Professor Politics Visits Headland

“Nothing happened during the campaign”

That was the surprise verdict of the nation’s leading psephologist on the 2015 general election.

Professor John Curtice – he of the amazingly accurate BBC exit poll – came into Headland to give us his compelling political insights.

The most extraordinary of which was that nothing the Conservatives did in the weeks before the election made the slightest difference to the result.

But wasn’t the Tory victory down to a brilliant bit of campaigning? Ramping up last-minute fears of Labour & the SNP running the show?

Not according to the most respected voice on political opinion in the UK. The sum total of the sound and fury of the electioneering was precisely: zero.

The campaign hardly nudged public opinion at all.

“I’ll eat my hat”

When Professor Curtice and his team unveiled their exit poll on election night – a poll which flew in the face of the ‘too close to call’ narrative which had dominated election coverage for months – Paddy Ashdown promised to “eat his hat” if it was correct.

Professor Curtice admitted that there were some nerves amongst the team – they would either be viewed as “heroes or complete nincompoops”.

There were even “a few expletives from BBC producers”.

However, the editor of the programme had the experience and knowledge to back the team and the results; a gamble which certainly paid off (even if it didn’t result in Ashdown consuming an item of headwear). ​​

What happened?

Although the Scottish independence referendum last year led many commentators to expect that the SNP would enjoy increased success in Scotland, the actual scale of the victory took many by surprise.

The SNP were able to steal 40 seats from Labour – not only this, but they did so whilst positioning themselves as left of a left-wing party. There was no battle for the centre ground here, and the SNP victory presented a real challenge to the idea that you “never lose a vote to the extremes”.

Down south, Professor Curtice argued that the Conservative victory came down to one key area: competence.

From the start of the campaigning right up to polling day, opinion polls showed that voters were never convinced that Labour was the party which could be trusted with the economy.

Add to this the fact that 67% of people who voted Conservative did so because they saw Cameron as the better candidate for Prime Minister (as opposed to voting for the party’s policies), and you get a good sense of what was driving voter behaviour.

Hence the argument that nothing actually happened during the Labour or Conservative campaigns; Labour were never viewed as a viable alternative. The Tories simply finished in the same position which they had started in.

How did the polls get it so wrong?

The final swing to the Conservatives on polling day came as a shock to commentators and voters alike. Theories as to why are plentiful, ranging from ‘shy Tories’ to ‘lazy Labour’, badly-ordered questions to a poor sample of voters.

So what did it?

The jury is still out on this one – although there still seems to be some indication of shy Tories, this was already being anticipated by some pollsters, including ICM.

Evidence for lazy Labour and question order also seems to be lacking. Whispers of poor voting samples continue to dog polling companies, and this might well present problems during future elections.

Adequate sampling must be of the utmost priority for polling companies, especially in this digital age where it is becoming harder to reach people by conventional methods.

What next?

As well as considerations for pollsters, what else have we learned from the election? Professor Curtice pointed out the decline in the number of marginal seats in the UK – there are far fewer opportunities for parties to swing the vote.

Given that the Conservative’s majority is so fragile and assuming that Jeremy Corbyn can maintain some form of a Labour base of seats, there is increasing potential for a hung parliament in 2020.

Given Professor Curtice’s track record, I’d take this as a pretty safe bet.

He ended his presentation with one more tip: “If Boris gets on the ballot paper [for Tory leader] he’ll walk it.”

We’ll see you down the bookies.