Opinion polls – don’t overhype them!

As the election campaign continues (with just over two weeks to go before polling), the media continually report the latest opinion polls, which mostly show Labour and the Conservatives at both around 33-34%. Conclusions and predictions are being made on the basis of these results, but do they actually mean anything?

An opinion poll is a poll of the voting intentions of a cross section of the population. Polls can be carried out by telephone or online. But my problem with them is that they bear almost no relation to what happens on polling day, as I will discuss.

Our voting system in the UK is ‘first past the post’; in other words, in a particular constituency, the person who gets the most votes is elected. An opinion poll carried out within a constituency could give meaningful results if enough voters are included, because it can give an indication of the likely outcome of the election in that constituency. But this is not the case for an opinion poll that covers more than one constituency, or is country-wide. Why? Because we don’t have proportional representation, and percentage support across constituencies does not necessarily translate into actual seats in parliament. For that reason, they have little meaning, and are best ignored. Certainly they shouldn’t be used to make predictions!

Currently the main arguments in the campaign seem to be concerned with the possible role of the SNP in the next parliament. Even though Labour have made it very clear that they would not form a coalition with them, the Conservatives keep banging on about the danger to the UK if they did. At the end of the day, the extent of the SNP’s influence will depend on how many seats they get, and whether they will win seats from Labour.  And since the only predictions about this come from opinion polls, my view is that we must wait and see! It’s going to be a long 16 days.

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