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Political Football?

Date:4 August 2000
Category:Comment & Analysis
Specialism:Social Research
Keywords:British Opinion, Public Opinion
(Click on keywords to find related News Items)

Professor Robert Mackenzie was once quoted as saying that he enjoyed election nights in the same way other people enjoyed the Cup Final. New research for the June-July 2000 edition of British Public Opinion newsletter suggests that there is more to this remark than meets the eye.

Allow me to present a prediction model for determining the outcomes of British general elections, which over the period since 1950 has as a record to match Bob Mackenzie's swingometer. (See table.) All you have to do to predict which of the major parties will have an overall majority in the Commons following the election is to note the shirt colours usually worn by the current holders (on election day) of the FA Cup. If their shirts are predominantly in the Conservative colours of blue or white, a Conservative victory will ensue; on the other hand if the predominant colour is red or yellow, Labour will be successful. (Black stripes are ignored.)

The table shows that the Tories win an election held when the FA Cup is held by a club who play in predominantly Blue or White shirts; Labour wins when the cup holders wear a shade of Red or Yellow. A hung Parliament results when the Cup holders wear both parties' colours.

Elec. Winner FA Cup holders (year of final) Shirt colour(s) Correct?
1997 Lab Manchester U. (1996) RED Y
1992 Con Tottenham H. (1991) WHITE Y
1987 Con Coventry City (1987) Sky BLUE Y
1983 Con Manchester U. (1983) RED N*
1979 Con Ipswich Town (1978) BLUE Y
O'74 Lab Liverpool (1974) RED Y
F'74 Hung Sunderland (1973) RED & WHITE Y
1970 Con Chelsea (1970) BLUE Y
1966 Lab Liverpool (1965) RED Y
1964 Lab West Ham U. (1964) RED ("Claret") Y
1959 Con Nott'm Forest (1959) RED N
1955 Con Newcastle U. (1955) Black & WHITE Y
1951 Con Newcastle U. (1951) Black & WHITE Y
1950 Lab Wolves (1949) YELLOW ("Old Gold") Y

* Would have been correct if Brighton & Hove Albion (BLUE) had not missed an open goal in the dying seconds of the FA Cup final, before losing the replay.

This, which I have christened the Sweet FA Prediction model, has failed only twice over the last fourteen elections; furthermore, the sensitivity of the prediction method is demonstrated by the election of February 1974, which produced the only post-election hung Parliament since the War - that election was fought when the cup holders were Sunderland, whose striped shirts are red and white in equal measure. The obvious improbability of such a pattern arising by chance gives the model a high degree of statistical significance.

The political implications should be obvious. If Tony Blair waits until after the next Cup Final to hold the election, the outcome is at present still in doubt. On the other hand, since the current FA Cup holders are Chelsea, who play in blue, if (as many have predicted) Tony Blair calls an election on 3 May, William Hague will be Prime Minister on 4 May.

Or perhaps not. The point of this jeu d'esprit is to demonstrate that it is possible to find an apparently statistically significant pattern in almost anything, given a sufficiently free hand. (Rather as certain scholars discovered "hidden messages" to prove that Francis Bacon wrote the plays of Shakespeare; Mgr Ronald Knox, when he set his mind to it, was able to use the same methods to "prove" that Queen Victoria wrote Tennyson's In Memoriam.) Of course, even this degree of freedom is not enough for some; at the next election we shall have, as we always have, predictions aplenty by methods that cannot claim even the semblance of a track record: astrology (in 1997, one astrologer confidently predicted John Major's victory on the basis of something called the planet Rahu); "voodoo" polls (prizewinner last time the Tesco "Electoral Roll" poll with a predicted 13% share for the Monster Raving Loonies); "on the basis of history". (Dr David Carlton was undisputed loser of the 20 Reuter's experts in 1997, who even at the last predicted a hung Parliament because he believed history showed that a swing big enough to give Tony Blair a majority was impossible).

Of course, not all methods of prediction are so crude. The newly-launched Kellner-Sanders index (at www.yougov.com and reported in the Observer) has a greater degree of sophistication, based on a combination of opinion poll results and economic indicators. But as one of its two originators, Professor David Sanders, knows, the most elaborately tried and tested economic formulas are not necessarily proof against the anomalous behaviour of the British electorate. (In 1997 Professor Sanders, using economic formulas which had worked successfully for predicting election results in the 1980s, was Dr Carlton's nearest challenger for the Reuter's wooden spoon.)

It is always possible to construct a pattern which fits the past. But unless it explains the past, in a way which still applies in the present, it will not help predict the future. The initial test of any model must be its inherent plausibility as a causal explanation, and this is a test that relies on judgment, not mathematics; if this is forgotten, "statistically significant" becomes a meaningless, perhaps dangerously misleading, term. Nor is "track record", as such, anything more than a perceptional delusion. (Would the FA Cup model be a jot more plausible if I had originally discovered and published it in 1996?).

As opinion pollsters we are not in the prediction game. Despite our best endeavours, journalists and other commentators - and particularly our critics - persist in assuming that the purpose of opinion polls is to predict the future; it isn't, and they can't. But if you want to make an educated guess, the objective measurements of the voters' mood that the polls attempt to provide are a more solid basis than the planet Rahu, cheese rolls, the FA Cup or even economic equations.

Then again, perhaps Mr Blair should temporarily abandon Newcastle United (Black & White), and join Alastair Campbell on the terraces cheering Burnley (Claret) to the FA Cup, just to be on the safe side.

(This article is adapted from the June-July 2000 edition of British Public Opinion Newsletter)

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