NEWS13 December 2019

Tories take majority in a strong night for the polling industry

Brexit Election 2019 News UK

UK – The Conservative Party has won a majority in the general election, after winning in key Labour constituencies, with the pollsters performing well in their estimations.

Downing Street

The Tories took a majority of at least 78, after picking up numerous historic Labour so-called ‘heartlands’. Voter turnout was 67.3 % at the time of writing – approximately 1.5% less than the previous election in 2017. Scotland, however, saw turnout increase to 68.1% from the 66.5% who voted at the previous election.

It might have been a bad night for Labour, but it was a very good night for the pollsters. After two difficult elections in 2015 and 2017, the final national vote share for each party was within a percentage point of the final polling average.

The exit poll for BBC News, ITV and Sky News, with data collected by Ipsos Mori and analysed by John Curtice’s team, predicted heavy losses for Labour. It estimated 368 seats for the Conservatives, 191 for Labour, 13 for Liberal Democrats and 55 for the SNP.

The results, with one seat left to declare, are: 364 Conservative seats, 203 Labour, 11 for the Lib Dems and 48 for SNP. And in terms of vote share, the numbers are: Con – 43.6% Conservative, 32.2% Labour, 11.5% Lib Dem, 3.9% SNP, 2.7% Green and 2% Brexit Party.

Gregor Jackson, director at ICM Unlimited, said: “For the polling agencies there is a sigh of relief. Set against the difficulties predicting vote share in recent elections and the EU referendum, the polling industry can be pleased with the outcome of the 2019 election.

“Unlike in previous years, calling the largest party was rarely in doubt, with the unknown element being the size of the Tory victory. The Conservative lead over Labour averaged around 10 points from the start of the campaign, and while Labour made gains from the faltering Lib Dems, the squeezing of the Brexit Party vote went in favour of Johnson’s party.”

Ivor Knox, managing director of DRG, which runs Panelbase, said: “Last night was a good night for the polling and wider research and insight industry, with the final results from all pollsters showing the Conservative winning margin between 5% and 12% – meaning that almost all agencies got the two main parties’ vote shares within margins of error.

“In Panelbase’s case, the adjustments we made in 2017 (primarily on age-related turnout) meant that we got the Conservative vote share exactly right but understated Labour by about five points. Having taken lessons from that election, this year’s revised methodology has left us within c.2% of the vote share for each of the main GB-wide parties, showing a Conservative lead of 9%.”

Ben Page, chief executive at Ipsos Mori, said: “The vagaries of the British system mean that when you measure vote share, you can never be quite sure what the seat share is going to be. The pre-election polling wasn’t trying to predict seat share because you can’t from national polls. There were some outliers, but overall I think the polling industry can be pretty pleased.

“The exit poll obviously is designed to measure seat share and it does it very accurately. The exit poll is a triumph of sampling and it also relies on face-to-face interviewers, it’s been interesting this year because telephone polling was most accurate in the European elections, and again in this election. I mean, most of my work is online – but it’s interesting how there isn’t any magic bullet.”

MRP (multilevel regression and post-stratification) has been cast into the spotlight during this election. Page said: “MRP will have its place and people will keep going and trying to learn from it. The hype was brilliant during the campaign, waiting for the MRP poll which was going to predict the result accurately – but in the end it turned out to be a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, we will keep going with it, but at the moment, certainly for Ipsos Mori, ultimately polling still has a place and will do for some time.”

For Page, the fundamentals of market research can’t be overlooked. “[It’s about] …trying to achieve a representative sample and then extrapolate from that, rather than starting off with a very unrepresentative sample and then trying to model it.”

Reflection and analysis is as important when the polls have performed well as it is when they have not fared so well, said Joe Twyman, co-founder of Deltapoll. “It was clear as the election rolled on, once again the nuance around polling was lost. I’ve now been doing this for 20 years, and so often polls are seen as either always wrong or always right and there’s no room in the middle for seeing things like margin of error.

“While we at Deltapoll are very happy with the performance of our polls, that was due to getting the fundamentals right – thinking very hard about the sample, the weight and the variables. In the same way that after not being where we want to be with the results, we would go away and analyse where things went, this time around, having been happy with the performance, similarly we will go back, look at what happened, do the post-mortem, and see where things went right. That’s what you have to do – that is the business we’re in, constantly looking at your performance versus the actual outcome.”

For Deborah Mattinson, founding partner at BritainThinks, the nuances of what the consultancy has been hearing from focus groups with voters has “absolutely played out” in the results. She said: “In the end, I think the writing was on the wall. The thing that Boris Johnson has done well in overcoming is that he did not go into this campaign as a particularly popular leader himself, so in a way it was a race to the bottom. One respondent in our focus groups said: ‘It’s not a question anymore of who you agree with most, it’s who you disagree with least’.

“We witnessed people unbelievably weary and fed up of the whole thing, and feeling that they had a very tricky choice. But what came through very powerfully in the qualitative was that people felt a sense of destiny that this was a really important election. So although a lot of people will have made their mind up, particularly those people in the so called ‘red wall’ who are lifelong Labour supporters and in the end have abandoned Labour, I think a lot of people will have gone to the wire with that decision.”

Both parties now have a challenge on their hands, added Mattinson. “In some ways, Tories are now the working class party and represent a lot of tough working class seats. What we got from our focus groups was a lot of people felt this was a one-off – ‘I’m lending my vote on this one occasion.’ If they want it to be more than that, that will require some change on their part.”

And what next for Labour? Said Mattinson: “Labour, of course, is going to enter a massive battle for the heart and soul of the party, and my plea to them would be: keep voters at the heart of what you decide as you’re thinking this through rather than your own members.”