Can we really rely on polls?

The recent UK General Election on May 7 has left many political commentators, TV, radio and written pundits scratching their heads and pondering.   What will it mean for Fine Gael? – Can Enda Kenny emulate David Cameron’s triumph? What will it mean for the Labour Party? – will the Liberal Democrats demise as the smaller Party in the UK mean an equal fate awaits Joan Burton and her Labour Party?

What will it mean for Ireland if the UK Referendum to leave Europe comes to pass? All of these questions are proving fertile ground for commentary. But the one that I took from the recent Election results was the unreliability of election polling.

Right throughout the campaign, particularly in the last ten days, we were assailed nightly with the latest poll which showed that there would be a neck and neck result between the Tories and the Labour Party and that a hung parliament was the most likely outcome.   No matter what station or what political programme you switched to, that was the bottom line.  All of the frantic canvassing, speeches and public debates all ended with the eminent political writers proclaiming, in solemn tones, that this would be a hung parliament.

Now how wrong was that?!   Let me explain that I am addicted to politics.  Politics in Ireland of all parties, politics in the UK, politin Europe, in the US, wherever.   Just sit me down in front of a TV with a political programme and I am as happy as Larry.

So on the night when polling concluded, I turned at 10.30 to David Dimbleby of the BBC, whom I have followed for years as the recognised UK expert in TV Debates.    And then there came the bombshell – the results of the exit poll which showed that the Tories were going to win with an outright majority.   There was a stunned silence in the BBC studio – a sort of a non-belief.  In fact the final poll gave even more seats to the Tories than the exit poll.    

Now I know that there are all the differences between the UK and here.  Their system is first past the post.   Ours is one of proportional representation and many others matters between us which differ in the electoral cycle.   But yet one clear factor emerged.  All of the political polls night after night in the UK were wrong as to the end final result.   

What does that mean for us here who have polls mostly every week which often contain huge variations of percentages up and percentages down and yet most of these polls do show varying trends which give solace to those who go up in the polls and which give sorrow to those who go down in the polls and so it goes on, endlessly.

So what was the reason for every single poll in the UK (including the poll of polls ) getting it all wrong and with egg on all of the pollsters’ faces?  We are now being told it was the late surge to the Tories or that it was dislike of Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party or the acclaim which the Leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Nicola Sturgeon, was getting which distorted the picture. 

But to my mind, the main reason is that people when accosted in the street or at a meeting or when telephoned are now seen more and more to answer with a porkie – in other words they do not tell what their real voting intentions are – the voter thus accosted dispenses with truth.  

There is a lesson here to be learned by all political groups in this country – have fewer polls and let’s treat them with varying degrees of disbelief.    Is it time to re-examine the whole system of political poll-taking?

We can reflect on other related issues following the UK Election.   Yes, it will be bad for Ireland if the UK decide to leave the European stage.   Of course we have made many new markets throughout Europe and indeed throughout the world for our goods and yet and yet the UK remains our most solid proximate market.    That would be a disadvantage that will have to be worked at and overcome.   I don’t think that Joan Burton will suffer the same fate as Nick Clegg in the UK.  We have seen over many Elections the wrath of the Irish electorate being heaped upon the smaller Party, but somehow I feel Joan Burton will buck that trend.  

But all that remains to reveal itself in the months ahead.   In the meantime (from my years of wisdom! ), let me say to the electorate and to the TV viewer and the political reader, suspend your belief when reading the polls and don’t go running to Paddy Power to place your bets any day soon!!!!

Oh and by the way – forget all this blather you have been reading about early Elections.  It’s my strong belief there will be no Election in Ireland before March 2016!!

What do you really, really think about gender quotas?  Read all about it here next week.


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