Invading Poll-Land

I'll stop writing about the election after this, probably, but if last Thursday was the Christmas roast then there are still a few dry, flaky bits left hanging on the miserable carcass to chew over and somehow I'm still feeling peckish. 

What's bugging me is the Exit Poll. Not "How do they do it?" Nor "Why was it right?" But something far more important: why do they bother?" I say this from a position of some experience: in 2005 and 2010 I volunteered to work on the BBC General Election live results show in the psephology team, which is responsible for creating this very poll and tracking its accuracy. Led by Professor John Curtice from Strathclyde University, they are a brilliant bunch of academics possessed of planet-sized brains, and it was a wonderful experience to witness events unfold from the nerve centre itself. But this time round, as I sprawled at home on the sofa with my crisps and dips, a heretical fact hove into mind - they're bloody ruining it. In movie terms, the Exit Poll is nothing but a gigantic, stinking spoiler alert. It should be banned.

The whole point of Election night is that it's when we find out how the nation voted. Thousands of local volunteers furiously and enthusiastically count our ballot papers so we can discover the actual result as soon as possible, allowing the bigger picture to emerge like a mega-jumbo jigsaw. But now, thanks to this strange new hegemony of the statisticians, we're not allowed to find out the story for ourselves. Instead we have the denouement pre-emptively rammed down our throats immediately as soon as the polling stations close. Why?

I've already blogged about how we British love the theatre of election night, otherwise we wouldn't count the votes in the weird and arcane way that we do. But the Exit Poll is an unwelcome interloper, something you could never get away with in other arenas. When the new Star Wars trilogy opens in cinemas this December, if the iconic opening crawl began by stating "SITH TO BE LARGEST PARTY IN GALACTIC SENATE. HAN SOLO MURDERED IN SECOND FILM", there'd probably be a riot. Very reasonably too, I'd argue. It's just not cricket. Besides, poor old Han has suffered enough.

Ultimately, the only reason the Exit Poll is a problem at all is because the psephologists are so damn good at their job. When they used to get their prediction wrong (like in 1992) it made the unravelling of our expectations all the sweeter to watch, but these days no matter how many hats Paddy chows down (see what I did there?) the entertainment factor's been fatally diluted by the fact the boffins will always be right: their talent is so great and their models so sophisticated that it's become abundantly clear they've mastered the art. So I have a request: if they're going to keep on treating the election like a massive sociological experiment can they just do it quietly behind closed doors, and let us know at the end whether they've got it right? Or can the BBC stick them away discreetly on the Red Button as an optional extra? Or failing that, can they kindly sod off and use their ingenuity to predict something harder like earthquakes or asteroid impacts?

As the dust settles on the 2015 election, once again we should all take our (uneaten) hats off to Professor Curtice and co. for the remarkable skill and accuracy they displayed on Thursday night. But next time, lads, keep it to yourselves.

Jon HarveyComment