The psephology great on last Thursday's staggering result, the prospect of yet another election, and his foray into the Twittersphereby Alex Dean / June 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
“Oh, I was as surprised as everyone else.” That’s how veteran psephologist David Butler, now 92, responded when I asked him about last Thursday’s shock election result.
“A lot of the rules of the game that I thought I’d learnt over 70 years of working in this field have been falsified in the last few years,” he said. “I can certainly say that it is a different world.”
Butler, who ranks among the country’s most respected number crunchers, presented the BBC’s election night coverage from 1950 to 1979 and co-invented the legendary “Swingometer,” a graphics device used ever since. The author of more than 30 books on politics, he came back to national attention in the run-up to 8th June when he made a Twitter account and began tweeting analysis of elections past. I called him up hoping to pick the brains of an all-time great—and to try to understand just how strange our political times are.
At 10pm on Thursday, when the BBC published its exit poll, there was a national intake of breath. Contrary to the previous polling averages—not to mention all conventional wisdom—it put the Tories on just 314 seats, down from the 331 David Cameron won in 2015 and not enough for an outright majority. Labour had dramatically exceeded expectations, and was predicted to gain around 30 seats, winning 266 in total. (The final result has the Tories on 318 seats, Labour on 262, with the SNP down to 35 and the Liberal Democrats up to 12.)
I asked Butler, who in his time analysed plenty of exit polls on live TV, whether he could believe his eyes. But Butler tells me he immediately trusted the numbers. The poll “was delivered by John Curtice, a former pupil of mine at Oxford whom I greatly admired. I knew he wouldn’t be saying anything silly, and it came out extraordinarily right.”
Yet if the accuracy of the exit poll wasn’t a surprise, the national picture it painted, and which has become clearer in the wake of the result, certainly was.
Astonishingly, given his advancing years, Butler told me he had since polling day been “playing around with the…