Polling Power

A curious story is emerging in the aftermath of the UK General Election that suggests polling organisations may unintentionally have shaped our reality to a remarkable degree.  Consistently, in the weeks and months before the election, a wide range of polls put Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck.  Politicians on both sides confidently expected their party to draw ahead, but as time passed and it didn’t happen even the most bullish started admitting the obvious — it was going to be a hung parliament and whoever wanted to hold power would have to do a deal with one or more of the smaller parties.

When the Conservatives then won a comfortable majority, the polling failure was considered so serious that the British Polling Council launched an independent inquiry.  Journalists and politicians across the land poured scorn on the pollsters.  Many theories have been put forward to explain the failure — “shy Tories” reluctant to admit their allegiance, a last-minute swing driven by fear of the SNP, a poor turn-out by Labour supporters — but I am less interested in why it happened than what the consequences are.

Because of the consistent story coming out of the polls, the party manifestos — launched only a few weeks before election day — were widely seen not as promises of policies to be implemented in the event of victory but opening negotiation positions for the inevitable coalition bargaining that would follow an inconclusive vote.  We can reasonably presume that the parties themselves didn’t really expect to have to implement all of the contents of their manifestos.  Indeed they may well have included, at the last minute, more extreme policies than they wanted, expecting to bargain them away.  But then a surprise majority eliminates the need for negotiation, and suddenly the Tories are obliged to follow through on everything they’ve pledged.

Did this happen?  Did the polls influence the contents of the Conservative manifesto?  Did David Cameron and George Osborne come up with excessively right wing policies so they would have something to give up in a new deal with the Liberal Democrats?  One obvious point of contention is the £12 billion of welfare cuts the Tories want to find – but this policy was announced by Osborne in January when many Tories still expected a majority.  More likely faux-policies are the crazy Right to Buy extension, the abolition of the Human Rights Act, the Inheritance Tax threshold increase, the 500 new free schools, the benefit cap reduction and the pledge not to increase personal taxes.  Any one of these, one imagines, David Cameron might have been more than ready to give up in return for LibDem support.

Now, with a parliamentary majority, he has to stand by them all.  That will be our reality for the next five years, and there’s a good chance the pollsters — in honestly reflecting what they measured — have helped to shape it.

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Voting made simple

The UK General Election is here at last.  Thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, we’ve had plenty of time to prepare.  Years of informal campaigning have provided us with numerous opportunities to assess the character and aspirations of each of the parties.  Yet with just a few hours left, plenty of people are still “undecided”.  Why?  Is it so hard to choose?

Well, yes, and so it should be.  Choosing a government in a representative democracy means choosing where railways will be built, which schools will be renovated, what environmental laws will be passed, who will be Minister for Skills and Equalities, when analogue radio signals will be switched off, and a thousand other non-trivial issues.  A responsible voter might perhaps feel obligated to study the different parties’ various positions on all these issues, weight them for importance, and then calculate a net score that revealed which party most deserved their vote.

Of course, this is deeply unrealistic.  For some voters, the choice really might come down to nothing more substantial than which school a party leader attended, or whether their teeth “look funny”.  Despite all the time we’ve had to consider our options, despite the wealth of information and commentary available, despite the deadly seriousness of a national election, we humans seem largely incapable of basing this vital decision on more than a handful of factors.  Politicians know this and they exacerbate the problem by feeding us binary choices:

Only two people can be prime minister – do you really want to let Ed Miliband into Downing Street?

There’s only one party that can control immigration, because only one party wants to leave the EU.

A vote for the SNP is a vote to keep David Cameron in Number 10.

It’s a choice between a proven long-term economic plan or more chaos from the party that gave us the financial crisis.

The Tories want to privatise the NHS; Labour will protect it.

Only a strong Liberal Democrat coalition partner can restrain a spendthrift Labour government or a brutal Tory government.

Only one party is able to deliver a referendum on Europe.

Let Labour into power, propped up by the SNP, and the security and integrity of the United Kingdom is in jeopardy.

These are the kinds of arguments political parties deploy most of the time.  They know that our short attention spans, our impatient media and our culture of cynicism make more reasoned, complex and nuanced debate ineffective.  So although we will be voting on a many-hued constellation of different issues, events and personalities, our political realities have been whittled down to the banal and simplistic choice between black and white.

Or possibly white and black.

Depending on which school you went to.