The man behind the numbers: interview with Professor John Curtice
Holyrood editor Mandy Rhodes talks to Professor John Curtice about election night, polls and his cult following
Psephology – the science of politics – is obscure enough an academic discipline to have most of us reaching for a dictionary, but the political musings, done without fear or favour, of Professor John Curtice have become as much a part of election night as warm beer, curled up sandwiches and the swingometer.
The slightly dishevelled figure of Curtice has become so ubiquitous with television coverage of the country’s political predilections that there is even a parody Twitter account in his honour - @johncurticeontv – which invites readers to spot “the legendary professor on TV”. And while certainly niche, the account already has almost 6000 dedicated followers posting images that capture Curtice mid-analysis, offering political commentary across the airwaves or simply in the background of spin rooms and television studios looking ‘in the know’.
There is also a second account set up by a self-proclaimed fan which appears to exist just to send some love to the man that has become the Sultan of Swing.
Curtice has an enclyopedic knowledge of general elections – he has followed every one of them for the last four decades – and now with trademark indefatigability, he applies his detailed academic analysis, along with an engaging and accessible punditry, to cut through the fog of numbers and paint a picture of how Britain has voted and why.
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For 24 hours, Curtice lives and breathes a general election. As voters head to the polling stations, he is holed up in a top secret location in central London along with a small group of other academics and number crunchers. From early morning, exit poll data compiled at over 100 selected polling stations starts to pour in to the charmless BBC office where the analysis begins. By early afternoon, clear patterns are beginning to emerge, allowing the boffins to start to make more detailed predictions about seats won and lost. At about 2pm, Curtice could make a fair punt at the result but he won’t, yet. There is a small window of time as the polling stations close, before David Dimbleby makes the announcement, and before Curtice steps into the taxi at 10.03pm which will ferry him to the BBC studios at Elsetree to begin a marathon of political commentary through the night, where only he really knows what the exit poll is saying and what it could mean for the country. He also knows that there is that chance (albeit a slim one in the context of his past record) that whatever the exit poll says, he and his team could be the heroes or zeroes of the day when the final tally is realised. But there is little time to ponder. Curtice gets to the studio and the one question on everyone’s lips is ‘who is in and who is out?’ And so it begins.
I ask him how he copes with the demands of that one day. “I just survive, Mandy, I just survive,” he says.
There is no set routine, no lucky charms, just rigorous preparation and a strict timetable. Curtice may present as a slightly shambolic figure, a caricature of a dotty professor, he is always seen carrying a battered and bulging briefcase, a variety of plastic bags stuffed with papers and often a floral insulated lunch box, as he travels between offices and television studios, but it disguises a meticulous approach to his bruising schedule and the importance of the job in hand.
“You can’t afford to get excited on election night,” he says. “Engaged, yes, but I think you have to learn to be cool, calm and collected and you have to learn to destroy all your preconceptions. I may or may not be happy about the turn of events but that’s not my job. My job is to say ‘OK, what’s happened’. You’ve got to have a cool head because you have to realise what you’re doing is making very rapid judgements without sleep. Occasionally, if you say the wrong thing it’s fine but you really don’t want to say the wrong thing a lot and you particularly don’t want to say the politically injudicious thing. To that extent at least, it’s a pretty high-wire act and therefore you’ve got to have your feet on the ground. Fortunately, I’ve got a few very good professional colleagues and I kind of bounce things off them before I say it but you do need to know the narrative of the night, you do need to know the story that’s emerging, you need to know what’s relevant to the story and what you can and cannot say to help the story along.”
Former First Minister, Henry McLeish, who has shared many an election night broadcast with Curtice, describes him as a “dispassionate friend of democracy” and “a beacon of objectivity in a world of fake news.” Curtice describes himself as a “licensed jester” and a “frustrated novelist” telling the story of an election.
He jealously guards his own political allegiances, doesn’t equivocate when it comes to telling it how it is – regardless of which party is on the up and which on the way down – and is not one to indulge in political puffery. It is this objectivity and personable manner which has brought him fans in the legions. Show people in the street a picture of Curtice and they can often name him before our political leaders.
So who is the man behind such an unlikely personality cult?
First, the political science bit. Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde, senior research fellow at NatCen Social Research, President of the British Polling Council and the country’s most recognised political scientist. He studied PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford and was a student of Dr David Butler, the original psephologist and the inventor of the swingometer.
Curtice was born and grew up in Cornwall. His father was a carpenter and his mother was “mostly either doing market research-type stuff or trying to persuade people to become agents for catalogues.”
Curtice was an only child and says the family wasn’t particularly political although they did have “robust discussions round the kitchen table about current affairs”. However, given both his mother and an uncle did get involved in local politics as councillors in later life and that his grandfather was responsible for persuading A.L Rowse to stand as a Labour candidate for Westminster in the 1930s, he concedes that “there was probably more political discussion than maybe you might find in the average family background.”
Testament to this is that when asked about his first political memory, it is of the death of the leader of the Labour Party, Hugh Gaitskell, in January 1963 and the subsequent leadership election when Harold Wilson beat Jim Callaghan. Curtice was nine. He says he can also clearly remember the resignation of Harold Macmillan as Prime Minister in the October of that year and then being allowed to stay up and watch the BBC’s coverage of the general election in 1964.
“The following day, I think I was out with my mother and maybe some of her friends and just listening in the car to them and it wasn’t clear for quite a while that Wilson was going to get a majority and if I remember correctly, it was also the day that Khrushev got deposed in the Soviet Union…these are really my first political memories,” he says, not really recognising that these are fairly unusual memories for a 10-year-old boy.
“I suppose they are,” he agrees. “I mean, given that my first memory obviously was of the Labour leadership race in 1963 and then the whole shenanigans about who was going to replace, etc, I suppose there must have been an early awareness of at least the horse race aspect of politics, and how do people become Prime Minister or whatever. I suppose at that stage there was some early appreciation of the differences between political parties but it’s probably the horse race of politics that most interested me even then, to be honest. It was about something that happened and seemed to matter.”
Crucially for a small boy, Curtice was, for the first time, allowed to stay up past bedtime and watch that first election unfold on the family’s little black and white TV. Did that start a thrill in him about the process of elections?
“Thrill is a pretty strong word, Mandy, but the fact that I was allowed to stay up and watch it on the television and I can remember it clearly indicates that it wasn’t permission that was granted regularly or frequently, so that was exciting and to that extent at least, there was a feeling of ‘hey, you know, this is interesting, this matters’ and yes, it is true that that hasn’t gone away.”
Curtice says his mother was always very ambitious for him educationally, perhaps living out her own lost opportunities through him. He describes her fondly as having “a massive chip on her shoulder” because while she qualified to go to grammar school, as a girl she was prevented from doing so by her father, a widower, so she could stay at home and help care for the family. Curtice passed the entrance exams and qualified for a state-funded place at what he describes as a “minor public school”, Truro Wesleyan Middle Class College, later Truro School, then an all-boys’ boarding school in Truro, 15 miles from home. He didn’t board and while he says there were various social divides at the school between those who were there because they could afford to pay and those that were there because they were bright, the biggest divide was between those that boarded and those that did not.
The backdrop to Curtice’s mid to late teens was Ted Heath’s troubled premiership; rising unemployment, the miners’ strikes, high rates of inflation and the Three-Day Week. Curtice says he remembers doing his homework by candlelight and the direct effects of rapid inflation – “your pocket money just didn’t go as far,” he laughs.
Curtice says he was always relatively bright but not particularly engaged at school until he was about 16 and moved from ‘O’ levels to ‘A’ Levels and he says he was told that studying was no longer just about regurgitating and was more about being able to challenge.
“I suddenly went, ‘oh, this sounds like fun’. From that age on I was certainly precocious, in the sense that I would quite happily argue with my teachers and the school was an environment where they encouraged it so I suppose that insofar as the talent I now deploy in the media of being able to think relatively quickly, and being able to form reasonably coherent sentences fairly fast, that is probably something I began to discover at the age of 16. I also became aware that I did seem to argue rather more than some of my peers seemed to be willing and ready to do so.”
Curtice won a school prize in 6th form, a book, ‘Butler and Stokes Political Change in Britain, Volume One’ and also remembers taking out A.J. Allan’s ‘The English Voter’ from the library which suggests an early interest in elections.
He went to Oxford from Truro where he studied at Magdalen College having, he says, “sung his way in”. The formation of the choir at Magdalen was part of the statutes of the college and Curtice’s relatively rare ability to sing male alto was sought after. One of his peers was the celebrated conductor, Harry Christophers, who founded The Sixteen and although PPE at Oxford pervades modern British political life, with so many former political leaders having studied it, Curtice says the politicians’ training ground was mainly from other colleges, and the only MP at Magdalen with him at that time was the former Labour MP, John Hutton.
He says he rapidly discovered that any love he had for analytical philosophy was relatively limited so he dropped it and also discovered that he was much more interested in politics than economics so did as much politics as he could and became particularly interested in what Oxford called Political Sociology which explored how people acted in politics.
“Somehow or another about the beginning of my second year, having survived the first-year exams, I kind of decided what I wanted to do and did work reasonably hard thereafter. I’m somebody who kind of gets it only about half-way through something. A penny drops,” he says.
On graduating, Curtice transferred to Nuffield College in 1976 as a postgraduate, where he studied under David Butler, the UK’s foremost psephologist at that time who, Curtice says, was one of three people who were instrumental in him becoming such a public-facing academic.
“David had always been involved with the media and through him I was asked to become part of the BBC television production team for the 1979 election and if you look at that broadcast, I was the rather new researcher sitting behind him.”
As a result, Curtice was asked to work on the statistical appendix to the official Nuffield election survey where he worked alongside the second most important man on his journey, Michael Steed. Steed had worked on the appendix since 1964 but was also a Liberal politician and couldn’t devote as much time to it as in the past and so asked Curtice to join him which was, he says, “a wonderful free entry to the political election literature” which has become a fixture of the TV coverage of every election since.
Writing the appendix was a gift in more ways than one, for as Curtice ploughed his way through the figures, he came across something that everyone else had missed. “I realised that the British election system was no longer behaving in the way it was conventionally held to operate,” he says. “There had been a decline in the number of marginal seats, so the system had lost a lot of its exaggerative power to deliver big majorities.”
This finding brought him to the attention of a group of academics who were bidding to write the British Election Studies, and Curtice soon found himself an integral part of the British Social Attitudes survey. However, he freely admits it was as much his willingness to do the donkey work that no one else wanted to do as his political nous that made him so popular with other academics in the early part of his career.
And the third person he cites as being integral to where he is now as a pre-eminent election guru was a man called Clive Payne who was also at Nuffield and introduced computers to the BBC election coverage for the first time.
“One of the best pieces of advice David Butler ever gave me,” he says, “was that if I wanted to study elections, then I needed to be statistically literate and to use a computer.” Curtice made it his business to learn statistics and taught himself to use a computer when most social scientists could barely operate a slide rule.
And Curtice maintains he got his first main job at Liverpool University in 1983 because he was the only applicant who actually knew one end of a computer from the other. He arrived in Liverpool as Derek Hatton’s leadership of the city council was making headlines and gave Curtice a front-row seat on a piece of Labour Party history. His next – and so far, final – move to Strathclyde proved equally serendipitous, as it gave him the chance to observe Scottish devolution at first-hand.
He says he has simply had the knack of landing in the right place at the right time.
“The most wonderful thing about the Scottish independence referendum was that it was on one of the most conflictual questions in politics, ‘who governs a territory and who is going to be a citizen of that territory’ – no other question is more likely to cause physical armed conflict than that question – and it is incredibly unusual for two governments to agree to take that question to an electorate by an agreed process and to accept the outcome. That is the democratic process as its best; resolving, in some senses, a zero sum issue and doing so successfully, so at least by that criteria, it was wonderful.
“Yes, it was divisive, in the sense that everybody had to think about it and people came to a different view but part of the reason that it’s coming around again is because the outcome wasn’t decisive. And for me, the point is, even though we’re still arguing about it, we are still arguing about the process by which we resolve the question peacefully. We have not, as a result of it, seen armed conflict going on in Scotland and given that just the other side of the Irish Sea, we’ve seen a very similar issue resulting in 40 years of armed trouble and still some degree of concern and instability, that is something to celebrate. Yes, it was politically divisive, we’re still arguing about it, we’re still not sure what the answer is but at least we’re arguing about it and we’re not fighting about it.
“I don’t see why people would say Scotland is a worse place for it. Yes, it’s had all sorts of profound consequences but it’s as fascinating to me now as it was 30 years ago, or whenever it was, that I came here. Having come from a part of England which does have a distinct sense of identity, it does have something of a distinct sense of language, I certainly have an understanding of how minority national identities do give rise to questions of sovereignty and all the rest of it.”
Will there be a second referendum?
“The truth is that both sides are playing poker on this one,” he says. “Given that at the moment, any referendum held in the near future is going to start off at the 45-55 mark, neither side can be sure of victory. No unionist can be sure that Scotland would not vote Yes in the wake of a second independence debate but equally, no Yes supporter can be sure they’re going to win because they are still starting from behind. We’re still talking about a country that has debated independence, it has contemplated it quite seriously, but has never been in a position where it looked to be very likely for any sustained period of time, therefore, it certainly has not accommodated itself psychologically to the prospect in the way that by 1997 the idea of devolution, frankly, had a ‘oh why didn’t this happen many years ago’ aspect to it.
“Broadly, I would say that the best referendums are those where you know the answer. Then it is a merely a mechanism for demonstrating a consensus that already exists, which is what happened in 1997 when it was perfectly clear that a majority of people in Scotland wanted some kind of self-governing institution in Edinburgh and the referendum provided a ritual by which the hands were laid upon the Scotland Act.
“Referendums where you’re not sure what the answer will be can be dodgy, as we’ve seen in 2014 and 2016, and to that extent at least, ideally, the SNP should be looking for 60 per cent in the opinion polls for a sustained period of time. Not least because a) they are much more likely to win a referendum in those circumstances and b) if that were to happen, the country would begin to accommodate itself to the prospect and it would be, psychologically, much easier for the Yes movement.
“Clearly, the Tories are basically saying ‘not now’ because they don’t have the courage to say ‘no’. Now of course, delaying it beyond 2021 no longer looks attractive because it would mean just before the 2022 election, so now we’re looking at after 2022. They can’t quite let themselves say that so saying ‘not now’ makes it possible for Sturgeon to keep on pushing. Of course she’s going to keep on pushing, she’s the leader of the SNP.
“The people who would be most discombobulated if the SNP stopped pursuing independence would be the Conservative Party. What would they then talk about? They’re a foil and a counterfoil to each other. The Conservative revival in Scotland is a lot to do with the fact that they are comfortable defending the Union in a very robust fashion so if the SNP stopped giving them their punch ball to punch, they’d be stuck there in the air with nothing to punch.”
Curtice says his favourite election was 1997, simply because of the drama and because he called it right. The most boring elections are close elections. And in terms of the election that will be resolved later this week, he says it is remarkable because usually nothing really happens during campaigns and this time it has.
“We’ve already had the Conservative vote going up by four or five points, the Labour vote going up by four or five points and either on their own would be relatively remarkable but the two of them together is really remarkable and who knows where are we going to end up?
“I don’t know what the result’s going to be in the election. This is an election about whether or not the Conservatives can get a bigger majority. It was from the outset not a risk-free enterprise, simply because winning a landslide is quite difficult these days. You have to remember it took a seven-point lead last time around to get a majority of 12 and that’s only because they crucified the Liberal Democrats and were very lucky in marginal seats. And a slightly bigger lead in 2010 was not enough. At the 16 points which May started on, it would get her a majority but if it starts to fall then maybe you’re not going to be in that territory.
“She could fail to win a landslide – yes, given where we are standing at the moment, given what’s happened so far, she could. I’m not saying she will, but she could.
“It’s no secret that Jeremy Corbyn has struggled to impress upon the British public that he has got the qualities of leadership, I mean, he struggled to convince most of his party on that question, but he’s actually managed to come up with a manifesto that people are saying actually sounds quite good and actually, if you read it, it’s certainly not the longest suicide note in history.
“But the difficulty for May is that she created a narrative about ‘strong and stable’ and it’s a narrative which is at least at risk of unravelling. I will tell you what it reminds me of, Iain Gray’s campaign in 2011 and the message that Labour was the only party that could stand up to the Tories and then he went running away into that Subway shop. The moment he went into it, out went his chances.
“I was thinking that maybe we are the audience of a Greek tragedy where we know the end and unfortunately the actors aren’t that good but maybe at this point, at least, there’s a twist to the tale that we don’t yet know about, but who knows, maybe at the end it’s simply a subplot and we’ll be back to the main plot by June 8th.
“May losing the election would be difficult but will she necessarily achieve her objective? And if she fails to achieve her objective, her authority as Prime Minister will be weakened, not strengthened, and of course what you need to remember here is the subtext of her plea to get such a big majority, it is not about Brexit because actually, the party is fairly united about that at the moment, but about the risk that her party will divide on other issues – in the way it divided over social care so quickly. It is also such a personal ambition that if she fails to deliver a majority of less than 50, then frankly, people in her own party and beyond are going to ask, ‘what the hell was the point in that?’” •
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