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General Election 2017: Public affairs industry predicts Tory majority of over fifty

This article first appeared on Public Affairs News

With a week to go until the General Election, the stakes are high for everyone involved professionally in forecasting political outcomes, including media pundits, pollsters, bookmakers and public affairs experts. 

Opinion pollsters reacted to criticism that they got it very wrong at the 2015 General Election, with an industry wide inquiry to defend their reputation.   They rightly remind us that polls are a snapshot of opinion at a point in time, rather than a prediction.  Similarly, it is not their fault that the media treat the ‘margin of error’ as a minor detail, rather than a critical consideration.   But there are deeper questions for the polling companies about their methodologies, and it is clear from recent polls that they are addressing this in different ways.    The most recent poll from ComRes, for example, points to a landslide Conservative majority, while YouGov’s latest figures suggest Tory losses and a hung Parliament.  They cannot both be right. 

The PR industry has also been involved in some introspection, through a review by the PRCA. This week we are publishing the results of a panel of over 100 PR professionals, mainly working in public affairs, where they were asked to both make their General Election predictions and tell us the basis for them.    Only half believe that the opinion polls will be accurate within the margin of error, which is no surprise given that there is near unanimity in predicting a large Conservative majority.    

In our work over recent months reviewing how predictions are made, there has been much soul searching about two issues: firstly, whether there is a bias towards the outcome you most want; and secondly whether there is a ‘Westminster bubble’ bias in who we listen to and how our predictions are influenced.  Our survey shows that the industry is addressing this in two ways. 

First, people are more likely to take account of personal insights, such as doorstep conversations, than the views of their colleagues or media commentary.    Listening to the man or woman on the Clapham, Cleethorpes, Clitheroe or Clyde omnibus is seen as important by over 80% of our panel, with 40% saying it is very important.   Our panel rated these insights as of almost equal importance to opinion polls when making predictions.

Second, while our respondents are almost equally divided about the outcome they personally want, in terms of either a Conservative or Labour government, they are clearly able to put this aside when making their predictions about the likely outcome of the election.     Many will have learnt from Brexit and Donald Trump’s win to see beyond their own preferences and prejudices, when forecasting political events.

We will be looking back on the survey after the election to see how the industries predictions faired, and using this as a benchmark for the future.   Let’s hope that we have called this one right.  In the meantime, spare a thought for the pollsters, who now can’t win either way.  Some of them are going to get egg on their face next week, the question is which ones? 

Andy Sawford, Managing Partner of Connect, is currently leading a review of political predictions for the PRCA