How did the Tories win a majority?

By Stephen Fisher

The election outcome was a shocking defeat for Labour and a remarkable victory for the Tories, both relative to expectations from the opinion polls and considering that you have to go back to Salisbury in 1900 to find an instance of a Prime Minister increasing their share of the vote after being in power for more than 18 months. Overall Labour will be just a point up on the abysmal 30% of the GB vote that Gordon Brown achieved in 2010. Moreover Labour are down from 258 seats to 232 (-26).

So how did why did Labour do so badly and how did the Tories manage to increase their vote share and seat tally after five years of cuts and practically zero growth in GNP per person, even if there has been debt stabilisation and some relative good headline growth and jobs figures over the last year?

Ultimately the main answers are to do with the collapse of Labour in Scotland inadequately compensated for by modest net gains in England and Wales. On a smaller scale the Conservatives have benefited disproportionately, on seats if not on votes, from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats. The rise of UKIP that was expected to disproportionately hurt the Tories, but in fact seems to undermined the Labour performance more.

Plugging in GB shares and Scotland shares of the vote into the seats calculator yields Con 321, Lab 241, LD 11, UKIP 0, SNP 55, Grn 1 Others 3. The actual result was Con 331, Lab 232, LD 8, UKIP 1, SNP 56, PC 3, Grn 1. Pretty close.

So the overall levels of support for the parties in England and Wales on the one hand and Scotland on the other are the main factors in understanding the outcome on seats. Why the parties did as they did is a big and difficult question to answer satisfactorily. But there are important features of the constituency results that tell us both about why the parties came where they did in the overall share and they won and lost seats in the way they did.

It looks like when all the results are declared Labour will be on 31% of the vote in England, up 3 points on 2010 levels. But this has yielded a net gain of just 15 seats for Labour in England. Partly this is because the Conservatives were also up in England, by about a point. So a 15 seat gain for a one point Con-Lab swing is not bad by historical standards.

But it wasn’t primarily a case of Labour seats off the Tories. Labour won 10 seats from Tories but lost 6 so them, making a net again of just 4. The other 11 came from the Lib Dems, 27 of the 35 seats they picked up came from the Liberal Democrats. Once you offset their 10 losses to Labour it is clear that the Conservative majority came entirely from the Liberal Democrats.

So why did Labour not do better at converting their 1 point swing in England and Wales into more seats from the Tories?

One of the key reasons is that they were fighting against first-term incumbent MPs that won their seats from Labour in 2010. It is a well-known phenomenon that new incumbents build up a personal vote and so buck the national trend. In the US this is known as the sophomore surge. On average new Conservative incumbents went up by 4 points more than other Tory candidates, helping them hold on to some key marginals against the E&W swing.

Even with this challenge it was widely expected that the rise in the UKIP vote would disproportionately hurt the Conservatives and so deliver seats to Labour.

But actually it seems that the UKIP rise hurt Labour more than the Tories. Where Ukip were up by less than 7 points the Conservatives were up by 1.5 points on average; Labour up 6.9. Conversely, where Ukip was up by more than 14 points the Conservatives down 0.9 points and Labour were up only 1.6. So the Labour were up 5.3 less where UKIP did well but the corresponding difference for the Conservatives was just 0.6.

Another way of looking at this is that the Tories lost 6 seats to Labour where UKIP were up less than 7 points. But Labour were not taking any seats off the Conservatives where UKIP were up by more than 14 points.

Ukip did better where there were fewer people with degrees, more economically depressed areas with more pensioners, routine manual workers and those with no educational qualifications. Whereas the polls have been showing that UKIP support is overwhelmingly drawn from 2010 Conservative voters, often they are the kinds of anti-immigration, Eurosceptic and socially conservative voters who are from a working class or other socio-economic background that suggests they might expected to vote Labour on economic left-right issues. Rob Ford and Matt Goodwin have long been warning that UKIP support such groups would end up hurting Labour. That seems to have happened.

There was also some regional variation within England as Labour did better in Yorkshire and the Humber but relatively poorly in the East Midlands. Labour further strengthened their base in London as they did relatively well there and UKIP relatively badly, especially in constituencies with higher levels of non-white voters. Not all of this will have helped Labour. Building up support where you are already strong doesn’t win seats and the change in the Labour share is positively correlated with their prior share in England and Wales, but the effect is weak.

To be continued … and better edited! Too tired!

45 thoughts on “How did the Tories win a majority?”

  1. Looks at first glance that turnout was lower in Labour seats. One of the big reasons why the 35% opinion poll figures for Lab on election eve turned into a 32% actual poll.

  2. The basics of this were obvious from watching who won seats from who. It wasn’t a conservative triumph or a progressive decimation, so why are most media outlets spinning it that way? All that happened is that Labour continued it’s vote loss to progressive parties, and the Libdems ended up like most junior coalition partners who let themselves be rendered impotent. The only stronghold the Tories have now is rural southern England, and based on their slim majority and the fact that they can’t steal many more votes from the Libdems, there will likely be a 2 or 3 party progressive leaning coalition after the next election, in which I don’t think the SNP will be making the same mistakes as the Libdems.

  3. Thanks for the post!

    I was curious about this:
    “But actually it seems that the UKIP rise hurt Labour more than the Tories. Where Ukip were up by less than 7 points the Conservatives were up by 1.5 points on average; Labour up 6.9. Conversely, where Ukip was up by more than 14 points the Conservatives down 0.9 points and Labour were up only 1.6. So the Labour were up 5.3 less where UKIP did well but the corresponding difference for the Conservatives was just 0.6.”

    Assuming I am understanding this correctly, why ought we to assume that UKIP’s rise is itself harming Labour more than the Tories. Could it not just be that in right-leaning seats where UKIP did better, they steal a few votes from the Tories, but Labout make less headway simply because it was a more UKIP/right leaning seat anyway?

    Thanks again.

  4. I haven’t tested this hypothesis, but here is a post-electoral rationalisation. It is striking how often the Liberal vote from 2010 seems to have flowed to UKIP and marginally to the Tories, rather than to Labour. There is an aspect under which the 2010 Liberal votes are a reservoir of former Labour votes that were protest votes in 2010 (and are now, again, visible in that light, just for a different party). It is probably a small effect overall, but in FPTP, possibly influential. As has been observed, in polling terms, a large part of the 2010 Liberal vote migrated back to Labour immediately after the formation of the Coalition (propelling Labour, in the halcyon days of 2011, to over 40 per cent). It was the steady loss of this endowment which rendered Labour vulnerable in 2015.

    1. ‘Ukip did better where there were fewer people with degrees, more economically depressed areas with more pensioners, routine manual workers and those with no educational qualifications. Whereas the polls have been showing that UKIP support is overwhelmingly drawn from 2010 Conservative voters – ‘ So is one saying that UKIP supporter’s are draw from previous Conservative voter’s who have few degrees are are from poorer areas with elderly people?
      The poorer more depressed areas in Britain are Labour held seats – whereas, and I am sorry to burst the bubble – but a huge number of UKIP supporters are those who own large businesses, are from the professional sectors and the majority are highly educated! I also include several notable people of Britain! Go figure!

  5. In 2005 Labour got a vote share of 35.2% and won 355 seats. Yesterday the Tories got 36.9% and 330 seats. So there is recent precedent for a *smaller* vote share resulting in a *bigger* majority.

  6. I enjoyed your forecasts and deliberations leading up to this election, and I hope that you did not see my comments as provocative! I did however correctly predict that the Conservatives would win a small majority or narrowly miss gaining a majority in 2015, and I won a substantial number of bets placed over the last 18 months! These are the reasons (in my opinion) for the result:

    1. The Miliband effect. Ed Miliband was never going to be Prime Minister. Call it gut instinct or whatever, but my starting point was not the opinion polls or some very detailed statistical analysis. He was just never going to occupy Number 10. Across the broad spectrum of the electorate he was unpopular and unpalatably left wing, so it was inevitable he would bring out/rally the anti-Labour vote to an extent that sealed his fate. Ed Balls and Miliband never had the confidence of the public when it came to economic issues. Miliband pushed an agenda very much based on the politics of envy, and the voters found it unacceptable. His novelty flirtation with Russell Brand and the stone monument ‘production’ turned off the voters, but his fate was decided before that.

    2. The effect of the SNP ‘sunami’ was never taken into account fully. We all knew it was coming but it was never properly allowed for in forecasters calculations. Labour could never afford to lose 40 seats in Scotland and get anywhere near forming a government. You came closer than many in forecasting a 23 seat gap between the Conservatives and Labour, but I felt that a 60-70 seats (thereby ending Labour’s chances) gap was inevitable, and I said so. The real result of around 100 seat gap was a surprise to (even) me, but not one that I had discounted. The pollsters arithmetic was completely wrong, and elaborate projections based on false premises were meaningless. I could explain what I mean, but I haven’t the room here.

    3. The LibDem demise favoured the Tories. We knew that the LibDems vote would fall substantially, but because of the demographics it helped the Conservatives. And it heped them get over the 325 seat level, to form a majority government. I believe that the LibDems deservedly lost more votes than was predicted because of their behaviour late in the campaign. They should have basked in the glow of helping their colleagues in what the public (and many newspapers) accepted was a relatively successful coalition partnership. Instead they firstly disassociated themselves from their partners – this puzzled the electors – and then attacked their partners aggressively. The latter actions angered the electors – witness the nasty ‘revelations’ by Danny Alexander of Conservative secret Child Benefit plans, LibDem peer smears, and Nick Clegg’s arrogant assertions that he would of necessity be the kingmaker. He wasn’t. And mercifully the Conservatives did not stoop to to tit-for-tat action. The LibDEm vote went to the Conservatives, Labour, Greens and UKIP, but the Conservatives benefited most.

    4. The most important reason why the pundits were wrong was too much reliance on opinion polls. The polls were wrong in 1992, they were wrong for Scotland in 2014 and badly wrong in 2015. And at times in between they were wrong. It should now be accepted that there is (at a guess) a 3%-5% bias against ‘c’onservative parties or status quo situations. This is a fact. The reasons why it happens can be debated. But the fact remains that there is this, often crucial, bias.

    5. There was insufficient regard for the undecided voters. They traditionally mainly go with the incumbent or status quo when they finally vote. This in my view was a classic case of a decision by say 65% of the don’t-knows to give Cameron a chance.
    Sadly, too much reliance is placed on polls, and we can see that time and time again they are wrong.

    To repeat myself, often gut instinct is better than polls. I correctly predicted (more or less) the outcome of all elections since 1970 when Heath surprised the pundits. All except 1992 that is, when I believed Major would not secure a majority. But I learned to discount polls after that. I predicted Thatcher’s dismissal in November 1990 (I had a 12/1 bet) a year before it happened, and I predicted our ejection from the ERM in 1992. Much of it down to logic and instinct.

    I’d like to hear some other views. It’s all very interesting.

  7. Oh, I forgot to add another reason for the Conservative win. What an obvious omission!! … This is the elephant in the room for this election. I must have had a Miliband ‘deficit’ moment. So call it my number 6 reason if you want.

    The voting electorate is more savvy, or ‘streetwise’ than the pundits would have us believe. It is not that easy to hoodwink them. If there had been more of a swing to Labour, then the 50 or more SNP seats would have left the ScotNats in a such a dominant position that this would have been unacceptable to millions of English, Welsh and NI voters. The more that Sturgeon (albeit very eloquently) preached about ‘locking the Tories out of Number 10’ and the more that Salmond joked about his party’s looming importance, the more clearly the electors of the rest of the UK came to understand that this was not what they wanted. Simple as that.

    The Conservatives drummed home the message of the dangers, but the electors would have seen these anyway. All the protestations of Labour and the left wing parties about Conservative ‘negative campaigning’ and ‘dirty politics’ (in warning of the SNP dangers) only served to highlight the problem. It was a real danger, and it was not going to go away. Factor 6 was a big reason for the result.

    I could add all sorts of smaller points. The moment Miliband (on Question Time) said that Labour did not borrow too much in their last term was another nail in the coffin.
    But he was never never never never going to win, despite the fact that at the top of this page the pie chart gives him a 58% chance.

    You were not alone in thinking he stood a chance.

    In the words of the song ‘what a difference a day makes!’

    Fascinating stuff indeed

  8. Spot on! I would also add we are in an era when more and more people are starting up their own businesses in order to make a living and profit. The difficulties and achievements of this needs to be properly recognised and understood. We did not hear enough from Miliband/Balls about this.

  9. A lot of Labour’s poorer working class base has left it in favour of voting UKIP–Tories with a fascistic twist.
    Because the Labour Party has distanced itself through Blairism from the unions. The lower strata of the working class are under siege. Their living standards are falling and they see part of that happening because of immigration. With a few honourable exceptions, nobody on the left is explaining the commodity status of labour power. The poor amongst the working class have a feeling about it and that all too often translates into reactionary political directions like UKIP.

  10. I just want to follow up the point that Ed Miliband was a nationally

    I would like to follow up my assertion that Ed Miliband was a relatively
    unpopular left-wing Labour leader who was not trusted by the electorate to run the economy. Hence, he failed. QED. When you ask ‘How Did The Tories Win A Majority?’ that was one of the biggest if not the largest of the reasons. We can discuss statistical swings and margins of error and pore over detail, but this stark fact is the best starting point.

    Nicola Sturgeon may have fallen too deeply for her own rhetoric when she talked about forming a coalition of the left (the ‘progressive’ parties) to defeat the Tories. Ultimately Sturgeon and Salmond scared the pants off ‘Middle England,'(nothing progressive there) and the UK voters became alarmed at the prospect of more of the same tax, borrow and spend policies (as we had with the last Labour government) from a left-leaning Labour leader in hock to an even more left-leaning SNP.

    When the Labour Party elects its next leader they should bear in mind this point, but they probably won’t. In the last 50 years Labour has only produced 2 leaders who succeeded in winning an overall majority in a general election – Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Gordon Brown and now Ed Miliband all tried and failed. All had good opinion poll ratings at various stages in their parliaments (oh, perhaps Michael Foot didn’t – I haven’t checked) but this meant nothing. When it came to the crunch at the general election, the real poll of public opinion, none succeeded. The fact is that the UK will only elect a Labour leader who is not perceived to be left wing. Blair and Wilson managed to occupy the centre ground.

    A message to the Scot Nats would be that things cannot get better than they are now, electorally speaking. Apart from 3 Tory, LibDem and Labour seats, all the Scotland seats are now theirs to lose. And if they pick a fight with the new government at Westminster they will find they do not have the clout they anticipated. A chilling fact is that the population of the whole of Scotland is only the same as that of Yorkshire and Humberside. So delusions of self importance are likely to wear thin very quickly.

    Perhaps this election result is a startling wake up call for those groupings and politicians who overestimated both their influence and popularity!

    1. I am not sure I would describe Harold Wilson as occupying the centre ground. I would say Harold Wilson was more left wing than Ed Milliband..but things were different then and a left wing leader could win back then. The problem now though is a leader that is more centerist would be more likely to win in England and Wales but not in Scotland. How does Labour claw back all those seats in Scotland?

    2. Your were not the only who believe Maj Tory government was on the cards, just like at the Glasgow OAP £30’000 bet..

      I do find it strange you haven’t really mentioned UKIP in your posts. Nigel is correct, the right wing press fooled alot of people into believing it would only take Tory voter.

      When in fact it took half of its Voters were labour, and that is what actually cost Labour good number of seats in England. Of course there were never really going to be the biggest party but could have been sitting around 260?

      Your right Ed was awful and should never have become leader
      I WILL STRONGLY disagree with you that Labour did not borrow too much in their last term. The national debt in 2007 was around 48%? That was the same level as in 1992, with John Major, Of coure Sir John used money for Tax cuts, labour used the money for public spending.

      It should also be noted David Cameron promised to match labour spending until late 2008, so he never thought at the time Labour was spending to much.

      Thankful Dave still agrees and has double our national debt in the past five years. I wonder what he spent all the money on…

      1. The national debt as a percentage of GDP at the time of the 1992 election was under 40% .The Co responding figure before the2010 election was over 50%.

  11. I couldn’t believe the connectives got in again, they have no compassion for the sick disable and mentally ill the people who voted must either be stinking rich or raving mad, David Cameron in my eyes very much like a dictator we had the room tax (or if you’re sick tax) this will give him the go ahead to do what he likes now so God help us.

  12. All very interesting Peter, and I agree with much of what you say, but you completely ignore the most crucial factor of all – ie The Right-wing Press – and any analysis of the result that excludes said factor is seriously deficient.

  13. Yes, I guess you are correct about many of these things. The right wing press did feel strongly that UKIP would take votes disproportionately from the Tories – and yet the Daily Express still embraced Nigel F wholeheartedly!

    I seem to remember, however, that the pollsters also produced detailed figures to show that more potential or declared UKIP voters were actually past Tory voters than escapees from other parties, and this probably cemented the message of the ‘right wing press.’ They probably really believed that UKIP would be a threat to the Conservatives, as did most people, and it came as a surprise on election night that (as you rightly say!) UKIP also took votes from Labour. That is probably why I never mentioned UKIP as having a part in Miliband’s demise or Cameron’s victory.

    Ironically, the fear that UKIP would take Tory votes probably galvanised the ‘shy Tories,’ the ‘silent majority,’ or ‘middle England’ (you get my drift!) into marching into the polling booths in sufficient numbers to stop our awful Ed from ever getting anywhere near the levers of power.
    In the same way the fears of SNP influence also brought out the anti-Ed vote.

    I don’t have the figures to argue about who borrowed or spent too much, but it is just a general feeling of mine that the electorate were always much happier to leave the economy in the hands of Dave and George than they were in entrusting things to the two Eds. I also feel that the voters were willing to give the Conservatives the requested ‘5 more years to finish the job’, before the heavy scrutiny takes place!

    If the Labour manifesto of 1983 was the longest suicide note in history, then poor old Liam Byrne’s paper was probably the shortest suicide note!!

    I still can’t believe that the pundits could make such a detailed case for Labour nearly matching the seats tally of the Conservatives in 2015. Looking back it was a ridiculous assumption.

    This is one of the ways I looked at things, and this demonstrated that Labour would be heavily defeated:

    Firstly you go back to the 2010 UK election results (UK votes) and exclude Scotland. The reason for excluding Scotland is that we knew many months ago that Scotland was going to behave quite differently in 2015, and could not form part of the national pattern.
    Without Scotland, in 2010, the Conservatives got 10,290,799 votes nationally. Labour got just 7,570,989 votes. Ignoring other factors, to be neck-and-neck in votes, Labour would have to make a gain of 1,359,905 votes in 2015 (still ignoring Scotland) and the Conservatives would have to drop 1,359,905 votes. That is to say, Labour would have to increase its vote tally by around 18% (outside Scotland) and the Tories drop by 18%.

    Now, bring it up to date. We all knew that the SNP whitewash was coming, and (in the event) this wiped out a massive number of Labour votes in Scotland, and a huge number of seats. We now add to these figures the predicted votes for Labour and Conservatives in 2015, according to the polls. The reason the 2010 figures could not have been used is that we knew things are going to be dramatically different north of the border. So huge was the swing that the opinion polling predictions of SNP successes could have been substantially wrong and Labour was still destined to lose hundreds of thousands of votes!

    The gap between Scottish Labour votes and Scottish Conservative votes (between the 2010 election and the 2015 election) was correctly predicted to fall to around 300,000 from 622,673 (and the gap was actually was only 273,050 on the night)
    So, when I added the projected votes in Scotland (2015) (after taking account of the newly predicted SNP surge) I added Labour’s estimated 720,000 votes and Conservatives’ 420,000 votes. Therefore it left Labour with 8,290,989 and the Conservatives 10,710,799 based on 2010 voting figures, with an adjustment for the SNP surge.

    The upshot is that to match the Conservatives, Labour would have had to gain 14.6% extra votes (from 2010) and the Conservatives 14.6% (from 2010) and this demonstrated how the election was really going to play out.



  14. Ooops! …………….. That last comment should have ended: To match the number of Conservative votes in 2015 (allowing for the SNP surge) Labour would have had to gain 14.6% extra votes (on their 2010 tally) and the Conservatives would have had to LOSE 14.6% (from 2010)

    This was never going to happen, given the politics, and so it was obvious Labour would lose the 2015 election by a mile.’

    1. I really do hope you continue, to make comments about around the net and you come back to make further comment on the 2020 election.

      I would have to agree with you about most of your comments, mind you I do think it strange labour never tried to rebuff “Liam Byrne’s paper note, again since the out going tory counterpart in 1964 did the same… Its all swings and roundabouts.

      I will give the Pollsters their dues, since there got Scottish and South west results correct, What rather confusing it there know Lib dems were going to lose all there seats, but chose to dismiss the information. Maybe it believe the good grace of its work in the coalition might have saved them. Yet Nick did a very poor job pointing out all the good stuff he did, or policy he got pasted.

      Its also very telling how Ed’s brother come out and complained about Labour, and how it operated over the last 5 years. Its rather frustrating, since there never fought back, on many issues and then Ed made all those awful efforts like “hell yea”, When Ed was ridiculed about his Russell brand interview, He never rebluffed and highlighted David Cameron interview with Heat Magazine, and being asked what animal you would be.

      Add in all of that, and that made it even harder for labour to win seats, I do wonder if Labour could have won more seats with slim maj ie 500 votes etc, But as were said UKIP, Lib dems, SNP, and the bad ed was put an end to all that…

      1. I see Blair is coming out of the woodwork to tell the UK Labour Party that it’s too far left and needs to move to the centre in order to win elections. Right-wing politicians like Blair make these observations in spite of the fact that percentage of citizens voting Labour actually increased over the vote of 2010. Right Labourites fail to see that Labour lost Scottish votes because the SNP positioned itself to the left of Labour. Finally, many of the lower strata of the working class in England who voted UKIP, used to vote Labour when Labour appealed to their class interests.
        Would Blair like Labour to move to the right to cater to disaffected UKIP voters?
        Wouldn’t it be more politically sensible to appeal to the lower strata of the working class by: 1. trashing the notion that austerity, privatisation and free market economics are in their class interests and 2. proposing to tax the wealth of the upper 10% and the companies they own?

  15. Yes, it’s all good fun. I don’t think we will see such an exciting election for a long time – we should learn a lot from it, because history constantly repeats itself.
    I saw the (post-election) front page of Private Eye today had a mini-headline ‘ INSIDE: NEW POLL SHOWS MILIBAND AHEAD’ .. I guess the pollsters will be getting lots of stick for the foreseeable future!

    Private Eye also joked ‘Following its humiliating election defeat, Labour soul searching has begun as to which way it should tear itself apart.’…

    Well I should end this now before someone complains to the Monopolies Commission !!…..

  16. As we all know, the election result was at odds with all the published polls and forecasts published by political “scientists”, statisticians and those looking to outdo Nate Silver. Many have shown good humour in admitting their errors, some have tried to defend the indefensible. All, however, have lost credibility.

    Political forecasting is a type of mathematical modelling. Many things can be modelled – the motion of a ship in waves, the spread of bird flu, even the trajectory of a bird catapulted towards an unfortunate pig. All mathematical models take inputs, pass them through an algorithm and publish a result. It is a truism that no mathematical model is totally accurate, but some are useful. To have confidence that a particular model is useful, it needs to have its validity established. And clearly, this process of validation needs to happen before the model is used in anger.

    Validation is achieved in two ways. Firstly, simply by comparing a simulated result with an observed real world result. A political forecaster may privately try his model at a bye-election before releasing it to the world at a general election – if she believes a bye-election is an appropriate test case. The second way, and just as important, is by explicitly stating and justifying the assumptions and approximations in the algorithm. The more important the simulation is, the more accurate it needs to be and the more its validity needs to be demonstrated. Angry Birds uses a Newtonian model of gravity that has been judged by millions of players to be close enough to reality to be useful. Not surprisingly, an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile simulation needs a bit more than “that looks about right”.

    Opinion polls matter. Politicians shape policy on the back of them, voters may decide whether, and how, to vote tactically based upon them. Democracy is therefore shaped by them. With the right to publish them must come the responsibility to ensure they are accurate. Perhaps they should come with large cigarette package style messages – WARNING: THIS POLL MAY BE COMPLETE COBBLERS. Perhaps they could be presented in a bland, unbranded, format to encourage us to ignore them with a view to banning them altogether in the future.

    So where did it all go wrong? It is important here to recognise that polls and forecasts are not the same thing. A poll is a snapshot at a moment in time of people’s voting intentions. The results are usually presented as a party’s percentage of the popular vote. A forecast takes the poll results, maybe adds in a few extra ingredients (for example, the popularity of the leaders or the chance of rain on election day – the exact formulae are closely guarded secrets) and then predicts how many seats each party will win. In other words, pollsters present the data and forecasters analyse the data.

    We have, therefore, two potential sources of error. Maybe the data collected by the polls themselves was wrong, or maybe the subsequent analysis was wrong. No doubt the pollsters and forecasters are beginning a blame game right about now in an effort to maintain some credibility. My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that they’re both at fault.

    Did the pollsters ask the right people the right question? Polls are conducted either face to face, by telephone or on the internet. Typically just over one thousand people are surveyed. Are we sure that this sample is representative of the wider population, and if not has it been adjusted for correctly?

    Research suggests that less than 20% of polling telephone calls are answered – presumably because most people are not able to take the call. Are those that are at home and able to answer the phone representative of all of society? There must be a chance that this sample is under representative of full time workers. Equally face to face polls are most commonly conducted where people can easily be found – on high streets. Again, this is not going to find those at work, nor indeed those of a more rural persuasion. A look at any political map will show that rural areas are often more Conservative. Internet polls require a pro-active engagement with the process, which is unlikely to sufficiently represent the large number of apathetic voters.

    So, the sample of 1000 good, honest folk may have too many women, or too few full time workers, or too many city dwellers, or too many activists through systemic bias in the way the data is collected. Equally, in a sample of just 1000 people there will be random fluctuations of ethnicity, wealth, educational status, age, gender, marital status, intention to vote and so on. The pollsters do make attempts to adjust for some of these demographic discriminators, but do they do so sufficiently well? Have these adjustment methods been validated? Supposing only 450 of the 1000 people interviewed were men and that the poll showed that men were more likely to vote for the Tories. An adjustment should be made to account for the fact that men, and hence Conservative votes, are underrepresented in the sample. But perhaps men are less likely to actually vote at all, in which case an adjustment needs to be made to re-reduce the Tory vote. As voting is anonymous, there are no records of whether men are more or less likely than women to vote, so this adjustment is difficult. We could use surveys to find out, but then you are using a poll to adjust a poll because we know polls are inaccurate. Hmmm.

    The second element of data error is whether the right question is being asked. Opinion polls usually ask the question “If there was an election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?”. This is not the same question as “Who will you vote for in the General Election?” or “Who do you want to be Prime Minister?” or “Which party best represents your views?” or “Please put an X against the name of the person you will vote for from the list below”. Different questions will elicit different responses, and asking any question out of the blue may get a different answer to one that the recipient has time to consider carefully.

    The Shy Tory theory also has merit. A typical polling interviewer is a casually dressed student type, perhaps not stereotypical of a Tory sympathiser. It must be far easier to admit to being a “compassionate and generous” left-of-centre voter or “common sense” UKIP voter than a supporter of the “nasty party” in those circumstances.

    Pollsters often argue that the public is naïve to believe their results, and that if you look carefully there is small print warning us that poll results are accurate to +/- 3%. So, the argument goes, the final results were just within the margin of error of the polls. That however, ignores the fact that there were dozens of polls in the last week, all showing a tie. There was not a +/- 3% scatter of Labour and Tory victories. This shows an admirable repeatability and is indicative of a strong process. But repeatedly getting the wrong answer shows you also have the wrong, strong, process.

    At any rate it is patently absurd to claim a poll of 1000 people will definitely be accurate to within +/- 3%. In fact, mathematically, these polls are +/- 3% accurate with a 95% level of confidence. What does that mean? It means one in twenty polls will be more than 3% out. One of the polling companies, Survation, now claim that one the last polls they took before the election did buck the trend and show a Conservative majority. Rather than having confidence in their own work and publishing the results, they feared it was that twentieth poll, the one that was wrong. Possibly it was, and that by coincidence asking the wrong question to the wrong group of people gave the right answer. Or, possibly, it was an indication of things to come. Either way, self-editing the data and removing a result because it doesn’t match your intuition is not good science. Only publishing results that conform to expectations reinforces those expectations, leading to a spiral of ever decreasing circles. We expected a tie because the polls indicated as such. The polls indicated a tie because we binned polls that showed otherwise.

    Polls are usually presented as a share of the popular vote. The forecasters job is to predict how this translates in to seats won. This is not a simple process as 1% difference in the popular vote can be the difference between dozens of seats won or lost. Forecasters also have to decide whether to treat all polls as equally accurate, or whether to give more credence and weight to some. Usually they will consider other factors too, such as the popularity of the party leaders, whether a fear of change may lead to an incumbency effect, the diversity of specific constituencies and whether any major sporting or cultural events are due between the poll and election day.

    Exactly what factors are included and how they affect the predictions are closely guarded secrets. The potential for getting it wrong is high. Given that both politicians and voters are influenced by these forecasts, however, it seems to me that a form of accreditation is in order. Accreditation would not be compulsory, but unaccredited forecasting models would have reduced credibility with the public and so would likely be generally ignored. Accredited forecasts would have had their forecasting methods scrutinised and subjected to a validation check. Newspapers and other regulated media would only be allowed to publish accredited forecasts. Creators of unaccredited forecasting models could still make a living betting on the outcome, in the belief that their model is best.

    Apologies for the long post, the lack of humility among the “experts” has grated somewhat!

  17. One thing that appears to be a theme at many elections/referenda is that the opinion polls continue relentlessly to overestimate the Labour, left-wing, or anti-‘c’onservative vote. I have said this before, but I would like to clarify.
    This, (and it is just my theory) has two notable effects:

    Firstly it causes the left to be overconfident and somewhat delusional. Witness Kinnock’s ‘victory’ celebrations in Sheffield, before the 1992 election – which he lost. …Miliband similarly became overconfident after the pollsters and pundits (and even sadly the bookies!) showed him for a while as favourite to become PM. He went on to behave as strangely as Mr Kinnock, flirting with the (wealthy) scourge of the rich Russell Brand, speaking in a strange tongues, and carving meaningless phrases in tablets of stone. The poor guy never stood a chance, but the pundits made the race seem neck-and-neck! A similar thing happened with the ScotNats in 2014. They were never going to win the independence referendum, but the pollsters and pundits fed their egos and led Alex Salmond to believe that it was going to be a close call. Can I point out that Salmond became overconfident, but looked as though he had been hit by a runaway train when the referendum results showed that he hadn’t even come close to victory!

    Secondly, all the talk of a tight race and (constantly misleading) polling information only served to frighten the ‘c’onservative voters on the 3 very important occasions I have listed. Kinnock, Salmond and Miliband in reality never had a hope in hell (hell yes!) of winning, but because the pollsters told us all they were within a hair’s breadth of victory, the ‘c’onservative voters came out ‘en masse’ to make sure it never happened. They were pumped up – Bloody pumped up (whatever that means)….and so it goes on…….The question is: ‘will we ever learn?’….

    1. the opinion polls continue relentlessly to overestimate the Labour, left-wing, or anti-‘c’onservative vote

      Debatable – in the Euros UKIP was overestimated, most of the opinion polls had them at 32-34% but they ended up with less than 28%.

      This time, it seems the opinion polls actually estimated the Tory votes pretty well (as in the combination of voting intention and turnout) – what they got badly wrong was overestimating the likelihood that people who liked Labour would actually make it along to the polls. The effect of “lazy Labour” may be the same as blaming it all on shy Tories, but the underlying reasons are rather different.

  18. Hope you don’t mind me writing again, but I have just been thinking about some other defining moments in the 2015 election, which, when you ask ‘How Did The Tories Win?’ contributed greatly.

    1. John Major’s speech helped rally the Conservative voters.

    I was very critical of John Major in the late 1980s and early 1990s when I believed his high interest rate policy as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as PM would, in the days before Bank of England autonomy, inflate the value of the pound unrealistically and cause hardship to millions of voters – many of whom were natural Conservative supporters. This happened, and (as well as contributing to a recession) the policy inevitably (and dramatically) lead to a collapse in sterling and the UK’s expulsion from the ERM in September 1992. Had the 1992 general election been held after September instead of earlier in the year Sir John would not have won a majority.
    But to Sir John’s great credit he came out fighting in 2015, admitted that he had made mistakes in the past, and spoke persuasively about the awful threat of the SNP holding the balance of power in the new parliament. And joking apart, it was a more than scary prospect. He was calm, measured and logical, and his normality and somewhat old-fashioned phraseology hit the right note. Most memorably he said the SNP would (if holding the balance of power) ‘create merry hell’ – and this point hit home like a missile. John Major’s speech played excellently well with the ‘silent majority’ the ‘middle class core voters’ ‘the undecideds,’ ‘middle England’ – you know who I mean!

    Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror rubbished Sir John’s intervention (Kevin Maguire often loses his grip on reality) but what Sir John pointed out as the dangers of voting Labour were irrefutable.

    2. Towards the end of the election Ed Miliband became so weird that many (ordinary) people I spoke to said they were absolutely terrified at the prospect of a Miliband government – whether in hock to the SNP or not in hock to the SNP!

    Fuelled by the phoney opinion poll ratings and goaded on by the pundits (Kevin Maguire should have had a quiet word in his ear) he went knocking on Russell Brand’s door, in the night! Private Eye correctly summed up Russell Brand as someone who sees himself as a latter-day Che Guevara, while the general public simply see him as an extreme character in a comedy sitcom. Famous for his obscene phone calling (with Jonathan Ross) and his egotistical literary efforts, I would have thought he was the first person a politician would avoid. Nigel Farage summed things up when he was told that Russell Brand was endorsing Ed Miliband and he replied (something like) ‘well I’m glad he’s not endorsing me.’ ….Good on you Nigel….
    I don’t know why Ed had to develop a phoney transatlantic accent when talking to Russell, but the whole episode went beyond the bizarre.
    Just as I was coming to terms with the Brand-Miliband partnership (it has a certain ring) there appeared a huge stone tablet, for which Cecil B de Mille would have donated his right arm.
    So, I don’t know when Ed had his ‘Sheffield rally’ moment, because I’m spoiled for choice. There were a few of them. I really think that if Kevin Maguire wasn’t going to have a word in Ed’s ear, then brother David should have said something…. Perhaps he was too busy laughing….

    3. Everyone agreed that Nicola Sturgeon got her message across in the TV debates and came over as a polished performer. She was, to many, the star of the election campaign.

    The problem (for Ed and Nicola) was that although her message came over loud and clear, it was not a message that the 90% of the UK population who live south of the Scottish border wanted to hear. Here I noted a strange parallel with Nick Clegg’s performance in 2010. He was the ‘new kid on the block’ at the last election, and said some interesting things in the (2010) TV debates. But nothing startling. Suddenly Nick’s popularity rose incredibly and the LibDem poll ratings went through the roof, for a while.
    Nick was a new discovery, a great politician, a kingmaker, a sage – the Deputy Prime Minister. For a time he could do no wrong. The LibDems had 57 MPs in Parliament (although they already had a similar number before) but all the success was due to Nick’s wisdom, charisma etc. etc. Fast forward a few months and Nick Clegg (if the polls are to be believed, but I now realise they cannot always be believed!) had become one of the most hated men in the UK – such is the speed with which we elevate our politicians, and then knock them down again.

    But the parallels don’t end there. The LibDem demise in this 5 year parliament is a mirror image of the SNP success story. In 2010 the LibDems had 57 MPs and the SNP 6 MPs. In 2015 the SNP has 56 MPs and the LibDems 8.

    A warning to Nicola Sturgeon – a lot can happen in 5 years!

  19. I read one or two good comments on the election today. The writer Philip Collins noted that the ‘cavalry of denial is marshaling its (left-of-centre) forces. If it is not the Murdoch press that were biased, it was the BBC. ..The lazy left wingers didn’t turn out because they were insufficiently enthused and Scotland proved that opposing austerity works’ …Etc etc.

    Collins believed Miliband was vain and arrogant, and was conducting an experiment to show that he could shove his brother to one side, lead Labour up a very left-wing path, and still become PM. The experiment failed miserably, and sadly left Labour’s traditional supporters with nothing. The union leaders – especially Len McCluskey – got the Labour leader they wanted, got the anti-business baby talk they believed in, and got their old Labour Party back. And it was a fiasco. Collins concludes that McCluskey is now backing Andy Burnham, but to judge by their latest statements, both Burnham and Yvette Cooper still haven’t got the slightest idea why Labour lost the election.

    The thing the Conservatives will most fear is the emergence of another Blair or Wilson – a Labour leader who can occupy the centre ground – but if the union leaders (and the Labour left) have their way, it will never happen.

    Rod Liddle wrote in the Spectator, in the 9th May edition (but not knowing the result of the election) that Ed’s tablet of stone was ‘beyond satire – so ludicrous and frankly surreal that nobody in the country noticed what was written on it. Or perhaps that was the point. Because the pledges were so anadyne, unspecific and essentially meaningless, the members of every single party in the country, including the BNP and the Legalise Canabis people could sign up to them.’ One pledge was ‘AN NHS WITH TIME TO CARE.’ What the hell does that mean?

    I guess the Milibandistas – a diminishing breed now – will curse the nasty Tories and tell the voters that they will now get the Government they deserve. The electorate never really deserved a pledge-covered tablet of stone, they did not deserve a leader who was on the same wavelength as one of the 21st century’s great thinkers – Russell Brand – and they did not deserve a crusading left-of-centre and somewhat obsessive and deluded Labour government which almost certainly would have had to swear allegiance to the chieftains north of the border. So they have missed out on these things. Silly voters indeed.

    I am moving away from election forecasting here, but the post mortem for the pollsters and pundits is interlinked with the post mortem deliberations for Miliband’s Labour party.

    Any thoughts?/

  20. Hello again…. I saw a piece in the Telegraph today where Lynton Crosby, the Australian strategist known as the ‘Wizard of Oz’ who masterminded Cameron’s campaign, spoke out for the first time since the election.
    He said several things:
    1. That his polling showed the Tories were on course to win 306-333 seats.
    2. Most commentators and pundits in the UK (he feels) are a bunch of people who live, mostly, within the M25 and could never live on the £26,000 p.a. which ordinary people live on. ‘Most went to Oxbridge, talk only to themselves, and the last time they met a punter was when they went to pick up their dry cleaning.’ (I think he was trying to say that they are very out of touch!)
    3. Labour just wanted to divide Britain (this is in line with my assertion that Miliband practiced the politics of envy – and far from preaching to ‘one nation’ his rhetoric was divisive).
    4. ‘The beginning of the end for Labour (LC believed) was marked by the moment Miliband stood in front of a huge limestone plinth in a car park in Hastings.’ (Crosby was reminded of when he used a similar gimmick himself in a campaign in 1985, and it failed) (Am I correct in thinking that the ‘Ed’stone cost around £30,000 – a sad example of wasteful economics).
    5. His internal polling showed Cameron was ‘way ahead’ as people’s preferred Prime Minister. (No surprise there – but why did so many pundits believe Miliband could reach No. 10?)
    6. He feels opinion polling should stop for the 2-3 weeks before a general election. (Yes, but it probably helped galvanise the Tories and gave Miliband false promise).

    In the New Statesman, Michael Dugher, Labour’s vice chair says he is perturbed by Labour’s failure to connect with the white working class population it used to represent. ‘Working class voters are not core vote any more – you saw that in Scotland, you saw that in England.’ he says. ‘When we fail politically, we fail the people that we came into politics to represent. I find that – being entirely self critical – unforgivable.

    So, in the aftermath of the election, when we ask how the Tories won, it is becoming clearer that Miliband’s style of politics was a turn-off to all shades of political opinion, but many did not want to be among the first to say this. The Emperor’s new clothes again. Those in the centre, right and left of current politics are now rushing to distance themselves from him – including former Labour leaders, present Labour celebrities, his own brother. Etc etc.

    Lynton Crosby says he thought Miliband was really ‘a sort of first year politics graduate who thought he had the answers to the world’s problems.’ For Ed, the man who thought he was the future of UK politics only a fortnight ago, it just gets worse and worse!

  21. Just been watching Andy Burnham on the Andrew Marr Show. He seems a fairly canny northern chap, and although associated with the last Labour government, I’m sure, if elected leader, he would have the common sense to reach out to those whom Miliband could never relate to. Which seems to be most people!

    Thinking ahead, if Burnham were to become Leader of the Opposition and Chuka Umunna shadow Chancellor, in the autumn – (have they already had a deal?) – I guess they could eventually win back much of Labour’s lost credibility in the economic sphere – if they learned the lessons of 2015.
    If Yvette Cooper were to become, say, shadow Foreign Secretary and Liz Kendall (were to) become shadow Home Secretary, then Labour could be in reasonable shape going forward.

    If Tim Fallon becomes Lib leader, and George Osborne succeeds Cameron, that would, in 2020 be 3 party leaders representing North of England constituencies. Tatton, Leigh, and Westmorland and Lonsdale.

    Interesting thoughts…

  22. I was just told that after Nigel Farage was persuaded to stay on as leader, the Conservatives are trying to get Ed Miliband to do the same….and a new, very precise, opinion poll out today shows that 107.56% of Scottish people are now in favour of independence…..
    Got to see the funny side of things! …..

  23. Have any readers got views about the Greece situation/election? The opinion polls do seem to now suggest a majority in favour of doing a deal with the ‘powers that be’ in Europe – i.e. creditors and the euro big guns.

    My friend Dimitri from Thassos said ‘The northern Europeans just don’t get it. They want us to repay debts and tell us to pay our taxes. It’s all about money, money, money. Do they want us to all become good subservient little Germans? That will never happen while we can retire early and bask in the Greek sunshine!’

    For my part, once again I think we will see that the silent majority of Greeks will vote to fall in line with the wishes of those holding the purse strings in Europe (and the IMF) – and in a bigger way than the polls suggest.
    An Alco *Greek) poll estimated that 57% of the Greeks favour doing a deal. I think it will be much larger if and when the referendum goes ahead.
    Hopefully, Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza guys will be historical toast shortly. Send off the clowns!!

    1. Workers see no alternative to capitalism. Nobody is proposing common ownership and democratic control of the collective product of labour because most don’t even realise that that IS the alternative to the wages system of subservience.

  24. I read today that if (and when) the Greeks vote YES in the referendum Yanis Varoufakis will resign on the grounds that he wants to spend more time with his motorbike. Alexis Tsipras has said he will (also) resign if the referendum vote goes against Syriza. So, I am hoping these guys will be history in the next couple of days. Let this be a lesson to the ‘anti-austerity’ heads-in-the-clouds left-wingers, whose hearts may be in the right place, but who can make a poor economy substantially poorer at the drop of a hat. Thank heavens we never got close to an Ed Miliband government! Ughhhhh…..

    The best Greece can hope for is a resounding YES vote (which I am sure will happen) and a national unity/centrist or right of centre government by early next week. And then, perhaps Ms Merkel will show some extra leniency to the Greek people, the can will be kicked down the autobahn, and the world’s financial markets can breathe a sigh of relief…..

  25. Is it true that whatever happens on Sunday, the ECB has plans to produce new euro-denominated banknotes on Greece-proof paper?

  26. Oh dear, looks like I was wrong on the referendum results in Greece….. Interesting to see how the next events play out!

  27. I am convinced that if ever the polls were correct, Ed’s fate was sealed during the last Question Time before the general election. He wasn’t able to answer the question “Why should we trust you?” and “Did you overspend?”. Interesting that the flash poll that came out after this encounter showed a 6-point lead of Cameron fron Miliband; this was the same margin of victory by the Tories a week later.

    To think about it, it should hardly be a surprise the Tories won. The economy was getting better but even if it wasn’t, serious concerns about the perception of Labour’s (in)ability to manage it flew like an albatross on the party.

  28. Labour’s loss seems to be accounted for by just one thing: they were unable to change the perception that they could not be trusted with the economy. Whether they actually have this economic credibility is irrelevant; what matters is that the swing voters perceive they do. And until that happens, the chances of someone winning a lotto for trillions of pounds will be far higher than Labour operating government.

  29. After congratulating myself on spotting the Cameron victory at the General Election in 2015, I was just thinking how very wrong I was about Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. I couldn’t in my wildest dreams (or nightmares) have foreseen the Corbyn result!
    Still, the ludicrously unelectable state in which Labour has found itself almost makes the science of opinion polling irrelevant.

    Nevertheless it is quite sad that Britain is left with an ineffective and divided Opposition in 2016. David Cameron must be wondering how much good luck a politician is entitled to. He has presided over the demise of Clegg, Miliband, and (to an extent) has seen the demonisation of Farage. And now, to have Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition. As someone once said ‘You couldn’t make it up…’

    I just wonder how 2016 could match the excitement (politically) of 2015…

    1. Hi Peter, I’ve been reading your very insightful comments, and long may they continue! Happy new year! You’ve only got another year to wait for the EU referendum and all that brings.

    2. Hi Peter, I’ve been reading your very insightful comments, and long may they continue! Happy new year! You’ve only got another year to wait for the EU referendum and all that brings.

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