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The Polls Missed Shy Tory Voters Because They Have Been Cut Adrift From Society

We can not see them, yet we are told they are everywhere. So the question is: do you believe in Tories?

by Sam Wolfson
19 January 2016, 2:49pm

They lie about who they are, they look indistinguishable from the rest of us, they don't have social media accounts. The country's best pollsters, drawing on decades of research and complex mathematical models, couldn't even find them. We can not see them, yet we are told they are everywhere. So the question is: do you believe in Tories?

On Tuesday, the post-mortem began into finding out how the polls got it so wrong in the lead up to the 2015 general election. The full report isn't out till March but Patrick Sturgis, the man heading up the team of nine polling methodology experts undertaking the review, has already announced some of its key findings.

The review found that polling organisations like Yougov missed out over 70s, who tend to vote Tory, because they don't participate in online polling. At the same time, they overrepresented an atypical group of young people, who were unusually engaged with politics and more likely to turnout - basically people on Twitter. In reality young people, although left-leaning, are less likely to vote.

It's worth remembering that polling organisations are aware of these discrepancies and try to compensate. As well as that, they tend to bump up the Tory vote a bit, because they know that polls have a history of leaning left. Yet even with those changes, they still missed out on swathes of the population planning to vote Conservative.

It'd be easy to reduce this failure to a problem with abstract methodology, but really it speaks to a bigger divide in our society. As our culture moves more deeply into the digital age, with television channels moving online, dating and romance becoming a matter of clicks rather than conversation, sometimes it seems like everyone in Britain is a tinder-swiping green-voting non-binary digital-content consumer. But increasingly, not only are we forgetting about silent middle-England, we're so disconnected from them we can't even poll their views.

We've all fallen victim to this - during the AV referendum it seemed as though everyone was in agreement that AV made sense. Twitter was full of helpful explainers and logical arguments about the system would make things a little bit fairer. Then the referendum delivered a resounding No vote, and the internet scratched its head, unable to understand who these people were.

We used to think of those that are "socially excluded" as the very poor. New Labour, particularly under Blair, warned of an underclass, or "forgotten people". These were people out of work, anti-social, disconnected from their communities, cast adrift from mainstream society for generations.

But the technology revolution has created a new socially excluded group, you might call them the overclass. They are not your mum and her friends on Facebook. They are your grandma and her friends who don't know what Facebook is - economically secure yet socially forgotten. One survey found only a third of adults aged 75 and over have used the internet in the previous three months, compared to 99% of those aged 16 to 24. Five million people over 65 have no internet skills whatsoever, and only 25% of care homes have wi-fi access.

2015 ONS data on internet usage in the previous three months

It's not just old people though: regular internet usage is still surprisingly low in large areas of Britain, particularly in the north-west and Northern Ireland. Like the underclass, they are disconnected from the news cycle - unaware of MPs Twitter scandals or cabinet reshuffles - but crucially they still turnout at the polls.

Throughout the election campaign it often seemed as though telephone surveys produced more accurate results than online ones. But they often have low-response rates, and people who stay on the phone tend to have some interest in politics. Indeed the British Attitudes Survey, conducted after the election found that among those most easily reached, Labour had a six-point lead, but among those that took between three and six calls to track down, the Conservatives were 11 points ahead.

Mostly we don't have the time or resources to make between three and six calls, and so mostly we just forget about these Tories. But it's worth remembering, ahead of a key vote on the EU and a Conservative Leadership Election which has the potential to install a more right-wing leader than David Cameron - either George Osborne or even Theresa May - that even though they won't be reading this article, there are Tories among us.

@samwolfson

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