31 May 2017

Andrew Cooper on polls, politics and the truth about Brexit


Westminster is buzzing today about a shock YouGov poll which showed the Conservatives losing, rather than gaining seats. But what’s going on?

The latest guest on CapX’s Free Exchange podcast happens to be the best possible person to answer that question. Andrew Cooper, now Lord Cooper of Windrush, is co-founder of Populus, and was one of the original Tory modernisers, rising to become strategy director for David Cameron as well as pollster for the Better Together campaign in Scotland and the Stronger In campaign in the EU referendum.

In this gripping and wide-ranging discussion (recorded while the Tories still had a healthy poll lead), he talks about the state of modern polling, and why he and others have got things so wrong in the past. He also talks, among many other things, about the origins of “Project Fear”, why young people really are to blame for Brexit, and why Margate holds the key to Britain’s future.

Andrew Cooper on… the Westminster bubble (7 mins)

“When I worked for David [Cameron], and before that for William Hague, I used to try to get politicians to come and watch focus groups, because it’s very good for their sense of reality – though incredibly dispiriting if you’re the minister who’s spent weeks going around the TV studios talking about a particular policy, only to find that not only has no one ever heard of the policy, they’ve never even heard of you.

“You start from a base where most people have never heard of almost any politician. And over time as they get exposed to them, people end up knowing two or three things. That’s it. That’s their capacity. William Hague struggled right from the beginning because most people already knew that he’d given a speech to Tory conference when he was 16 – which straight away marked him out as really atypical and weird. We added to that almost immediately a baseball cap, and then it was capped off with the claim that he drank 12 pints of beer, and then there wasn’t room for anything else, really.”

Andrew Cooper on… the NHS reforms (15 mins)

“Almost nobody understood why we were reforming the NHS, particularly since we’d said that we wouldn’t. Almost nobody understood what the reforms were meant to achieve, because they were terrible complicated. So we were in a world where, on the one hand, all the doctors and the nurses and all the medical organisations and the royal colleges and everybody that people trust on the NHS said ‘This is terrible’. And there’s the Conservative Party, which struggles to win people’s trust on that issue, saying ‘No, no, trust us, this is great’. And that just wasn’t going to end well.”

Andrew Cooper on… gay marriage (19 mins)

“The Tory party got very, very feverish about this. We had all these reports from Cabinet ministers of all their activists resigning and so forth, and lots of people predicting that it would cost us the general election. As far as I could see and hear, when we got to the election two years later, it had already ceased to be an issue. I don’t think anybody voted against the Conservative Party in 2015 in any numbers because of equal marriage. In fact one of the great things about Britain, and the Conservative Party, is how quickly it adapts.”

Andrew Cooper on… frightening the Scots (20 mins 30)

“There were a group of people who were going to vote for independence come what may. And there were a group of people who were going to vote for the Union come what may. But the people in the middle, the floating voters of that referendum, when you looked at their attitudes, they were much, much, much closer to the people who were definitely going to vote for independce. They felt Scottish rather than British, they felt very little affinity with the Union, they felt very little affinity with people like them in the rest of the UK, they didn’t feel there were any particular advantages to Scotland from being in the United Kingdom – their hearts were already a long way to independence.

“The judgment the campaign had to make was, in the time we have available with the resources we have available, is it realistic for us to completely turn round those particular swing voters’ feelings about Scotland’s relationship with England and the rest of the UK? And the decision we came to was that that was not realistic – that those views had been developing over a long period of time.”

Andrew Cooper on… why the polls get it wrong (28 mins 45)

“The polls were wrong [in 2015] because of two big problems. Firstly, there’s a fundamental underlying challenge of the representativeness of samples. When I first started polling, the gold standard was that you did it on the phone, and the response rate was one in five. To get a 1,000 sample you talked to about 5,000 people – you could easily do that over a weekend.

“Response rates on the phone have collapsed – they’re now more like 1 in 20, 1 in 25… It’s become much, much harder and much more expensive to do a traditional random-digit-dial probability sample on the phone. That and the economics of the industry have driven people more and more to online panel polling – but the problem with online panels is that they don’t capture the full spectrum of the demographics of the country, and in particular, they don’t have enough people who are time-poor, professional middle-class people.”

“Problem two is estimating who is going to vote. In general terms people massively overestimate their own probability of voting. So if we’re starting off with a sample of 2,000 people, almost all of whom say ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m definitely going to vote’, but we know only 65-70 per cent of them will actually vote, which 65-70 per cent makes a massive difference when party shares are really close together.”

Andrew Cooper on… why he called the Brexit campaign wrong (32 mins 30)

“We expected the turnout to rise from the general election, as it did. And we expected that there would be an increased turnout among poorer, less well-educated blue-collar workers who feel very strongly about the EU. But we also expected there to be an increase in turnout among 18- to 30-year-olds who feel very strongly about the EU. And though we assumed the former group would be more numerous, because the ratio among the former group was 60-40 for Brexit, whereas the ratio among younger people was something like 80-20 for Remain, it would roughly sum out and in the referendum debate it would be roughly a wash.

“When we looked at the demographic profile of the people who had applied to go on to the electoral register in order to vote, it was very heavily skewed towards younger people. The incidence of 18-34s among those new registrants was more than twice what it is among the population. That gave us reassurance that those people really were going to do what they said they were going to do. And what actually happened is that a lot of young people joined the register and then didn’t vote.”

Andrew Cooper on… that £350 million claim (36 mins)

“We were increasingly concerned by the potency of ‘£350 million for the NHS’, which people were spontaneously quoting back in focus groups. Most ordinary people don’t know any statistics about anything. And I did argue that it was time to just take that head on, and try to establish in people’s minds that actually that figure isn’t true – and if that’s not true, what else that they’re telling you isn’t true either?

Andrew Cooper on… losing the economic argument (41 mins)

“With hindsight, we should have tried to make the economic argument in a different way. But it isn’t easy. £350 million – that specific figure – is in my view a cynical misrepresentation of a broad fact, but there is a broad fact that it costs us hundreds of millions of pounds a week. There was no simple equivalent fact that captured ‘what is the economic benefit that we assert of being in the EU’.

“In the end the obvious ways to bring it to life were either through the observations of experts – of whom it turned out we’re all sick and tired. To try to use the IMF, the World Bank… The other option was to try to produce Treasury numbers that capture people with its view of the state of the risk. So you had the £4,300. But the problem with that was it didn’t feel remotely credible to people – it sounded really weirdly high to a person on an average income. People said ‘I’ve never had that from the EU, what are they talking about?'”

Andrew Cooper on… Britain’s future (49 mins 30)

“When we researched [the “global race” argument], we found that even people who found it extremely challenging and unwelcome, mostly accepted that it was true. We’ve opened up the global economy and in the era of the internet, you can’t really close it again, even if you wanted to, however challenging the consequences. The idea that by a few small simple steps, or by shutting our doors, we can insulate ourselves from the pressures and tides of a global economy just isn’t true.

“Brexit doesn’t actually make any of those things go away. In policy terms, that certainly means that education and training and retraining and upskilling become incredibly important. If you look at the demographics of the people who were the core of the vote to leave the EU, they’re by and large the same people who are going to be facing the particular pressures of job losses through automation and robotics and AI, so there’s a second wave coming there that will make the need to reskill and upskill even more urgent… It’s not a coincidence that many of the most strongly Brexit-supporting places are seaside towns – literally at the periphery, on the edge of our society, literally physically disconnected from the engines and hubs of the globalised economy.”

You can listen to the full episode here:

Or catch up with our recent interviews with Lord OwenSue CameronFrank FieldNick CohenDaniel HannanPeter Oborne and Lord Lawson.

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Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX