- Matt Alexander/PA Wire/PA Images
Most experts now predict a comfortable majority for May’s Conservative party. Yet some polls suggest there is just 1% between the parties. Studies suggest political experts have a poor record of predicting election results. Pollsters and pundits have got the last three major electoral tests in the UK wrong.
LONDON – A few years back US academics conducted a study of predictions made by leading political pundits. Of the 26 supposed experts they looked at just nine had a successful predictive rate higher than 50%. Overall you were just as likely to get an accurate prediction from flipping a coin as you were from listening to the pundits. In some cases a coin toss was a significantly more reliable indicator.
Reminder: In April 2010, every single pollster and vast majority of commentators predicted an overall Tory majority. pic.twitter.com/ykt8E18tpn
— Adam Bienkov (@AdamBienkov) May 4, 2015
A similar study was conducted in the run up to the 2010 general election. The Independent newspaper asked Britain’s leading pollsters for their predictions of the general election result.
- Of the eight asked every single one predicted that the Conservatives would get a majority. Every single one was wrong. Of the political commentators asked, just one (Channel Four’s Cathy Newman) came close to accurately predicting a hung parliament, and even she hedged her bets.
A more extensive study was conducted for 2015’s general election by the Political Studies Association. They asked over 500 leading academics, journalists and pollsters for their predictions of the final result.
- All three groups predicted an incredibly tight final result with the Tories only narrowly ahead on vote share. They also predicted the Liberal Democrats would hold on to around 25 seats despite all the polls suggesting they faced a wipe out. In the end all three groups were wildly out of line with the final result, with the the Tories gaining an overall majority and the Lib Dems falling to just eight seats. Of all three groups, the academics were the least accurate. Again, flipping a coin would have been a better predictor than listening to the combined expertise of Britain’s political specialists.
Last year the PSA released another study on the outcome of the then upcoming EU referendum. In this case, the consensus was even more overwhelming.
- Overall, 87% predicted that Britain will stay in the EU with just 8% saying otherwise. Journalists were the most convinced with 97% predicting for Remain and just 3% disagreeing. On average, the experts predicted that Remain would win by 10%. In the end Remain lost by a 4% margin.
Will the general election predictions be any better this time round?
- REUTERS /Peter Nicholls / Neil Hall
This week Bloomberg again asked Britain’s leading pollsters for their predictions of the result this Thursday. They all predicted a comfortable majority for May.
So will their predictions be any better than in the last three major elections and referendums in the UK? It is possible.
Labour activists are hearing bad reports from former Labour heartlands, suggesting that the party is doing worse than national polls suggest. However, others say their vote is holding up in London and the South East, while others say a surge in youth voters could win the day for Labour.
So it is possible that pundit predictions in this election may finally prove to be correct. However, a look at the latest UK-wide opinion polls gives us reason to doubt.
Polls in this election have been all over the place with the latest suggesting the Tories have a lead of anything between 1% and 12% and some suggesting the Conservatives could fall more than 20 seats of a majority while others suggest they could end up with a majority of around 100.
The reason for this divergence is the polling failure at the last general election which led all pollsters to fundamentally look at their methodology. The over-representation of Labour voters in 2015 polls caused different pollsters to take different steps to widen their samples and alter their weighting methods.
Maybe some will have found the right formula. Maybe none of them will. Maybe some pollsters have corrected Labour’s over-representation in polls. Maybe some have gone too far and are now over-representing Conservative voters.
It is even possible that Labour are actually doing even worse than the polls suggest and that May is heading for exactly the sort of landslide victory that most pundits now assume is out of her grasp. The truth is we simply won’t know until Friday morning.
And until we do, any predictions by political pundits, pollsters and other ‘experts’ should be taken with a huge pillar of salt.