Onwards. From where to where? - The Snow In The Summer or So-So

8 August 2019
Onward, the think tank that doesn't

We've become aware of new(ish) pressure group Onward, which employs a couple of former policy directors for senior party figures. The group appears to be misnamed, as its vision of "onwards" strikes us as "flailing about in the middle of nowhere".

Its new report The Politics of Belonging commits two cardinal sins. The paper takes an opinion poll, and attempts to form policy based on the results of this one poll. Why is this wrong?

We asked 100 people... Picture this. Some policy person comes up with difficult questions about an esoteric topic. The policy person has spent ages thinking about this topic, and understands it enough to form some questions. So deeply has the think-tank been thinking about their topic that they've forgoten how unusual they are.

The poor person answering the questions hasn't spent ages thinking about this topic, won't spend ages thinking about it, and will give a gut reaction. A subtly different question will elicit a different answer.

Voters are not political policy people, we don't all stop to tease out every nuance of policies that don't directly affect us.

Opinion polls are a snapshot, never a prediction. They are a weathervane, never a signpost. Opinion polls can tell which way a stiff wind is blowing right now, but not whether it'll rain in six hours. Onward wants its poll to provide a full weather map, accurate for the next ten years. This simply isn't what opinion polls do. We accept the survey's findings, subject to the usual quantified sampling errors and the usual unquantified methodological errors.

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it Onward's write-up begins:

After decades of liberalising politics, from the cultural shifts introduced by Roy Jenkins on divorce and abortion in the 1960s, through the Thatcherite economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, to the social liberalism of the Blair government, the polling reveals a sea change towards a new era in which the politics of security and belonging are becoming more important.

Onward claims that the direction of travel has changed. This is a remarkable claim, so requires remarkable evidence. Surely Onward will point to *previous* polling saying that people wanted *more* freedom, that the economic and social reforms weren't going far enough.

Except... they don't. And this omission tells us something. Onward doesn't bother to give any historical context for its numbers. Today's number might be 17, but is that larger than it was five years ago? What are the trends? Where are we going? To move onwards, we have to know both where we are *and* where we've been. The pressure group knows where we are, and nothing more.

Graph of social values: more right-wing at the top

British Social Attitudes has been measuring this sort of thing since before Onward's staff were born. The graph above (taken from their 2015 press release) combines Onward's Left-Right and Closed-Open questions onto one scale. It always shows that the people pull against the government of the day - pulling Left-Closed in the 1980s, Right-Open in the 2000s. Given that the government has been pursuing a confused and incoherent policy agenda, and has no clue about the future, it would be expected that people seek the comfort of nostalgia.

Onward needs to provide evidence that the position they've seen is different from the normal cycle, and isn't within the normal range of responses we'd expect to see. Does the population usually report as being a bit Closed, a bit Right? We don't know, because Onward has failed to do its research.

In fact, Onward needs to do more. It needs to provide evidence that the position they've seen is more Closed and more Right than ever. They cannot do this, because Onward has failed to do its research.

In conclusion The report offers three "emerging conclusions".

1) "The post-war age of freedom is ending". Onward has offered no evidence to justify this remarkable claim. The pressure group's research has ignored history, so the report's conclusions can only be of the present.

2) "Voters do not want want more autonomy, choice and mobility." This is a description of the opinion poll results. It accurately describes what voters are telling opinion pollsters. It may not accurately describe what the voters actually want, because we voters may not know what we actually want. Much of the present mess stems from an ill-defined feeling of "we want something to change", without articulating what and how.

3) proposes 2) in spades for a Conservative victory. By following this advice, Onward would offer policies that are More Of The Same. It would be a party of followers, in a time when calm and consensual leadership is desperately required.

Onward's research tells us where voters tell opinion pollsters where we are, and does so in great detail. It presumes that voters are where they think they are. It hasn't told us anything about the historical direction of travel.

In short: the claims made by Onward are not supported by the evidence. Please do better.

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