Palatinate Politics interviews British polling expert Professor John Curtice

Familiar to the millions who tuned in to the BBC’s election night coverage, Professor John Curtice is one of the few who foresaw the ‘shock’ of June’s general election. In an interview with Palatinate Politics, he gives his unique insight on everything from polls, politics and Brexit, to his newfound Internet fame.

By Cameron McIntosh

Today’s politics is tumultuous and unpredictable. Forecasting electoral outcomes in such uncertain times has become the reckless folly of political commentators and pollsters alike. Very few can sincerely claim that the 2017 hung Parliament result did not surprise them. One of the handful afforded that very privilege is British polling expert Professor John Curtice.

“No I was not particularly surprised” stated Britain’s favourite pollster, when asked about his immediate response to the British electorate stripping the Conservatives of their slim majority in June 2017. He continued by adding “I am not quite sure why everybody assumed the Tories were going to get a substantial overall majority.”

Polling companies are under the spotlight more than ever before. Burdened by their failure to accurately ascertain the levels of support for Britain’s political parties in both 2015 and 2017, they have been subject to intense media scrutiny. One poll which seems to have been immune from such criticism is the exit poll, for which Professor Curtice was himself responsible.

“We have kind of got used to this. In 2010 we said the Liberal Democrats were going to lose seats and nobody believed us, and they did. In 2015, we said the Conservatives were the largest party”

“The magic figure that you see on your television at 10 o’clock,” he explains, is the product of probability equations based on surveys conducted at 144 polling stations nationwide. Adding “It faces a very particular methodological challenge and as a result, it has a very particular design to meet that challenge,” his confidence vindicated by his success in predicting the outcome to within three seats of the final result.

“You do the exit poll in exactly the same places as you did last time” he states in the matter-of-fact way that won him plaudits among viewers of the BBC’s election night coverage. He continued “the core of the exit poll is how our polling station voted last time, how it voted this time and the comparison between the two.” He goes on to explain that his method does not seek a representative sample, rather it attempts to monitor the change in party support. He concludes: “The secret (…) is going to the same polling locations and modelling the resulting data.”

Many politicians have fallen victim to underestimating the exit poll. Most famously Paddy Ashdown was left red-faced when he said he would eat his hat if the 2015 poll proved right, which of course it did. Curtice characteristically shrugged off the scepticism that tends to meet his poll: “we have kind of got used to this. In 2010 we said the Liberal Democrats were going to lose seats and nobody believed us, and they did. In 2015, we said the Conservatives were clearly the largest party.”

The discussion then turned more generally towards the current state of politics in the UK, “British politics is dead,” he joked, but quickly corrected himself: “It’s not entirely dead, but Northern Ireland certainly has its own entirely separate party system and, you know, Scotland now with the domination of the SNP is also very distinctive.

“It has got more difficult for any party to get a landslide, it has got more difficult for any party to get an overall majority. The principal reason for this is that there are far fewer seats that are marginal between Labour and the Conservatives than there used to be in the 50s and 60s.”

Brexit is the defining political issue of our generation and the professor made no bones about its unique ability to destabilise traditional party structures: “It’s caused trouble for absolutely every political party in this country, even UKIP.” After failing to think of a single event that had fractured British politics of historical precedence, he went on to say: “the old fault-lines are there, but it (Brexit) has created more important fault-lines, that were previously relatively unimportant.”

“I don’t think we will have another election until 2022, so long as this government can survive. The question is: can this government survive?”

On the chances of there being a second EU referendum, whilst not ruling it out categorically, he expressed his doubts, “It will require not only the SNP to support the idea, it will require the Labour party to support the idea” which he jokingly remarked is “a lot of water to flow under an awful lot of bridges.”

Strathclyde’s Politics professor then speculated about the date of the next general election: “All I can tell you is that I don’t think we will have another election until 2022, so long as this government can survive. The question is: can this government survive?” He then went some way to answering that question, “it’s not really the fact it’s a minority government, It’s the fact that it’s potentially so divided on Brexit. An issue upon which it is under so much pressure.”

As someone who has dedicated so much of his academic career to opinion polling, Curtice was, perhaps unsurprisingly, keen to dispel some of the common myths about the state of the industry. In particular he discussed Brexit and the US election: “There were slightly more polls that had Leave ahead than Remain ahead in the EU referendum campaign. That was selected perception. The polls in the US that told us that Hillary Clinton was going to win. Well actually they didn’t, and in any case, Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote, which is what the polls were measuring.”

However, he did recognise the discernible failings of pollsters in the last two general elections: “That said, the average of the polls in 2017 was not right. And clearly it wasn’t right in 2015. So the polls are quite rightly being called to account … getting it slightly wrong makes a hell of a difference to the political implications because of the electoral system that we have.”

Finally, on his cult status and the dedicated twitter account to spotting him on TV, he responded in jest “they’ve had a hard time in recent months!” Although he did express his preference for being out of the limelight, he went on to hesitantly concede that he is “getting used to it” and the attention it brings.

Professor Curtice is the man behind the numbers who has become a familiar face of the British polling industry. His methods were vindicated by the 2017 election and we will no doubt see him again soon seeking to predict the unpredictable.

Photograph: Helen Paton via The Durham Union Society

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