It is an article of faith for many on the British Left that measures to combat left wing antisemitism are in reality measures to combat Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn: attempts promoted by the fiendish ‘Israel Lobby’, and opposed by Jews. Yes, by Jews. You know the Jews I mean: maybe not the Jews you’ve actually met, but, as Chaminda Jayanetti put it, ‘the Good Jew[s] – the Perfect Jew[s]. The Manic Pixie Dream Jew[s]. The Jew[s] to be put on a placard as evidence of how Not All Jews support Israel.’ There’s a certain kind of Leftist who needs those Jews.
Findings from a recent opinion poll were repeatedly shared on Labour Party-affiliated social media groups over the last weekend. The poll was commissioned by researchers at Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute, and asked people in London both about their voting intentions and about how well they felt that seven particular politicians were doing in their current jobs. Social media users commonly focused on the politicians’ net job approval ratings: that is, the percentage of people saying that each politician was doing well in his/her job minus the percentage of people saying that each politician was doing badly in his/her job. The seven politicians in question were the leaders of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, and Ukip (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Caroline Lucas, Tim Farron, and Paul Nuttall, respectively), plus the Mayor and the ex-Mayor of London (i.e. Sadiq Khan and Boris Johnson, again respectively). If you are not fortunate enough to spend a little part of each week staring at the slow motion car crash that is political social media, you may also have come across the same poll in newspaper reports that similarly focused on the finding that ‘Jeremy Corbyn has a worse personal approval rating even in London than every other major party leader, including Ukip’s Paul Nuttall’ (Peck, 2017).
Over the last few months, I’ve often heard that polls can’t be trusted. In particular, I have heard that they can’t be trusted because each one usually involves study of only about a thousand individuals. I have even heard that argument from a retired quantitative linguist.1 So I’ve put together this essay in order to explain how polls work, why a random sample of a thousand should usually be considered sufficient, and why the results should be treated as informative even though they do not enable us to predict precise numbers of votes (which is a particular problem when the results are going to be close — because then, precise numbers can make all the difference).
There’s much to be said about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the US’s decision to elect Donald Trump as president: above all, that we have in neither case seen a simple victory of ‘right’ over ‘left’. Leading conservatives in both countries had opposed the result that ultimately came to pass, and in both countries, the result was followed by a stock market fall, indicating that investors expected the supposedly ‘right wing’ option to be bad for business.
But for now I’d like to observe some important transatlantic similarities in the demographics of the winning and losing sides.