I can’t pretend that I was anything other than disappointed by the result of the General Election earlier this month. Normally, my approach to late-night events with extensive media coverage, like elections, some sporting events, and the Eurovision Song Contest, is to sleep through them and deal with the reality, awful or otherwise, the next morning. This time, though, I was daft enough to wake up at 3 a.m. and then find myself unable to resist the temptation to turn on the radio, “just to see what’s happening”, which is a rookie error. The result was three hours or so of car crash listening during which it rapidly became clear that the promised knife-edge and exciting result was not, in fact, going to materialise, before I had to turn off to get ready to go to work. Which, by the way, was populated the Morning After by a more deflated set of people than the storeroom in a sex doll factory. I also came down with a cold the next day – thanks, Tories.
The consensus, which I am not going to depart from in this respect, is that it was a bad night for the pollsters, who underestimated the Conservative vote by about 7%. Interestingly, that was about the same margin as the underestimate in 1992, the last time there was a major surprise result in a British election, and whilst logically those 7% of the voters are unlikely to be the same people, I wonder whether or not there’s now a genuine demographic there for T-shirts with slogans like “MY FRIENDS ALL THINK I VOTE LABOUR” or “FOOLED YOU, POLLSTERS!” You could speculate endlessly about why the public polls didn’t produce an accurate result until the exit poll (and people have), but to me the most depressing aspect is that both Labour’s and the Conservatives’ hired experts have since claimed that their private polling came closer to the real result than the public polls. In other words – they knew what was likely to happen but didn’t let on to anyone.
Now, it’s probably right to be cynical about the psephologist who pops up in the papers after a debacle like this to announce, “Well, everyone else may have been wrong, but I totes called it and was giving my employer the right picture all along.” They’re hardly going to publicly announce “LOL well I screwed this one up royally too! No-one had better employ me to do polling for them again! Have I also mentioned I have a minute penis, flatulence and bad breath?” However, the fact that the victor claims this as well as the vanquished suggests this is not just a case of backside-covering. Nor is it without precedent. Neil Kinnock later admitted that in 1992 he actually knew he had most likely lost before the “notorious” Sheffield election rally where his “triumphalism” is supposed to have caused voters to turn against him (as with Ed Milliband’s silly stone Tablet of Promises ruining his chances, I don’t think anyone really believes that but a few journalists who think that nothing is ever caused other than by events they are present to report on).
That raises two questions – (a) how come the public pollsters can’t use the same methods as these guys and (b) how come the politicians didn’t feel obliged to share this important information with a public that was clearly being systematically misinformed? The first is a question for the British Polling Council’s inquiry into what went wrong. The second is explicable so far as the Labour Party is concerned. It is expecting a lot of human nature that the predicted loser in an election would announce that, actually, it is probably not going to be as close as expected. They might as well tell their supporters to pack up and go home immediately. It could even end up magnifying the scale of their defeat. What is less comprehensible is why the side predicted to win, if they were as confident as all that in their results, would not make them public, to encourage their own supporters and demoralise the opposition.
Perhaps the Tories weren’t actually quite as confident in their results as they claimed later, or feared looking triumphalist (after all, everyone knows the 1992 election turned on that). Whatever the result, the net result was that the two main political parties sat on their hands out of self-interest and let the electorate be misinformed about what was likely to happen. That they were comfortable with doing this suggests a cynically contemptuous view of that electorate, and that the best response to the next politician to bemoan the public’s cynicism towards politics would be – “Then stop pulling stunts like this.”