Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
30 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

Lords tell pollsters “get your house in order” – but is there really a crisis in British polling?

Should we all just give up and ask Paul the Octopus?

By Dulcie Lee

At dawn on 9 June last year, people woke up, bleary-eyed to a shock. In the days leading up to the election, the Conservatives were sure-fire winners. Despite May’s crumbling campaign, the polls put the Tories well ahead, until the final exit poll on the evening of the 8th. The polls, which had buoyed the right and strengthened the resolve of the left, had been wrong.

This marked the third major political event that the polling industry had failed to call in as many years. They had got it wrong in both the 2015 election and the EU referendum, and now the 2017 election. In the aftermath of the snap election, countless frustrated headlines emerged questioning why the polls were so wrong, and whether they could still be trusted.

Now, in the run up to this year’s local elections, the House of Lords has published its investigation into the state of British polling – and the peers aren’t happy. David Lipsey, the chair of the committee, declared: “The polling industry needs to get its house in order.”

The report began scathingly: “To misquote Oscar Wilde, to get one election wrong may be regarded as a misfortune, to get two wrong looks like carelessness, and to get three wrong suggests something somewhere has gone horribly amiss.” Ouch.

So why is it so hard for pollster to get it right nowadays and are they actually getting less accurate? Partly to blame is the country’s shifting demographics – there’s been a huge decline in class-based voting. What once was a key predictor for polling organisations is now of little value, and in the EU referendum, education mattered much more than social class.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Turnout is also an issue. In 2017, the polling companies wrongly supposed that turnout patterns would be broadly the same as two years previously – but more under-50s voted than expected, and they were considerably more likely to vote Labour. To top it off, voters are much more volatile nowadays, and switch between parties more often. All of which makes the results harder to predict.

Content from our partners
Transport is the core of levelling up
The forgotten crisis: How businesses can boost biodiversity
Small businesses can be the backbone of our national recovery

Also in the sights of the Lords is the media. We have a problem. Journalists have a tendency to obsessively report on polls, regardless of whether they show any significant change. They also suggested a culture of wrongly implying such surveys predicted the outcome of elections, rather than giving a snapshot of public opinion at the time.

The Lords called on the pollsters’ trade body, the British Polling Council, to “name and shame” poor examples of polling reporting in the media. (But thankfully for politicos, the Lords stopped short of recommending a ban on voting intention polls in the run up to elections.)

But is all this fuss over nothing? Analysis of political polls since the 1940s shows no evidence that the industry is becoming worse at its job. Political science professor Will Jennings told the committee “there is no evidence of a global crisis in polling” and that the historical accuracy of polling in the UK was typical of similar advanced democracies.

So the real problem is not a crisis itself, but the perception of one.