Monday, 19 April 2010

Will positive Dave confirm he hasn't been testing that negative message?

David Cameron today promising he won't go negative in response to the LibDem poll surge:

People are asking me: how are you going to respond to this change in the general election? What are you going to do? Are you going to suddenly go negative, are you going to lash out against your opponents, are you going to do something different? I will tell you what I'm going to do, I am going to redouble the positive, I am going to accentuate everything positive we want to bring to this country, I am going to make sure everything we do is about the positive vision we have for the future of our country because it's absolutely clear to me what this election is about.

So he will be shocked, shocked, I tell you to hear about this YouGov poll question among many testing negative messages against Nick Clegg for an unidentified private client,revealed today:

Nick Clegg says the other parties are to blame for the MP scandals, he has taken money from a criminal on the run, many of his MPs have been found guilty of breaking the rules and his own party issued guidance on how to fiddle the expenses system."

Stephan Shakespeare, CEO of YouGov, writing for ConservativeHome.

Most professionally-run campaigns will at some time want to test public reaction to a variety of messages, to see if its communication strategy is likely to work. This applies to companies and brands, and of course political parties.


When you see these questions, you can’t be sure who the client is, or what the reason for the test is.


Some blog-surfers have been getting very excited about a poll YouGov is supposed to have conducted which asked negative questions about the LibDems. I obviously can’t tell you about who the clients might be or what they were interested in, but I can categorically state that all our published voting intention questions come at the start of our polls, as is standard practise. I also remind you that you can never tell from as a respondents to a survey whether the questions you are seeing are the same as the questions a different respondent is seeing, no whether the purpose is attack or defence or something quite different. YouGov polls for at least three different parties in this election, as well as for third parties that are interested in these things, such as academics. I hope that clears things up.

Well, it really, really doesn't clear anything up does it - except that YouGov protect the voting intention polls from such message-testing negativity. Let's discount "is supposed to have". That could provide a textbook case of non-denial.

But the question is perhaps less for the pollster than the anonymous client, whomsoever that might turn out to be.


So, to adapt the immortal words of Lloyd Grossman, who would test a message like that?

Qui bono?

Now, Stephen Shakespeare floats the idea that it might not be as obvious as you think: YouGov work for a numbe of parties who might "want to test both positive and negative messages, either to promote those messages or find out which they most need to defend themselves against".

So, firstly, the Liberal Democrats might want to confirm that they were not testing this message against themselves, a most unlikely theory but one worth ruling out.

And that leaves the two major parties. Both should answer the question.

A reasonable hypothesis could be that the cash-rich and rather shaken Conservatives might be the more likely.

Clearly "I won't be going negative" does not simply apply to the words the candidate will utter on camera, regardless of whatever the party and campaign he is leading are doing behind the scenes.

So David Cameron's credibility and integrity are at stake - and he surely needs to issue a clear and unequivocal public statement that no member of the party staff or party office-holder had any involvement in testing that message. (And it would be as well for the question to be framed in a way that would work out whether it has been done by a party surrogate - such as the Midlands Industrial Council - in a way that attempts a veneer of deniability for the party).

If he can't do that, he needs to explain how and why that type of message testing fits with a pledge not to go negative but to "redouble the positive".


Shall we mention a few rather close business, political and personal connections, which might or might not shed some explanatory light on the mystery.

Didn't the Conservative Party reveal last month that it was becoming a new major client of YouGov during the election? It was reported that this internal polling would provide additional rapid reaction polling of polling "within the day" on major announcement "enabling them to have whole ad campaigns ready to go for the next morning".

Isn't that the very same Stephan Shakespeare who is CEO of the new company acquired by Tory deputy chairman not-Lord Ashcroft in a £1.3 million investment?

His message has been published on ConservativeHome - a website also acquired by the Tory party chairman in the same deal, and of which Shakespeare is chair.

Doesn't not-Lord Ashcroft take quite an interest in opinion polling, spending £250,000 of his own money on private polling in 2005 so as to influence the Cameron project afterwards, albeit saving thousands in tax on VAT by billing his UK marginals polling to Belize?

I will happily retract the statement if proved wrong with a public denial by the reclusive billionaire, but, in the meantime, do not place your own non-dom fortune on the elusive not-Lord Ashcroft being able to prove that his fingerprints are nowhere near this.


paul said...

I hope David Cameron is suitably embarrassed then at how off message Councillor Gareth Compton is on Twitter - - because his tweets go beyond negative, are offensive, and at best misrepresentitive of the Lib Dem position on votes for prisoners, and at worst a damned lie.

jcatz said...

If Labour haven't got the balls to tell the truth about the Lib Dems, then thank God the Tories are doing it. I have been shocked over the last week at the complacency at best, collusion at worst, being displayed by people who are meant to be backing Labour and are in fact driving it into third place.

David Miliband has backed Nick Clegg on his Twitter / Facebook, the party have banned leaflets exposing Lib Dem policy from being delivered, the party continues to focus attacks only on the Tories while leaking support rapidly to the Lib Dems, and now this.

I fear that the neo-Blairites, having realised that the "healing the progressive divide" trope could never happen under Labour dominance, now hope to destroy the party and make us a small faction supporting the Lib Dems.

Sunder Katwala said...


thanks. just out of interest. how do you think these mighty neo-blairites managed to engineer the public reaction to the leaders' debate??

this is a challenge to David Cameron on authenticity and integrity, if it turns out to be the Tories.

jcatz said...

Sunder, obviously I don't think they engineered the reaction to the Leaders' debates (though the reporting of it has rather been above and beyond the fact of it).

But agreeing to the debates, that was a decision. Allowing Nick Clegg to be treated as an equal in all three debates while no other party was (why not UKIP, for example, they outperformed the Lib Dems at the last UK-wide poll and might have done the same to Cameron as Clegg has done to Labour) was a decision. Getting Gordon Brown to treat Nick as the impartial referee, and agree with him ostentatiously, that was a decision too.

The public reaction, while not directly controllable, was always likely to follow from those decisions (and, small consolation, I'm sitting on a nice betting profit from having realised that).

Fine, challenge David Cameron's integrity, by all means - but challenge the fact that a party that claims not to rely on funding from big business, and to be squeaky clean, has taken over £2m not only from a crook, but of funds which were not even his to give.

Sunder Katwala said...


thanks. sensible answer. LDs were certainly naive in the Michael Brown case.

Labour faces some important risks if Nick Clegg really does become the new princess diana. On the other hand, a Tory overall majority was odds-on and is now odds-against. If Labour does get its act together in the final 3 weeks, and esp if its economy message resonates, but the LDs stay above 25% but don't get to 30-33%+ then there is an opportunity for Labour to finish neck and neck, or within 2-3 points, of the Conservatives.