Another of Brexit’s big losers: the opinion polls

In the maelstrom of comment following Leave’s victory in the referendum there have been many groups blamed, criticised etc. Amongst the greatest of the losers, however, are once again the pollsters.

The pollsters have a singularly poor record in forecasting British national elections when they are remotely close.

The original failure of recent times was John Major’s victory in 1992. Then the pollsters all claimed Kinnock would win. During the Blair years the pollsters did better but that was as much as anything that everyone knew the outcome of Labour’s first two and realistically third triumph.

The last general election was a singular failure for opinion polling and a long inquest was held which, although it reached various conclusions, did not seem to change much in terms of methodology (at least no successful changes).

In this referendum campaign, the telephone polls consistently suggested an easy win for Remain. The internet based polls were closer but the modest lead for Brexit in the couple of weeks before polling day had evaporated in the last few days even on the internet.

The error continued even into polling day with Cameron apparently celebrating victory and his staff suggesting a 57:43 win for Remain. Even Nigel Farage was wrong, conceding defeat.

The book makers did no better, consistently forecasting a remain win.

There will no doubt be a further post-mortem on this failure: A few thoughts though.

The telephone pollsters are probably mainly using mobile phones. Whilst the majority of the population have mobile phones the mobile ownership rate is lowest amongst the older and poorer, who, despite the apparent desires of some Remainers, have an equal vote to everyone else.

Another problem is likely to be the one identified in 1992 about the Tories. That is that Brexit was the less PC position. If people are rung up or stopped in the street or whatever they are less likely to admit to being pro Leave. The more Leave was described as racist, stupid, ill educated etc. the more reticent its supporters will have become to admit to their true views.

In Northern Ireland we have had experience of this phenomenon. When the DUP and Sinn Fein were (rightly or wrongly) seen as extreme people never admitted to being about to vote for them: instead they often claimed allegiance to the likes of Alliance. This referendum has seen a close analogy.

I would not pretend to have seen Leave’s victory coming but the reality is (albeit post hoc) that we should have been suspicious that this is what would happen.

Furthermore if by chance anyone is foolish enough to listen to those demanding a second referendum or simply ignoring the vote they should note that any opinion poll, petition or whatever they point to is not worth the internet server space it exists on.

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