Too Much Polling Can Make You Blind

by Ray_North on November 15, 2016

imagesIf it had happened once, then ok, maybe they could be forgiven, but in the last few years, pollsters have consistently fed us information that has at best been unhelpful, and at worst, down right wrong.

The last general election was too close to call they said – no it wasn’t, the Tories won quite convincingly; Brexit would be settled in favour of the remainers, er, no, it wasn’t; whilst Hilary Clinton could, according to the pollsters relax at bit because she was safe, and of course we all know what has happened there.

The contributors to these pages are prone to occasional rather lengthy and excitable arguments about polling – I have to say that I stay well clear, for one thing, I’m not really a methodology kind of guy, as soon as I hear the phrase ‘margin of error’ my brain goes into the equivalent of the little colourful circle that you get when your computer is stalled, but, more significant to me is my concern that if you allow yourself and your thinking to be completely dominated by the polls then you are in danger of losing the ability to have a genuine discourse with ordinary people.

Indeed, I remember being a callow politics undergraduate and listening to a lecture on psephology and suddenly being overwhelmed by the feeling that politics is such inexact and transient exercise that an attempt to turn it into a science or, even worse, an equation is fatuous.

Of course opinion polling has its place, I accept that: there is nothing wrong with a political party looking at the polls and making a qualitative assessment of where it stands in the public eye and making changes accordingly. But, there must be a distinction between using polls as a tool in the policy making process and seeing polls as an end to themselves or a solution.

In the last couple of decades polling has become big business, pollsters are given vast amounts of money by organisations, political and other, to test the water. I’m suspicious of this, especially when the water being tested is something fundamental, like your policy on Europe or the welfare state – where the questions a pollster can ask can never really cover the vast number of different views and arguments on the subject.

In recent years the Labour Party has worried so much about the results of its private polling that it has become a party that is afraid to be bold and has gone into elections with policies that seem to have been constructed by committee and leaders who have been burdened by a desire to change themselves to suit the vagaries of the polls (though I take the point that it is now in danger of going the other way, and ignoring the opinion of the general public altogether as it makes its way to the precipice of destruction).

Labour has also suffered from their poll-based belief that certain seats are ‘safe’ and certain seats are ‘winnable’; some have suggested that this has pushed labour rightwards in terms of their policymaking, i’m not sure that is true, but I am sure that it has tended to make some of the policies far too technical which has alienated the ‘safe’ areas, and confused the ‘winnable’ areas.

Politics, if it is relevant, is about challenging pre-conceived prejudices and fears and offering an alternative way through leadership and well constructed argument. Never before has leadership and courage been needed as much as it is now and the only way to do that effectively is get out and meet people, talk to them, listen to them, argue with them, challenge them. Too many on the left have taken solace in polls that confirm that most of the country is not racist, but, this odious tendency is creeping back into our society and culture fuelled by the dog whistling of the likes of Farage and Trump who say it’s ok to stereotype about Muslims or Latinos or Jews.

If we sit back and rely on polling then we are in danger of ignoring trends in our country that could lead us into an even darker place than we currently are.

Politics must once again be about people not pollsters.

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