Douglas Carswell was MP for Clacton from 2005-2017. His latest book Rebel: how to overthrow the emerging oligarchy is published by Head of Zeus.
We don’t know what effect, if any, the terror attack in Manchester may have on the general election outcome. New polls will be published soon and they might show an increase in support for Theresa May. Or they will perhaps indicate a shift in support towards Jeremy Corbyn. Or to the Liberal Democrats or UKIP. Or a week or so after the outrage, the polls might show precisely the same voting intentions as they did a week ago.
But of one thing we can be certain; as soon as any polls are published, pundits will rush to furnish the rest of us with an explanation to account for it all. A few days before the terror attack, some polls seemed to suggest a shift in support away from the Conservatives, and towards Labour. This was, the commentariat informed us, all because of the Tories’ fiasco over social care. Was it really? I’m not certain.
Yes, the Conservatives announced in their manifesto a social care policy that perhaps they had not thought through properly. But how do we know that a clumsy social care policy caused a shift in support? We don’t – and neither did the pundits, no matter what they claimed.
If there really was indeed a shift in public sentiment, it could have been caused by all manner of things: a higher public profile for Jeremy Corbyn; resentment at the robotic repetition by the Prime Minister and others of soundbites about “strong and stable government.
We should, for a start, be highly circumspect about opinion polling. Its not just that polls have too often seemed to get it wrong. They do so because they are not the exercise in empiricism they purport to be. The way in which pollsters weight their results mean that many polls are simply intelligent guesswork.
Pollsters guess. Pundits often just make stuff up. In the run-up to the EU referendum last year, I was bemused at the way in which political pundits spoke as if they had some sort of insight into what voters were thinking. Broadcasters paraded various commentators on television – some sounding like little more than charlatans – confidently speaking as if they knew what the public felt, and how the Leave campaign was engaging with them.
Vote Leave, to the credit of those that ran the campaign, side stepped the commentariat chatter, focusing on the punter, rather than the pundits. Digital makes political pundits much more marginal to our democracy. Recognising this was yet another reason why we in Vote Leave won.
Pundits as a whole don’t recognise this, of course. In this election campaign, as in the referendum, political journalists see themselves as empirical observers. They report the facts, they tell us. Pundits provide balance, and allow airtime for both sides, so they say. The reality is rather different.
Political pundits like to construct what they call “the narrative” – and then shop around to find facts to fit it. Far from being empirical, this is closer to what the Oxford philosopher and physicist, David Deutsch, might call inductivism.
Suppose, for example, that in a few day’s time it turns out that Theresa May is riding even higher in the polls. Endless column inches will then be written informing us why this was bound to be the way…people turning to strong leaders in a crisis…the bulldog spirit: etc, etc. Producers will then rush around finding quotes and characters to tell that story accordingly.
If, on the other hand, we were to see a surge in support for Corbyn, precisely the same pundits would inform us why it was all an inevitable consequence of popular frustration with the securocracy…blah blah. This is what phycologists call the hindsight fallacy. That which has happened we tell ourselves was somehow inevitable.
Media narratives usually tell us more about the narrator than they do about what is happening, or why. Think of this next time you hear someone complain about “fake news”. If the mainstream broadcasters are simply formulating a narrative, and selecting facts to fit it, what is to stop those that prefer an alternative narrative from doing the same? The bogus nature of so much political punditry is becoming harder to ignore. Why?
Because, as the electorate becomes ever more consumerist in its approach, it is more inclined to switch support. This means much more voter volatility – sharper movements that cannot be accounted for. How many times over the past two or three years have you heard “expert” commentators left flummoxed by what the punters actually opted for?
With a much more fluid politics, the inability of contemporary political commentary to explain and assess what is going on becomes embarrassingly obvious. During twelve happy years as the MP for Clacton, I came across one constant, unhappy complaint; no matter which party was in government or who was Prime Minister, many folk felt that they were some how being deceived or conned by what was going on in Westminster.
It is, I have come to realise, not intentional. For the most part, those in SW1 don’t actually set out to deceive the public. The trouble is – they deceive themselves.