Sultans of swing

March 22, 1996

Rallings and Thrasher, the brash young turks of election punditry, tell Simon Targett how they will beat the pollsters in predicting the result of the next general election

Unless you happen to be a member of the Pebble Dining Club, or some such gathering of general election buffs, you may not yet have heard of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher. But come the next election - whenever that may be - these Plymouth-based political scientists will be familiar faces for fans of late night election specials, if not quite as familiar as Peter Snow, whose antics with the big pendulum of the BBC's swingometer are sure to stay in the memory long after either Tony Blair or John Major have entered Number 10 Downing Street.

Rallings and Thrasher - it is never Thrasher and Rallings - are the epitome of the new breed of TV election pundits. Slick, savvy if not quite suave, comfortable with the latest technical wizardry - they are the Starsky and Hutch of psephology. Everything about them shouts change. It is not quite roll over Beethoven, but located as they are in a former polytechnic, they represent a radical shift from the rather rarefied world of collegiate Oxford which has long dominated the study of elections.

Nuffield is the capital of the psephological kingdom. Since 1945, when R. B. McCallum, later master of Pembroke College, and Alison Readman produced The British General Election - now seen as the best election study series - the specialist social sciences college has held centre stage. In the main, that is a tribute to David Butler - the reigning king of swing and everything else psephological - who popularised the term psephology coined by McCallum and taken from the Greek for the pebble Athenians dropped into an urn to vote.

As a student, Butler contributed to the 1945 volume, and as a Nuffield fellow he has edited or co-edited nearly all 13 subsequent publications. More than this, he has influenced the huge Nuffield diaspora, including Essex vice chancellor Ivor Crewe, Essex professor of government Anthony King, and Liverpool professor of politics Dennis Kavanagh. Preeminently, Butler has set the parameters within which psephology (a term he now regrets "as suggesting something occult and separate") has developed. His concept of "swing" is now a commonplace, his analytical approach to voting behaviour is the accepted norm. Butlerised Nuffield, favouring opinion polls and focusing on general elections, is all about the worthy study of voting behaviour. As King, pooh-poohing the notion that psephologists are glorified political fortune-tellers, puts it: "We're in the 'why' business not the 'prediction' business."

For 50 years, the Nuffield citadel has seemed impregnable. But with Butler's retirement the path is clear for another psephologist to take the throne. The Rallings and Thrasher alternative began in 1984, as a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council at the then Polytechnic South West. Five years before, the Tory government scrapped its annual collection of local election statistics. "We saw a niche in the market," explains Rallings, a former student of Kavanagh and Crewe.

They started collecting reams of local government election results - "the equivalent of 13 general elections," says Thrasher. Butler backed the project, but the parochial and number-crunchingly statistical approach of Rallings and Thrasher challenged the Nuffield tradition. Early on, they struck lucky for two reasons. One was the advent of high-speed computers. This made the task of compilation more manageable, although even now it takes six months to process and publish the results of the May local elections. The other - contributing to the growing public awareness of their work - was the rapid rise in the number of contested local elections as the opposition parties, snuffed out of national politics by the supremacy of Thatcher's Tories, sought political power in the provinces. In 1973, 15 per cent of county seats were contested. By 1989, the figure had shot up to 63 per cent. Likewise, nearly 72 per cent of district elections were contested in 1992 compared with 12 per cent in 1973.

A specialist journal, the Local Government Chronicle, talent-spotted the duo, paid for their work and published their essays. In honour of this support, Rallings and Thrasher renamed their unit the LGC Elections Centre in 1989. But the big time came in 1986, when they teamed up with the Andrew Neil-edited Sunday Times. This propelled them on to the television: Rallings with ITN and Thrasher with Sky. Such exposure has not only boosted the centre's non-stop funding campaign - they have received about Pounds 250,000 since 1990 - but also broadened their public profile. They now even make regular appearances in Hansard, where the Government cites them as the official source for local government statistics.

Broadcasters have lavished praise on the pair. "Saving the electoral records - well, it is the psephological equivalent of saving the rainforest," enthuses ITN's David Cowling, founder of the Pebble Dining Club. The Nuffield school has likewise applauded them. Butler calls their work "wonderful", Crewe categorises their media guide "indispensable", and King says that "if they didn't exist they would have to be invented".

For all the plaudits, however, there is a sense - conveyed through a round of off-the-record comments - that the Nuffield school is rather snooty about Rallings and Thrasher. One says: "I do not yet know whether they will be any good at analysis because they have yet to produce the big work which will make use of all their laboriously collected detail." Endorsing this view, another characterises them as "the true inheritors of the late F. W. S. Craig" who was essentially "a compiler rather than an analyser". It is true that the Plymouth pair have succeeded Craig by taking on his extensive archive and taking over his Britain Votes series. But Cowling for one rejects the Nuffield assessment of them as functional, if competent, fact merchants. Citing their interpretative work in the LGC and Sunday Times, he says that "the media wouldn't be interested if they did not have something analytical to say".

The raw data that Rallings and Thrasher collect does not allow for an Isaac Asimov-style profiling of the typical voter. Only opinion polls - extensively used by the Nuffield school - offer this service. As Thrasher acknowledges: "There is no way that you can extrapolate from our information what people are thinking about Scott, Northern Ireland, inflation, or whatever." But they can, by assessing the evidence of actual votes cast, provide insights into not only arcane subjects like uniform swing (one of the tenets of Butlerian psephology which they question) but also party political subjects like by-election success and fluctuations in popularity. Crucially, also, they can predict the share of the vote in local and general elections.

Predicting elections has traditionally been the preserve of the pollsters. But at the last general election, when they predicted a Labour victory, they got it badly wrong - by 8.5 per cent. Pollsters' election postmortems have attributed the extraordinary error to the so-called "spiral of silence": Tory voters refusing to reveal their true voting intentions to a stranger with a clipboard. Next time round, they have prepared what polling insiders label "a bag of tricks" to counter the closet Conservatives, including telephone sampling and asking undecided voters how they voted in the past.

But Rallings does not think it will be enough. The closet Conservatives, he claims, are not the only problem for the pollsters. "The way people give off-the-cuff reactions to the polls is another difficulty they face. If the general media coverage is favourable to Labour - as it has been for months - people will just say 'Labour' without paying attention either to the way they will eventually cast a vote or to tactical voting in their constituency." By contrast, he argues, the Plymouth predictions, based on actual rather than assumed voting in local elections, are more reliable. And with an improved computer model for election forecasting, originally developed for monitoring movements in electoral opinion based on the results of local government by-elections, Rallings and Thrasher expect to beat the pollsters in the battle to predict the general election.

Bob Worcester, chairman of MORI and the grandmaster of pollsters, remains unconvinced. "I don't believe they are better at forecasting the share of the vote. Our record speaks for itself. In four out of the last five elections, we have come within one per cent of the result." It is clear that, with the pollsters and the psephologists so polarised, Blair and Major are not the only ones heading for a high noon showdown at the general election.

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