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Polling failures 'changed outcome of 2015 general election'

Published 19/01/2016

Polls suggesting a neck-and-neck race were confounded by the Conservatives' comfortable victory margin on May 7
Polls suggesting a neck-and-neck race were confounded by the Conservatives' comfortable victory margin on May 7

Polling failures changed the outcome of the general election, senior politicians have claimed after an inquiry found surveys had relied on unrepresentative samples.

Experts found that Tory voters were under-represented in telephone and online studies and said they could not rule out the possibility of "herding" - pollsters designing their surveys and weighting responses in such a way that their results were closely in line with those of rival organisations.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, who dismissed the election night exit poll with a promise to eat his hat if it was true, said the polls had a "considerable" impact on the way people voted.

He told BBC Radio 4's World At One programme: "The effect of the poll was to hugely increase the power of the Conservative message and hugely decrease the power of the Liberal Democrat message, which was you need us to make sure they don't do bad things."

The peer claimed the "mood of the nation" was for another coalition and voters were "surprised" when the Conservatives won outright.

"I think, therefore, there is an argument to be made that it actually materially altered the outcome of the election."

Lord Ashdown said he was "instinctively" against banning polling in the run-up to the election but warned that pollsters must "get their house in order now".

Some Labour supporters claim that inaccurate polling could have swayed the result of the election, by ensuring that attention was focused on the possibility of a Labour coalition with the Scottish National Party, rather than the agenda of a Conservative-only government.

Former culture secretary Ben Bradshaw said polling had distorted the results of the election.

He tweeted: " Commentariat too relaxed re pollsters' failure. Affected result. Election dominated by hung parliament talk instead of likely Tory majority."

The independent inquiry, chaired by Southampton University professor of research methodology Patrick Sturgis, was commissioned by the British Polling Council (BPC) and the Market Research Society (MRS) after polls suggesting a neck-and-neck race were confounded by the Conservatives' comfortable 6.5% victory margin on May 7.

Prof Sturgis's findings chime with a separate study released last week by polling expert Professor John Curtice, which concluded that sampling methods may have resulted in too many Labour supporters being questioned.

The inquiry's preliminary report, being launched at the Royal Statistical Society in London, has found that unrepresentative samples were the "primary" cause of the polls' inaccuracy.

Methods of sample recruitment used by the polling organisations resulted in "systematic over-representation of Labour voters and under-representation of Conservative voters", which was not adequately mitigated through weighting of responses.

Other potential issues, such as misreporting of voter turnout, question wording or the treatment of overseas voters, postal voters and unregistered voters were likely to have made "at most a modest contribution" to skewing results.

The inquiry will make recommendations to the BPC and MRS when it publishes its final report in March.

Setting out the report's findings Prof Sturgis acknowledged there appeared to be a historic tendency for opinion polls to overestimate support for Labour.

He said: "Anecdotally, talking to pollsters, some of them would have liked to have cranked something to make the Conservative vote share go up a few points, but there has to be a principled reason for doing something - it wouldn't be right to say 'we are going to implement a new procedure where we get our final poll numbers and then add three to the Conservatives' even though it might, actually, do you some good."

Prof Sturgis said the polling industry would take on recommendations his inquiry will make but problems will still remain.

"We can collect people from the internet, from the telephone, stand on a street corner with a clipboard as people used to do; ultimately the statistical methodology is the same, you are using quotas," he said.

"That's a fragile methodology, things can go wrong but there aren't many reasonable alternatives.

"To paraphrase Churchill, they are a terrible way of assessing who is going to win an election but they are a hell of a lot better than all the alternatives."

He added that there should be more caution in the way polls are reported: "We have come to endow polls, probably because there hasn't been a spectacular miss since 1992, with rather a higher level of precision than they want or would even claim."

There was no "silver bullet" to solve polling problems, but the risk of a polling miss was now lower, although, he joked, "that's much more to do with Jeremy Corbyn".

"They are much more likely to get it right next time but the risk of a polling miss is never going to be removed entirely," he said.

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