What UK pollsters can tell Australians about citizen engagement and the 2019 federal election

By Brenton Prosser

May 22, 2019

How could the polls get it so wrong, so often? Getty Images
  • Why didn’t we see it coming? 
  • How did the pollsters get it so wrong?
  • What was behind the polls that consistently put Labor ahead over the past 12 months? 
  • How could political parties ever change their prime ministers because of polls again?

These are but a few of the questions being asked in the wake of last Saturday’s unexpected federal election result.

But it’s not the first time questions have been asked about the relationship between citizens, polls and political results.

In the UK, after the unexpected Brexit result and the 2015 British general election (where the polls vastly underestimated the strength of the Conservative vote), a British Polling Council Inquiry was held into what went wrong in the polls.

The findings of this inquiry, other recent parliamentary inquiries, and subsequent research (including into electoral change) might help us make sense of what happened here in Australia last Saturday.

The digital era changes the game

One of the observations from the UK was the growing complexity of getting accurate results through polling.

The inquiry found that, over the long term, polls were very reliable.

However, historically, polls were built around targeting demographics by calling people on landlines, while increasingly people are on mobiles or online and harder to catch.

This has introduced new challenges around getting representative samples, delivering rigorous probabilities, and including harder-to-reach groups.

The other important factor identified in the UK reviews is the increase in potential poll participants declining to participate. In short, our changing society is producing a larger invisible vote.

Associated with this is a new phenomenon from a dramatically expanding media and social media landscape.

Polling on the popularity of leaders is a regular feature of news reporting and contributes to prominent narratives around the plight of parties.

The UK inquiries found that one implication of this is that people do not report their voting intention accurately when it contradicts what they see as the dominant media view.

To put this another way, media commentary around polls is producing a larger silent vote.

Identity politics trump social class strata

Another theme that emerged in the UK was around political convention and elites (including pollsters) losing touch with voters.

Admittedly, the culture of politics is much more egalitarian in Australia than the UK, but recent UK research drawing on the British Electoral Study points to an important electoral change.

Rather than traditional ideological categories shaping voting intention, people increasingly allocate their vote according to identity and issues.

In the UK, significant local variation occurred around cosmopolitan, provincial and marginalised (rather than class) identities and issues.

Yeah, it’s blue book. Blue. Getty Images

This shift was missed by major parties. It also presents a complex challenge for parties both to capture the votes of a fragmented electorate and to maintain a nationally consistent party narrative.

Importantly, the UK inquiries suggest that while pollsters accurately capture views on different issues, they have not adequately adjusted for this shift in their political polling.

In other words, when data comes in that contradicts what pollsters expect, it can be reweighted as an aberration rather than a revelation.

Of course, it is too early to say if this has been a factor in the 2019 federal election.

Parties are ignoring the issue people care most about

Back in the Australian context, respected pollster Rebecca Huntley has highlighted a similar complexity in the relationship between polling, policy and politics.

In her recent Quarterly Essay, Huntley contradicts one of the conventions of the Australian politics – namely that the major political parties are too driven by the polls.

She points to decades of strong public support for changes in areas that the major parties have been afraid to reform (such as immigration, indigenous recognition and climate change).

Huntley’s challenge to the major parties is to reflect these polling results and present a bold policy agenda to the Australian people.

One of the unconventional features of the 2019 federal election campaign was that an opposition party pre-released a detailed policy platform.

Supporters of Labor will claim that this was a bold agenda. Commentators are already arguing that their loss will ensure ‘small target’ strategies in opposition will return as the new norm.

These events might seem to confirm the UK findings that a fragmentation of the Australian electorate around issues and identity means that major parties are struggling to balance contradictory national and marginal demands.

But perhaps it may be, as Huntley suggests, that the major parties are not directing their boldness toward the sorts of issues that could win more than 50% of the first preference vote.

These insights, when viewed in the light of broader debates around the plight of democracy and declining public trust, as well as research showing major political parties are increasingly unpopular, suggest that perhaps retreating into the convention that parties should resist being bold in their policy is heading the wrong way.

Could it be that one response to the increasingly disengaged Australian public is that the major parties look more toward reliable policy issue polls and less to problematic party and preferred-leader polling?

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