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. …