Yui Mok
Shy Voters

The polls got it wrong in the UK. Here's why...


POLLSTERS IN THE UK had predicted a tie in the UK General Election.

For weeks, they were convinced by their polls that the Tories and Labour would be neck and neck come 8 May.

But, guess what? People lie.

So, come 10pm last night, they were red-faced as the exit polls suggested a huge performance from Cameron’s side with an overall majority in sight. The pollsters had completely overestimated Labour and underestimated the Tories.

Opinion polls rely on the people giving their honest opinions on the matters at hand. There was a lot of talk about ‘shy conservatives’ over the past few weeks – people who won’t admit to wanting David Cameron to remain at Number 10 but will get into the comforting, confessional polling booth and gleefully tick that blue box.

And the pollsters didn’t allow enough of an adjustment for the number of these bashful constituents.

Adrian Kavanagh, a Maynooth University lecturer with a particular expertise in the Geography of Elections, has a complementary theory.

“People have started voting for candidates, rather than parties,” he told

So, when they are polled on parties, they may balk at the idea of voting for the Tories. But when faced with a particularly well-known and well-liked incumbent, they may find themselves going that way inadvertently.

“The candidate effect is changing and shifting things.”

US statistician and election guru Nate Silver points to a wider problem with systemic flaws in the polling industry because of how society has developed. He says that low response rates are problematic, as well as reduced budgets in newsrooms which traditionally commission high-quality surveys. The method chosen – online or landline – can also lead to a self-selected sample.

On top of all that, ’herding’ (where pollsters ensure a result to match everyone else’s because of a fear to stick their neck out) also exists now, according to Silver.

The sector will also be in trouble if BBC presenter David Dimbleby’s prediction that politicians will stop taking heed of the polls comes true. That might not be a bad thing though, as YouGov president Peter Kellner told the Telegraph.

He told the newspaper that politicians ”should campaign on what they believe, they should not listen to people like me and the figures we produce”.

Kavanagh, however, defends the pollsters somewhat, stating that the final polls were not devastatingly wrong. He also believes the first-past-the-post system amplifies smaller percentages.

“It is such a skewed electoral system,” he said. “UKIP won twice as many votes as the SNP but just one seat. The SNP only had 50% of the Scottish vote, but took nearly all its seats.”


Does any of this tell us anything about Ireland?

Many commenters have discussed the possibility of a similar phenomenon of ‘shy voters’ here when it comes to voting for Fianna Fáil – or voting No in the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Kavanagh agrees.

“We see a little element of that,” he said. “The last two exit polls – in the General Election and the local elections last year significantly underestimated Fianna Fáil.”

The candidate swing also very much comes into play. People can be asked if they would vote Fianna Fáil and say no, but have no problem with voting for the local person they like who happens to run under that party banner.

Looking across the water then, which Irish political party is happiest today?

Belong To Yes. Pictured An Taoiseach E Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland Sam Boal / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

The largest incumbent party overachieved and remain in power, while its smaller sibling got the boot. Can Fine Gael sit back smugly then, while Labour wait for the final nail in the coffin before joining the PDs and the Greens in that lonely space outside, way outside, Leinster House?

Not quite.

“The UK is a microcosm for EU politics,” says Kavanagh. “It is replicated at a smaller level. In England, we are seeing what we saw in Germany – establishment parties holding on fairly strong in core regions. It’s in the periphery that you are seeing anti-austerity groups gaining ground. The SNP would have been the main anti-austerity party in this election.

“So we’ve seen the SNP in Scotland and Syriza in Greece. If Ireland can be seen similarly as a peripheral country, then it is not quite as comforting for Fine Gael. But there’s a lot of time yet before then. A lot of things will happen. A lot of votes to be won and lost.”

More: Miliband, Farage and Clegg have all quit – and David Cameron’s back at Downing Street

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