Lies, damned lies and opinion polls

Our political system is in decline. Cynicism and apathy combined with duplicitousness and venality have eroded legitimacy. Power (as so often, hot on the heels of wealth) has gravitated away from the corridors of Whitehall and Pennsylvania Avenue to Wall Street and Canary Wharf (and Tokyo, Beijing and Dubai). The squeals of partisanship that emanate from Westminster and Capitol Hill are really the death throes of an old order that seems increasingly irrelevant to the lives of ordinary citizens. Politicians are obliged to resort to absurdity to attract attention to themselves where once seriousness might have done the trick (how else to explain the current cult of Farage?).

There are many causes of this decline of politics. The press is generally deluged with commentators sticking the boot in and blaming politicians for their own downfall. In recent times, MPs have taken a lot of flak for claiming expenses on the upkeep of their duck houses and replacement loo-seats (among other assorted items), and for taking an 11% pay rise.

I struggle to get very worked up about this though. In fact I feel rather smug because I actually got a 12% pay rise this month (whereas MPs have to wait until next year for their raise – suckers!). Admittedly I still earn £38,396 less than an MP and my employer won’t cover even the most urgent repairs to the birdhouse in the garden, but the important thing is I’m catching up. Slowly.

Sometimes the political pundits decide to give the politicians a break and turn on one another instead. Like when a mock outraged Jeremy Paxman recently told Russell Brand he had no right to criticise political decisions when he doesn’t even vote (and countless other lesser hacks then proceeded to weigh in on one side or the other, claiming Paxman and/or Brand is really to blame for the current mess we’re in).

But, to my mind, one group who have contributed more than most to the current sickness of our political system and the shortsightedness of public debate tend to get off scot-free: the political pollsters.

Opinion polls have been a major part of political life in the UK since the Second World War, but their prominence in media coverage and their influence on decision-making has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Normally nobody bothers to justify this rise but, if pushed, pollsters (backed up by the politicians and pundits that rely on them so heavily) will argue that in a democratic society, they are simply doing their bit to make sure the voice of the people gets heard.

This, in my humble opinion, is arrant twaddle. For three reasons:

  1. Political opinion polls are unreliable guides to what people actually think. Most are based on implausibly small samples and the ability of pollsters to skew the results by framing questions in a certain way is well known. Nate Silver, who has made quite a name for himself as a prophet of election results (notably he correctly predicted how all 50 states would vote in the 2012 US presidential election), is pretty disparaging about the quality of analysis produced by most pundits and pollsters. And he should know.
  1. They provide a constant feedback loop for the political classes that has gradually eroded politicians’ ability to think for themselves. Unable to see past the next set of polling numbers, politicians lose any courage they may once have had to trust their own judgement and have strong convictions. Am I the only one who thinks it’s worrying that the people responsible for making decisions about the long-term future of our country, who ought to be thinking about how we defend ourselves from cyber attack or from the perils of climate change, spend so much of their time poring over polling data?
  1. The obsessive reporting of even the slightest fluctuation in polling numbers by major news outlets detracts from any serious or interesting debate that might otherwise dominate headlines. In any given week, how many interesting and important stories do you suppose get missed or drowned out because Theresa May overtook Boris Johnson in a poll about who people would most like to see as the next leader of the Conservative Party or because Ed Miliband’s popularity continued to stagnate?

The trouble is journalists and politicians are lazy and the alternative to their current slavering addiction to opinion polls would require them to do some hard work. Politicians might have to actually go out and engage with voters a bit more often and a bit more meaningfully. And as for political columnists, they might have to look a little bit harder for their stories rather than simply waiting for the latest poll with ready-made headline to pop into their inbox.

It’s by no means a complete fix for the current ailments of the political system, but I’d like to propose a simple measure that I believe would significantly improve the standard of public debate and the quality of thinking in the Westminster village: a blanket ban on asking the question ‘who do you intend to vote for at the next election?’ to multiple people and then publishing the results of your survey.

I should clarify that I’m not against all opinion polls. Some reveal very interesting trends in our attitudes to all sorts of things – from sex to religion and from how we define happiness to how optimistic we feel about the economy. I’m not even particularly against using opinion polls to track what the electorate thinks about specific policies or political issues. It’s just polls which track the popularity of political parties and individual politicians that I object to. I believe it would do our politicians a world of good to actually have to wait until the next election to find out what the electorate thinks of them. 

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