Unreliable polls and predictions

Mick Temple, Professor of Journalism and Politics

Professor Mick Temple

Despite my abysmal failure to get my last three major electoral predictions right, with a week to go I’ve been asked to forecast the result of our forthcoming general election. Some people never learn.

In my defence, (1) it looked like being a hung parliament in 2015, (2) it seemed clear that we would vote to remain in the EU and (3) plain that Donald Trump’s nauseous blend of racism, sexism and egoism would never be endorsed by America. And it appears equally clear that Jeremy Corbyn can’t win…

But what seemed a no-brainer a few weeks ago has become rather more difficult to call. And the Prime Minister only has herself to blame.

Supremely confident of victory, Theresa May decided to slip in a few policies she knew would be unpopular with the Tory core voters. They might not like her proposed changes to social care, but where else could those diehard Conservatives go?

Their response clearly rocked her and she was forced into a humiliating U-turn over her ‘dementia tax’. Her mask of invulnerability slipped. Jeremy Corbyn may still be struggling to win voter approval but Labour’s bold manifesto received widespread praise when ‘leaked’. Tory strategists appeared to panic and suddenly the Prime Minister looked less confident as she tried to deny her policy change.

The awful events in Manchester intervened and suddenly an election campaign appeared insignificant next to the loss of so many lives.

But without being cynical, such tragedies offer leaders the chance to show their qualities and as the New York Times noted, the Manchester bombing provided a ‘political boon, however unwanted’ for Theresa May. The expectation was that the ‘narrative’ for this election would shift and the emphasis move to security and terrorism, issues she knows well. Mr Corbyn does not score well on security matters.

However, somewhat unexpectedly and to the nation’s credit, these issues have not stifled wider debate. Brexit, health, immigration and the economy still dominate.

OK, none of us trusts the polls anymore but they do give a broad indication of support. From a 20 percent Tory lead six weeks ago to some polls now predicting a hung parliament illustrates one thing. Theresa May has not had a good campaign. She has dominated coverage with the central message ‘trust me to deliver on Brexit’. Focus group research suggests this personality cult approach is not popular with voters.

Overall, there is a feeling that a combination of arrogance and complacency has characterised the first half of the Conservative campaign while Theresa May has failed to win either the hearts or minds of undecided voters.

She lacks empathy and the Channel 4 leaders’ interviews on Monday showed her uneasiness at the slightest sign of a less than adoring audience. She improved a little in her one-to-one with Jeremy Paxman. Paxman is a caricature of his previous self – his interviewing technique was outdated and appalling. He reserved most of his venom for Jeremy Corbyn who, despite a decent interaction with the audience questioners, did not perform well against Paxman. It was a missed opportunity for both leaders.

So, time to stop prevaricating and make my prediction (other dodgy predictions are available). There are only two parties with a chance of forming a government. While May’s wobble suggests that maybe we’ll wake up on June 9th with a Labour government, all the signs still say the Tories will win.

I could have a different viewpoint next week – events dictate outcomes, and who knows what’s coming as polling day draws nearer.

But the polls, the leadership ratings and the unease people feel about Corbyn’s past (not to mention the walking disaster area that is Diane Abbott) will probably all combine to deliver a majority for Theresa May, albeit not the landslide she wanted.