7 June 2017

John Curtice on the secrets of election night


Who will be the first people in Britain to know the results of Thursday’s election? Not Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Not even David Dimbleby.

At a secret location in London, the team behind the joint BBC, Sky and ITV exit poll will gather. There, they will sift the data coming through from GFK and Ipsos MORI – and use it to come up with the number that Dimbleby, and his counterparts on the other channels, will reveal to the nation.

At the heart of that operation is Prof John Curtice, lynchpin of the BBC’s election night coverage, holder of multiple presitigious titles and positions, and the only pollster in Britain with his own fan account on Twitter.

In a special election edition of Free Exchange, the CapX podcast, he talks to Robert Colvile about his election night routine, the changing moods of the great British public, and a life spent reading the runes. (This interview was recorded on the day of the local elections, before Labour’s recent surge in the polls.)

John Curtice on… the exit poll (1 min)

“The truth is it’s a very substantial enterprise. It requires a lot of interviewers to stand outside a lot of church halls or school buildings or whatever to collect the data, to get the data in to us and for us to analyse it.

“Doing an exit poll in the UK is particularly difficult because we don’t have precinct level counts. Rather than us knowing how each polling district has voted, we take our ballot boxes, we bring them together to a central point and we mix all the ballot papers together before they’re counted. That’s goes back to Victorian concerns about secrecy.

“The Conservative and Labour vote varies very substantially from one constituency to another. But the change in a party’s vote from one election to the next varies a good deal less… If we want to get an estimate of change, the only way is, wherever possible, to go to the same polling stations as last time. That gives us about 140 estimates of the changes in party vote share, which we then statistically model.”

John Curtice on… coping with surprises (5 min)

“Virtually all of the recent exit polls have come with results that people found surprising. In 2005, we said that the Labour majority was going to be 66. Most people expected a majority of around 100 – one or two people did take to the airwaves and said ‘No, this can’t possibly be right.’ In 2010, there was very sharp surprise because we said the Liberal Democrats are going to win fewer seats than they did in 2005.

“In 2015, we spent a lot of time interrogating the data: ‘Is there any chance it can be wrong? The answer’s no.’ We were reporting Tories at 316 [seats] instead of 331. I regarded it as being in the outside realm of what was possible. There is a historical record of the polls underestimating the Tories and never underestimating Labour. The question is whether it’s going to be a small error or a bigger one. [We also knew] it would make a difference if they did particularly well in constituencies they were defending for the first time – in those circumstances the defending party tends to do well.”

John Curtice on… his own political views (19 mins)

“Some of us try to offer a pro bono public service, rather than being particularly partisan. Do I think that any particular party or body of peoples or ideology necessarily have the answers to the world’s problems? No. Am I somebody who thinks that it’s much more important to understand the world as it is, rather than to claim that the world is how I’d like it to be? Yeah, absolutely.”

John Curtice on… the origins of the British Social Attitudes survey (21 mins)

“At that point, government really did not do any research on attitudes. It was regarded as a Rubicon that should not be crossed in a democratic society.”

John Curtice on… tax and spending (23 mins)

“During the Eighties and Nineties, the public was becoming increasingly concerned about the state of public services, and less concerned about the level of taxation. We were arguing long before the 1997 election that the Labour Party was wrong and actually people weren’t wanting them to keep to the Conservative platform on taxation and that they should forget what they thought the lesson of 1992 was. It took the Labour party two years in government to realise that we were right and they were wrong.

“Attitudes to taxation and spending are basically counter-cyclical. If a government comes in and tries to reduce spending and taxation, after a while people will get worried about the state of public services. If a government increases taxation and public spending, after a while they’ll get concerned about increasing taxation…. In as much as there are lots of ideologues out there who think the state should be this proportion of GDP, they’re all wrong. Because the public’s view is counter-cyclical to the recent experience. It’s basically impossible to satisfy the public.”

John Curtice on… Brexit (30 mins 30)

“We remain divided as a 50/50 society on the merits of leaving or remaining. Public opinion has not shifted since last year. Some people are saying: ‘When it becomes clear that leaving is a bad idea and the UK economy suffers, people will see the light of day.’ Well, not necessarily, because people may say ‘The way the EU has treated us in the Brexit negotiations goes to show why it’s a bad idea being inside the organisation’. In other words, people will interpret what happens in the next two years through the lens of the decision they made on June 23.

John Curtice on… the problems with polling (32 mins)

“People are getting harder to track down and survey … when I started this trade in the Eighties, you were hoping for a 70 per cent success rate. If you now get over 50 per cent, you breathe a sigh of relief. It’s undoubtedly got more difficult. And therefore there’s a greater risk that the people that you get are not necessarily representative.”

John Curtice on… May vs Corbyn (39 mins 30)

“You don’t have to be the world’s greatest psephologist to tell that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t terribly popular. And that Theresa May has so far managed to present herself as a relatively competent politician… You could argue that the Prime Minister has decided to take an enormous punt on the opinion polls, because there was no other evidence out there that would tell her that holding an early general election might hold a reasonable chance of gaining a majority. She could’ve waited for the local elections. That’s what Margaret Thatcher did in 1983 and 1987. In a sense, this general election is the biggest punt on polling any Prime Minister has made probably since Harold Wilson in 1970 – not, perhaps, a happy precedent.”

John Curtice on… the cult of Curtice (43 mins 30)

“People stop me in the street and ask, ‘Are you X or Y?’. I’m rather used to it. But to be honest, this is not about me… If there’s anything that pleases me, it’s that quite often people will come up to me and say, ‘Carry on what you’re doing. We find it really interesting and valuable.’”

You can listen to the full interview here:

Or catch up with our recent interviews with Andrew Cooper, David OwenSue CameronFrank FieldNick CohenDaniel HannanPeter Oborne and Nigel Lawson.

Robert Colvile is Editor of CapX