Polling predictions: what went wrong?

Written by Warwick Smith on 8 May 2015 in Opinion
How to explain the disparity between polling predications and the outcome of the general election? And what’s next for the parties?

The votes are in but not many of us predicted such a stark outcome.  Consistency of the pre-election day polls suggests that the pollsters were reporting what they were told by the electorate. This means it is difficult to blame a sampling error. However, there were a number of unusual or even unique circumstances which may have made the pollsters’ methodology questionable.

Incumbency was less of a factor, certainly for the LibDems everywhere and Labour in Scotland in particular. For the LibDems their sitting MPs had to defend the Government’s record and not just their own. Regional variations were very significant and stark. You can’t apply national figures to individual constituency contests and get the right answers.

Scotland was still in the aftermath of the referendum, creating a higher turnout than in England of more focused, passionate and engaged voters. And 20% of voters were uncommitted the day before and may have decided in the polling booth.

For those who looked beneath the skin of the parties’ rhetoric, there was a clear choice on offer between the Conservatives’ pitch to look after the economy and Labour’s more interventionist pledge to look after the people.

The economy may have played stronger as an argument in the old Conservative heartlands, and some of the LibDem ones, where the recovery is more apparent and deprivation less so. The Tories may, after all, have got the campaign strategy right.

What now for Labour? There are two interlinked binary questions: Did they have the right leader? And did they move too far from the centre ground? Ed Miliband’s good personal performance was one of the surprises of the election, so both questions really come down to policy positioning. Expect a messy struggle around the soul of the party.

As for the LibDems, it’s a truism of coalition politics that the junior partner frequently suffers in the polls. But no-one expected the LibDems to end up with fewer than 20 seats. As I suggest above, being in government significantly weakened the incumbency factor.

With the resignation of Nick Clegg the party now risks turning inward and becoming the party of protest and of opposition again.

The massive disparity between the share of vote and relative number of MPs will bring the electoral system back into focus. For once, not a LibDem issue, but a broader one where UKIP came third in the popular vote and may have one MP whereas the SNP is significantly overrepresented in the UK Parliament according to its share of vote.

But David Cameron’s big challenge, as he’s already implied, is to save the Union. Big, strategic, thought through ideas with broad support are needed: that’s not been his approach in his first term, but maybe his comments in the small hours suggest a turning point. Cameron is at his best when he is true to his own beliefs, and this is an area where he will be.


Warwick Smith is managing partner of public policy at Instinctif Partners

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