A Guide Through the Election Nonsense

As Brown goes to the Palace, the opinion polls remain as helpful as ever. Last night one for ICM suggested a hung parliament, while another for YouGov suggested a comfortable Tory victory. As you are about to be drowned by a wave of commentary, here is a checklist of notions you can dismiss as guff.

 Our latest poll shows that…

Opinion polls are done on the cheap by business research companies who make their money selling their work on consumer preferences to gullible marketing managers. Their political polls are loss leaders whose main purpose is to generate publicity for the brand. Often newspapers receive them free of charge.

 They are not proper random samples, and historically have always had a bias towards Labour. Mike Smithson, of politicalbetting.com has a golden rule that  “whenever polls have been tested against real election results it’s been the survey with Labour in the least favourable position that has been the most accurate”.

  In other words, Labour supporters should be more worried than they are about their low poll showing. Their party’s real performance could well be worse.

  One company normally does what it promises and produces an accurate prediction. Unfortunately, you cannot know in advance which company it will be. ICM called the 1997 general election right. Yougov saw that Boris Johnson would easily beat Ken Livingstone. You most certainly should not add all the polling results together and produce an “average Tory lead”. If the past is a guide, most companies will be wrong and one or maybe two will be close to the truth.

Campaigns don’t change the result

The BBC is quite keen on this argument, and I’m sure there’s truth in it, but it clearly is not always true. The crash of Lehman Brothers changed the 2008 American presidential election. Before it went under, McCain and Obama were level-pegging. But McCain responded badly, while Obama secured victory by showing he understood the magnitude of the crisis.

The leader debates are a…

Well, fill in what ever superlative you want. Media London is agog at the prospect. Perhaps the Lib Dems will benefit from the equal billing Nick Clegg will receive; they have benefited in the past from the increased attention in election campaigns. Yet unless someone, probably Gordon Brown, makes an enormous mess of it, I can’t see them shifting the election. Televised debates are clearly a service to democracy. But the Chancellors’ debate was not a “game changer”. Instead we saw three men engage in a respectably old-fashioned hustings meeting. Expect the PM debate to be similarly respectable unless as I say, the Prime Minister goes postal.

Expenses are last year’s news.

The polling company Mori (see caveats above) suggests that voters have put the expenses scandal behind them. I will believe that when I see it. The presidential style of politics disguises the fact that Britain is a parliamentary democracy, and the great advantage of democracy over other systems of government is that voters can engage in the pleasurable and essential activity of throwing the scoundrels out.

   Incumbent MPs will have to show that they have behaved honourably. If their behaviour can be disputed, there will be some admirably mucky fights. Take the south-west. The Tories should and probably will take seats from the Lib Dems. But look at Eastbourne, where the Lib Dems are hitting the incumbent Tory with accusations that he was claiming taxpayers money for his family home in faraway Kent. He is screaming blue murder and understandably so. National swings may count for little in seats where the sitting MP is vulnerable to charges of improper enrichment.

 Minor parties don’t matter...

Traditionally, people went to UKIP, the Greens, the BNP etc in unimportant European elections and returned to the main parties for general elections. The disgust with politics is now so great that the old swing back can no longer be guaranteed. The Greens may win in Brighton and, I am sorry to say, the BNP has a chance in Essex. The real importance of minor parties cannot be measured in the handful of seats they may win but in the effect of strong showings for fringe candidates on Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem chances. Who will the minor parties take votes from? Who will come through the middle? These are questions we are not used to asking but could matter this time round.

That does it. I am off to see the majesty of democracy in action. You may wish to go on holiday for a month and come back on polling day.



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