General election 2024: ‘Ignore the polls, this election is far from won’

Adrian McMenamin
Photo: @Keir_Starmer

The first thing that will be said about this election is that a Labour victory is already in the bag.

We’ll hear that from the right – from the Daily Mail to the SNP: all people we know who are desperate for a Tory victory, and will do their best to persuade Labour supporters that their vote isn’t needed.

And we’ll hear it from the far left: equally as determined to deny Labour an effective majority and out to encourage apathy and disengagement.

But there is a reason why people keep saying the only poll that matters is one on the final Thursday: the simple merit of truth.

But these messages will not last long: the first flicker of movement in the polls against Labour will see the same range of voices telling us that defeat is now almost as certain as victory was the day before yesterday.

‘Polls are only as good as their sampling’

For all these reasons it’s worth reminding yourself a few things about the nature of opinion polls.

Most importantly, they are only as good as the sampling. There are some hard statistical rules about polls which can surprise – like the fact a 1000 sample size is more than adequate to judge the mood of many millions of electors if the sample is truly random.

But truly random samples are all but impossible to get – think of the voters who never answer the door or pick up the telephone but appear year in, year out, in the marked register: if people refuse to be sampled then randomness breaks down.

That is why polling companies don’t go for randomness but for balanced sampling – they try to poll a group of voters that look statistically like the electorate and use that as a proxy for a random sample.

Get the sampling wrong and the poll is wrong – think of 2015: I am sure many of you found voters on the doorstep less receptive than the polls suggested. The good news is that the pollsters’ failure in that election prompted some big changes in polling techniques and polls seem to be much more reliable.

‘We knew defeat in an ‘unlosable’ election was possible’

Certainly they were in the recent London elections – then my experience on the doorstep told me the polls were right and the ridiculous panic that gripped more than a few on the Labour side on the weekend of the count was a sign of inexperience.

So why the lecture from the old git – me – on polls? Because even if we win well on election day there will be bad polls – perhaps some very bad polls – between now and then. Again the rules of statistics simply make it inevitable that even the best conducted polls will occasionally give bad results.

In 1997 we had two weeks in a row where, presumably by chance, mid-week polls suggested a slump in Labour support. I admit it – the first time it happened the mood in Millbank Tower was grim. Most of us had been through the wringer of 1992 and knew that defeat in an ‘unlosable’ election was perfectly possible.

More than a few of us hung around that first Wednesday evening to see what the next polls would show – and what they revealed was that Labour’s lead was just as it had been at the start of the week. It was a blip, not a trend.

The next time around was easier – there was no complacency, but having survived the previous week’s scare we had good reason to believe that one set of fluctuations in the polls was no more valid than another, and so it proved to be.

‘Don’t get distracted’

Of course polls are not what the election is about and we need to demonstrate it isn’t a horse race but a choice about the country’s future. Yet for broadcast journalists, in particular, facing the terrifying vista of endless dead air, talking about polls feels like an easy time filler.

The BBC has rules to stop this sort of thing – in theory at least – because, for all its faults, it gets that politics cannot just be treated as a value-free numbers game. We will need to hold the Corporation to account against its own rules – the good people there, and there are many, will understand why.

Some of the other broadcasters will not want to be responsible in the same way. GB News, in particular, has shown a reckless disregard of the norms in political broadcasting and has been all but allowed to run riot by the regulators.

Expect to see them use every trick they can get away with – and some they can’t – to promote their politics and favoured candidates. But don’t get distracted. The time you spend rage tweeting or doom scrolling can be much better used getting Labour’s message out.

This is what we have been waiting for. Let’s do it.

If you have anything to share that we should be looking into or publishing about this or any other topic involving Labour, on record or strictly anonymously, contact us at [email protected]

Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for a briefing everything Labour, every weekday morning. 

If you can help sustain our work too through a monthly donation, become one of our supporters here.

And if you or your organisation might be interested in partnering with us on sponsored events or content, email [email protected].

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…