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"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.

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. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.