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Push Me, Pull Me (April 14 2010)

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Push Me, Pull Me (April 14 2010)

Posted on 14 April 2010 by admin

Election polling has evolved since the 1970s and pushes parties towards the centre ground

Election campaigns have always been changing and evolving.  The idea of an election campaign as a coherent story, unfolding over time, does not really apply to some contests such as 1950 and 1955, when there was an almost aimless meandering across the policy landscape punctuated by the big speeches by the party leaders and other main figures.   The election campaign took more shape in 1959 – essentially the first television election – and through the 1960s and 1970s. There have been polls since 1945, but the close election of 1964 was arguably the first in which the ‘horse race’ aspect of an election started to dominate in the media with polls providing the evidence for the state of the race every few days.  In 1970, the Conservative campaign deployed the first effective use of modern negative campaigning.  Nine years later, Saatchi & Saatchi famously revolutionised election advertising.  But in between the fall of Edward Heath and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, there was another important development.

Perhaps the first poll-driven election campaign was Harold Wilson’s Labour campaign of February 1974, which used MORI to pilot the party to a narrow and somewhat improbable victory. Wilson was brilliantly reactive, responding to campaign events such as bad economic figures and government missteps and changing the terms of debate from the Tories’ ground of ‘Who Governs?’ to Labour’s – the government’s record on prices and industrial relations. Wilson astutely dodged around the contents of Labour’s manifesto, which was a left-wing programme of nationalisation he had no intention of implementing. The purpose of the polls in this election was not to look at headline figures, but at the underlying attitudes and opinions on the issues that were driving political choice. The polls have been used to craft the parties’ narratives during the election ever since. Although focus groups were used in the 1970s, their real heyday has been since 1997 when they have tested party messages and the electorate’s perceptions exhaustively.  The 1990s also saw the rise of the ‘grid’, in which party messages, issues and leading figures are deployed in a rigorously planned fashion.

On one level, a modern election campaign is a fierce contest for control of the narrative.  Each party is attempting to tell their story about the state of Britain and what needs to be done, and calculates that if they are able to do so unobstructed then their narrative will convince people to vote for them.  However, it is never possible to get the message across unobstructed.  The parties compete with each other, with the media (now in all its electronic wildness) and with events (both ‘known unknowns’ like announcements of economic statistics, and ‘unknown unknowns’ that happen unpredictably) for control over the agenda. Crudely, a party ‘wins’ a day in the campaign if the real events that are prominent in the media conform to what was planned in its grid. As well as all this chaotic competition, there is also feedback – that the profusion of public and private polls is giving everyone nearly instant knowledge of what is going well or badly, and who is ahead and behind. Polls can change a campaign instantly, with a good poll creating confidence or complacency, and bad ones causing lurches into despair. It is not without reason that they are sometimes compared to mood-altering drugs.

The 2010 campaign has more published polls than ever before, with the almost-daily YouGov series for the Sun being a notable innovation. To continue the drug analogy, the political classes are getting habituated through heavy use, and this is perhaps not a bad thing. Every now and then there is a ‘rogue’ poll outside the normal range of sampling error, and these tend to attract the most interest in the media for the standard ‘man bites dog’ reason that the unusual is news. In past elections, rogue polls have sometimes had major influence, famously so in 1987 when one precipitated ‘Wobbly Thursday’ in the Tory campaign. But thanks to the sheer weight of polling, rogues are now likely to be swamped by polls that are closer to the mark. It will take a proper trend, not an outlier, for voting intention polls to change the tone of an election.

It is at a deep level that the parties’ strategies are influenced by the findings from their private polling about what the public wants to hear. One cannot blame the parties for using the best available techniques for crafting and putting out their messages. Nor can one blame the electors for thinking that the parties sound the same, because they are all talking at the same swing voters in marginal seats in the same sort of language. It is a consequence of the electoral system.  And a question, perhaps, for another day.


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Who Governs? (4 April 2005)

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Who Governs? (4 April 2005)

Posted on 04 April 2005 by admin

Lewis Baston describes one of the most turbulent years in British politics, which saw two closely-fought elections delivering a blow from which the two-party system has never recovered. Originally published 4th April 2005

1974 was arguably the most dramatic year in modern British politics. As well as two elections there was the three-day week, corruption scandals, shadowy plots against the prime minister, a financial crisis, IRA bombings in England and a general strike in Northern Ireland. It began with a strike by the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, whose bargaining position had become even stronger because of the steep rise in the oil price; in order to preserve fuel supplies the Conservative government of Edward Heath imposed a three-day working week. After some hesitation (many Conservatives believe that they could have won an election in early February), Heath called an election for February 28 with the intention of strengthening his hand against the unions. ‘Who Governs?’ asked the Conservatives, a question whose implications were more ambiguous than they intended.

The Conservatives found it impossible to sustain the focus on the ‘Who Governs?’ issue throughout the campaign. Harold Wilson, working closely with pollster Bob Worcester of Mori, fought an astutely negative campaign, stressing the Heath government’s poor record on inflation, housing and pensions. At the start of the campaign the Conservatives seemed well ahead but the gap narrowed and the luck of the campaign was against them. Trade figures many times worse than those of 1970 were published. Their industrial relations policy was undermined by the director of the CBI and new evidence on miners’ pay. The worst blow was when Enoch Powell advised voters to support Labour and announced that he had cast his own vote for the party because of its commitment to a referendum on Europe. It seems that many voters in the West Midlands followed his advice, as the pro-Labour swing there was particularly strong.

The election results were complex. Turnout (78.7%) was the highest since 1959 and has not been bettered since. The votes for both the Conservatives and Labour slumped while the Liberals, Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and even Independents did well (winning Lincoln and Blyth). The combined Tory and Labour share of the vote fell from 89.4% in 1970 to 75% in 1974; in votes at least, the two-party system suffered a blow from which it has not recovered. Despite this, the smaller parties received few seats, with only 14 Liberals elected on 19.3% of the vote. Proportional representation was much discussed after the elections of 1974.

The February election was a disaster in Northern Ireland. The unionist opponents of the power-sharing executive that governed under the Sunningdale agreement won 11 out of the 12 parliamentary seats, although with only 51% of the vote. They regarded this as legitimising the overthrow of Sunningdale, which took place with a general strike in May 1974. It took another 24 years to restore devolved government in the province.

The February 1974 election produced the first (and so far only) “hung parliament” since 1929. It was not clear until late on in the count that Labour were just ahead with 301 seats to 297 for the Tories (who had actually polled rather more votes). Edward Heath stayed in Downing Street over the weekend and attempted to come to an agreement with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, but the negotiations were not successful and on Monday evening Heath resigned and Wilson formed a minority government.

The February parliament could not last for long, and there was a short and turbulent sitting of parliament (among other business, the Register of Members’ Interests was established by a resolution of May 1974). The Labour government published a succession of white papers, essentially advertising the policies it hoped to implement once it had a majority. It was no surprise when Wilson announced in September 1974 that parliament would be dissolved and there would be a second election.

The October election was, like many sequels, rather disappointing. The extended campaign was much less interesting than February’s short burst, and was enlivened mainly by Thorpe’s hovercraft trip along the south coast in search of votes in marginal seaside resorts. But the wind and the rain spoiled the photo opportunities and grounded Thorpe’s hovercraft. It was an irresistible metaphor for the deflation of Liberal hopes after the excitement of February. Labour stressed the competence of their leadership and the “social contract” with the trade unions, while the Conservatives struck a new note by offering to create a “government of national unity” even if they had an overall majority.

The result was also disappointing for almost everyone. Only the Scottish Nationalists had cause for much celebration, their 11 seats and 30.4% of the Scottish vote being their high water mark. However, Labour’s U-turn on devolution between the two elections was enough to protect most of the Labour heartland in the central belt from Nationalist incursions. The devolution project used up inordinate amounts of parliamentary time in the late 1970s but came to nothing with the referendums in March 1979. The Liberals ended up winning one more seat but losing two. Labour had won their overall majority, but by a tiny margin of three seats and with less than 40% of the vote. The Conservatives managed to cling on in many of their vulnerable marginals such as Northampton South: a uniform swing in England and Wales would have given Wilson a majority of perhaps 25. Heath’s achievement in minimising Tory losses won him little thanks. He was ousted from the leadership four months later. His 277-strong Tory parliamentary delegation was the platform his successor, Margaret Thatcher, used to bring down the Labour government in the March 1979 confidence vote.

Labour’s narrow victory and the turbulent economic circumstances meant that it was impossible to implement the radical manifesto, even if Wilson had wanted to. This was seen by many on the left as betrayal, and there were bitter recriminations that tore the party apart until Neil Kinnock imposed peace after 1983. Perhaps 1974 was, in hindsight, a good election for the Conservatives to lose and an unlucky victory for Labour. However, the most lasting legacy of the 1974 elections has been the eclipse of the two-party system; since then, voters disenchanted with either of the major parties do not necessarily flock to the arms of the principal opposition.


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