The polling company has a near-perfect record for leadership elections
Asked this morning on Radio 4 about the YouGov poll showing a commanding lead for Penny Mordaunt among Tory party members, Liz Truss supporter Iain Duncan Smith rolled out an old classic: “the most important thing is not to look at what the polls say.”
Well, actually Iain, that’s not such a great strategy. Pollsters YouGov (at which I used to work) have been eerily accurate in forecasting every major party leadership election of the past era.
When Jeremy Corbyn entered the 2015 Labour leadership, he was considered a tokenistic Old Left candidate, an irrelevance, a feature of every Labour leadership election for decades. Only when the first YouGov poll of Labour members showed him leading the pack with a stunning 43% did the realisation — and panic — about his potential victory set in. The rest is history.
The following year, after the mayhem of the Brexit referendum, Boris Johnson was widely expected to win the resultant Tory leadership contest. Michael Gove’s 11th hour change of heart is often remembered as the moment that scuppered his campaign, but in fact the stunning YouGov poll of Conservative Party members just days earlier, showing Theresa May strongly ahead of Boris, had already given a clue as to his fate. It was a major contributing factor towards Johnson’s decision to step aside later that week.
In 2017, YouGov clearly showed Johnson’s forthcoming victory over Jeremy Hunt with Tory members and in 2019 the pollsters forecast Keir Starmer’s victory over Rebecca Long Bailey in the Labour leadership contest of that year. In short, they have got every recent party election right. Party members are well represented on their panel, and they have reliable methods of surveying them.
When news broke this past Tuesday of the YouGov poll showing Penny Mordaunt handily beating every other declared candidate with the Tory membership, it was the most significant moment of the campaign so far. It revealed what very few had noticed — that Mordaunt has somehow been crystallised as the unambiguous front runner with party members. Of course, dramatic things can still happen in the leadership debates and news in the coming days, but Tory MPs should be clear: if Mordaunt is put before the party membership, she will most likely win and become prime minister.
Opinion polls are controversial, even when accurate. If, by alerting Tory MPs to Mordaunt’s popularity with the members, the YouGov poll gives energy to a ‘Stop Mordaunt’ campaign that successfully denies her a place in the final two — would that be democratic? To many people it would seem intuitively wrong that the person likely to be the members’ choice is not even put in front of them. To others, polls are simply data, and it is always better to know than not know.
Either way, the events of the next week, with historic consequences for this country, could once again turn on a single opinion poll. Tory MPs would be wise not to listen to Iain Duncan Smith on the subject.