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School of Social Sciences

Polling power

Political party badges on a Union Jack flag

Hosted by The University of Manchester, in collaboration with the Universities of Oxford and Nottingham, the British Election Study (BES) is one of the longest-running election studies worldwide, and is the longest-running social science survey in the UK.

Non-partisan, independent and objective, the study has created an unparalleled wealth of data over its almost sixty-year lifespan. Its insights have been transformative, making a major contribution to the understanding of changing attitudes and voting behaviour across a vast range of political landscapes.

As Professor Jane Green, Co-Director of the BES says, the study has an outstanding reputation:

“The BES is considered the gold-standard of election study data and because of this, we’re especially trusted for opinion, for our data and our analysis.”

The current political climate in the UK has never been so unpredictable and right now, understanding why people are making the decisions they do is critical. That’s where the value of BES data comes into its own, as Jane explains:

“As we’ve seen in recent elections, understanding how people evaluate and respond to politics has hugely important consequences at the ballot box and for who runs our countries. Without rigorous and high-quality data, we would be unable to explain these changes, how they arise, and their likely implications.”

Jane Green
Professor Jane Green

The 2015 General Election result was a game changer for the BES, as the BES became the first to correctly estimate the Conservative lead over Labour, and also therefore, to explain the reasons for the inaccuracy of the opinion polls, which had strongly suggested a close result and a likelihood of a coalition government.

Since then, the BES team has been analysing the data to try and understand how the polls got things so wrong.

“The team has written an influential paper explaining the 2015 polling miss, and making important recommendations for improvements to the current system. This work, alongside my work on the official inquiry into the 2015 opinion polling, has had a substantial impact on the lessons learned by the opinion polling industry and indeed how different pollsters have responded.”Jane says.

Just one year after this important prediction, the BES was again in the spotlight in 2016, being first to predict another surprising result – that of the EU referendum.

Jane describes being part of the expert panel on live TV:

“We used BES data on ITV News to broadcast a 75% then 85% probability that the UK would leave the European Union, and then finally, we called the actual result before anyone else. Because ITV was the first broadcaster to make the announcement, the news truly had a global reach and a huge impact.

“It was a privilege to be part of the panel that night – live TV certainly is an adrenaline rush!

"understanding how people evaluate and respond to politics has hugely important consequences at the ballot box"

Professor Jane Green / Co-Director, British Election Study

“It’s been an extremely busy time. I could never have imagined we’d be analysing the Scottish independence referendum, the 2015 UK general election, the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 UK general election all in three years! And on top of that there have of course been European Parliament elections and local elections, and I have been working with ITV on the US Presidential election.”

Jane thrives on this hard work, and is motivated by the impact the BES is making:

“I’ve always wanted my time to count for more than my own research agenda, and I’m so pleased to be making a contribution more widely – at least I hope I am. I really enjoy the balance of academic research with occasional television appearances and interviews that come hand in hand with a high profile project.”

Read more about the British Election Study.

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