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.