Could 2024 become remembered for the British people ‘hurling the findings of the opinion polls back into the faces of the pollsters,’ as Times’ journalist George Clarke wrote following the Tories’ shock win in 1970?
With Labour consistently riding high in the polls, Sunak’s favourability ratings plummeting, and not just with the public but among his own MPs, with a growing number sending letters of no confidence in him, putting a real question mark over whether it will even be Sunak that leads the Tories into the GE, while the country remains mired in a cost-of-living crisis, the conjecture that the Tories are facing ‘obliteration’ seems more than reasonable.
‘Oust Sunak’ or face ‘massacre election,’ warned MP Simon Clarke in the Telegraph this week, who was Sunak’s number two at the Treasury. The same report cited a poll which suggests that a new Tory leader, ‘championing core Conservative values, could secure a convincing victory over Labour.’ Clarke’s comments however were swiftly criticised by some senior Conservative MPs, including the former home secretary Priti Patel, who said “engaging in facile and divisive self-indulgence only serves our opponents.”
The plot by right-wing Tory rebels to dethrone Sunak was initiated by poll that forecasted a landslide win for Labour. The polling was spearheaded by Conservative peer and leading Sunak critic David Frost. It reportedly cost £70,000, which was covered by the Conservative Britain Alliance, an anonymous group of Conservative donors. But despite Tory rebels working to oust the PM, voters are not convinced there are any ‘obvious alternatives’ to replace him. A new survey shows, that 2019 Tory voters are unimpressed by the options, with Penny Mordaunt being the favourite to succeed Sunak, thereby suggesting that a change in leadership at this stage would not be enough to save the Tories.
As the chaos and infighting that has defined the Tories in recent history continues, conventional wisdom says surely it’s time for them to go? But, as we know, this is politics, and anything can happen. Could the pollsters, bookies, journalists, and politicians, be left wrongfooted and red-faced as the result serves up a shocker? Could it be another election which becomes remembered for the British people ‘hurling the findings of the opinion polls back into the faces of the pollsters,’ as Times’ journalist George Clarke wrote following the Tories’ shock win in 1970?
Morgan McSweeney, Keir Starmer’s chief election strategist, who has managed to impress the Express (not a good sign), which described him as a ‘Machiavellian’, who is ‘arguably more important than anyone in the Shadow Cabinet,’ brought Labour back down to earth, with a bang.
In a briefing to the shadow cabinet before Christmas, McSweeney delivered a sobering reality check about the pitfalls of complacency, by emphasising all the polls – home and abroad – that had turned out to be the opposite to the actual result. In other words, utter bunkum.
The FT’s Jim Pickard said McSweeney had ‘cherry-picked’ some of the ‘most eye-popping examples of elections where there have been major swings in the final weeks of the short campaigns.’ Of course, Labour’s campaigns director wouldn’t be much good if he didn’t err on the side of caution, and the examples he gave certainly paint an alarming picture of what does sometimes happen on polling day and therefore could happen in the 2024 GE.
The Australian election of 2019 features in McSweeney’s slideshow. Despite the left-leaning Labor Party having led in almost all opinion polls for more than two years, the Liberal party won a ‘miracle’ victory.
Then there was the US 2016 election when ‘there’s no way Trump can win’ was the general consensus, with the polls consistently putting Hillary Clinton ahead. The rest of course is history, as Trump went on to secure victory for the Republicans. The scariest part about it? It could about to be Groundhog Day, with Trump and his allies already laying the groundwork for a possible second presidency.
More recently, in Spain in 2023, the centre-right PP was on course for an easy victory over the left-wing PSOE party, at least according to the opinion polls. What resulted was a knife-edge result and Spain facing political uncertainly after election deadlock.
Germany 2021 also featured on McSweeney’s election shocker slideshow, when forecasters were confounded when Olaf Scholz’s party emerged victorious against all odds having polled at only the fourth most popular party in the German polls. Such was the bombshell that the FT described it as “one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent German political history.”
Brexit: A bad, bad night for the opinion polls
In Britain, there has also been some colossal upsets. The EU referendum has to be among the biggest. On June 24, 2016, Britain woke up to the news that camp Leave had won. Such was the shock, that the news could be akin to how vividly we remember other major events, like the death of John Lennon, 9/11, and so on. Why was it so shocking? Because the pollsters got it so epically wrong. It could be argued that the ‘complacency’ among Remainers, including David Cameron who of course called the referendum in the first place, such was his confidence of a win, and Jeremy Corbyn, who refused to rally with the prime minister in making the case against Brexit, led to the pollsters misreading the mood of the electorate. Out of the 168 polls carried out from September 2015 to the referendum, fewer than a third – just 55 in total – predicted a leave vote. The bookies also got it painfully wrong, with the odds in the final week before the vote being around 1-4, suggesting an 80 percent probability of a remain victory.
Britain though is pretty accustomed to election bombshells that go against the odds. In 1970, the Tories bagged a surprise win. Edward Heath’s party defeated Harold Wilson’s governing Labour Party, despite most opinion polls prior to the election indicating a comfortable win for Labour.
22 years later and history repeated itself when the Tories snatched another unexpected victory. Even though the opinion polls suggested a hung parliament or a narrow Labour majority, the Tories went onto win their fourth consecutive victory since 1979, with a 21-seat majority. In going against the odds, 1992 was considered one of the most dramatic and memorable elections since the end of the Second World War.
In 2015 there was a similar upset, when the pollsters failed to predict an overall majority for David Cameron. Two years later and the election result, while again a shocker and going against expectations, did not swing in the Tories favour. Theresa May’s Tories lost 12 seats and her majority, with Jeremy Corbyn just 2,227 votes away from potentially being prime minister. Just two months earlier, the Tories had reasonably hoped to gain around 100 seats. Such was the inaccuracy of the forecasts that the pollster who accurately stated that May would lose her Commons majority, was given a knighthood. 74-year-old John Curtice became an unlikely celebrity and was regarded as the winner of the 2017 election night when he stunned the nation by foreseeing loses for May and gains for Jeremy Corbyn. And that wasn’t the first time Curtice’s ‘against the run of play’ left the nation astounded. In 2015, the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown famously said he would ‘eat his hat’ if Curtice’s exit poll proved correct, which said his party would lose all but 10 seats. When the party only won eight seats, Lord Ashdown was forced to consume a hat made of chocolate live on television.
The pollsters also got the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 wrong. They predicted a close result, with just days before the vote polls suggesting the pro-independence ‘Yes’ vote may have the lead. In the end, there was a solid 55 percent -45 percent majority for ‘No.’
The question is why do the polls get it wrong so often, and is 2024 likely to join the long list of GE bombshells?
Systemic bias in opinion poll selection
A systemic bias in the way people are selected to take part in opinion polls has been attributed to the inaccuracy of polling. Research carried out by polling companies, including YouGov and ICM, following the 2015 GE found that a relative over-representation of politically engaged young voters produced a forecast which favoured Ed Miliband. Conversely, the over-70s – who broke heavily for the Tories – were under-represented in YouGov’s internet panels.
The growing usage of mobile phones and reluctance to pick up landlines was attributed to the systemic bias in the way people were polled in the 2015 election, with younger, more politically engaged increasingly relying on mobile phones, the research found.
In its analysis of how polls get elections wrong in Britain, the Conversation also found that a failure of the pollsters to interview the right mix of voters is the main reason for the disparity between the polls and the actual election outcome.
It is also important to remember that other than at election times, many voters don’t really follow politics. In this sense, what people might tell the pollsters 18 months, 12 months, 3 months of even weeks before a general election might not necessarily translate where they actually put their cross in the ballot box.
Perceptions of the Tories could be a whole lot different on ballot day (after weeks of election campaigning, spurred on no doubt by huge donations from filthy rich donors) than they are today, when, according to the latest YouGov/Times voting intention poll, the Conservatives stand at 20 percent, and Labour 47 percent, marking the highest lead for the opposition since Liz Truss was prime minister. As Jim Pickard writes: “There is still a large slug of undecided voters who could – just possibly – come to the aid of Sunak’s Conservatives.”
Too embarrassed to vote for the ‘nasty’ party
In also been suggested that polls might be misleading because of people’s reluctance to admit to voting for what is perceived as the ‘nasty’ party. In the aftermath of the 2015 GE, many pollsters blamed ‘shy Tories’ for the skewed result, i.e. they were too embarrassed to say they were planning on voting Tory.
This might explain why out of the aforementioned elections that defied the pollsters’ predictions, a majority unexpectedly swung in the Tories favour. In this sense, the 2024 result might not bode well for Labour, as the last thing people want to do right now is admit to voting Tory, even though they will when nobody is looking in the confines on the ballot box.
Mainstream media and election campaigning
Then there is the media’s role to consider. Whichever party and leader, has the backing of the mainstream press is naturally at an advantage. And, as we know, that party is almost always the Tories, bar the Sun’s brief flirtation with Labour in 1997 when it switched the lights out on its long running support for the Conservatives by telling readers to vote Labour. When Tony Blair went on to win, the Murdoch tabloid boasted: “It’s the Sun wot won it.”
Interestingly, there were signs that the Tories were losing control of the media election support during the 2017 GE. Analysis by of mainstream news coverage by Loughborough University points to how there was an increased focus on policy that year, compared to 2015. This did not fit well with the Conservatives’ preferred campaigning agenda, which was to emphasise Theresa May’s so-called ‘strong and stable’ leadership qualities. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s team was keen to promote policies over personalities. At the time, the Tories’ unpopular social care U-turn garnered plenty of negative press attention.
Realising that modern politics in Britain is influenced by the whims of the mainstream newspapers, Keir Starmer, and his ‘Machiavellian’ Comms director Morgan McSweeney, are leaving no stone unturned. Their courting of business and media at Murdoch’s summer party last year, suggests they are taking nothing for granted on the road to No 10. Reaching the Sun’s core audience of working-class, swing voters in Red Wall seats, has become an integral part of Starmer’s media strategy, as sources told i News. But whether the Labour leader will get the backing from Murdoch that Tony Blair got, remains doubtful. Starmer doesn’t have Blair’s ‘big personality’ or ability to come up with just the right phrase that cuts through the political noise. For a lot of voters, personality matters. Maybe it shouldn’t but it does, and one thing Murdoch likes, is to back a winner.
There’s also the prospect of the result being even worse for the Tories than the polls predict. A recent YouGov mega-poll published in the Telegraph suggested the Tories are heading for a crashing general election defeat, on par with 1997. It has been argued that this was an optimistic take for the Tories. Rob Ford, a professor of politics at Manchester University, noted that the YouGov modelling appeared to play down the effect of tactical voting in many seats where Conservative MPs were at risk of challenge. “It doesn’t seem very credible to me that in a Tory-Lib Dem marginal, 10% of people would still support Green, and not care either way about the opportunity to get rid of a Conservative MP. It does suggest that things could be even worse for the Conservatives,” Ford said.
One thing is for certain, there will be a long and dirty election battle ahead. After 13 years of disastrous rule, conventional wisdom says the Tories must go. But conventional wisdom has been wrong time and time again. Will it be wrong again?
Right-Wing Media Watch – Harry’s ‘get well’ wishes and the Mail’s muddle
The right-wing press doesn’t need much of an excuse to go gunning for Harry and Meghan. And King Charles’ and Kate Middleton’s recent health scare gave them plenty of ammunition. They didn’t even care if what they were claiming was true, it seems.
News about the King and Princess of Wales’ ill health naturally sent the tabloids into a tizzy, and desperate to find a Harry and Meghan angle.
On January 20, the Mirror printed an ‘exclusive’ about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle sending ‘get well message to Kate Middleton and King Charles. The public pledge of support is ‘seen as an olive branch,’ claimed the paper.
The Daily Mail meanwhile went for an entirely different angle. Amanda Platell, Australian journalist, columnist for the newspaper, and one of Harry’s ‘fiercest critics’ (in her own words), centred a piece around the prince’s alleged silence over his father and sister-in-law. Obsessing over the claim (unproven) that the Sussexes must have heard about Charles and Kate’s medical treatment via media reports, the piece speculatively hypothesised that learning about the news in such way must have made been wounding for Harry.
“How isolated it must have made him feel. No time for a call from Pa to tell his son not to worry.
“No word from William to explain what was going on with the sister-in-law he was once so close to.”
The author continues that how, since the news broke, the “Sussexes have remained silent, not even issuing a public message of support for the King or Kate.”
That differs somewhat to the Mirror’s story. Which one’s right, they can’t both be? Just goes to show what a load of boloney it all is.
Perhaps the Mail thinks it’s entitled to go after Harry after he dropped his libel claim against the Mail on Sunday publisher, Associated Newspapers, which just happened to be just before the news broke of Charles and Kate’s health scares. No reason was given as to why the case was dropped, which is one of several cases the prince had pending in his high-profile battle with the British press.
Platell even cites the court case in her pontificating article on the Sussexes’ alleged ‘silence.’
“How this petulant prince, who yesterday withdrew his libel claim against the Mail on Sunday, must now rue his grand-standing demands that the royals apologise to him,” she wrote.
Following the publishing of the Mirror’s ‘exclusive’ about the Sussexes passing on their best wishes to Charles and Kate, the Mail printed its own article on the Duke and Duchess’ ‘best wishes.’
‘Sussexes ‘pass on their concerns and best wishes’ as princess recovers from abdominal surgery and Charles prepares for enlarged prostate procedure,’ it splashed.
Talk about confusing and two-faced. But then it is the Daily Mail, which is well-known for such campaigns, so what should we expect?
Woke-Bashing of the Week – Ron DeSantis is living proof that the ‘war on woke’ really is a joke!
Ron DeSantis, the right-wing Florida governor and self-proclaimed ‘anti-woke’ warrior, has crashed out of the presidential race.
Once appearing to be Donald Trump’s most daunting challenger, DeSantis ran a turbulent and costly campaign, centred around fighting ‘woke ideology,’ having famously said: “Florida is where woke goes to die.” He even introduced a Stop-Woke (Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act and launched a bitter legal battle with Disney after the company questioned the Florida law aimed at limiting discussion of homosexuality and gender in schools.
His excruciating and relentless anti-woke message,’ which intensified when he set his eyes on the White House, failed to resonate with Republican voters. The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols described the campaign as ‘one of the most comically inept campaigns in modern history.’
“DeSantis and his allies amassed at least $150 million, but the candidate put it all in a big pile, and then, like the political equivalent of the Joker, lit it all on fire,” wrote Nichols.
DeSantis’ exit from the race this week is living proof that the Right’s nonsensical war on woke doesn’t just not work, but backfires.
One would hope that is would also act as a warning to right-wingers in Britain to stop their own anti-wokery whinging.
That might be too much to ask, though. Let’s not forget that Kemi Badenoch was praised by Ron DeSantis himself for her own ‘war on woke.’ In an interview with the Telegraph in April, the right-wing governor said he supported the business secretary’s attempt to stop the left ‘corrupting British society.’
The hope that the UK right might have learned lessons from the demise of DeSantis was all but obliterated when on the same day the news broke that the Florida governor was bowing out of the Republican presidential bid, the Daily Mail devoted its front page to this: ‘Starmer wades into cultre wars – on the side of woke.’
The paper’s beef? A speech the Labour leader made in London this week, in which he said the government was engaged in ‘McCarthyism’ by trying to find ‘woke agendas’ in British civic institutions. He gave examples of the RNLI and the National Trust, saying the voice of charities had been ‘ignored.’
No truer words spoken I’d say. Let’s hope Starmer stands strong and sticks to his pledge, despite the right-wing media backlash.
Back to DeSantis. The Mail’s frontpage suggests the Right has learned absolutely nothing from the Florida governor’s downfall and the fact that people simply don’t buy into the anti-woke agenda. Of course, the Daily Mail has pedalled its ‘end of the world’ message for generations, and it must have an appeal to its elderly readership who quite naturally believe that world was a better place when they were young. As a serious contribution to understanding politics, still less the real state of the world? Give me a break!
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is author of Right-Wing Watch