Is polling a waste of time?

The definition of an opinion poll is “an assessment of public opinion by questioning a representative sample, especially as the basis for forecasting the results of voting.” Sounds about right, but what exactly constitutes a ‘representative sample’ and after the public opinion polls got it very wrong two years ago, why does the UK persist in hanging so much on polls in the run up to a General Election?
Speaking on the Today Programme last Friday, Sir Michael Fallon was extremely circumspect about the local and mayoral election results and the impact on the General Election – some might say quite understandably. With a low turnout and swathes of the country not actually voting, it cannot be possible to use the results as an indicator for next month’s poll. With some constituencies, local politics or a very specific issue plays a much large role than national trends – contradicting the belief that last week’s results mean the Lib Dem fightback is a whimper and UKIP are a finished force. And the argument that people were too embarrassed to say they were supporting the Conservatives two years ago might be the same this time, but for Labour – and that then produces another inconsistent set of results.
However, pundits have persisted down this path. Iain Dale has today published his thoughts on the outcome of June’s poll – giving Mrs May a majority of around 130. In his own words “doing these predictions is a fool’s errand as I cannot possibly know all the local circumstances in each seat” and “I have also made one or two assumptions.” Some of those are safer than others, such as a collapse in the UKIP vote and the SNP remaining dominant (but not to the same extent as in 2015) in Scotland. However, local circumstances can so often swing a seat and in some cases, defy the national picture.
Few people think that Corbyn and Co will win the General Election, but that is not really what this election is about. It is May’s mandate – she says to “…. guarantee certainty and security for years ahead…” and that political game playing could damage “our ability to make a success of Brexit and it will cause damaging uncertainty and instability to the country”. So, as the UK looks ahead to 8th June, why bother with the daily polling when so many unfactored issues could swing a vote – a long standing MP could have a huge personal vote, low turnout, racial or religious issues? Because it is expected and pundits will want to talk equally about how large a majority the Conservatives will have as well as local matters.
The UK doesn’t have much longer to wait but in the meantime we will be subjected to a raft of statistics and opinions that bears little relevance to how we cast our vote.