Lord Ashcroft and the problem with pollsters

Everyone in politics loves Lord Ashcroft. Well, Ed Miliband might be wishing he’d disappear for a few weeks, but on the right and on the left the millionaire pollster is much respected. His constant, well presented and insightful polling is a helpful insight into, or as he would say a snapshot of, the electorate’s mood. Whether he is analysis margins in England or swing voters in Scotland, he spends his own money making sure his polls are detailed and well presented. They’re not, he insists, predictions (indeed his own polls can contradict each other impressively), but they give journalists a lot to write about and politicians much to think on. He’s also quite funny on social media and despite being a major Tory donor, fair minded in his approach to parties on both wings of British politics.

What then, could possibly be the problem?

Broadly speaking, pollster are white, male and middle aged or over. That, of course, is a fairly sweeping statement but if you take a quick survey of those in charge of the most influential polls in Britain, you won’t find much diversity. YouGov, Ipsos MORI, ComRes and Populus all have white, male Directors or Chief Executives and for most (Populus excluded) the same theme is present across their management team. This isn’t to say that any of the above organisations are intentionally biased, but such a lack of diversity is far from ideal. Similarly, provate individuals such as Lord Ashcroft (or Matthew Oakenshot, the ex-Lib Dem peer who has commissioned partisan polling in the past, mainly aimed at bringing down his party leader), should not be in a position to command such wide ranging attention and authority. Again, this is not to accuse Ashcroft of being deliberately biased, he is often as critical of the Tories in his commentary as he is other parties, but having a millionaire Conservative donor as a major source of information on what the electorate thinks is not the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Yet, even if pollsters do produce unbiased surveys, there is another issue here. One must ask, what kind of reflection is it upon British politics that MPs and commentators need to rely of well of individuals and private companies to tell them what the voting public think? A lot has been said, and will continue to be said over the next few months as the election looms, about the disconnect between politics and the public. Look at Labour’s inability to notice their change of fortunes in Scotland or the Tories failure to find a message that will win them support, despite competing against one of the most public unsuccessful Opposition Leaders of modern times. The rise of the ‘alternatives’, the Greens, UKIP and SNP, is often cited as another example of this disconnect. But maybe the truth of the matter has been staring us in the face for much longer.

Opinion polls play an important roll in shaping political campaigns and informing commentary, but they seem to have replaced much of the importance of ‘values’. While we’re still a long way off the massive, data rich polling of elections in the United States, numbers have become more and more important in shaping perceptions and policy over the last decade. Parties seem more comfortable using polling to tell them what voters think, rather than sending their MPs and campaigners out onto the streets. In the Heywood and Middleton by-election last year, Labour strategists decided that the NHS would be a real vote winner and instructed volunteers to make it their key message on the doorsteps. When Labour only narrowly held the seats, ending up a few hundred votes from losing it to UKIP, the same volunteers reported that first most voters they spoke to, immigration, not the health service was the first issue on their mind. Similarly, MPs have sat on massive majorities in Scottish safe seat for years without noticing the changes happening around them. It says a lot then that even after fours years of political confusion and disconnection from the voters, we are still seeing polling used in leu of politicians actually trying to understand voters.

Of course, a cynic would just suggest that this lack of diversity and unwillingness to leave Westminster is simply an extension of the conditions in which British politics has existed for years. Why should pollsters represent a cross section of society when both chambers of Parliament are overbearingly white and male? Why should MPs feel the need to spend meaningful amounts of time on doorsteps and in their constituency offices when none of their colleagues can be bothered to? Whatever the reasons, politics is never going to change if the way we gather information about it doesn’t change with it. The future is going to bring more data, not less, but we should strive to use it properly, or else there is little point bothering to use it at all.

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