Andrew Hawkins is the Chairman and Founder of ComRes, a company which creates polls intended to deduce voter intentions in and around key elections and referendums. This was my first telephone interview with Exeposé and I was therefore hoping that Mr. Hawkins would not pick up on my nerves as I awaited his call. Eventually the phone rang and, after dealing with the pleasantries, I dived into my first question, and asked why the poll had failed to predict a Conservative majority government, and not another hung parliament.
His response was to challenge me on my questions premise. “Some companies”, he explained, “had the wrong party in the lead, but most had the two parties neck-and-neck. Two firms were within the margin of error which included our polling centre, Comres, which consistently predicted that the Tories were in the lead.
Nevertheless, ComRes did not predict a majority, or even a minority, government and thus were vulnerable to criticism over their belief that a hung parliament was nigh. However, Andrew Hawkins remains firm with his companies polling. “We did” he responded when I pushed him again on their polling. “Nevertheless, we consistently predicted a larger share of the vote for the Tories.”
One of the most popular theories which followed the result was that of the ‘Silent Majority’, a concept that has been thrown around for years, perhaps most commonly popping up in 1992, where the BBC Exit Poll predicted a hung parliament and Labour leader Neil Kinnock potentially replacing John Major as Prime Minister, only for the UK voters to respond with the largest vote for a single party in contemporary UK history.
“we consistently predicted a larger share of the vote for the Tories”
However, Hawkins did not believe that we should obsess over the idea of a “Shy Tory” population. “It is dangerous to lay the situation on a single factor such as the idea of a ‘Shy Tory’ vote. However, online polling does risk misrepresenting views in a certain way and this is particularly clear when we consider the differences between online polling and telephone polling as online polling tends to be more vocal and left-leaning.” One only needs to look at the recent Labour leadership election for confirmation of this.
Indeed, it seems likely that those with more conservative and centre-right views tend to keep their personal opinions to themselves, unlike those further from the centre (in either direction). As such, they will be less open to espousing their views and contributing to the public forum, an idea which Hawkins shares. “The Scottish Referendum is a case in point. Online polling predicted a much tighter race and even at one point a ‘Yes’ vote for Scottish independence. There is data to suggest that online polls are more liberal than the reality, partly because they are made up of younger respondents and partly because the polls are often skewed towards more urban areas and therefore don’t take into account more conservative, rural regions.” Indeed, urban areas like Glasgow and Dundee were far more likely to vote for independence, unlike rural areas such as Orkney.
So what about actually voting? Polls before the election advertised a complete collapse for the Liberal Democrats, which may have dissuaded some from voting. Did it deter those from voting for smaller parties? “No.” was the simple answer. “There have been lots of occasions where turnout was higher because of interest in minority parties.”
“Over the past few elections we have seen a steady decline in support for the main two parties but an increase in support for minority parties which have become increasingly important as their vote share increases.” His argument can be supported by the 2014 European Parliament elections, which UKIP won, becoming the first party which wasn’t either Labour or the Conservatives to win a major election since the 1920s.
“minority parties which have become increasingly important as their vote share increases”
Nevertheless, before the elections, UKIP were polling at around 20%, whereas they only received 12.6% during the election itself. Surely there must have been some link towards voting and one’s belief in the possibility of victory? “That may have been a factor in the margins. However, if you consider the example of Nigel Farage in South Thanet; this was a seat that had a lot of interest and was key to UKIP success. It was a seat that UKIP threw a lot of resources behind but still didn’t manage to win. One has to consider with UKIP that this is a new party with no track record.
“It is one thing saying that you’ll vote one way a few months before the election, to maybe ruffle a few feathers, but then actually voting for something potentially high-risk is completely different. I would add that it is in the main parties’ interest to create the impression that it is a slug fest between the two of them so that people are less tempted to vote for the minor parties.”
In that case, let’s assume that people are more conservative in the UK than polling suggests (more willing to vote for right-wing parties). More conservative voters appear to be more eurosceptic (UKIP is the only major UK party campaigning to leave is on the right, and the Conservative party is split down the middle). As such, should we put our trust in polling companies when it comes to the EU referendum? Hawkins seems to be largely in favour of his companies reliance. “When it comes to the European Union, party loyalty is no longer really a factor. It hasn’t been so since the 1990s as voters are more fickle and much less inclined to follow the party line, instead voting for what they believe in.”
“voters are more fickle and much less inclined to follow the party line”
“Other variables, such as age, are far more significant factors. What’s important to remember though is that a lot may rest on David Cameron and his ability to placate soft, Euro-sceptic Tory voters with a better deal on Europe. Having said all of this, our telephone polls are currently showing strong support for the ‘In’ campaign.”
Age has been a decisive factor in recent years, with the older voters in Scotland voting against independence. However, older voters in the UK are also the most eurosceptic. I questioned him over the possibility of the oldest voters deciding the result, to which he agrees. “In short, yes I think that will be the case. Younger voters tend to be more Europhile than older voters.”
In that case, what difference can the young have in future polls? We have an ageing population, and the voice of the young is being increasingly diminished as a voice. “That assumes we don’t lower the voting age to 16”, a proposition which is becoming increasingly popular. “Broadly speaking, younger people vote less than those who are older.”
“That is the brute reality of the situation. However, it is still a significant, liberal and vocal cohort. Will these younger voters keep their generally liberal views with them as they grow older? I’m inclined to think that views change as people get older but nevertheless, we need to ensure that young people can be convinced to engage with politics and make their voices heard.”
From my interview with Andrew Hawkins, I was able to come to a number of conclusions. Firstly, it seems that data would corroborate the assertion that people are traditionally more conservative than polling data would suggest. This goes for issues ranging from referendums to national elections. Are people more conservative than they would like to admit to pollsters, and is this something we should be aware of when constructing opinion polls from now on? Secondly, when it comes to the issue of Britain’s membership of the European Union, party loyalty is unlikely to dictate how people are going to vote. Does this mean that the influence of David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn is negligible? Thirdly, it is becoming increasingly important that those under the age of 25 continue to vote and influence the political establishment. We are a key demographic, but our collective voice will continue to be silenced if we do not vote in force.