How the political class got hooked on polls

If nothing else, YouGov’s shock prediction of a hung parliament after 8 June is ballsy. The leading pollster that predicted a win for Scottish Independence, a neck-and-neck 2015 General Election result, and a victory for Remain last June, is betting a lot of its already battered credibility on what it admits is a new and controversial formula.

According to its conclusions, the Conservatives would lose 20 seats and Labour would gain 29, leading to a hung parliament and perhaps even the Lab-Lib-Nat ‘coalition of chaos’ the Tory spinners have been warning us about. But the fact that YouGov has admitted it ‘allows for a wide range of error’, and rival pollsters ComRes and ICM are still predicting Tory majorities of 100 or above, hardly inspires confidence.

It’s rare that pollsters even offer a prediction on the number of the seats, usually preferring to give a snapshot of the popular vote. But YouGov says its new methodology, when secretly tested during the referendum, predicted a Leave lead every time. ‘What a shame YouGov did not feel like sharing it with voters while their own published referendum polls showed a Remain lead right up to polling day’, sighed Alan Travis in the Guardian.

Herein lies the most striking thing about YouGov’s shock polling. It reminds us how dependent the political and media classes have become on the spreadsheet soothsayers to tell them what the people are thinking. To politician and commentator alike, voters are strange, unknowable creatures whose opinions can only be gauged by surgical extraction. The reliance on polling is a product of their distance – psychically and geographically – from the electorate.

This is not to say pollsters have no place, or that ‘following your gut’ or taking a straw poll in the pub is in every instance superior. (That said, the handful of commentators who did firmly predict a Brexit vote did so using entirely that methodology.) What’s striking is the political class’s ongoing reliance on polling. Pollsters have been getting it wrong since polling began, yet they still frame the media debate and inform party campaigning.

And this goes for Tories and Labourites alike. The Conservatives’ infamous internal polling operation and ruthless targeting of swing seats is what, many reckon, won them the last election. And while Corbynistas have spent the past few months telling voters not to trust the polls, they started quoting them again the moment Jez seemed to be closing the gap. They all cling to the polls because they’ve all lost touch with the people.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

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