a depressing thought…

What does Shane Jones’ departure mean for Labour?

So, Shane Jones is leaving the building, wooed away by an offer from Murray McCully to become a roving economic ambassador throughout the Pacific.

The political reaction has been rather diverse. Over at the Daily Blog and the Standard, various hardened left wing activists trumpeted his departure as a victory – a lancing of a right wing boil from Labour’s soft left wing skin – while various political commentators have decried his leaving as a huge blow to Labour’s ability to attract votes from National.

Personally, I see it as a short term blow, in terms of voter perception of the manner of his departure, but nothing more.

The problem for Labour is the timing and the miscommunication. Having a former aspirant to the Labour leadership, and a front bench MP who has been firing on all cylinders recently, suddenly duck and run just five months out from the election looks terrible. It leaves the impression that Mr Jones does not believe that Labour can win. Plus, once the news broke, Labour simply looked disorganised. No one could be found for comment, and those that did comment didn’t seem to know anything. It was a case of terrible political management.

I can’t speak to Mr Jones’ actual motivations for leaving, but I would have thought that he is smart enough to know that it will only take a small swing to the left, and it’s game on for Labour and the Greens. To me, I think he’s simply become disillusioned with what he can personally achieve. He’s been muzzled, and the thought of wearing that muzzle for three more years leaves him cold. Certainly, his comment on TVNZs Breakfast show this morning, as reported in the NZ Herald, would indicate that it’s disillusionment, rather than defeatism:

There were frustrations during his career in being reigned in over some comments he had made, Mr Jones said.

“The political collar has chafed this dog’s neck and now I’ve slipped the collar.”

That comment sums up why I don’t see Mr Jones’ departure as being anything more than a short-term voter perception problem for Labour. Mr Jones may have a certain level of support among swing voters, but it’s outweighed by his slipshod approach to politics. He’s undisciplined, turns off women voters in droves with his casual misogyny, and simply cannot stay on message (as evidenced by his continued attacks on the Greens, presumably against the instructions of those on high). He creates just as many negative headlines as he does positive headlines, and would just as likely prove a liability in the upcoming election campaign as he would a positive. Mr Cunliffe would be continually on edge, every time Jones popped his head up to create a soundbite.

Certainly, Shane Jones has been Labour’s most effective mouthpiece regarding the importance of job creation. Yet the positive headlines about jobs would generally be balanced by a negative headline about whether Jones’ statements exposed further division within the Labour party.

On balance, once Jones goes and the media furore dies down, I don’t see there being a medium- or long-term downside for Labour. Perhaps Danyl McLauchlan at the Dim-Post sums it up best:

I guess this is ‘bad for Labour’. It makes them look weak and disorganised, and the gallery will run around wailing that Labour have just lost their brightest star. (I think they’ve lost an undisciplined, waffling misogynist who probably cost them more votes than he ever won.)

Does systemic polling bias actually exist in NZ?

In my post yesterday about polling bias, I compared the polling bias conclusions of Gavin White of UMR to those of Danyl McLaughlan.

There are five major polling firms that publicly release their findings – One News Colmar Brunton, NZ Herald-Digipoll, TV3 Reid Research, Fairfax Ipsos and Roy Morgan. Gavin White notes:

Four of those five polls were around at the 2011 election, with exception being Fairfax (then conducted by Research International). Although some on the left wing blogs have been critical of the Fairfax poll on the grounds that it was a long way out in 2011, I think that’s manifestly unfair as Ipsos weren’t doing it. That’s like criticising Cadbury for the taste of a Peanut Slab. The most we can say about the Fairfax Ipsos poll in 2014 is that we don’t know how it stacks up historically.

I was interested in what happened to historic polling bias if Fairfax was taken out of the equation, as its results were so far out (both when Research International was running its polling in 2011, and when Nielsen was its pollster in 2008 and 2005).

I’ve looked at the final polling results from the last three elections (2005, 2008 and 2011 for the major polling companies), and the results are quite interesting.

In 2011, the average error across the final polls of each of the five main polling companies was:

  • National: 3.7% too high
  • Labour: 1.2% too low
  • Greens: 1.3% too high
  • NZ First: 2% too low

In 2008, the average error was:

  • National: 1.5% too high
  • Labour: Correct (to one decimal place)
  • Greens: 1.6% too high
  • NZ First: 0.6% too low

In 2005, the average error was:

  • National: 0.3% too high
  • Labour: 1.4% too low
  • Greens: 0.7% too high
  • NZ First: 0.5% too high

Overall, across all three elections, the average error across the final polls for each of the five main polling companies (in their different incarnations) was:

  • National: 1.8% too high
  • Labour: 0.9% too low
  • Greens: 1.2% too high
  • NZ First: 0.7 too low

Now that’s all very well, but what happens if we take into account only those polling companies that are still running publicly released political polls? As Mr White noted, there’s no point in comparing Fairfax’s Ipsos poll results with those of Fairfax’s Research International or Nielsen polling. They were evidently concerned about the inaccuracies with both prior polling companies, and have now changed to Ipsos. Likewise, 3 News’ polling in the 2005 and 2008 elections was performed by their earlier pollster TNS, whereas prior to 2011 their pollster has been Reid Research.

So if eradicate the now non-existent public pollsters (all of Fairfax’s polling and the TNS polling from 2005 and 2008), thereby only looking at the track record of the existing polling companies, what happens?

First of all, let’s look at the individual elections:

2011:

  • National: 3% too high
  • Labour: 1.1% too low
  • Greens: 1.4% too high
  • NZ First: 1.8 too low

2008:

  • National: 0.7% too high
  • Labour: 1.3% too high
  • Greens: 1.5% too high
  • NZ First: 0.5% too low

2005:

  • National: 0.6% too low
  • Labour: 0.7% too low
  • Greens: 0.4% too high
  • NZ First: Correct (to 1 decimal place)

And the total average error across all three elections?

  • National: 1.4% too high
  • Labour 0.3% too low
  • Greens: 1.2% too high
  • NZ First: 1.0% too low

That’s just a 0.5% divergence between the National v Labour & Greens blocs. Not a hell of a lot.

I commented in my last post that I saw the polling divergence in 2011 between final polls and actual elections results to likely be the result of the final polls not picking up a sudden last-minute switch from National to NZ First due to the teapot tapes saga. Those 2011 results for National and NZ First really do seem to be outliers, compared to the other election results.

So one final piece of analysis – what happens if we take the 2005 and 2008 elections, and compare only the poll results for the currently existing public pollsters?

  • National: Correct (to one decimal place)
  • Labour: 0.3% too high
  • Greens: 1.0% too high
  • NZ First: 0.3% too low

The left can hardly complain about those figures…

The lesson? Numbers can be arranged and re-arranged to suit whatever thesis one is currently banging the drum for.

Which is why my Poll of Polls doesn’t try to correct bias based on deviations from election day(s). Occasionally Erudite’s Poll of Polls corrects for deviations from the industry average, but that’s as far as it goes. On 20 September, if it turns out the same sort of error rates exist in the major polls as occurred in 2011, then I’ll undoubtedly be taking that on board and trying to factor in a broader polling bias. However, at present, I’m unconvinced…

Polling bias

Individual polls are biased. That’s not to say that they consciously try and favour one party or another. Instead, the way that they sample and weigh their samples results in bias, with that bias being measured by how far the particular polling company is from the average of all polls.

Occasionally Erudite’s Poll of Polls tries to account for the bias of individual polling companies by adjusting each poll by how far they deviate from the industry average for each party. But does this go far enough? After all, if the polling industry average is too high or low for each party, any attempt at correcting bias won’t fix the industry-wide problem.

The political left tend to give great credence to Danyl McLauchlan’s bias corrected Poll of Polls. Mr McLauchlan calculates the polling bias by looking at how the polling industry did in picking each party’s 2011 election result and then calculating the discrepancy between their average final polling and that party’s actual result. As it turns out, the pollsters got Labour and the Greens roughly correct – Mr McLauchlan adjusts Labour down by 0.6% and the Greens down by 0.5%. It’s National and NZ First that are badly out of whack, with the final polling average being out by a whopping 3.1% for NZ First (too low) and 4.1% for National (too high). McLauchlan therefore adjusts his non-bias corrected Poll of Polls by those amounts, to get his bias corrected version.

To me, McLauchlan’s approach is fatally flawed. One needs to ask the question, ‘If the pollsters got Labour and the Greens almost right, why did they get National and NZ First so badly wrong?’ So what did happen in the final build up to election day. The obvious incident that springs to mind is the teapot tapes saga, with National giving Winston Peters vital oxygen in the dying last weeks of the campaign. The teapot tapes conversation occurred on 11 November 2011, with the election occurring 15 days later on 26 November 2011. Rumours slowly circulated about just what John Key and Don Brash had discussed, with Winston Peters tantalising media with leaked tidbits. NZ First went from being nowhere in the polls to breaking 6% on election day (6.59% to be precise), while National’s vote plummeted from the ‘governing alone’ predictions that had been swirling for months to its final result of 47.31%.

Is it more likely that the polls were inherently biased against NZ First by 3.1% and in favour of National by 4.1%, or is it a case of the polls not reacting to the sudden speed of the anti-National/pro-NZ First reaction that the teapot tape saga produced? Is the 2011 election an aberration or are the polls consistently over-representing National to that degree and under-representing NZ First?

Gavin White of UMR wrote a fascinating blog last month about the accuracy of companies’ final polling prior to MMP elections compared to actual election results. He concludes:

Counting all mainstream media polls since 2005 (i.e. excluding UMR but including TV3 and Fairfax / Research International polls in 2008 and 2011) leaves 14 polls, and an average error of:

    • National: 2.4% too high
    • Labour: 0.5% too low
    • Greens: 1.5% too high
    • NZ First: 1.1% too low.

That’s a significant difference compared to McLaughlan’s bias corrections. But it does show that the polling average for the left-right bloc gap is likely to be skewed in favour of the right by 1.4% (given that I place NZ First in the centre, separate and distinct from the centre left and centre right).

(It is, however, worth noticing that the Fairfax poll for 2011 was probably the worst of the bunch from the major polls, over-estimating National by 6.7%, under-estimating Labour by 1.5%, over-estimating the Greens by 0.9% and under-estimating NZ First by 2.6%. Fairfax now has a different pollster. I therefore wonder whether there’s any significant change if Fairfax’s historic pre-election poll results are removed from the mix. If I have time, I may try and replicate Gavin White’s analysis, with the removal of Fairfax.)

And Gavin White’s conclusions?

I think history suggests that:

    • If the total for Labour + Greens is within about 2% of the total for National and its allies (whichever of ACT, United Future and the Conservatives makes it into parliament), then it’s actually pretty much a deadheat. 
    • If NZ First gets 4% in most of the mainstream polls, then they’ll probably pass the 5% threshold on election day.