Pollsters, pundits and the public: The UK May 2015 general elections

There is a lot of egg on a lot of faces following the Conservative party’s victory in the UK’s May 7 2015 general elections. For months, the polls had been predicting a too close to call election result, and newspaper columns have filled with erudite comments on which parties could make deals, under what conditions and in a variety of contexts. The oprevalent view in the Westminster bubble was that the UK was heading for turbulent times under a precarious coalition government of scrapping political parties.

As it transpired , the Conservatives swept to victory with 51% of the seats in the House of Commons on just under 37% of the vote. The other big winner was the Scottish National Party which romped home with 56 of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminister. The big losers were Labour with 232 seats, and UKIP with only 1 seat but a total share of the vote of 12.6% (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2015/results). The Labour result could prove fatal to the party, unless there is some hard thinking, a good deal of mea culpa and a considerable image remake.

A less tribal electorate.

The first fundamental feature of the UK electorate revealed in this general election is that voters are less tribal, and more prone to think before casting their ballot. They are also clearly reluctant to speak out about what they intend to vote.

On the 30th April, the Daily Mail published a poll putting Conservatives and Labour tied at 35% of the vote.


But the poll yielded some clear warning signals that all was not well for Labour:

  • As in all previous polls, 51% of those polled considered Cameron to be a much better Prime Minister than Ed Miliband, on 31%; was much more popular than Ed Miliband.
  • With the SNP set to sweep to victory in Scotland, 50% of those polled considered that it would not be legitimate for the SNP to help Labour form a government, even if the Conservatives won most seats.
  • 66% of those polled stated that they had definitely made up their mind who to vote for; but that left 34% who the Daily Mail identified as “may still change my mind”.

The Daily Mail then added that “when those still completely undecided are taken into account, 41% of votes-10 million plus-remain up for grabs”. In other words, what mattered was not those who said which way they would vote, but those who would not or could not say which way they would vote.

The UK public and the EU.

The second key feature of the general elections results is that the UK as a whole is asking some serious questions about the EU: it is not just the appearance of “populists”, or the so-called “swivel eyed” Eurosceptics of the Conservative party that make the EU a significant subject of debate.

This can be seen in the run up to the 2014 European parliamentary elections, when the size of the swing vote was already very evident. In a poll published in The New Statesman, the pro Labour weekly concluded from the evidence that it read into the poll that if England voted UKIP, the vote would accelerate the likelihood of Scotland secession from the UK.

On a quick reading of the evidence presented, the Statesman’s conclusion seemed justified: in England the “Eurosceptic” vote, hard and soft(UKIP and Conservative) is 51%; in Wales 38%; and in Scotland 22%. If we assume for the moment that Labour, Liberals and Welsh/Scottish Nationalists are pro EU; the pro EU vote in England can be summed as 41%; in Wales 57%; in Scotland 72%. This reading tallies with the figures in Table 1.


But if we look at Table 3, the vote in favour of remaining in the EU is much softer than appears in Table 1. In Table 1, 72% in Scotland declare an intent to vote for pro EU parties; but according to Table 3, only 48% in Scotland say they favour remaining. In England and Wales the remain/leave intentions are not too far apart, being between 35 and 40%.

Using the figures in the poll, lets say that the don’t knows/wouldn’t votes can swing either way: the maximum pro remain in Scotland is 68, and the maximum leave is 52%. In England the maximum remain/leave spectrum is 59% remain, 62% leave; in Wales, maximum remain is 65% and maximum leave is 61%. If I look at these figures, from a Brussels perspective, I would conclude that there is one hell of a battle to keep the UK in the EU.

Table 4 adds a further dimension. The remain in the EU vote is strongly British based, with the supporters of “leave” more English based. This confirms that an English identity is there, and directed against Brussels; while the Scottish identity is directed against Westminster. So the headline is justified, but with the proviso that the British identity is strong south of the border. These tables don’t show what it is in Scotland, but my guess was that it was quite strong.

The key conclusion I took from this poll was the size of the possible swings either way. A false step and your support could surge or disappear.

Of course, the general elections and the European Parliamentary elections are not strictly comparable: the first past the post system is in force in the first and turnout if over 66% of the electorate, while proportional voting is in place in the second, and the turnout is 34%.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of points worth making:


The most important is that the UKIP and Conservative “Eurosceptic” total of EP seats was 43 seats, with Labour at 20, the SNP at 2 and the Lib Dems at 1. If we assume for the moment that the last 3 parties are pro EU, that makes for a Eurosceptic versus pro EU British presence in the EP of 43 to 23.

If we add the point about a UK wide electorate that is uncomfortable with the direction that the EU has taken, then it is clear that there is all to play for in the in/out refendum planned for 2017. It is also clear that the quality of arguments for and against the EU will weigh heavily.

The pundits and the public.

This becomes all the clearer on account of the third fundamental feature that I consider makes this election special: and that is that the pundits of what is often labelled the “liberal, metropolitcan” media took a drubbing.

On March 27, 2015 Jeremy Paxman interviewed the three leaders: he asked David Cameron whether he could live on the wage of a zero hours contract; he told Ed Milliband than many people who have preferred his brother, David, as the leader of the Labour, party, and he reminded Nick Clegg that he had backtracked on university fees.


The interviews were hardly decisive: Paxman was grilled ahead of the interviews as to whether he was a suitable interviewer, in view of the fact that he had been proposed for a safe Conservative seat; Andrew Marr, another TV star, gave his opinion that Paxman was a “genuinely tortured individual”, and that his style was unnecessarily aggressive. The polls registered no change, with the newspapers reporting that their readers considered that their candidates had done best.

By contrast, the Question Time Leaders Special chaired by David Dimbleby was infinitely more revealing of the leaders, their positions, and not least of the views of the audience. The real champions of the programme were the audience: their questions were to the point; they did not take no for an answer; they were very demanding. They also knew their facts. They were not, it was evident, to be taken for granted.

The vigour of this Question Time Leaders Special illustrated three key things: free public debate is alive and well in this country; the public respect but do not defer to those who have the courage and dedication to devote themselves to public affairs; the public showed itself to be far better at grilling political leaders that TV and radio stars in London.


In particular, the Leeds public grilled Ed Miliband on the party’s failure in 2010 to make a credible post mortem analysis of what went wrong in the governments of 1997-2010. Again and again the question came up of how the UK public could trust a political party that had landed the country in such a financial mess.

The general election results showed quite clearly what the pollsters and the world weary gurus of the London media had failed to detect. The SNP obliterated Labour in Scotland, and the Conservatives triumphed in England and in the UK as a whole.


What has changed in the UK? The UK public will not take the coming EU referendum lightly. The SNP and the Conservative party have a once in a century opportunity to remake the UK constitutionally, and to consolidate the foundations of a sound social market economy. They are indispensable partners in the recreation of our country. This is why the failure of Ed Miliband is bad news for Labour.  It will not be present at the new creation.

About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) (www.chinauncovered.net) His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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