THE BLOG

Opinion Polling and the Election - What's Going On?

30/04/2015 12:13 BST | Updated 29/06/2015 10:59 BST

One of the problems with the current election campaign, apart from it being the most sanitised on record, is the reporting about it. National media is fixated on the opinion polls, and the miniscule movements that have occurred during the campaign, and the impact these will have on the overall result.

Yet, herein lays the problem. While there is one general election, there are 650 constituencies being contested. The 2015 campaign, more than ever before, is not a national campaign, despite what is being reported in the media.

At a minimum, it could easily be argued there are four separate campaigns: one in each of Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The dynamics in each of these regions are significantly different. In England, there are five major parties campaigning, plus numerous smaller ones. In Scotland, these five major parties are being destroyed in the opinion polls by the Scottish Nationalists. In Wales, Plaid Cymru is a serious contender, rating above UKIP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. As for Northern Ireland, the whole party dynamic is totally different, with the Nationalist/Unionist divide of paramount importance.

So it could be argued there are four separate campaigns running. What Jim Murphy says in Scotland may differ to that said by Ed Miliband in England. Similarly, there may be differences between statements from Ruth Davidson and David Cameron.

Yet even this may not be a fair representation of what is going on in the campaign. The reality is that each constituency has a different dynamic. While this has always been the case, the 2015 campaign will be marked up as being even more the case. Thus we have 650 separate elections going on. These combine to make the general election, but the 650 constituencies will each have their own issues and electoral dynamics.

The important issues in the constituency of Leicester East, for example, will be significantly different to the adjoining constituency of Rutland and Melton. Both are considered 'safe' seats for Labour and the Conservatives respectively. Adjoining Rutland and Melton is the marginal constituency of Corby. The issues for the residents of Corby will differ to those in Rutland and Melton, and to those in Leicester East.

Broadly speaking, the issues affecting urban inner city constituencies will be different to those affecting rural constituencies, or to small towns. It must be noted that no two constituencies are the same. Yet the polling does not appear to take this into consideration.

This issue will only get worse when the election results come in. There will be an aggregation of votes across the UK. Each major party will be shown with their percentage of votes and number of seats, and this will be compared to the pollsters' predictions, and there will be great pontification about the legitimacy of any government which does not have the most votes.

The problem is the aggregation of votes beyond each individual constituency distorts the votes cast. A vote is only valid in the constituency in which it is cast. Thus a vote cast in Leicester East will have no impact whatsoever on any other constituency. It is not transferable. The reason why a person voted in a particular way may be a result of local constituency politics rather than the national picture. Consider the election of Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest in 2001, or Martin Bell in Tatton in 1997. These were constituency-specific elections (although in the case of Martin Bell's election, there was a bigger picture of allegedly corrupt politicians).

A final complication, which is largely ignored by the national media in this election, is the running of numerous elections at the same time. In the parliamentary constituency of North West Leicestershire, for example, not only is there a parliamentary election going on, but also district council elections and parish council elections. Voters will be presented with three ballot papers when they go to vote - and that will not be unusual across many parts of England. There are six mayoral elections taking place, 279 unitary or district council elections, and numerous more parish council elections.

So there is a situation where the focus is on the national polls, but a neglect of constituency politics. In Bosworth, for example, the local Liberal Democrats feel they may have a chance of taking the seat from the Conservatives, because they have worked so hard locally. They control the Hinckley and Bosworth District Council, which they defended successfully in 2011. The whole council is up for re-election this year. Thus with local campaigning, they may have a chance of taking a parliamentary constituency. This flies in the face of the national polling, which shows the Liberal Democrats flat lining at around 8%, and the expectation of losing a swathe of seats.

This election is different, and everyone appears to be acknowledging this difference, but not changing. Maybe this will be a re-run of 1992, with the Tories squeaking home, against the odds. Alternatively, it may be a re-run of 1974, with another election to be held later this year. The results will be determined in the 650 individual constituencies. Focusing on the national picture is a mistake. We are looking at the woods but not seeing the trees.