Six months until the election: we look at the polls

How accurate have voting intention polls been in past elections?

Labour Lib Dems NCRj

How accurate have voting intention polls been in past elections?

With the general elections scheduled to take place exactly six months from today, attention is focused on the polls.

Current YouGov figures show that if an election were to be held tomorrow, 32 per cent of those asked would vote Conservative, 33 per cent Labour, 8 per cent Lib Dem and 15 per cent UKIP. But how trustworthy are polls like this?

History has shown that people often depart from their intentions when the time comes to actually cast their vote, especially when there are big changes at stake.

When YouGov reported a 2-point lead for the YES campaign 12 days before the Scottish referendum it electrified the campaign. The poll results were a high for the SNP, the moment when they were finally taken seriously by Westminster. The SNP eventually ended up 10 points down, prompting the Mail to brand the poll ‘rogue’ – and a threat to taxpayers’ money.

Six months before the 2010 election, YouGov showed that 41 per cent of voters intended to vote Conservative, compared to 28 per cent Labour and 16 per cent Lib Dem. On the eve of election polls showed the Conservatives at 35 per cent, Labour sat 28, and the Lib Dems with a massive surge to 28 per cent. When the results came in, Conservatives had a 36.1 per cent lead, Labour were on 29 per cent and Lib Dem were on 23.

This suggests that people are potentially more likely to vote for an outside party in theory than in practice; despite the huge escalation in public interest leading up to the elections, the Lib Dems ultimately received less votes than the two traditionally leading parties.

To conduct voting intention polls, YouGov prompt participants with the names of the three main parties. If the participant says they would not vote for any of these, they are asked to choose from a second list that includes secondary parties like UKIP and Greens – although UKIP are currently being offered in the first round of options, a highly significant shift.

Six months before the 2005 election, 24 per cent of those asked by YouGov said they would vote Conservative and 26 per cent said Labour. 17 per cent said that they would vote Lib Dem. On election day, Labour got 36 per cent of the votes, the Conservatives 33 and the Lib Dems 22.

There are other factors which mean that even consistent intention polls may not correspond with results. The Conservatives have long claimed that the electoral system gives an unfair advantage to Labour. In 2005, the Conservatives actually won by a narrow majority in England – 35.7 per cent to Labour’s 35.4 per cent – but because Labour took 286 English seats and the Conservatives only 193, Labour were victorious.

The question of electoral reform is on the backburner at the moment, but the current system does mean that polling individuals cannot always provide an accurate reflection of a likely election outcome.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

13 Responses to “Six months until the election: we look at the polls”

  1. Selohesra

    Polls have a habit of overstating the more radical vote – people like to make out they are more radical/caring/giving/left wing than they really are. When they get to the polling booth they become a bit more cautious and vote for boring things like running economy & who will make them better off.

  2. william

    Of course polls 6 months head of an election dont accurately predict the result. No one would expect them to! 6 months is rather a long time in politics, y’know. The Scottish referendum can be ignored, pollsters knew they could be miles out because they had no previous data to go on.

    Polls are a pretty good guide to what people are thinking NOW, provided you dont take one result in isolation but look at the general run of them What they say NOW is, obviously, that Labour support is draining away, a trend likely to accelerate because voters dont like parties that seem spit or turning on themselves
    A very shrewd reading of the detail is here: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/

    My guess at this distance in a hung Parliament but with the Tories have slightly more seats than Labour simply because Labour looks like it doesnt have self belief and rating for Miliband personally are absolutely dire. Could be an interesting Election night, unless you actually care about this country of course in which case one can say now there isnt a good result only a variety of bad ones.

  3. Sparky

    Two-thirds of UK voters don’t want a Labour government. How can this be? They’re the party of the people, they stand up for the rights of ordinary people against big business and greedy capitalists, they’re going to build a world class NHS, erradicate child poverty, push for a living wage for all, build affordable homes and make Britain a healthy, happier nation for us all. And yet two-thirds of voters don’t want them.

  4. Funtime1000

    Predicting this election is like trying to predict next years grand national winner ( impossible)
    The best thing the population can do is be honest about the future in that the Tories have not in five years impacted on the deficit but with their lib dem friends they have ruined people’s retirements, excluded people from participating in our society, they have opened the door to privatisation of our NHS, this is a service that we all will use and towards the latter end of our lives rely on this service for our quality of life. The Tories are obsessed with the wealth of London and the South East and will never see the benefits that Europe brings with their other obsession of blaming Europe for anything they don’t like. We the people of this country look to our leaders to provide jobs, wages, access to our health system amongst many other things. The Tories are doing now what they have done every time they get in power is create recessions and tear themselves apart on Europe, it doesn’t bare well for the future any one on a part time zero hour contract will tell you there is no future just survival.
    Ed the geek Milliband ( does it matter what he looks like or how his voice is) is the only one who is offering a future to any one outside London and the South East and that accounts for 80% of the population. For those who have good jobs and can afford austerity remember 80% of the country are really struggling. Restructuring and easing austerity will create real jobs with real wages that pay real tax and national insurance, it will reduce welfare payments ie tax credits and give the labour government more money to pay back the deficit. Sounds simple but most solutions in life are. In essence if you want a future for yourself, your children then vote labour the only party that represents all our futures

  5. Julia

    It appears that Scotland must not be mentioned!
    At least we have an alternative to the Red And Blue Tories.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    You’re making up nonsense…Labour are straight-line austerity pushing neoliberals.

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    You’re abusing polling. Single polls are worthless, you can only look at trends. And yes, there often IS systematic bias…hence looking at trends!

    Sigh.

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    Not seeing what’s different – it’s very clear that there will be zero change to austerity, for instance, you’re just making that up.

    It represents straight-line neoliberalism of the sort I and many on the left will not vote for.

  9. Guest

    No incumbency effect is, actually, statistically noticeable in UK Westminster voting.

  10. Tom

    Labour haven’t been a party for the working class in a long time.
    Their policy of mass immigration has had a detrimental effect on the lives of all working class people.

  11. madasafish

    let’s think why?

    Leader has only worked in politics and is a millionaire..

    And last time they were in power, the world class NHS killed thousands, and they built no affordable homes.

    Words are cheap, actions speak louder.

    Only fools listen to words and ignore what people have done when in power.

    PS Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are also millionaires.

    Lots of champagne socialists…

  12. uglyfatbloke

    That is an important point. Our pseudo-democratic system means that regional variations don’t really show up in nation-wide polling. Any party getting (say) 5% of the vote across the UK achieves little or nothing in the way of seats, but 5% of the national vote concentrated in Scotland would bring quite a substantial number of MPs.

  13. Sparky

    Left wing politics is lumbering towards extinction.

    If there really was popular demand for a proper left wing party, as Leon Wolfeson likes to suggest, then somebody would have formed that party. There would be a left wing version of UKIP gathering momentum. There isn’t. Ask yourself why not.

    And then there’s Labour. Even their kind of watered-down imitation Left isn’t wanted by over two thirds of the electorate. 47% of the electorate actually want the Conservatives or UKIP. When you consider that Labour is supposed to be the party of the ordinary person in the street, that is a momumental failure. Leon Wolfeson likes to suggest that the only people who vote UKIP or Tory are wealthy. That simply isn’t born out by the figures: it’s nearly half the electorate.

    People like Leon Wolfeson are basically niche enthusiasts, arguing their little corner with much passion and vehemence, but out of step with realities. It’s like loving 50s rock ‘n’ roll and arguing why it’s best music ever created and that someday it’s going to be No1 in the charts again. Yes, you can hook up with others who also like 50s music and tell each other how great it is, but it isn’t ever going to be No1 again.

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