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Meet the man everyone trusts on UK election night


When the UK holds a general election on July 4, there is a good chance that one person will know the result before anyone else.

John Curtis, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, will spend election day with his team refining the results of national exit polls. At 10pm, before the votes are counted, he will make a bold prediction and announce it on national television: who the winner is.

“The best part about that time between 10pm and 11:30pm is that no one knows about it!” Professor Curtis said, throwing up his hands and laughing. “That’s when we actually have no government.”

While he is right that no one will know the final vote count until the results of all 650 constituencies in the UK are known, his team has been Exit Polls proved Amazing accuracycorrectly predicting the largest party each time. In five of the six predictions, the margin of error was five or fewer parliamentary seats.

It is these experiences that have made the 70-year-old professor an unlikely media star. He is a man of great wit, tousled white hair and ebullient enthusiasm. But his cult status in Britain goes beyond that. His candid and carefully nonpartisan stance makes him a rarity in polarised times – a trusted source of information across the political spectrum.

“I try to speak in a human way. I try to speak in a way that the general public can understand,” he told The New York Times over a simple lunch of tuna sandwiches in the atrium of the BBC’s Westminster studios.

“Sometimes I kick one party, sometimes I kick the other,” he said. “Usually I kick them both.”

In February this year, as broadcasters awaited the results of special elections in two parliamentary constituencies, Professor Curtis was sitting under the lights of a television set at 10pm as a BBC news producer adjusted his headphones.

His analysis was as fluent as ever, and he also attended about 20 television shows in the evening and continued until breakfast time the next day to complete these interviews.

After a cup of coffee and a bowl of porridge in the BBC restaurant at around 6am, he strode to the broadcaster’s studio and continued his media campaign until 4pm, a gruelling but exciting 18 hours.

“You don’t have time to think about sleep — it’s an adrenaline rush, an intellectual excitement, an intellectual challenge,” he said.

He was prepared, however, with his laptop filled with data from previous elections, records that might be broken, and his thoughts on how to summarize the most likely scenarios.

Professor Curtis’s first political memory was the election of Harold Wilson as leader of the opposition Labour Party in 1963. He was just nine years old at the time. A year later, he was allowed to stay up late on election night, which resulted in Mr Wilson winning a narrow majority, bringing Labour to power for the first time in 13 years.

“Don’t ask me why, I just thought it was funny,” he said.

He grew up in Cornwall, on the rugged coastline of south-west England. His father worked in construction, his mother was a part-time market researcher, and his family was well-off, owning a detached house with a large garden (but no central heating).

Professor Curtis studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University and was a contemporary of Tony Blair, who later became British Prime Minister, but their life paths did not intersect. Mr Blair played in a rock band called Ugly Rumours, while the young Professor Curtis was a choral scholar who spent two hours a day at Evensong.

During his graduate studies, his supervisor encouraged him to improve his “statistical literacy”. David ButlerHe is a prominent figure in British political science and conducted the first UK exit poll in 1970.

His first televised election night appearance was in 1979, the night Margaret Thatcher came to power. He provided Professor Butler with a calculator he had programmed. With statistical backup In case the BBC mainframe fails.

However, it was the exit polls that really made Professor Curtis famous. He first participated in a survey in 1992, and later told the Guardian that the results were “Not a pleasant experience“Because the polls predict a hung parliament for the Conservatives, rather than the slim majority of 21 seats that John Major won for the Conservatives.

Since 2001, New Model With another academic, David Firth, he created a model that improved the accuracy of forecasts, sometimes to the discomfort of politicians. In 2015, former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown promised to eat his hat if exit polls predicted correctly that his party would retain just 10 of nearly 60 seats. In fact, they won fewer seats. On television the next night, Mr Ashdown was presented with a chocolate cake in the shape of a hat.

Today, exit polls are jointly conducted by the three national broadcasters – the BBC, ITV and Sky News. On July 4, tens of thousands of voters across the country will be given a mock ballot paper as they leave the polling station and asked to mark their vote privately.

In 2017, the polls accurately predicted that instead of Theresa May increasing her majority in Parliament as she and many analysts expected, she would lose it. In 2019, Boris Johnson’s majority was predicted to be just three seats less than expected.

However, Professor Curtis is not complacent, noting that surprises are always possible – such as in 2015, when exit polls predicted a hung parliament but David Cameron won a narrow majority. “People think there is some kind of magic, but we can only rely on the data,” Professor Curtis said.

Exit polls are trickiest when an election is imminent. This time, the Conservatives, who have been in power for 14 years, trailed the opposition Labour Party in the polls by about 20 points for 18 months. While such leads usually shrink in the final weeks of a campaign, the Conservatives needed to make modern electoral history to win.

Professor Curtis puts the chances of the Conservatives forming the next government at less than 5 per cent – “a very, very small chance, according to statisticians”. That’s partly because, he adds, even if the Conservatives do better than expected and end up with a hung parliament, they lack the allies that would allow them to stay in power as a minority government.

Professor Curtis, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017, has become so famous that strangers greet him on the street. On election night, his name trended on social media, and there was a memorial account on X dedicated to tracking his media appearances, called “Is Sir John Curtis on TV?” (At present, the answer is often “yes”.)

Will this be his last TV appearance? It’s something he will think about after he votes, he said. “If the next election is in five years, and I’m 75, who knows?”

But for now, the country needs him. “A lot of experts know a lot but can’t communicate it in a way that the audience can understand,” BBC News anchor Nikki Schiller said after interviewing Professor Curtis on special election night in February. He added, “He’s a joy to work with.”

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