Winter house of parliament_crop

FEATURE30 October 2019

Wrap up for a December election

Election 2019 News UK

The country goes to the polls again on December 12th. So how are pollsters feeling as they prepare for an election like no other? Jane Bainbridge reports.

Does June 8th 2017 seem a long time ago or all too recent? The last time the British public was asked to vote, the incumbent prime minister, Theresa May, thought it would shore up her position in the House of Commons but instead left her with no majority, the vagaries of a hung parliament and on the first step descending to the back benches.

It was also an election that the polling industry entered with new methodologies following its 2015 bruising, when their poor predictions led to a British Polling Council (BPC) enquiry.

In the 2017 general election the pollsters offered a broader range of predictions – resulting in a mix of winners and losers. But overall lessons were learnt from 2015 and a new reality of polling has set in.

So, what now for 2019? Just how difficult is this election going to be for pollsters? The consensus is – very!

 “Extremely difficult,” says Adam Drummond, associate director at Opinium. “But, in hindsight, so were the last two, we just didn’t know it at the time. One thing we can’t complain about though is a lack of recent data, with national elections taking place in four of the past five years. We are as prepared as it’s possible to get.”

Martin Boon, co-founder and director at Deltapoll, points out that there are now multiple challenges. “The first one to contend with is which error to counter – do we think that 2019 will be ‘wrong’ in the same way as 2015 (understating the Tories, as usual) or ‘wrong’ in the same way as 2017 (over-aggressive support of the Tory share and thus untypically over-stating them).

“Then there’s a level of complexity that could very well mean that the polls get it right on vote share, but wrong on the overall story because of differential micro-climates in the NW, London, Scotland and elsewhere.”

The shifting political allegiances are a significant factor. Brexit has created different tribes, shattering the traditional political party ones.

“We are no longer a two-party state (last time the two main parties polled collectively 80%) – and remain and leave are the new tribes that cut across party lines. Plus, there are questions over turnout – always affected by poor weather, and compounded by disaffection with the political class,” says Deborah Mattinson, founding partner of Britain Thinks.

Gideon Skinner, research director at Ipsos Mori says polling is never an easy business and there are currently many underlying factors exacerbating this including getting representative samples, reaching people who are not very politically engaged, and correctly estimating the turnout levels for different groups. 

“There is also the need to pay close attention to the apparent political realignment taking place in UK politics based around education, age, Brexit identity, the rise of new parties and (in Scotland) constitutional questions around the future of the UK.

“While this doesn’t mean accurate polling is impossible – we called the recent European election results in the UK correctly – the job of the pollster is to be cognisant of these changes and build them into methodologies where appropriate,” adds Skinner.  

There hasn’t been a December general election since 1923, and it’s not hard to guess why. But just how big an impact on turnout might the dark winter month have?

“I tend to think that Brexit will stir the passions, and if people don’t vote in what could well be the defining election for a generation, then nothing will,” says Boon. “If people are put off by the weather, that’s a sad reflection on the state of things.”

Drummond says Opinium’s evidence is that a winter election doesn’t impact overall turnout. “It’s a mix of good and bad for each party. If there’s freakishly bad weather that cripples public transport in big cities and the suburbs, then that might hurt Labour more than the Conservatives. However, bad weather might equally make it harder to vote in rural areas which are more Conservative leaning – so the exact effects are impossible to predict.”

Since the 2016 EU Referendum found the country pretty  much split down the middle on its opinion of staying in the European Union, politics in the UK has been at an impasse. Can this election ever break beyond Brexit?

 “It’s likely Brexit will remain one of the key issues,” says Skinner. “However, our Issues Index suggests that it won’t be the only one – the NHS is a perennial concern for voters, and issues such as crime have been rising. Then there are a host of other issues bubbling under the surface – the environment, housing, poverty and inequality and lack of faith in politicians. Any of these could have an impact during the campaign.”

Boon says Brexit will “course through everything” but that the parties will want to push other messages. “It’s possible to see more of an ideological purity about this election than we’ve seen in a long time: a genuine attempt to convince the public to embrace socialism versus Johnson’s softer capitalism with a likely thrust on the NHS, immigration and schools.”

Mattinson adds: “It’s hard to see how Brexit won’t be centre stage suiting the Tories and the Lib Dems, but Labour will be trying to move on to other issues especially public services.”

And no one is willing to call the result yet.