Making politics accessible to the world – from Strathclyde

 He’s one of the UK’s leading authorities – arguably the leading authority – on politics, elections and voting. He’s the most in-demand political commentator in the country, the one to whom the media turn for the most astute, perceptive, insightful analysis. His General Election exit polls have been so accurate that the nation might not have needed to sit up all night to wait for the results.

And he’s right here, at the University of Strathclyde.

He is, of course, the internationally renowned Professor John Curtice, of our School of Government & Public Policy, the man whose work has brought the word ‘psephology’ – the study of elections and voting – into common usage.

In an academic career spanning more than 30 years, 28 of them at Strathclyde, he has earned an international reputation for discussing complex, sometimes seemingly inaccessible political issues in a concise, lucid manner.

He specialises in voting patterns, voter intentions and social attitudes but also provides acute and, crucially, impartial insight into how party policy may influence voters.

His reputation has reached new heights in recent years through the General Election exit polls whose analysis he leads and the results of which are announced as soon as voting closes. The polls produced by his team have regularly been accurate but for the 2015 and 2017 elections, they gained particular attention for their strikingly unexpected findings.

In 2015, there was a widespread expectation that the Conservatives were in a neck and neck race with Labour for first place.  However, the exit poll forecast, correctly, that the Conservatives would be the largest party by far. As Jeremy Vine, master of the BBC’s election night graphics, said a few days later: “I think it was the most dramatic moment of…probably my life at the BBC… everyone thinks that that can’t be right because it’s out of line with every single poll we’ve heard for the last four, five, six months.

“And, bless him, he stuck to it – he must have nerves of steel – and he was bang on. Incredible.”

Most accurate

Professor Curtice repeated his success in 2017, with possibly even more dramatic effect. After earlier forecasts generally agreed the Conservatives would have an overall majority – potentially in a landslide – his exit poll presented a rather different picture; the Conservatives would indeed still be the biggest party but would lose their overall majority, leading to a hung parliament. And so it proved; this time Jeremy Vine declared it “the most accurate exit poll in the history of British elections.”

In the days following both elections, social media was awash with tributes to Professor Curtice from political commentators and regular voters alike, all marvelling at his shrewd, sharp analysis. As a researcher, he aims to discover things that are not known and some of his most perceptive conclusions have arisen from this approach; for example, he pointed out throughout the 2017 election campaign that a seven-point lead for David Cameron in the 2015 election converted into the Conservatives having an overall majority of only 12 seats, meaning that his successor, Theresa May, would require a substantially larger lead than this to achieve the landslide for which she evidently hoped.        

Professor Curtice grew up in Cornwall and took a keen interest in politics from an early age. After studying at the University of Oxford’s Magdalen and Nuffield Colleges, he began his academic career at the latter before becoming a lecturer at the University of Liverpool, subsequently taking up his current post at the University of Strathclyde in 1989.   

His frequent media appearances are the most visible part of his work but they stem from his diligent and meticulous research. He has collaborated as Research Consultant for 30 years with Britain’s largest independent social research institute, NatCen/ScotCen Social Research, and as co-editor and director of its annual British/Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, widely regarded as one of the most important public opinion barometers in Britain and Scotland.

Professor Curtice is also President of the British Polling Council and runs two websites. One, What Scotland Thinks, provides comprehensive data and commentary on public attitudes towards how Scotland should be governed in the wake of the independence referendum. The other, What UK Thinks, charts public attitudes towards Brexit following the EU referendum.

As well as being held in high public esteem, he has earned recognition from his peers, in the form of the Political Studies Association’s Political Science Communication Prize in 2004 and 2015, the Market Research Society’s Collaborative Research Award in 2010, Fellowships of the British Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of Arts and the Academy of Social Sciences, and most recently, in 2017, Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Statistical Society.  

What they say about John Curtice

  • “As time went on, commentators started to concede that it was he who had won the election” – Guardian
  • Like night follows day, questions will be raised about the polling industry after it largely failed to get an election result right. But there’s one pollster who can hold their head high: John Curtice.” - Huffington Post
  • “It is inevitable that at least some of the wildly divergent polls have got it wrong…should they have got it wrong, plenty will doubtless be seeking Curtice’s counsel come 9 June” – New Statesman
  • “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” – Holyrood  
  • We knew, from media reports, of the predictions of Professor John Curtice that the (2010) election was likely to result in a hung parliament in which no one party had an overall majority and why.  As one of the leading UK academic experts on elections, Professor Curtice’s research had a significant influence on our recognition of the need to prepare for a hung parliament” - Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, former UK Cabinet Secretary
  • “Regarded by many as the ‘pollsters' pollster’” (BBC News Online)
  •  “Curtice…is the only forecaster any journalist still listens to. He is the man behind the exit poll, which flashed up on TV screens at 10pm on election night (2015) and sent parties, pollsters and pundits into a frenzy. The story it told contrasted completely with more than 700 polls published in the previous year, 99 per cent of which said the Tories had no hope of a majority.” (New Statesman)