Should Theresa May Trust the Polls?

May vs Corbyn

By Daniel Atherton

The 2015 General Election, British Referendum on the EU, and 2016 US Presidential Election all displayed conclusively that polls simply can’t be trusted. And yet, Prime Minister Theresa May is basing her newest attempt to gain a greater majority in the House of Commons, and as such a more secure route to passing post-EU legislation, in the strength of her party, the Conservatives, in the most recent polls.

In April, an average of the five major polls put the Conservatives with a majority of support just under 43% compared with Labour achieving around 25%. This, and many other polls conducted over the last year, have given the Conservatives an overwhelming lead in the polls, reaching over 20% ahead of Labour at times, an amount only seen a few times during the 1997 Election, which saw Tony Blair lead a Labour landslide across the UK. Evidently, Theresa May has a great amount of credence for her move, but is she justified in believing the polls?

Polling ahead of the 2015 General Election signalled a stalemate, whilst further polling continuing even beyond the closing of polling stations saw many predict that Brexit would not go ahead. In some of their final predictions, heavy-weight pollsters such as Sam Wang of Princeton Election Consortium, gave Hillary Clinton an enormous 99% chance of winning the 2016 Presidential Election, and a further eight out of the ten major international pollsters predicting she would win by a margin of at least three points[1].

Granted, with the 2016 European Referendum and Presidential Election, key factors such as weighting and concentration of polling meant that pollsters failed to broadly equate the entire population into their predictions, in part because many of those that supported Brexit or Trump, were less inclined to participate in polling. But this was not visible in the 2015 General Election polling, which has been most emphatically ridiculed for its failure to even come close to the end result. But were they really that wrong in 2015?

The table below presents a survey of all surveys available ahead of the 2015 General Election, including the results of Ipsos MORI, YouGov, and ComRes, three of the most internationally renowned political polling resources. At the bottom of the table shows the difference between the average prediction and the inevitable results.


As can be seen, the results were not all that far off from where they were expected to be. UKIP was predicted to have just under 13% of the vote, and they did. Likewise, the Conservatives were expected to achieve just over 34%, and managed 2% more than predicted. These differences are negligible when considering the amount of seats in the House of Commons.

Evidently, the polls predicted, to a reasonable extent, the percentage of vote across the entire country. However, with 650 seats contested, evidently the polls failed to predict effectively the concentration of support across the country. Whilst UKIP received 12.8% of the vote, they only gained one single seat, Douglas Carswell MP, 0.15% of the available seats. Likewise, the SNP received only 4.7% of the national vote, yet gained 56 seats, a stunning 8.6% of the available seats, placing them as the third largest party in the chamber.

This leaves the core, pivotal factor that the polls failed to link to their predictions – concentration.

Voting Results

2015 General Election Results

Several factors can easily be concluded by any A Level student of Politics: the SNP would only gain votes in Scotland, whilst contrarily, UKIP would gain votes nationwide. Similarly, one would not predict the Conservatives to gain a great amount of votes in Scotland, with the credible opposition to the SNP having been Labour. Evidently, whilst the predictions regarding the percentage of votes nationwide were wholly accurate, their prediction of localised concentration of votes was not given, inevitably discrediting their final result.

Simply put, it was fair to assume that if a party (UKIP) had a higher percentage than another (SNP) nationwide, then they would be more likely to gain more seats. But when you concentrate that smaller percentage in a localised area (i.e. Scotland), you inevitably have a monopoly, and one party gaining a concentrated amount of seats. As such, though the Conservatives had predicted to have around the same vote nationwide as Labour, and much of the race leading up to the 2015 General Election focused on it being totally up for grabs, the polls failed to allow for the fact that Labour’s percentage would also be spread across much of Scotland, meaning that their percentage in key battle grounds would have been lower than that predicted of the Conservatives.

If you’re understanding what I’m trying to convey, then I’m sure you’re questioning why on earth the pollsters (these overpaid, rich, socialites like Lord Ashcroft, who make their retirement on these kind of jobs) didn’t think about this? Simply put, I’ve no idea. The polls didn’t necessarily get their prediction wrong – they just failed to approach the results logically.

Why is this important for the snap 2017 General Election?

Because without a doubt, Prime Minister May understood fully that the polls have been for a long time, in the Conservative’s favour. But there is no definite reason to believe that they have learnt from their past mistakes, and if anything, the current situation could have made the factors of localisation and voter intention even more difficult to predict.

Theresa May

Prime Minister Theresa May’s 18th April Announcement, Downing Street

Here’s why:

The Conservatives have gained great ground in Scotland.

According to many sources, Theresa May and the Scottish Conservative Leader, Ruth Davison, have amassed considerably larger support than that of the SNP Leader. This is great news for the Conservative Party, in being able to claim a position as the opposition party in the Scottish Parliament. However, there is very little to suggest that they would be able to reclaim any of seats in Scotland in the upcoming election. As such, their concentration of electoral support may appear larger than in previous years, but this could be equated to a greater level of support in Scotland which is essentially useless in predictions, as proved with Labour during the 2015 General Election.[2]

UKIP’s demise isn’t necessarily Conservative’s gain.

In much of the midlands, the 2015 UKIP vote did not necessarily come from the extremes of the Conservatives, but rather from disaffected Labour supporters. For many of these new working-class UKIP supporters, they had turned away from the Blairite Labour Party because they felt cheated. There is nothing to suggest that they would dissent from UKIP to the Conservatives, as many would predict, but rather rescind back to the Corbyn-led Labour Party. As such, in many key battlegrounds across the midlands and north, the Conservatives could find themselves in hot-contests where in 2015 they had found a sustainable majority.

With May’s turn towards the working-class, the Lib Dems could salvage the middle-class.

Prime Minister May has championed the Conservative’s turn towards the working-class. Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for Edgbaston, argues that May has managed to reinvigorate much of the working class, especially ‘those who have been lifelong Labour voters do not see the Labour party as speaking for them’[3]. But as the Conservatives have come to focus on Brexit and other key working-class issues, could the Lib Dems see a resurgence in heavily middle-class constituencies like Twickenham, with old heavyweights like Sir Vince Cable stepping up to repeat the recent success of Sarah Olney MP in the 2016 Richmond Park bi-election. Such a resurgence would see key seats like Twickenham, Lewes, and most critically, Eastbourne, return to the Lib Dems, and strip the Conservatives of their spoils of war.

2015 was a more ruthless campaign.

The 2015 General Election was a hot contest, with the Conservative Party playing off of the fear that Ed Miliband, the widely ridiculed leader of the Labour Party, would win and as such do a deal with the SNP and effectively disintegrate the United Kingdom. This fear carried empowered ‘shy-Tories’ and carried the Conservatives to an unexpected victory. However, with such an overwhelming belief that Corbyn would have no chance in becoming Prime Minister, and that the Conservatives have no chance of losing, the expected turnout may be far lower and as such critically harm the Conservative’s success. Already, many opposition party members are calling for tactical unity in opposing the Conservatives during the election, with Green co-leaders Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley already writing to Jeremy Corbyn and Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron to urge for some form of a pact[4]; SNP leader in the Commons, Angus Robertson, inviting fellow opposition party leaders to participate in a TV debate; and Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood calling for Theresa May to be empty chaired at any debates she chooses not to participate in[5]. With a more incensed opposition, spurred by Brexit and May’s obvious manoeuvring for power, and a complacent Conservative Party electorate, the 2017 General Election could be a bigger shock than we could predict.

Undoubtedly, May holds an immense amount of popular support, and there is almost no chance of her losing her majority in the House of Commons. However, there is no definitive evidence to indicate that she would gain quite as many seats as she is likely expecting. Already MPs from across the aisle are getting hot under the collar as their safe majorities look to be radically diminished over the coming 6 weeks; and over the coming week we will likely see many MPs announce that they will not seek re-election, prominent past-MPs announce they will be contesting their old seats, and polling companies attempt to dissect some form of logic from the opinions they collect. Already George Osbourne has announced he’ll not fight for re-election, choosing to focus on his promising career in journalism[6], and Ken Clarke announcing that he still has some fight left in him[7]. The polls should not be taken at face-value – with a pinch of salt and some reasonable amount of logic (and possibly with plenty of hindsight) it’s possible to draw some realistic conclusions from them.

All that’s left is to let Parliament dissolve, the pollsters start publishing their results, and those of us who are interested, to start formulating our theories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: