One of the most interesting things about yesterday’s Brexit vote – apart for the prospect of the general disintegration of the UK and the collapse of the EU – was that for the second time in just over 12 months everyone – the pollsters, the betting agencies and in this case even the markets – failed to predict what was about to happen.
Let’s take a quick sample of the pre-poll analysis.
The Telegraph predicted – based on a poll by YouGov – a 52-48 margin in favour of the Remain campaign. An analysis of the six major polls in the lead up to the referendum (16/6 – 22/6) conducted by whatukthinks.org had the Remain campaign in front 52-48. In fact the poll-of-polls, which tracked voter intentions as far back as October 2015, didn’t have the Leave campaign in front until June 12 and at times had them as far behind as 55-45. To be fair this aggregated poll didn’t take into account 13% undecided voters… nevertheless, it and numerous other polls, failed to predict the outcome – most predicting a close contest with a narrow win for the Remain vote.
Even the gambling houses had it wrong… with odds running at 1/4 to Remain and 3/1 to Leave and more that £100 million pounds expected to be wagered on the result.
There has been some discussion about polling methodology leading to a bias in favour of the Leave campaign (Source: The Week, 24 June, 2016) AND let’s not forget that the Leave campaign had a great ally in the popular press receiving the the backing of some of Britain’s biggest newspapers. Seven of Britain’s top ten newspapers by circulation – The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Star, The Daily Express and The Sunday Telegraph – all backed the Leave campaign.
That’s just over 5..85 million readers consuming papers that pushed the Leave vote against The Mail, The Mirror and The Times totalling 2.6 million readers that backed the Remain campaign. It doesn’t look much better if you throw in The Guardian, The Observer and The Financial Times. That only boosts the pro-Remain papers to just over 3.1 million readers – just over half those reading pro-Leave papers. (Source: The Week, June 22, 2016 EU).
Now this is scarily familiar to what happened just over 12 months ago. Leading into the 2015 general election almost all the polls showed a close contest and there was much discussion at the time about the prospect of a hung parliament and what this would do for democracy and the functioning of government.
So, while the UK is contemplating the prospect, for better or worse, of life outside the EU and the very real possibility of the disintegration of the United Kingdom, after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon signalled a second independence vote for Scotland was ‘on the cards’, the big question is what is the value of the millions of pounds (or dollars) spent on polling at elections?
There is at least some prima facie evidence to suggest in this case that the polls actually worked against the Remain campaign after it appeared to be leading right up until the actual vote. It’s possible that the polls contributed to either complacency in the Remain group – a lower turnout for ‘Remainers’ given they were ‘ahead’ for so long – and also rallied the determined Leave voters in the final days of the campaign to actually get to the polls.
The Remain campaign probably also wasn’t helped by the backing of the two major parties, given the anti-Establishment sentiment that’s widespread in Britain.
Compulsory voting in Australia obviously mitigates against voter apathy and the potential for a lower turnout of voters who support the side ‘in the lead’. We don’t have to worry about the weather affecting the turnout for example. But given two polls I have seen recently indicate as much as 45% of the Australian electorate are struggling to choose between Labor and Liberal at the upcoming Federal poll – one wonders whether you can believe any of the polls here either.
The truth is that the industry that may undergo the most radical restructure in a post-EU UK might just be the pollsters themselves!!!
The other frightening electoral question for the world is, if the UK can vote to leave the EU – despite a slew of economists warning of the dire consequences – is it just possible that Donald Trump could win the US Presidential election?
The truth of the new world we live in is that people are more and more seeing established politicians as out of touch with their needs. They are still feeling the effects of the Global Financial Crisis and many, rightly or wrongly, feel it’s the working people who’ve had to bear the brunt of the largesse of the banks through austerity measures and the people who actually caused the crisis have got off scot-free. They see power more and more concentrated in the hands of the few and the problem that Hilary Clinton has is that, though conventional wisdom says that she should win the November election, she represents the type of political insider voters have grown to distrust.
If the Brexit vote means anything in either in the US or Australian elections, it might just be that conventional wisdom has been turned on its head in recent years and we’re dealing with a whole new ball game.
Referendums traditionally pose a question and resolve a question; the irony of this referendum is that it has raised more questions than it’s answered.