By Rob McLaren
“So, I’m not going to ask you the usual trope about whether you aspire to be a celebrity or not-,” I begin, before being loudly cut off.
The interjection provided me with precisely the answer I had expected to receive. As he has attested dozens of times before, Britain’s leading psephologist has never craved the media spotlight.
And yet, over the past few years at least, Strathclyde’s Professor of Politics, recently-knighted Sir John Curtice has seldom managed to stay out of it.
“The man who won the election”, the Guardian opined in 2017, when the Curtice-led exit poll stunned the country by predicting that the Conservatives – whose leader at the time, Prime Minister Theresa May, had called a snap general election with the party holding high double-digit leads over Labour – were set to lose their overall majority in Parliament.
Since then, the sometimes eccentric but always astute pollster has been bestowed with the status of a general election prophet by the British tabloid press, who routinely report his every utterance as a verbatim fortune telling of the future, often accompanied by the attention-grabbing headline “Polling Guru predicts SHOCK result for…”
For Curtice, the national prominence he now holds comes with its ups and downs:
“The advantage is I can get people to listen to what I say as it will get publicity, but it does of course mean you have to be quite careful about what you say,” he admits.
“I keep on trying to explain to people that just because we do an exit poll and the exit poll might get it right, that does not give me any great powers. Apart from that I have no better idea than anyone else as to what’s going to happen in the election, so you have to downplay all that sort of stuff, as I don’t have some kind of brilliant ability to see into the future.”
Of course, there is now another side to Curtice’s fame, one that no amount of sampling methodology could ever have predicted. Whether it be down to his impeccable record in recent times, his somewhat wacky professor-like appearance, or his superhuman stamina – he faces a 48-hour shift for today’s election – Sir John has achieved somewhat of a folk hero status on social media, particularly among younger voters fascinated by his work.
Off to bed now but remember to leave a mince pie and glass of milk out for Sir John Curtice.— . (@twlldun) December 11, 2019
Take for example the Twitter account, @johncurticeontv, devoted entirely to documenting whenever Curtice makes an appearance on our screens. Or the wild jubilations as the Twitterverse gets its first glimpse of the professor atop his election night balcony in the BBC studios, during which he is regularly spotted shouting political insight down to David Dimbleby, or I suppose now Huw Edwards.
Somehow, since 2015 Curtice has attained what the New Statesman once described as “Zoella-level internet fame”.
What makes this feat even more remarkable is the fact that Curtice is no newcomer to the political scene. Indeed, the 66-year-old has been doing this since almost the moment he graduated from Oxford University, as a protegee of the great David Butler, a founding father of British psephology and the co-creator of the infamous election swingometer.
Butler had been an election stalwart since 1950, and when it came time for the BBC’s 1979 election coverage, he decided to bring a couple of students along with him for the ride. Curtice was one of those students, tasked with crunching the numbers as Margaret Thatcher headed for a historic victory.
“I was one of the two people sitting behind him, ready to calculate swings if necessary on a calculator, because in those days computers weren’t quite as reliable as they are now,” Curtice recalls. “If you look at the BBC programme from 1979 you’ll probably see me somewhere.”
2019 is Curtice’s fortieth year with the BBC, and his cult following can expect to see him crop up numerous times throughout the night, and into the early afternoon as the pre-election buzz turns into the inevitable mix of relief and sadness.
“As we get to December 12th, I kind of have to keep up with my sleep,” Curtice says. “With the general election we have the exit poll which we analyse during the day, and then there’s the all-night election programme, and then we sometimes make appearances as late as one o’clock in the afternoon.”
“And do you get the chance to sleep at all in between?” I ask.
Sir John laughs. “Oh no, of course not.”
Despite his hero status, Curtice is repeatedly dismissive of its actual impact: “I suspect most of the people who follow what I do are already quite heavily interested in the subject. Maybe some of the more light-hearted stuff penetrates more widely, I don’t know.”
Indeed, as our brief encounter goes on – with Curtice set to dash across the city for another two ‘urgent’ appearances that afternoon – I find myself looking less to my predetermined questions; the more I talk about humorous Twitter accounts and his prophet-status, the more I seem like I am losing Curtice’s interest. He sits staring out of the café window, fiddling around with his sachets of sugar. I begin to question whether he feels I am wasting his time.
When I ask about the exit polls, suddenly something changes. I watch as Prof Curtice stares me directly in the face, delivering a brilliantly passionate lecture on his polling methodology, yet in the plain terms which makes his appeal so charming to the masses.
The source of his messianic status: in both 2015 and 2017, it was his exit polls which delivered a stunning blow to first Labour, and then the Conservatives, by predicting the polling companies had read the election so horribly wrong. But Curtice believes it is unlikely the same will be true of 2019.
“In 2015, to cut a long story short, they had too many Labour voters because they underestimated the age difference in turnout, because younger people are more likely to vote Labour but less likely to vote,” Curtice says.
“And then in 2017, they underestimated Labour, because they engaged in various forms of weighting to correct the past problem, and in doing so overate their pudding. But there’s no reason to assume that they’ll get it wrong in the same way as they did last time.
“[Since 2017] they’ve put a lot of effort into trying to get more people involved in the polls who are not interested in politics, which as you can imagine is not very straightforward. We’ll soon see if they succeeded or not.”
Whether the opinion polls should be believed or not, one cannot dispute that the Curtice-led exit poll – which he loosely describes as a sample of polling stations, from which they “basically construct a series of equations” – has a proven record of getting things, well, just about spot on.
This campaign, Curtice is predicting a narrow Conservative majority. But behind that headline could be a number of anomalies, potentially including an SNP sweep in Scotland as part of a record number of third-party MPs.
“The record is 88, and my last estimation had the number at 82, so we’re not far off. But the Liberal Democrats have not done as well as I expected, they’ve been squeezed by the Labour Party south of the border, as the Remain vote has moved back in that direction.
“The SNP vote is holding up, it’s just that the Tory vote in Scotland has recovered in line with the Tory vote down south, where the Brexit vote has been squeezed. That means the Tories are in a better position [than Labour] to defend their seats in Scotland.
“But of course, Scotland is so, so marginal, and every seat is up for grabs.”
Although he admits his teaching commitments these days are “shall we say, not that heavy” due to his requirements elsewhere, Curtice has been at Strathclyde since 1988, and his national prominence goes a long way to putting the university on the map. To politics students like myself, watching his frequent media appearances is like seeing one of our own come good.
As our interview draws to a close, I remove my mask somewhat and admit I’d always wondered if I’d meet him during my time at the university, to which he politely smiles. I’m not sure what response I expected.
But that’s just John Curtice. He doesn’t mind if you like him or not, he just wants to do his job: trying to make sense of thirty million voters. And after four decades of doing exactly that, he shows few signs of slowing down.
As for tonight’s prediction?
“No doubt about it, the Tories are favourites to get a majority, but it’s not in the bag just yet.”