Friday, 6 May 2005

UK Election exit polls show up earlier polls

Exit polls are suggesting Tony Blair's Labour Party is heading for success in the UK elections, though not the level of success predicted by pollsters. And even exit polls are an imperfect guesstimate, but even now they're suggesting earlier polls were less than useful.

For example, just two days ago the Times-Populus poll was predicting Labour 41, Tory 27, Lib-Dems 23; and the Mori-FT poll Labour 39, Tory 29, Lib-Dem 22. Exit polls now predict Labour 37%, Conservatives 33% and Lib Dems 22%, meaning some 63% of voters have voted against Blair's Labour.

Why polls are taken as seriously as they are has always been a mystery to me. One of the most amusing elections I've seen was the 1992 UK election, in which a Welsh windbag was well-beaten by a grey man who ran away from the circus to join a bank.

Pollsters in 1992 were predicting disaster for the grey man (John Major - Tory) and overwhelming success for the windbag (Neil Kinnock - Labour) - so much so that Labour put together a pre-election 'victory rally' in Sheffield broadcast live to the nation. Highly amusing in retrospect.

Neil Kinnock was sacked as leader following his failure, but strangely the pollsters' abject failure didn't lead to any loss of their unwelcome influence.

Of the 1992 election 'The Grauniad' summarises in part,
...when polling day came around, it still felt as though Labour could win, and if the polls were right, that Labour would win narrowly - or at least that there would be a hung parliament.

Even the exit polls on April 9 suggested a hung parliament, with Labour and the Tories each projected to take 305 seats, a result that would have produced a Labour minority government. Most newspapers wrote that it was neck and neck.

A final poll of polls, published on April 9, suggested a Labour lead of 0.9%. "Time for a change" was the Daily Mirror's election day headline. But the Sun, with far more flair and ruthlessness, splashed memorably with: "If Kinnock wins today, will the last person out of Britain please turn out the lights?" It was illustrated with the Labour leader's head in a light bulb.

As soon as the results began to come in, it was clear that the 1992 election was to be the pollsters' Waterloo. In the event, the Tories won by 7.6%, an 8.5% error and the worst ever showing by the polls. The national shares of the vote were Conservative 42% (no change from 1987), Labour 34% (up 3%), Lib Dems 18% (down 5%) and others 6% (up 2%). The Tories took 336 seats (down 40 from 1987), Labour 271 (up 42), the Lib Dems 20 (down 2) and others 24 (up 1). Overall, John Major had a majority of 21.
So why you would rely on any pollsters after that abject defeat, I couldn't tell you. It might have been the pollsters' Waterloo, but none showed any sign of embarrassment. Within the week they were being quoted as if they knew what they were talking about.

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