FEATURE1 February 2011

Order! Order!

Voters and politicians don’t enjoy the healthiest of relationships. Jonathan Knott takes a look at the role that pollsters, and the journalists who report their findings, have played in that relationship. Can opinion research help bring about a new politics?


The first televised leaders’ debate of the 2010 UK election campaign on 15 April was that rare thing in modern politics: a genuinely surprising and game-changing event. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, along with his party, had previously tended to be seen as something between an irrelevance and a joke. But Clegg put in a confident, fluent and persuasive performance – and in the instant polls from the likes of YouGov and ComRes he received the highest ratings from the public.

So the debate’s coverage in The Sun, the UK’s most read newspaper, was curious. Addressing the previous night’s events with an uncharacteristic lack of directness, the paper’s headline read: “Britain is paralysed by hot air”. The story beneath explained: “Britain was awash with hot air last night – after a huge plume of volcanic ash was followed by a clash between our top three politicians.”

In a YouGov poll commissioned by The Sun itself, Nick Clegg had beaten David Cameron by a huge 22%. More than half thought he had performed best, compared to 29% for Cameron. But Sun readers had to wait for the fourth paragraph for a mention of Clegg’s success.

The Sun did at least try to combine the two stories – both the Daily Mail and the Daily Express led with the volcano instead of the debate. It wasn’t that these papers were averse to covering politics. What they couldn’t stomach was the way Clegg and the public – through the polls – had refused to follow their script.

The role of the polls
In a representative democracy, the media plays a vital role in representing politics to the voters, and the voters to politicians. And opinion research, used intelligently, should provide crucial evidence in helping politicians and the media to understand what the country is thinking.

But political news is covered by a small group of people who spend most of their time working and socialising together. Seasoned reporters will nod knowingly at tales of journalists gathering in huddles to decide the collective line on a speech, or of editors furiously calling their staff to ask why they have not got the same story as a rival.

“With the media operating as a pack, there is a danger that their narrative becomes self-reinforcing, with the results of opinion research merely reflecting back and amplifying whatever they have decided to portray”

With the media operating as a pack, there is a danger that their narrative becomes self-reinforcing, with the results of opinion research merely reflecting back and amplifying whatever they have decided to portray. Negative coverage of, say, Gordon Brown, might lead to him receiving bad poll ratings – which the media then seize on, seeking out further news stories to fit the narrative and creating a vicious circle (or the opposite for someone whose coverage is more favourable). If a poll result does not tie in with the narrative, it can be buried on the inner pages, given less airtime or ignored completely. Polls that do fit, meanwhile, can be trumpeted on the front page or put at the top of the bulletins.

An added factor is the increasing determination of political parties to control the narrative, favouring journalists who are willing to go along with their line. Journalists fear marginalisation, while politicians are aware of the damage a hostile press can do. Who is leading whom is not always clear, but the two are certainly increasingly close.

Ben Page, the chief executive of Ipsos Mori, says: “The media do create a general narrative that becomes hard to get out of.” But he stresses: “It still has to be one that resonates with people. It works amazingly well when they reinforce something that people are already worried about or already believe. It’s difficult for them to persuade people that black is white.”

It can, of course, work the other way round too, with voters’ voices not getting through to the political class. Take immigration, where many politicians have had to belatedly acknowledge that this is an issue worrying many voters.

In his book The Unfinished Revolution, pollster Philip Gould explains how during Labour’s years of opposition he used research, including a large amount of focus groups, to determine how the party could win over the (often middle-class) voters in marginal constituencies that it would need for a majority. He saw transforming Labour’s image as central and was a major influence behind the creation of the New Labour brand. The Conservative party more recently conducted a similar project using the extensive research conducted by Lord Ashcroft.

The many and the few
The growth in online research has, of course, made larger samples and more intensive polling easier and cheaper, enabling these key voters to be targeted in ever more sophisticated ways. This approach may yield success in the short term, but when parties direct most of their resources towards a small proportion of the electorate, the sidelined majority are likely to become disengaged. There has also been a growing cynicism about parties’ obsession with image. Martin Boon, head of social and government research at ICM, says: “The public has become more and more divorced from politics and politicians over the past twenty years. During the last government, there was a perception that spin was more important than substance, and that presentation was everything.”

Polls apart
Many see the expenses crisis of 2009 as the event that forced the country to confront the increasing disconnection between voters and the Westminster elite. Whether public opinion was being ignored, manipulated or cynically courted, it did not seem to be contributing to a healthy relationship between the political class and the public – and there was a widespread feeling that something needed to change.

Enter Nick Clegg, who expertly channelled voters’ frustration with constant references to “the two old parties” in the leaders’ debates, presenting himself as the embodiment of a new way of doing things. The media’s reaction to his initial success was telling. Biased reporting of polls was a recurrent event (One Sun/YouGov poll showed that 49% of people would vote for the Lib Dems if they thought they had a significant chance of winning – it was not included in the paper). And in the final few days of the campaign the Daily Mail and the Telegraph went into full attack mode.

But nothing could hide the fact that newspapers were losing their grip on how things were portrayed – and the astonishing boost given to Clegg highlighted how artificial the narrative of an assured Conservative victory had been. Mark Pack, co-editor of the Liberal Democrat Voice website, was influential in drawing attention to media reporting of polls during the 2010 campaign. He says the instant polls “boxed in the scope for newspapers to write up the event as their editorial line wished”.

“Polls are a gift to a story-hungry media – but their mushrooming frequency and volume can lead them to be covered ever more superficially and selectively”

But we should not be too quick to look on 2010 as the year voters used the polls to get one over on the political class. Rather it underlined the waning power of newspapers in the face of TV and social media. And rolling TV news, along with blogging and Twitter, arguably lends itself even more readily than newspapers to the establishment of entrenched narratives. Although online media gives people access to a wider range of news sources and viewpoints, theoretically making it harder for the mainstream media to exclude things from the narrative, this can be overstated because people tend to visit sites whose viewpoints they already agree with.

Polls are a gift to a story-hungry media – but their mushrooming frequency and volume can lead them to be covered ever more superficially and selectively. The irony of this surfeit of opinion is that the public’s sense that their views actually matter is, if anything, decreasing.

A new politics?
So how can we re-energise our political process? Electoral reform is one possible solution and, under an alternative vote or proportional representation system, voting would certainly make more sense for many people. Party loyalty is in decline while single-issue campaigning has risen. The main two parties’ share of the vote has been falling steadily over time, and support for minor parties has risen, so in many ways it makes sense to introduce a system that makes coalitions, compromises and co-operation between parties more usual.

But whatever the new system, we would still be relying heavily on opinion researchers and journalists to mediate between the government and the electorate. Some argue that we should also be moving towards a more fundamental kind of change.

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of the Young Foundation, a think tank that specialises in social innovation. “The model for governance that developed in the 20th century assumed a need to analyse public opinion and then shape public policies in response, or to use mass media to move opinion. Over the last few decades this model has become rather frayed,” he says.

He believes that we are moving towards a “relational” form of government, in which the state does things with people, rather than to or for them. Voters are more empowered and informed, and their knowledge, views and experience help to solve problems directly. The Young Foundation holds up the NHS Direct service, as well as the Expert Patients Programme (in which patients are given a greater say in managing chronic conditions and help to mentor others), as examples of successful social innovations.

Co-design of public services and the devolvement of power to local communities are fashionable ideas in politics at the moment, tying in with the government’s ‘big society’ agenda while attracting support from all three main parties and several think tanks. There is also, undeniably, a growing trend for direct democracy – as manifested in referendums, elected mayors and public consultations.

Evolution not revolution
But how profound is the change? Ben Page points out that the idea of the imminent rise of citizen panels has been around for some time. Allowing people to have their say in online consultations (such as the Number 10 petitions website and the coalition’s Your Freedom and Spending Challenge sites) is one thing – but genuinely devolving substantial power is quite another. We continue to live in a representative democracy, which means trying to find out what people think is still a central concern.

The think tank Demos published a report in 2010, ‘Civic Streets’, which examined the positive changes brought to Balsall Heath and Castle Vale in Birmingham through ‘big society’ type schemes that devolved power to the local community. Data from quantitative attitudinal surveys was crucial in demonstrating the effectiveness of the projects. The report’s authors recommended that “government should provide funding to local authorities which is ring-fenced for attitudinal polling that can be used to analyse the differences between areas and enable community groups to make a real case for their success”.

Among the many techniques now used by research organisations to do this, traditional surveys remain an essential tool – and indeed can act as a catalyst for change. The old model, according to Page, “may be frayed, but it is certainly not yet broken or changing fast”. These are uncertain times, but this being British politics, researchers should be counting on evolution, not revolution, if they want to contribute to transforming our political culture.

Jonathan Knott is a freelance journalist. He previously worked as research editor for PoliticsHome.com