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  1. Politics
7 June 2017

“I’ve no wish to become a media celebrity“: John Curtice on the polls and his unlikely stardom

Strathclyde University's polling guru shares his thoughts on the general election 2017.

By Patrick Maguire

Here’s a sentence that wouldn’t have made much sense to anyone before 10pm on 7 May 2015: “The Conservatives will win a majority, we will leave the EU, the next general election will take place in 2017, and John Curtice will attain Zoella-level internet fame in the process.”

Very few pundits can claim to have had a good general election night two years ago, and fewer still can argue with a straight face that they saw what was coming. Curtice – Strathclyde University’s cult hero psephologist – was one of them. Despite the campaign’s opinion polls and received wisdom of the commentariat dictating otherwise, his exit poll suggested the Tories would end up just ten seats shy of the majority they eventually won.

Getting that exit poll right isn’t the only feather in Curtice’s cap. His star turn on the BBC in 2015 – which saw him transition from heretic to seer as his shock projection was borne out, and then some, by the eventual result – won him a new generation of fans online. A Twitter account, @JohnCurticeOnTV, updates its 6,000 followers whenever the bespectacled don – in both senses of the word – appears as a talking head.

But speak to Curtice, as I did over the phone late last month, and he has little interest in his own unlikely stardom. His Twitter fame, he tells me in no uncertain terms, is “BOOORING”. Perhaps unsurprising for a man who has been involved in broadcast coverage of almost every election since 1979. “I just do my job,” he says over the phone from what his “Glasgow lair” – a description that will doubtless delight the fans who keep sharing a picture of him dressed as Batman.

“I’ve been doing elections for the media for 38 years,” he adds, not at all icily. “It just happens that recently, there’s a few people who’ve noticed. It’s fine. I’ve done this stuff for many years, it’s great fun, but I’ve got no wish to become a media celebrity.”

But surely he’s a little bemused by the notion that he – Strathclyde’s mild-mannered psephologist – could attract such a vociferous and loyal fandom? “No. You have to take it entirely phlegmatically.”

He is not, however, entirely hostile to all public praise. “I’ll tell you the thing that is nice – sometimes people come up to you and say: ‘I enjoy listening to you. I find it insightful’. That’s nice – and it’s why I do it. I do it because academics are paid for by the taxpayer and should attempt to try and use their knowledge and expertise to help people understand themselves. I think people have a right to have an understanding of the political and electoral process. That people then say to me, actually, they find what I say does add value and helps them to understand, is nice.”

Predictably, what really gets Curtice talking is his vocation. Having studied under eminent psephologist Sir David Butler at Oxford (it was he who got Curtice into TV), he learnt from the best. His word is now widely taken as gospel. So what does this election hold?

His answer is blunt: “Conservative victory”. But by what margin? “Ha ha ha ha! That’s a more difficult question to answer.” Whether the Tories win a thumping landslide majority, he says, depends on their ability “to get a lead of 16 per cent or so”, which recent polls have very much called into question (he has since said that Tory poll leads under six points indicate the party could be at risk of losing their majority). “The difficulty that faces the Tories is that they aren’t that many marginal seats kicking around, so getting a landslide does require very big leads…the local elections didn’t quite confirm that we were in landslide territory.”

This speaks to a bigger truth: that the apocalyptic, even terminal defeat for Labour some predicted is unlikely to materialise. Though Curtice and I spoke before Labour came to within just one point of the Conservatives in some polls, much of what he said has been vindicated by the shifts we have seen since. On current evidence, his prediction that the “bottom isn’t going to fall off” Labour’s core support seems to be a sound one. “Is the Labour party’s vote going to go down heavily, compared to 2010 or 2015? The answer to that seems to be no,” says Curtice, before serving up some Corbynista catnip. “It seems to be heading at the moment to something similar to the 30 per cent they won on those two occasions.”

In Scotland, he says, the only way is down for the Scottish National Party – “but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to down very far”. He believes talk of the Nats’ imminent demise is wildly premature. “This is one where you do really, really need to step back. Actually, even if the opinion polls are right, and the SNP are down to 40 or so per cent and the Tories running in the high twenties, we’re still going to get something like 40 to 50 SNP MPs. Row back. If you said to me in 2013 that the SNP are going to get 40 or 50 MPs at the next general election I’d have said: ‘WHAT? Really?’ That’s a revolution, alright? The baseline is so, so high.”

Nonetheless, he now believes the Tories could make up to a dozen gains, and that the Liberal Democrats could be in with a shot in constituencies such as Edinburgh West and North East Fife. The unionist vote, Curtice says, will behave in a way it didn’t last time, congregating around “a local favourite”.

The picture is bleaker for Tim Farron’s party elsewhere – particularly in the West Country, its erstwhile heartland and, indeed, Curtice’s old manor. “It will be difficult. They start off in St Ives not that far behind, and one or two other Cornish constituencies appear to be quite close to fifty-fifty on the basis of the local elections. So can one rule out that they might pick up a seat somewhere? Nooooo. But do they look at the moment that they might get back to a position where they hold all seats in Cornwall and significant swathes elsewhere? Answer: probably not.”

For all the high-ish drama of the narrowing polls, the result of this election has never seemed to be in much doubt. Do political journalists put too much stock in polling? “I think we should expect polls to give you an idea of the landscape,” Curtices intones professorially. “But don’t expect them to give you a still life!”

The problem, he says, is that some journalists in search of a narrative. can fall victim to confirmation bias. Not that he has a problem with that. “I’m willing to be counter-cultural, I’m willing to say that actually I think the general narrative is wrong.  Most of the time I’m sitting here in my Glasgow lair, I’m not part of the Westminster bubble, I’m looking at evidence. And it so happens that one of my kind of motivations in life is to test conventional wisdom – and to say: ‘Hang on! HOW do you know if this is right or not!?’”

Therein lies the problem facing 2017 election analysts: with a day to go, it is inevitable that at least some of the wildly divergent polls have got it wrong. The problem is that some of those errors may well go unnoticed should the Tories romp home. “If the polls [that are posting big Tory leads] are at all right, nobody will notice if they’re wrong. I’ll cite another example: the French second round. On average, the polls had underestimated Macron by four points. Nobody notices. You’ve just got to put a big number up. Nobody cares!”

But should they have got it wrong, plenty will doubtless be seeking Curtice’s counsel come 9 June. 

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