Known for his skill at reading the political temperature of the nation, election expert Lord Hayward talks to Sienna Rodgers about results, refereeing and regrets
Lord Hayward is wearing a rugby-themed tie when we meet to talk about his status as an elections guru. The Conservative peer believes that his dual role – a partisan politician on the one hand, a neutral psephologist on the other – neatly compares to his other passion of rugby refereeing.
Both require “the capacity to abstract yourself from the competitive world and look at it in a different way, look at it in what I hope is a fair and impartial way”, Hayward tells The House.
Hayward, a Tory MP from 1983 to 1992 and a peer since 2015, is perhaps best known to Lobby journalists today as the source of an exceptionally useful elections briefing service. For around 18 years, in the weeks leading up to polling day, he has gathered reporters to share his polling analysis – what to look out for, how to measure the success of each party and when the results will start rolling in.
The first year, just eight hacks benefited from his talk; now, up to 100 join, and he pairs with polling company Savanta ComRes to deliver the rundown. “It’s just grown and grown and grown. To the extent that this year, I had Die Welt, Le Monde, The Irish Times, The New York Times, Agence France-Presse,” he reels off happily.
He undertakes the briefings “to be helpful”, but also gets great satisfaction from the exercise. “I do live for numbers. There’s no question about that.” And he cares deeply.
Returning to his rugby refereeing days, he explains: “When I made a bad decision, I would thump – very hard, actually – my thigh with my clenched fist.” He is just as hard on himself when it comes to psephology. “I do chastise myself if I get errors in one form or another.”
Hayward takes steps to ensure he comes across as fully independent. He never speaks to CCHQ before delivering a briefing, for example. He has a confession, however.
“There’s only been one occasion where I have slightly adjusted my calculations because I was conscious of the headline it would generate, and that was in 2019 at the local elections. I knew the Tories were going to lose over 1,000 seats. But I actually predicted, went public, with 800 to 900… Ultimately, the Tories lost 1,200 seats.” He has been “furious” about making the adjustment ever since.
Voters across the UK will go to the polls on 5 May. “Normally at local elections, the results go in one direction. That isn’t the case this year,” Hayward says.
Asked for the areas most deserving of our attention, he chooses three with “very different voting patterns”: Wandsworth, to “measure London” and assess the Labour-Tory battle; Glasgow, for the Labour-SNP fight; and North Hertfordshire, where Labour, Liberal Democrats and Tories are all competing.
While Hayward senses “a lot of apathy” from all corners of the electorate, he dismisses the idea these elections could be a damp squib.
Results in Northern Ireland and Scotland are “constitutionally important,” as Sinn Féin may be getting stronger and the SNP weaker, while in England the Conservatives are likely to face problems in London. Keir Starmer has a difficult challenge, too, as this is “predominantly Labour territory”. There are also opportunities for Liberal Democrats and Greens to make gains in the home counties.
“This year more than ever, I think, in England, the election results will be decided in the last few days,” Hayward says, with partygate, Ukraine and the cost of living all competing to be top of the agenda.
But there is one early prediction he is confident of making: these election results will have significant implications for UK politics.
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Lord of the Locals: Lord Hayward on results, refereeing and regrets – PoliticsHome