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On the impact of opinion polls

One of the most striking political developments of my lifetime has been the rise of opinion polls. Now that we are into an election campaign, rival polling enterprises announce results concerning the relative strengths of the various political parties, major and minor, and the relative popularity and performing skills of their leaders, seem to be announced every day and sometimes, when something dramatic like an election debate has just happened, every hour, and become the object of obsessive analysis by the kind of people who like thus to obsess.

The contrast with general elections of an earlier epoch, such as the one in 1945, when the election result, a massive Labour victory and a humiliating defeat for Prime Minister Winston Churchill before the war that made his reputation had even been concluded, came as an enormous surprise to vast numbers of people, not least to the amazed and delighted mass membership of the Labour Party. The Conservatives were gobsmacked. Were there opinion polls then, telling anyone who would listen about this landslide before it happened? My understanding is: not. The only poll that happened then, certainly the only one whose results were widely discussed, was the election itself. Now, opinion polls don’t just happen before elections; they happen all the time.

So what has this change, from pretty much no opinion polls to wall-to-wall hour-by-hour opinion polls done to politics? I am sure that commenters will be able to suggest all kinds of effects that have not occurred to me, but I can certainly think of a few political trends that have at the very least been reinforced by the relentless rise of opinion polling. One trend, I suggest, is that opinion polls have drawn political leaders away from concerning themselves with the opinions of the members of the parties they lead, towards the opinions of voters generally. I’m not saying they totally ignored mere voters way back when, before opinion polls, or that they totally ignore mere party members now, but that is surely the direction in which things have gone. If their members believe X, but it turns out that most voters, especially swing voters in marginal seats, believe the opposite of X, then those party members will now tend to lose out. Opinion polls have discouraged parties from adopting ideologically distinct positions, and tugged them all towards the centre, partly because now they know far better what the centre consists of.

Not only are the opinions of party members now set to one side. These party enthusiasts are no longer even needed as sources of information about what the voters think. So, it is no wonder people have been leaving all the major political parties in their hundreds of thousands. They leave because they have become superfluous to requirements. All anyone asks them to do is shove pamphlets through doors and stuff envelopes. What they think doesn’t matter.

Another effect of opinion polls is that they have turned politics into continuous campaigning. One of the most off-putting features of New Labour’s moving spirits, to me, has been their inability to shake free of their most glorious moment, namely the 1997 election campaign. This was the moment when everything they did worked a dream, and they have carried on with the formula that worked then ever since. The people running the resulting Labour government have remained in campaign mode, behaving in government as if still in opposition, crafting policies and laws and announcements about policies and laws not on the basis of the impact of such policies and laws on the country, but on the basis of what the media will say about these announcements. And hence what the opinion polls will then say. Many, me included, particularly associate this perversion of political leadership with the recent years of the Labour Party, as lead by Tony Blair. But does anyone think that Brown’s regime has been that different in this respect, or that the next government, whatever it turns out to consist of, will be any less media and opinion poll driven? Why do modern governments obsess about opinion polls? Because they can. Because, you might say, they can’t not.

Another suggestion I’d want to offer concerning the rise of opinion polls is that opinion polls have made a nonsense of old-fashioned political demonstrations, and have thus created an atmosphere, and a somewhat misleading one, of political apathy. It’s not that people don’t any longer have any strong opinions about anything. It is more that if you gather up lots of placards and hire lots of buses and descend on London and march through the streets and stop all the traffic, and shout whatever it is that you want to shout, well, so what? How ever many thousands of you think whatever you think. Big deal. Immediately an opinion poll reveals that many thousands of others, often many more thousands of others, think that you and all your friends and comrades are greedy and/or deluded fools. Result: fewer demos of any kind, about anything.

You may reply, but what if your demo aligns with public opinion? Well, if that’s the case, you should simply commission your own opinion poll that demonstrates that fact. If that’s what your demo was supposed to draw attention to, why not simply prove this, and make that your story? Far more persuasive, and far more efficient.

Which brings us to another fact about opinion polls, which is that they are political ammunition. I first learned this when I got to know Dr Julian Lewis (now a Conservative MP) in the nineteen eighties, when he was making it his business to sabotage CND and (as it turned out) helping win the Cold War. Oh, Lewis and his gang of collaborators had great fun ratfucking those CND demos, by such methods as hanging his own signs (saying things like “KGB APPROVED”) above the crowds of his enemies, thereby hogging about half the media attention, and driving the demonstrators mad when they watched themselves on the evening news or looked in the newspapers the next day. But at the heart of Lewis’s operation were cunningly worded opinion polls, the results of which he would then show to the politicians. In the old days, politicians would be mightily impressed by mass demonstrations. What else, other than election results, did they have to go on? But, Lewis argued then, and proved then, opinion polls trump demonstrations. The next generation of politicos who are determined to have some day to day influence on things (such as those who run organisations like this one) have learned this lesson well.

The impact of opinion polls is hard to separate from the impact of that other great game-changer, television. But the impact of television on politics (to say nothing of the impact of television on, in particular, opinion polls and opinion poll results) has been talked about a lot more than has the impact of opinion polls, even before the Kennedy Nixon TV debates, and pretty much continuously since then. Television has also strengthened the hands of political leaders compared to political followers, provided of course that they are leaders who look good on it, because the leaders can use the telly to talk directly to voters (having first checked with their opinion polling what the voters want to hear). They no longer need their own followers to arrange mass meetings for them star in.

How opinion polls would have played out in politics if there had been no television, or how televised politics might have worked without opinion polls are hypotheticals I leave others to ponder. I will content myself with saying that television with no opinion polls would have meant that demonstrating would still now be in full swing, what with television having done so much to encourage demonstrating in the first place. The reality, meanwhile, is that the two transformations have in fact gone hand in hand, or perhaps I mean hand in glove.

Meanwhile, old fashioned politics, the kind where you have opinions of your own, has migrated elsewhere. We manic internetters like to think of the internet and blogging and twittering and all that as very modern, and of course technologically it is indeed the latest thing. But there is also something very old-fashioned about it. The internet, you might say, is where old politics has found a new home for itself, at a time when politics itself had become something different.

And now, this new-old politics is starting to have consequences of its own, maybe not here in the UK yet, but certainly in the USA. To anyone who says that nobody told the Tea Partying tendency that the age of public political demonstrations is over, I would say: yes, good point. But I think I’d want to distinguish between the kind of demonstrations that are merely arranged, in a top-down, organised way, and the kind that erupt from below. The organised kind strike me as the pointless ones, because all that clout can now be better directed to cannier indoor stuff. It’s also worth asking where the Tea Partiers would now be without those plummetting Obama poll ratings. The long-term importance of something like the Tea Party movement is that it will bring together lots of people who will do more than merely demonstrate. If all that those Tea Partiers organise is yet more demonstrations, then they will accomplish little. But now I can feel this argument crumbling in my hands. Time for me to stop, and ask others what they reckon.

So, have opinion polls changed politics? 55 percent say yes, 35 percent said no way, and the rest said sod off you nosy bastard, who gives a toss?, what does it matter what I think?, etc. etc. …

11 comments to On the impact of opinion polls

  • bob sykes

    You’ve overlooked something that happens all the time in the US: polls are designed to manipulate public opinion.

    This is done by carefully wording questions to get a desired result and by skewing the demographics of the people interviewed so that the desired result is over-represented in the poll.

    The largely fictitious numbers are then used to support a particular political position.

  • PeterE

    I think Gallup polls were in existence in 1945 and pointed to a Labour victory, although not maybe on the scale that actually occurred. They were a new innovation and were widely ignored.

    The success of the Common Wealth Party in bye-elections in the latter stages of the war (when there was an official electoral truce) was a strong pointer to a desire for change amongst the electorate.

  • Laird

    Bob Sykes makes a very good point about the explosion of “push” polls. Not that they’re anything new (back in the 1980′s I wrote an angry letter to my then-congressman complaining about the obviously biased wording of a questionnaire he sent out; I never received a reply), but I think that to some extent we are becoming inured to them. (The more savvy members of the electorate are, anyway.) Reputable pollsters publish the wording of their polls, as well as the results, so we can all judge for ourselves whether there were any shenanigans in the phrasing.

    I agree with Brian that the prevalence of opinion polls is driving politicians toward the center. Frankly, I think that’s a bad thing, as the well-known ratchet effect results in that “center” shifting inexorably farther and farther to the political left. On reflection, I think that part of the impetus for the US Republican Party’s current self-destruction (or at least, its present crisis of identity) can be attributed to that. The party’s leadership, consisting of “professional” politicians, is more concerned with winning elections (i.e., simple power) than in maintaining a consistent and coherent political philosophy. The Tea Party groups are more philosophical in their approach (although they might not appreciate that), seeking less government and a restoration of the federalist basis of our governmental system. The tension between the two approaches is now palpable; 2010 might be a watershed year for that party.

    In the end, I don’t like all these polls, and I would prefer that my representatives didn’t listen to them. In our republican (lower-case “r”) form of government our representatives are not supposed to be simply mouthpieces for the loudest voices among their constituencies. They are supposed to represent our interests, to the best of their ability and understanding, not merely parrot the views of the ever-shifting majority du jour. If we really wanted true, direct democracy we could have it (especially now, with the availability of immediate electronic communications); we wouldn’t need a Congress at all.

    The general public cannot know everything (and, in fact, collectively is not too bright and is easily subject to demagoguery). Our representatives are supposed to fully educate themselves on the issues and vote as they believe best, not simply on the basis of what a largely-ignorant majority claims it wants at that moment. By electing them we delegate to these people the power to make important decisions on our behalf; if those decisions are made simply on the basis of opinion polls they are abrogating their responsibility.

    When we vote for someone it should be a referendum on his character, judgment, wisdom and intelligence, not on how well he parrots the current pseudo-intellectual fashions. I want to know what he really believes, not what he believes that the electorate believes. And I expect him to act on those beliefs, in his voting on legislative matters, notwithstanding transitory shifts in the winds of popular opinion.

  • William H Stoddard

    Your theory that party leaders tend to disregard the opinions of their reliable supporters and of the party generally in favor of the opinions of the overall public is not well supported by the Democratic Party’s recent health care legislation in the United States. By the time they actually rammed the thing through it was clear that the majority opposed it, and that opposition was increasing. They either persuaded themselves that the voters would turn around by November, or simply didn’t care what the voters thought.

  • You neglect one of the most important functions of a demonstration, which admittedly may be gaining in prominence as demos’ role as information sources declines. That is, demos are meant to mobilize those who go to them, to make them commit to a concrete action in support of a cause, which then primes them for further action and consistent activism.

    In that sense, demos are crucially important to a movement. But only if you understand how to use them: a demo that does not feature a clear follow-up to get the attendees active in the future is a waste of time.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I agree with the commenter above on the US healthcare changes. It is pretty clear that the Dems, with the likes of Pelosi in charge, decided to take the risk of losing seats, maybe even control, in Congress. For them, putting a large chunk of the US economy into the hands of the State was a great prize to battle for.

    But in general terms I agree with Brian’s piece and what he is saying about the encouragement of a sort of “paralysis of the centre”. This is now perfectly illustrated by the nature of the UK general election. Clegg and Cameron could quite easily be in each other’s party without a great grinding of gears. Both mouth the platitudes of the day. They both play to that “what a nice young man you have brought home, dear,” sort of schtick.

    The best that can be said about this is that if this sort of “crisis of blandness” does seriously result in Britain being put into the A&E ward of international finance, then maybe, just maybe, the sort of politicians associated with this clusterfuck are going to be discredited. If Cameron cannot deliver a Tory victory in May, there is going to be a very brutal fight in that party. (Boris?)

    As for Gordon Brown, he and his thugs are hopefully finished.

  • Alice

    “this sort of “crisis of blandness” “

    Johnathan, to an outsider, the crisis appears anything but bland. Just as one example, all three of the major parties worship the false god of unscientific Alleged Anthropogenic Global Warming. All three of them plan to tax the poor British taxpayer to support what someone recently called the “Subsidy Sluts” of allegedly-green energy.

    This is not bland — this is brain-dead extremism!

    The only good thing about the British media is that, while it may have unswerving devotion to its false gods, it has ill-concealed contempt for their clay-footed prophets. When Tony Blair was being excoriated every day for something or other, the media lusted after Gordon Brown. And poor Gordie had elocution lessons and tooth caps to pander to the media. Much good it did him!

    It is a safe prediction that, 6 months from now, whichever of Clegg & Cameron prevails will be the equivalent of a four letter word in the British media. And it is equally safe to predict that nothing serious will have been done about any of the obvious existential threats to the continued existence of once-proud Britain.

  • Owinok

    Opinion polls have a neutral effect in my view. As a person interested in freedom and choice, opinion polls remind me about how people can be opposed to one thing and support another when the premises for both (state action and assumed benevolence) are the same. In summary, there’s a lot of conceptual clutter out there.

  • Paul Marks

    In the United States some conservative (in the sense of anti collectivist) polling companies exist.

    So when, on the basis of carefully worded questions, establishment polling companies (and the “mainstream” media) report that the public is in favour of this or that increase in government spending and regulations – the above mentioned conservative polling compaines (with their differently worded questions) and conservative media outlets (Fox News, some talk radio stations, the Wall Street Journal – and various internet sites) are able to report that the public are in favour of lower government spending and less regulations.

    However, I am not aware of any conservative (as opposed to Conservative party) polling organiztion in Britain – so the establishment (i.e. the people who control the education system and so on – the left) have things more their own way when it comes to policy polls. And, of course, most people want to think of themselves as agreeing with most other people – so if the msm are able to report “most people think X” then many people who did not think X will start to convince themselves that the do think X.

    As for “how are you going to vote” polls – perhaps if there had been more polls in 1945 there had been more polls Winston Churchill would have won the election.

    This involves some contradiction with the above – because it means that people would have reacted against the polls, but my thinking is as follows.

    A lot of people (for example the millions of military people subjected to the propaganda of the, socialist, “Army Education Service” and so on) tended to think “well perhaps I should vote Labour (as the lecturer says and so on), after all WINSTON WILL GET BACK ANYWAY so it does not matter much”.

    If it had dawned on these people (via seeing voting polls) that Winston was in fact in trouble, that he might not “get back” they might have been less inclined to vote as teacher’s pets.

  • I was hoping there would be a comment on how the results in opinion polls then changed people’s minds as to who to vote for. Behaviourally, seeing that 50% of people preferred Cameron in whatever debate and are going to vote Conservative means it is more likely that you will do the same if you are undecided. Seeing endless opinion polls telling you what to think probably doesn’t help you to sit down and think about what you think of the policies of your local representative, you vote for whoever everyone else is voting for.

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