Flawed polling “manifestly and substantially” altered the result of the general election, the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown has said. He called on polling companies to “get their house in order”.
On Tuesday the British Polling Council published a long-awaited postmortem into what went wrong with opinion polls before last year’s general election, pointing the finger at a failure to reach enough Conservative voters.
Lord Ashdown said the report went some way to producing an explanation, but he had not yet heard a satisfactory answer to the question of what went wrong with the general election polling.
He said the polls’ prediction of a hung parliament “massively increased the power” of the Tories’ message to voters about the danger of a coalition between the SNP and Labour, and “massively swamped the power” of everybody else’s message.
“I’m not saying this was the only reason for the Lib Dem result, but it was a very, very big one indeed and I think the polls on this occasion materially affected the outcome of the election,” he said.
In the weeks leading up to May’s general election, opinion polls showed the Labour party and Conservative party neck and neck, making a coalition government seem likely. In the end the Conservatives won a working majority of 12 and took 37% of the vote, compared with Labour’s 30%.
The Liberal Democrats won 8% of the vote, losing 48 of their 56 seats in parliament and leaving them the fourth biggest party in terms of representation.
“I have a huge number of people coming up to me now with what you might describe as buyer’s remorse, saying ‘oh my god, we didn’t expect this’,” said Ashdown, who led the Lib Dems from 1988 until 1999.
“There’s a serious question there. If a mistake in the polls did in some way materially affect the outcome of the election, I really think the polls now need to get their house in order very fast.
“[The polling companies have] made mistakes in the past – who doesn’t? – but this is a massive one which I think has given us the government we’ve got, and that’s a big thing.
“They have to tell us bluntly why this happened, and produce a convincing answer for us to know why it happened, for us to understand it and then make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Ashdown was responsible for one of the most memorable moments of general election night when he said he would eat his hat if an exit poll produced by the psephologist John Curtice was correct.
The exit poll predicted the Lib Dems would win 10 seats, which turned out to be an overestimate. Ashdown said he owed Curtice an apology. “It is the second time that I have challenged his exit poll. I will never do it again, ever, ever.
“To be honest I saw the poll at the bottom of the screen about 10 seconds before Andrew Neil turned to me and I thought to myself ‘oh shit’,” he said.
“Then I had an option. I could either say ‘that’s very interesting and wouldn’t it be troublesome for us’, in which case the entire Liberal Democrat night would fall apart from thereon … or I could brave it out and say ‘I’ll eat my hat’.
“I have in fact eaten five hats altogether [since then], including one that was a proper hat, although pretty miniature, the rest made of more edible substances, which people keep presenting me with.”
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th January 2016 18.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010