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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.