Election '97: Why pollsters can feel self-satisfied

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They told the pollsters they would and on Thursday they did, in their millions. The swing to Labour was huge, the equivalent of 3 million people changing sides since the last election, but it was concentrated where it could do the Conservatives most damage - in the Midlands, South and London and among the middle classes.

The Liberal Democrat vote was even more focused, so that Paddy Ashdown's party could take maximum advantage of the collapsing Tory vote, even though the Lib-Dem share of the total vote slipped slightly. And John Major suffered further from tactical voting, with voters backing whichever party was best placed to beat the Tory.

Polling companies will be congratulating themselves. Even Nick Sparrow of ICM, left slightly pink-cheeked by his poll last week putting the Labour lead at 5 percentage points, emerged with reputation enhanced. His final estimate of Labour's lead beat NOP and MORI. The bosses of the five main companies, as is their tradition, placed predictions in envelopes sealed before the polls closed. The forecast from Gallup's Bob Wybrow was closest to the final outcome.

The average of the final polls put Labour 16 points ahead, implying a 12-point swing since the last election. ITN and BBC exit polls also pointed to a swing of 12 or 13 points. In the end the average swing was 10 points. But the swing to Labour in the middle classes was 12 points, and all Thursday night Labour posted higher swings in the Tory-held seats where it was challenging, while the swing in safe Labour working-class seats was often much lower.

In terms of Commons seats the Tories have done much worse than Michael Foot's Labour Party in 1983, after the SDP breakaway and Bennite civil war. Then, Labour were reduced to 209 seats. The Tory share of the vote on Thursday was just above the 28 per cent recorded by Labour then but this time the Tories were caught in a pincer movement. Where in 1983 the Tories benefited from a divided opposition, now they are squeezed by both the other parties.

The geographical isolation of the Tories is more severe than Labour's 14 years ago. Then, Labour was driven back into its urban strongholds, mostly in the North, Wales and Scotland, but retained outposts in all parts of the United Kingdom, except southern England outside London. Now the Tories have no seats in Scotland and Wales and none in any big city of England except the capital. In Birmingham they only have Sir Norman Fowler in Sutton Coldfield, a distant, prosperous and fiercely independent satellite. In London they have 12 out of 72 seats. Combined with the fact that the Conservatives no longer control any councils in urban areas, they face a fundamental weakness, having become the party not just of England but of suburban and rural England.

On the other side of the Commons they will find a Labour Party so large there will not be room for all of them in the chamber at once and with a convincing claim to be a truly representative national party. Labour now draws its representation from all over the country, including many places in core Tory territory, such as Hove and St Albans.

One in five Labour MPs is a woman. In autumn Tony Blair's advisers were sufficiently worried that he was putting off women voters to do something about it. He adopted a sharply different political style, visiting Great Ormond Street children's hospital with his wife, Cherie, and asking a question about NHS childbirth in the Commons. The shift came after party research indicated that older women in particular found him insincere and too smooth. This was the reality behind stories that Mr Blair had "flattened his hairstyle" to appeal to women. His hair seemed to stay the same but women no longer find Labour off-putting and there was no difference in the way men and women voted on Thursday, according to the BBC's exit poll.

The other significant aspect of Thursday's vote was that turnout fell by 6 or 7 points, to about the lowest level recorded since the war. This evidence of voter apathy might take some of the shine off Mr Blair's landslide, suggesting that it was an unenthusiastic vote against the Tories rather than a positive endorsement of New Labour. But the final Independent/Harris - now that we can start believing in opinion polls again - found no difference between this election and the last one. In both cases, 20 per cent of voters said they were voting primarily against a party. And most of the large falls in turn-out were confined to safe Labour seats, where the voting system offers no encouragement for people to make the trip to the polling station.

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