Opinion polls: a trust issue

Today voters are deciding whether the UK should or should not remain a member of the European Union. As campaigners give a final push and counting officers brace themselves for the long night ahead, we turn, as usual, to opinion polls for an indication of the UK’s fate.

Opinion polls in the UK have a good long-term record for accurate polling. Most recently we have seen an accurate prediction by all polls for the scale of Sadiq Khan’s victory in the London Mayoral elections in May. More impressively, perhaps, the majority of polls produced accurate results for the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, predicting consistently a narrow ‘No’ vote.

However, polling companies suffered acute embarrassment at the 2015 general election, all failing to forecast an outright Conservative win. Recent research has suggested that the inaccurate results could have been due to those interviewed not being selected randomly, although others point to the possibility of interviewees who stated ‘don’t know’ swinging towards the Conservatives on the day. The fact that a variety of polling companies failed together to predict the election outcome demonstrates how difficult the process can be. Whilst mistakes on such a scale by polling companies are rare (the last being the Conservative win in the 1992 general election), they nevertheless shake our confidence in their abilities. We are left wondering what changes they have made, if any, in order to produce more accurate results this time.

Polling companies have faced difficulties during the run up to the EU referendum, including waning response rates for telephone polling companies (down from 30% to 7%), and trouble reaching various groups for online companies as they can poll only those people willing to join their panels. Perhaps unsurprisingly, polling companies have produced some varying results: in the last week of polling alone, we have seen a 10-point lead for Leave suggested by an ORB poll carried out for The Independent, and a 6-point lead for Remain by a ComRes poll for the Daily Mail and ITV News. Generally over the last month there has been a closer divide between the Remain and Leave camps. Currently the average of the last six polls, according to the Telegraph, has 51%/49% to Remain.

The shaken faith in polling companies has seen a rise in people turning to bookies for predictions of the outcome. This is a flawed practice as betting markets do take note from polls. This has been demonstrated throughout the campaigning period in the mirroring of odds when a poll has published a sharp increase in points lead for one camp. Bets placed on the outcome of the referendum at the bookies do, however, give us an interesting insight into the minds of voters. As Matthew Shaddick, Head of Political Odds at Ladbrokes, revealed, Ladbrokes has received a higher volume of bets to leave the EU, although those betting on the UK remaining in the EU were placing bets that were financially much larger, which may have skewed the odds. The average bet to remain is £450 compared to £75 to leave.

As the results pour in throughout the night, given the lack of unity in poll results some companies may be vindicated while others will have failed to accurately reflect the will of the voters. It is important to remember the value of opinion polling – accurate in predicting the final election results or not – for they allow us an important insight into the minds of voters, which in turn can help individuals and businesses prepare for possible outcomes. They influence campaign tactics and, more generally, they encourage awareness and debate of elections. We should not be shocked at, or proceed to interrogate, those polling companies who haven’t got it right this time for although they may not always be accurate, they can provide important insight into the minds of voters.

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