The Pundit Who Polled [Pounds Sterling]1 Million; Former Journalist Peter Kellner Will Make His Fortune When Internet Pollster YouGov Floats Next Week. So Why Have Its Methods Proved So Controversial?
Byline: DAVID ROWAN
SOME things are simply not fair. Peter Kellner, an Evening Standard political analyst until two years ago, is about to find himself almost a million pounds richer. YouGov, the implausibly named polling firm he now chairs, floats on the stock market next Monday, valued at around [pounds sterling]18 million.
With a six per cent stake, Kellner is naturally feeling rather pleased with himself in his art-filled office overlooking Smithfield market. It's only when probed about his polls' alleged Tory bias that he turns stony-faced and threatens to sue.
"I will do fairly well out of this, I can't deny that," he admits sheepishly, adding that if his journalist friends are jealous, they have not shown it. "But though it's a large gain on paper, as a director I can't yet convert it into a Ferrari. If the company doubles in value next Tuesday, we can't simply cash in our chips and retire to the Cayman Islands." John Humphrys, too, stands to make around [pounds sterling]250,000 from the flotation.
Still, as a career gamble it has paid off. Kellner, once Newsnight's political commentator, was brought in by the company's founders, Stephan Shakespeare and Nadhim Zahawi, who had run Jeffrey Archer's unsuccessful mayoral campaign. In May 2000, just as the internet bubble was bursting, they launched YouGov as an online-only polling firm.
While critics sneered at its methods, the company accurately predicted voting in the 2001 General Election (forecasting Labour's 9.3 per cent lead as 10 per cent), the Australian election, even Pop Idol.
And while corporate clients such as Asda provide its main income, it forecasts voting intentions for papers ranging from The Sun to The Daily Telegraph. The attraction, Kellner says, is that the internet drastically cuts costs. With a traditional pollster, a typical largescale poll would cost [pounds sterling]20,000, of which [pounds sterling]8,000 would go on asking the questions and [pounds sterling]9,000 on overheads, leaving [pounds sterling]3,000 profit. "But we would charge [pounds sterling]15,000," he says.
"And there would be just [pounds sterling]2,000 in direct costs and [pounds sterling]7,000 in indirect costs, leaving us with [pounds sterling]6,000 - twice the profit."
YouGov has a panel of 90,000 internet users, paid 50p for each survey. For a political poll, it emails a group deemed " representative of the country", selecting them and weighing their verdicts according to gender, age, class and region. "We also do something no other pollster does," Kellner says. "We weight by newspaper readership. I'm not saying every Sun reader is identical, but it helps ensure your sample is attitudinally representative. And with one exception, we've got elections pretty much spot on."
That exception was the last European election, an error Kellner dismisses as a mistake over where UKIP was placed on the questionnaire. Still, there remain concerns about the reliability of internet polls. The columnist Stephen Pollard claims to have fraudulently registered with YouGov under a dozen fake names. Kellner replies that security has since been tightened.
"Even if Pollard had taken every poll he could have, there was just a 1 in 500 chance of him moving one figure by one percentage point," Kellner says. …