David Cameron returns to Downing Street. Photo:Getty
Show Hide image

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?





Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.