David Cameron returns to Downing Street. Photo:Getty
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Why were the polls so wrong?

It wasn't just Labour and the Liberal Democrats who suffered a heavy defeat last Thursday - the opinion pollsters did too.

Like Ed Miliband, pollsters also suffered a severe defeat last week. Far from the dead heat which the national opinion polls had predicted for months, David Cameron won by a heavy margin. But how did the pollsters get it so fundamentally wrong? Especially, when just yesterday, even Cameron thought a Conservative majority was near impossible.

After the exit polls blew months and months of pollsters’ predictions out the water, it became clear that the Tories had been radically underestimated. We thought that the race couldn’t be any closer but we were in fact wrong. In the words of Cameron himself, “I’ve often said that there’s only one opinion poll that counts and that’s the one on election day and I’m not sure that’s ever been truer than today and tonight”.

To sum up, the Conservatives have now won 37 per cent of the vote, followed by Labour with 31 per cent, Ukip with 13 per cent, Lib Dems with eight per cent, and SNP with five per cent. None of the polls anticipated a conservative lead anything like this and not one mainstream polling projection predicted the Tories to win much more than 290 seats. In spite of this, they have now won a staggering 330 seats.

And while Labour was predicted to win roughly 270 seats, they have taken home a meager 232 seats. In failing to win key target seats in the North-West, Yorkshire and the Midlands, the swings that Labour so desperately needed slipped away from them. In spite of their dramatic failings to predict the Conservative and Labour share of the vote, it’s worth noting that the polls did accurately predict the share of the vote for the Lib Dems, Ukip, SNP and Greens.

All the same, the polls certainly failed to predict the extent of the Liberal Democrat bloodbath that has ensued. After claiming that they would be the “surprise success story of the night”, Nick Clegg has suffered a humiliating defeat and the Lib Dems have held just eight of its 56 seats. What’s more, none of the polls could’ve predicted the long list of eminent Liberals who have taken a farewell bow. As incumbency and local strength failed to save them from national collapse, Vince Cable, Charles Kennedy, Danny Alexander, Ed Davey, Simon Hughes and Lynn Featherstone have all lost their seats. In turn, the Conservatives - the second party in most Lib Dem seats – have been in the prime position to profit from Lib Dem losses.

Simon Atkinson, the global chief knowledge officer at Ipsos Mori,has expressed surprise at the Lib Dem collapse: “The expectation was that they’d hold the seats with their key players but they haven’t. If they had got below 20, I would’ve said it was a terrible night for them, but now they’ve got below 10. No matter how famous or high profile you are, it won’t save you”.

But the question remains on everyone’s lips - where did the so-called experts go so wrong? The truth is, polling is only ever as precise and accurate as its last error. The scope for inaccuracy always remains. And while, more polls were carried out in this election than ever before, voting intentions will still never equate to an actual tick in the ballot box.

Tom Mludzinski, head of Political Polling at ComRes, admits that, saying:

Polling companies have to be humble enough to say we’ve clearly missed the mark on the Conservatives and Labour. We’re not arrogant enough to say we’re done so let’s move on; instead we need to review our systems and consider where we went right and where we went wrong. It was never as close as we all believed”.

While, the pollsters might all be clinging onto the fact that they were in their three per cent margin of error, it goes without saying, that they vastly underestimated Tory support. The opinion polls haven’t got it this wrong since 1992 and it’s time for questions to be asked.  Is the late swing towards the Tories an issue of turnout – a question of who voted and who stayed at home? Or can it be blamed on the “don’t know voters” or disorganized Labour voters or “Shy Tories”?

With large numbers of Tory voters historically hiding their voting intentions, the phrase “shy Tory” was first coined in 1992, when pollsters wrongly predicted the election result. While the polls had shown Labour and the Tories to be neck and neck, the Conservatives won by eight points. Although pollsters have adjusted their methodology accordingly, perhaps modifications have been flawed and created new errors. After all, we still know surprisingly little about the “shy tory” - who are they, why are they so shy, and why are they still confusing pollsters?

Whatever the answer, it is clear that the core Conservative vote is far more resilient than the core Labour vote as Labour voters are far more likely to stray to Ukip, Greens, and the SNP. On top of this, the increasingly fluid nature of the British electorate means people are far less likely to identify with one single political party than they did in the past. Whatever the answers to these complex questions, it is clear that the polls have radically failed to predict the voting intentions of the British electorate. And if pollsters do not fundamentally reevaluate their methods, who will ever trust an opinion poll again?

 

 

 

 

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.