The sight was incongruous. Professor John Curtice, the BBC’s election night polling expert of the last four decades, was providing an almost callously systematic dissection of the Conservative’s election disappointment to the Durham Union. All the while he articulated his message with flourishes of hand of which Gok Wan would be envious. He occasionally ambled about the limited confines of his stage, sometimes dipped forward to point at a graph he thought to be of particular relevance, but mostly he stood leaning on the wall with one leg crossing the other, James Dean-esque.
To his fandom (and that is not too grandiose a term, a Twitter page is dedicated entirely to spotting his infrequent appearances on television) this will undoubtedly only add to the Cult of Curtice. Curtice himself is ambivalent to the attention he has received of late. He responds to my mention of his Twitter stardom with an ironically triumphant “there certainly is!”, but admits “I’m getting used to [the attention], but it’s not something I enjoy…I’m quite happy to retreat from the limelight”.
That is unlikely to occur. At 63 he is 15 years the junior of the other regular election-night fixture, David Dimbleby (who has yet to retire), and the unerring accuracy of his exit polls means the BBC are unlikely to ditch him come the next election. Others, perhaps most notably Paddy Ashdown in 2015, are surprised by his exit polls; he is not. “No, I was not particularly surprised” he says of the 2017 result, “given the Tories needed a 7-point lead in 2015 to get their majority of 12, and this time they had a lead of 7 or 8, I’m not quite sure why everyone was saying they were going to get a large overall majority”.
This analysis is delivered with the bluntness that you might expect from a professional academic. But perhaps unusually for university professors (Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde), he is generous with his time. This interview capped off a day in which he had given addresses to Durham University’s various party associations, and a speech and a Q&A session at the Durham Union Debating Society. He didn’t dictate when he wanted to end, answered questions thoroughly and in full, and made the sole stipulation that he be given directions to his hotel at the end of the session.
It soon becomes clear that exit-polling is a high-wire sort of business, and Curtice explains that it presents a “unique challenge”. He reveals that data is extracted from “around 140 polling stations”. Given that there are 50,000 polling stations around the UK, it is clearly a bold man who risks his reputation on live TV on the basis of such a small sample. Curtice is well aware of this, having previously admitted that getting it wrong would set him back 30 years. He has previously come frighteningly close, with Dimbleby going on air in 1992 ready to announce a hung parliament. Curtice got the final piece of data through with seconds to spare and the exit poll was almost spot-on.
I ask him why it is that his exit poll is always so accurate whilst campaign polling is frequently less accurate. Are people more honest having immediately left the polling booth than they are about their voting intentions prior to election day? “No”, says Curtice, “the reason why the polling companies get it wrong isn’t because of people not telling the truth. It’s to do with research design…”. He doesn’t elaborate further, the exact details of his methodology which provide such ruthless accuracy are guarded like a secret recipe. They are, after all, the reason why he was described as the “winner of the 2015 election”.
He is much more forthcoming when asked for his expectations for the British political scene over the coming months and years. Generally, he argues, “it has become much harder to win a landslide because there are fewer and fewer marginal seats. Also, you’ve got 60 or 70 seats that aren’t occupied by Labour or the Conservatives”. On the question of Scottish independence, he claims that “their basic problem is that support for independence hasn’t gone beyond the 50% mark, so what’s the point of holding another referendum?”.
Curtice disputes the idea that Labour have bribed the youth vote into support with free university tuition. He argues that the reason they haven’t been hit that hard on a pledge which even the Liberal Democrats recognise is undeliverable is for the simple fact that “it’s not a unique selling point. Their strength among younger people has much more to do with social liberalism”. This is part of his key mantra in which he sees the political spectrum as having evolved from a simple left vs right question, to a system which is actually much more dependent on social liberalism or conservatism. It is for this reason that in his eyes Brexit (which was broadly a social issue) “cut across the political spectrum” without reference to left or right. He can’t think of this happening on such a scale at any other time in British political history.
On the topic of Brexit, his forecast for Remainers is bleak– “public opinion will have to shift much more. And it will require defections to occur, which will only happen if Brexit has gone pear-shaped. That’s an awful lot of water to flow under an awful lot of bridges”.
These predictions are all proffered in a state of semi-repose. The gesticulating has become minimalist, and he is reclined in his chair, his eyes closed for much of the time having taken off his spectacles. Despite this now slightly dishevelled mien, his voice indicates absolute confidence in his own accuracy. And why wouldn’t he be confident? Four decades of exit polling and he’s not been wrong yet.
A Backbench report by Tom Mitchell