Pollwatch: Election forecasts hold up but questions remain for analysts (7 May 2010)
Pollsters told us more or less what would happen but have not yet explained local differences or Clegg’s collapse
For the opinion pollsters the 2010 election was neither a humiliation like 1992 nor a routinely efficient performance like 2005, but wayward and difficult to capture accurately. It was at least good for business, in that there was an unprecedented volume of polling commissioned during the campaign. The average error on the eve of poll forecasts was bigger than last time, largely because the Liberal Democrat vote was falling faster than they could measure accurately in the final days. But the rough impression, if not the exact numbers, did convey what was going on.
The last round of opinion polls before election day showed the Conservatives on about 35-37%, Labour somewhere around 29%, and the Lib Dems a bit below that and on a downward trend. The exit poll, organised by broadcasting and polling consortiums, was met with raised eyebrows by the broadcasters and even the occasional journalist and commentator, because it was quite so bearish for the Lib Dems and showed the Tories well short of an overall majority. I recall saying something about eating my hat if the Lib Dems were as low as 59 MPs, but it was the pollsters who had the last laugh. The seats projection was as good as anyone could ask for, even though it was not the story we were expecting.
The pollsters told us more or less what would happen but have not yet really told us why. Labour over-performed in Scotland, picked up with admirable accuracy by the polls, and in inner London, but other than those areas there was no strong regional geography as there has been in most other recent elections.
Despite the debates giving a new shape to the national campaign it was not a case of national factors overcoming regional differences. The wildly varying swing in apparently similar constituencies – Leicestershire North West and Corby, for instance – and the low swing against incumbents despite an alleged anti-incumbent mood in the country indicate that there was something unusual about the way people approached this election. Their responses were very varied and localised.
The other big question for analysts of public opinion is quite what happened to Cleggmania. At one stage 2010 was shaping up to be a Liberal Democrat breakthrough of a kind that had not been seen since 1923: promotion to being taken seriously as one of the three main parties of state was implied in the debate format and seemed a possibility at Westminster, even under the distorting influence of first-past-the-post elections.
But it all collapsed like a cooling soufflé in the final week, leaving the party where it had stood in 2005 in terms of vote share and, to general surprise, exposing sitting Lib Dem MPs to electoral defeat by Tories and Labour alike. Although Clegg’s personality and political stances were going over well in national public opinion, something went very wrong indeed in translating this into votes for candidates who might win. Perhaps the nationalisation of the party’s appeal undercut the local power base of its MPs, who relied on personal support from people who did not particularly “agree with Nick”.
The flipside of the great Clegg deflation was Labour’s resilience. Many commentators expected Gordon Brown’s gaffe in describing a Rochdale voter as a “bigoted woman” to lead to meltdown in the Labour vote, and were surprised that the polls did not budge. Somehow, despite everything, Labour could call on deep reserves of solidarity on the part of a large proportion of voters. The victory of Brown’s candidate in Rochdale, over a sitting Lib Dem MP, was surely a delicious moment for the prime minister. Labour Britain was shaken to near destruction in 2008-09 but the election showed that a surprisingly sturdy fortress was still standing.
Unfortunately the exit pollsters decided to cut back on a number of the questions about attitudes and beliefs that they have asked in previous years. Over the next few months the academic British Election Study will explore this territory. We will then discover more about quite what kept people with Labour, turned them on and then off to the merits of Nick Clegg, and caused enough of them to reject the Conservatives’ remodelled appeal to deprive them of a majority in a recession-year election. Perhaps ultimately, Britain turned out to be too much of a centre-left nation to trust the Tories with untrammelled power.