“From the very beginning, the BBC has made statistics a central feature of its election night coverage:” An interview with Sir John Curtice

Sir John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU and What Scotland Thinks websites.

He has been a regular contributor to the British Social Attitudes Report series since 1986 and an editor since 1994. He has also been a Co-Director of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey since its foundation in 1999, and his analyses of Scottish public opinion in the run up to the independence referendum were frequently featured throughout the campaigns.

Earlier this year, he received a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours list. Sir John is a regular media commentator on both British and Scottish politics. He is also President of the British Polling Council.

During this year’s Royal Statistical Society Conference in Cardiff, Sir John was the President’s Invited Speaker, giving the Campion Lecture entitled ‘“A View Through Tinted Glasses: Public Reactions to the Brexit Process.” Sir John spoke to Statistics Views Editor, Alison Oliver on his career in political science, his various roles, behind the scenes of BBC election coverage and his new research data on Brexit.

1. You studied philosophy, politics and economics at Magdalen College, Oxford and then politics as a graduate student at Nuffield. What was it that first introduced you to politics as a child and what was it that inspired you to study the discipline?

My first childhood memory of politics is the death of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963 and the subsequent Labour leadership election that Harold Wilson won. I was about 9 at the time. My family background was not one of strong political activity, though my grandfather reputedly was one of those responsible for getting a Labour candidate to stand for the first time in Cornwall during the 1930s.

I certainly remember on the night of the 1964 General Election being allowed to stay up late, though then the polls closed at 9pm rather than 10pm. I watched the beginning of the results coverage and the following day I was out with my mother in the car listening on the radio to what was a very close election. I then became interested in electoral behaviour and I certainly recall as a teenager reading A. J. Allen’s The English Voter.

2. Please could you tell us more about your early academic career?

Whilst a graduate student at Nuffield College, Oxford, there were two occasions when my former undergraduate tutor was unavailable, and I was asked to teach in his stead. Thereafter, I was lucky enough to obtain a junior research fellowship at Nuffield and after that I went to Liverpool. There is a statistical side to that story, because the 1980s was an era when most political science departments came to realise that they needed at least one member of staff who could understood numbers and be able to analyse surveys and quantitative data – skills which were rapidly becoming an important part of the political science profession.

I was appointed at Liverpool not because I understood political science but because I knew how to use computers. This is back in the days of mainframe computing – personal computing was just beginning to come in. I’d learned how to do stats, could run an interactive online statistical course using Minitab and was recruited to teach research methods to second-year undergraduates.

3. You are now Professor of Practice at University of Strathclyde where you have been since 1989. What do you love about Strathclyde and what has made you stay?

Strathclyde was involved in some of the earliest quantitative studies of mass political behaviour within the UK. That, in itself, was a clear attraction to go. Before going to Scotland, I was in no sense an expert in Scottish political behaviour, but I became more and more involved. Devolution became one of the many political developments that shaped my career.

In 1994, the late Sir Roger Jowell of Social and Community Planning Research (SCPR), Anthony Heath of Oxford and I obtained a large Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Grant to run what we called the Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends, which undertook the British Election Study and had close ties with British Social Attitudes. SCPR is now NatCen. By the early 2000s, devolution was in place. Roger was a very London-centric person but even he had come to realize that if NatCen was going to do business north of the border, it needed a physical presence there. I stepped in to help it start and a close relationship with NatCen has continued thereafter.

Strathclyde has been very generous to me in making it possible to have this relationship. The university is interested and engaged in bridging the gap between the academic world and industry. A lot of what I’ve done with NatCen is research designed to inform the policy process, which fits the ethos of Strathclyde being an institution of useful learning.

4. Your particular interest lies in electoral behaviour and researching political and social attitudes. How was this interest developed initially?

My graduate supervisor at Nuffield was Sir David Butler, who was one of the two election gurus on BBC election coverage when it started in the 1950s. I was with somebody for whom the subject was the meat and drink of their career. David gave me one crucial piece of advice – “Look, I’m too old to learn all this stuff, but it’s perfectly clear that if you wish to get anywhere in the study of electoral behaviour, you need to learn how to use a computer and get statistically trained.”

It so happened that the sociology department at Oxford is and was particularly statistically orientated. I attended their MPhil class in statistical methods, followed by a summer school in social science methods at the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, Nuffield had its own computer officer called Clive Payne, and Clive taught me Fortran programming in order so that I could sort data. I was also studying a PhD about the interest in party campaigning on the outcomes of elections.

Just before going to Liverpool, I was approached by staff at Oxford, one of whom was Anthony, who were bidding to conduct the British Election study. They wanted me to be the study’s research officer. Clive wisely advised us to speak to Roger. Eventually after the election was called, the ESRC funded us to do the election study, and that started the collaboration with NatCen, Roger and Anthony, which lasted for a very long time. That’s what then engaged my interest in how to conduct surveys: designing and analyzing them, as well as election data. I began to be involved in studying social attitudes much more broadly.

5. The BBC ask you to take part in their coverage of elections and you’ve brought electoral behaviour to people’s living rooms and engaged the public’s attitude towards elections. Has academically minded coverage on elections with statistical analysis and number crunching always been at the BBC? How did this come about?

From the very beginning, the BBC has made statistics a central feature of its election night coverage. Much of the analytic weight was provided by David Butler, as well as Bob McKenzie from the London School of Economics. You must remember, particularly in the 1950s and early 1960s, that this is before the days of access to computers. Sitting behind them was a whole army of Nuffield students with slide rules working out percentages and swings. Academics have been involved in election coverage from the very beginning.

The current BBC Editor, Sam Woodhouse is very statistically minded. He has got David Dimbleby and I doing a Romeo and Juliet routine, with David at the news desk and myself on the balcony above going over the data and then discussing the key points with him from afar. Sam has read the technical papers in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society on how the exit poll is done. Understanding them, he has, in turn, invested a lot of the programme’s structure into comparing the early constituency results with what was expected to happen by the exit poll.

6. How did you first become involved in the BBC coverage of elections?

My first entry into the BBC was in 1979 when in an election that came slightly earlier than expected because the government fell, David asked the BBC to have two assistants sitting behind him during coverage – myself and Brian Gosschalk, who went on to become the Chairman of MORI. During rehearsals, the computing system would occasionally crash, and David needed me to be sitting behind him with a programmable calculator working out the swings. Then if the computing system failed, I could still tell David what the swing was.

Then in 1981, Clive and I persuaded the BBC that if we used a Research Machines 380Z, programmed in BASIC, we would be able to take the Greater London Council results, put them in and provide some analysis about what was going on. The following year, we sold them the idea that, using the same technology, we would take a sample of local election results, aggregate them up to parliamentary constituency level, compare them with the results of the last election, and provide some idea of what the local election results would mean if there’d been a general election.

By 1983, the technology allowed you to connect a remote terminal to a mainframe via an acoustic coupler down a telephone line. We persuaded the BBC that we would sit in the studio offscreen, with the data being fed into the mainframe at Oxford University. We would then interrogate it using a statistical software package, and hand notes to the presenters explaining the key patterns on what was happening. That role (using more advanced technology!) has continued ever since. Indeed, it has become a BBC wide service as they all have access to our analyses – from Radio 5 Live to BBC Wales, you name it.

During the 1980s Sir Ivor Crewe was the BBC’s on-screen expert, followed by Anthony King. Anthony wasn’t a trained statistician, but he was the most brilliant, urbane performer who could pick up the political implications of the statistical story very quickly.

The current BBC Editor, Sam Woodhouse is very statistically minded. He has got David Dimbleby and I doing a Romeo and Juliet routine, with David at the news desk and myself on the balcony above going over the data and then discussing the key points with him from afar. Sam has read the technical papers in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society on how the exit poll is done. Understanding them, he has, in turn, invested a lot of the programme’s structure into comparing the early constituency results with what was expected to happen by the exit poll.

I also work very closely with Peter Snow in helping him in the design of his graphics, advising him what he should be saying and what he should be looking out for, what do his graphics mean, etc. Although time has moved on, the approach that is used now is still one that’s founded on the early work David and Clive did.

7. Explaining polling in terms of the academic work you have done has helped further the public’s understanding of politics. What have been the responses you have received from the public?

It’s clearly been true for the last six years that my public profile has become markedly higher, although I was doing the Today programme as long ago as the 1980s when Brian Redhead was presenting. But my profile was raised by the Scottish Independence Referendum. I am a political scientist with an expertise in political attitudes in Scotland. Given there was a UK-wide interest in the subject, particularly as referendum day drew nearer, I was being asked to give lectures all over the place from universities to community halls. The truth is you only needed to put up the word “independence” in announcing any public meeting and you could guarantee you’d fill the room.

Evidently people find my attempt to try and explain dispassionately to people why what’s going on interesting. This involves not just discussing what the public think but also the interaction between public opinion and what politicians are trying to achieve. Over the years, having observed many a very clever broadcaster, I’ve gradually learnt the art of communicating in a way that the public can understand.

I certainly value participating in the production side of television – the structure, content and editorial direction as well as providing the information required both in the form of the exit poll and the data analysis. That’s what makes me tick.
On screen, I’m lucky that I can think fairly rapidly on my feet, so I do try to say yes to requests for an interview if I possibly can. But the trouble is, a lot of this happens either very early in the morning or late at night. When it comes to election campaigns, I have to impose rules: I say not after 11 and not before 7, because otherwise I’m just not going to get any sleep!

8. You’ve mentioned your involvement with NatCen Social Research where you are a Senior Research Fellow. Please could you let us know what the role entails?

After the initial collaboration with Anthony, Roger and NatCen on the 1983 election study, we obtained money to conduct methodological research that began to inform the questionnaire design of British Social Attitudes (BSA), especially the information on measuring left/right and liberal/authoritarian orientation. This is still being used 30 years later for both BSA and other surveys.

I’m very interested in trying to promote the development and maintenance of long-term survey time series. I have been a regular contributor to the survey’s annual reports since the mid-eighties and have helped edit those reports since the mid-nineties. A lot of the personal research I’ve completed has been on public attitudes towards devolution completed via that survey, and its cousin started in 1999, Scottish Social Attitudes, which I also help to run. I’ve also used BSA to write about issues that are way beyond my regular fields, which I love doing. This interest in long-term survey series may go back to the fact that some of my early research interest involved using aggregate rather than individual level data. I’m particularly fascinated by the way attitudes evolving over time in society. I know it seems to be lacking innovation, but we need to keep asking the same old boring survey questions so that we know whether attitudes have changed or not.

9. You are also President of the British Polling Council (BPC). How long have you been with the council?

I have been President of the BPC since 2008. It was first established about eight years prior in response to MPs expressing concerns on whether polls were trustworthy. Pollsters in turn responded by publishing everything they do, from tables to methods and the BPC enforces the rules that ensure that happens. We deal with complaints about pollsters not telling the people what they’ve done. However, more recently, in the wake of the record of the polls at the 2015 general election and to a lesser degree the European Union Referendum of 2017, the BPC has also become much more involved in being an organization that tries at least to worry about the collective health of the industry and the methodologies it’s using.

What the Referendum process seems to have done is to create a strong sense of affective attachment to the two camps. If you then end up with a Referendum in which the outcome isn’t clear, you polarize society rather than achieve what you want a Referendum to do which is to resolve the issue.

10. Your lecture at RSS 2018 was entitled “A View Through Tinted Glasses: Public Reactions to the Brexit Process.” Tell us more about your chosen topic.

As a result of both the Brexit Referendum and then the majority vote to Leave, the ESRC have been funding several academics, including myself, to inform the debate about the Brexit process: what should the UK government be trying to achieve, what are the potential negotiating hurdles, and advising the European side of the negotiation table.

As part of this work, I have a new wave of data that I’ve generated using the NatCen mixed mode probability panel. It helps us understand public opinion at this point in the Brexit process and how and why it has changed – or not? At the same time, I’m trying to address in my research some wider academic questions about democracy – the role of identity, referendums, public attitudes, fake news, and to some degree the competence of voters. So far as a strong sense of partisan identity is concerned, political scientists have sometimes bemoaned its existence, but also there has been concern about its absence. There’s a current view out there that people are so strongly committed to Remain or so strongly committed to Leave, that nobody is taking in any new information. Everybody has strong views. Indeed, sometimes people are even seemingly making up the facts so that they fit their view of the world.

My research shows that it remains the case that relatively few of us have a strong sense of partisan political identity – very few of us these days say, “I’m Labour”, “I’m Conservative”, etc. However, there are many of us who say, “I’m a Remainer,” or “I’m a Leaver.” Identity is back in politics in spades, and that certainly is something that does act as a partisan filter. It’s providing stability to the levels of support for Remain and Leave. But that said, there have been some notable changes in both what people want out of Brexit and how they are evaluating Brexit.

We’ve all become deeply pessimistic about how good a deal the UK’s going to get. Leave voters are particularly likely to blame the EU for getting a bad deal, and if they think the EU are handling Brexit badly, this helps to ensure they remain loyal to the idea of Leave. Conversely, Remain voters are inclined to blame the UK government, and if they blame the UK government, they are inclined to remain loyal to their point of view. Pessimistic evaluations of the Brexit process itself can therefore be blamed on whichever set of politicians you prefer to blame. However, what can change minds are evaluations of what the economic consequences of Brexit will be. If you are a Leave voter and you think that Brexit is going to be bad for the economy, there’s only a 50% chance you will stick with Leave. It’s still 50%, but it’s only 50%. The economic evaluations of Brexit are therefore potentially capable of shifting some voters. However, insofar as there’s been a change in the aggregate numbers and we now seem to have a small Remain majority, this is also a consequence of the fact that those who did not vote two years ago are predominantly Remain supporters. Their views are also a reflection of a pessimism about the economic consequences of Brexit.

There is a lot of partisan stability, but it doesn’t mean that voters haven’t changed their minds at all. Blame for how the Brexit negotiations are going can be laid at the door of those who you don’t like anyway. However, if people question whether Brexit itself might be damaging economically, that’s more challenging; such a perception can get through the partisan lens and can begin to shift the numbers.

What does all this mean? We were once bemoaning desperately the lack of partisan identification and how as a result it was difficult to get voters to go to the polls, and that they weren’t interested in politics. Well, be careful what you wish for. We do now have a partisan politics, and as a result, the partisan lens is relatively strong, and therefore it’s more difficult to shift people’s attitudes. This stability can make it difficult to resolve political issues, particularly when its stability around the 50-50 point. How successful is this referendum at resolving the issue of Britain’s relationship with the EU? What the Referendum process seems to have done is to create a strong sense of affective attachment to the two camps. If you then end up with a Referendum in which the outcome isn’t clear, you polarize society rather than achieve what you want a Referendum to do which is to resolve the issue.

11. Who are the people who have been influential in your career?

Clive Payne for teaching me computing and for being the key person who got me into the production side of the BBC. David Butler both for giving me my first opportunity to write professionally, well before I finished my PhD. Whilst a graduate student, I discovered that a statistical law called the Cube Law (that David had been crucial in identifying as an explanation of how the first-past-the-post electoral system operates) was no longer true. David and his colleagues had missed a key development which had, in fact, occurred five years previously. David still allowed me to publish my findings and was very gracious about it.

Michael Steed, who I have not mentioned, was the first person that I wrote with. He was another psephologist, who was also interested in election statistics and did media work. I learnt an awful lot by working and collaborating with him.

Roger Jowell for giving me all sorts of opportunities of working with and through NatCen. Undoubtedly Anthony Heath, who is the cleverest person I’ve ever worked with. He’s one of those people who can use academic theory to make us look at the world in a different way. I’ve learned a great deal from him and we collaborated productively for many years.

Finally, Jeremy Richardson who was the head of the department at Strathclyde at the time, for headhunting me and appointing me.


Copyright: Image appears courtesy of Professor Curtice