How could the polls get it so wrong?

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 10:  Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband speaks at The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference on November 10, 2014 in London, England. The CBI is the leading lobby group for businesses in the United Kingdom  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

No pundit predicted the Tories would get an outright majority in Parliament on May 7th. Everybody agreed either the Tories or Labour would have to negotiate a coalition with other smaller parties to form a coalition government. It is as if hung parliaments had become the norm rather than the exception.

The surprise was not only that the Tories were ahead (several polls had predicted Labour would win a few more seats than the Tories), but mostly that they are now in the most comfortable of all positions: they don’t need anyone to form a government. Indeed they have already started reshuffling the Cabinet, this time without Lib-Dem ministers. With 331 seats, the Tories even have more seats than they need (there are 650 MPs in Westminster).

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Most of the polling institutes’ surveys published in the press mentioned national percentages rather than parliamentary predictions that take the voting system into account. The distortions created by the first-past-the-post system were all the bigger that the political landscape was very fragmented. A mere 2-point error in national polls can have huge consequences the number of seats won by a party. Also the number of marginal seats was largely underestimated.

The polls did not only underestimate how well the Tories would do, they also grossly overestimated the results of the Lib-Dems. Discredited by five years of government concessions and “betrayals” that’s how the party base views the Liberal-Democrats’ role in the coalition government—, the Lib-Dems lost all but 8 of its MPs. With 57 MPs, the Liberal-Democrats were the third party in Westminster in 2010. Now they have the same number of MPs as the DUP, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party… The curse of smaller parties is they either oppose the government or “lose their soul” by taking part in a coalition. The only way for them to ever be a part of a government is to be in a coalition, but being in a coalition means making concessions and not remaining true to one’s core principles (in this case, for example, not raising tuition fees). The coalition killed the Liberal Democrats.

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Last but not least, the polls really got it wrong when it came to predicting Labour’s results. Labour did as badly as it did in the 1980s when the Labour “brand” was notoriously out of touch with mainstream Britain. Labour did not merely lose its Scottish stronghold to the SNP, it lost almost all of its seats in southern England. The only constituencies that voted Labour were the miners’ strongholds. Ed Miliband addressed the poorest 10% (the unemployed and the underemployed) and blamed the richest 2% but everyone in between must have felt neglected. A long period of soul searching will ensue for Labour. We haven’t seen the end of it!

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Polling institutes also have a bit of soul searching to do. When will a British Nate Silver disrupt polls and offer a more comprehensive approach to political data in the UK?

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