Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov.
When politicians get a bad result, they say “We need to get our message across better.” It’s the grand vanity of politics: if only people really understood me, they’d agree with me. I am basically right, I just haven’t expressed myself properly. Be bold, be clear, cast aside doubt, grasp the nettle: it’s simple, do A not B. Then the people will give us power.
Unfortunately for decision-makers, people usually want A and B. Not because people are stupid, but because bold A/B choices are risky: so (quite sensibly) they want a softer version of A, and a softer version of B. They are canny in distributing votes according to the effect they are trying to achieve, and they are not keen to give anyone real power. They made UKIP #1 for the Euros because they approve of their disruptive influence, but #4 for elected local councillors because they don’t want them in charge (UKIP’s 17 per cent projected national vote share for council elections – “projected” as if the whole country had voted, whereas not all areas had council elections – was down on last year and compared with 27 per cent for the Euros.)
I believe “no overall control” is going to be the theme of national politics for quite a while. I’ve been predicting no overall majority in 2015 since 2011 (when Conservatives were absurdly buoyant) because the trends were clear then and we are simply seeing them play out: we don’t trust anyone very much, we don’t believe anyone’s nostrums, we are not loyal; so we don’t want anyone to be strong. Or put it in rational terms: we don’t really want bold singular solutions to complex multi-level situations. Remember the euro crisis, how it was all going to crash to smithereens if politicians continued to fudge? They continued to fudge, and things look a lot safer now. Are you really betting that new predictions of disaster ahead will actually come true?
I’m probably preaching to the converted: reaction to weak results has been muted, there have been no serious calls for heads to roll. Politicians can’t quite bring themselves to admit it but they realise continued coalitions loom. The LibDems will recover a bit; Labour will slightly improve their campaigning; Conservatives will increasingly be seen as competent in their handling of the economy as it continues to strengthen; UKIP will continue to be disruptive, and might grab a seat or two; and one year from today we’ll be in much the same place as we were last time.
I take issue here with a man I usually agree with, Allister Heath, who wrote in yesterday’s CityAM: “Whoever wins – either alone, or in coalition – will probably do so with a very small share of the vote. This will cast further doubt on the results’ legitimacy, and fuel the public’s alienation. It’s hard to be optimistic about the future of British politics.” This seems to me a First World Problem: strong victories for strong leaders are usually the hallmark of a crisis, not of a successful country (which the UK surely is). Would Allister prefer a strong Labour victory over a weak Conservatives victory? I would imagine not.
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A footnote on the Euro -election polling. My company YouGov got the result pretty much spot-on, every party within margin-of-error for the sample size, and in the right order. Maybe this is just unattractive crowing – I accept that interpretation – but I do want make the point that telling the right story of what lies ahead is what polls are for. At every election we get criticised for this or that variation in methodology; but clearly, if we vary something, it’s because we think it will make us more accurate, not because we’re trying to cheat someone. Our record stands for itself. Others had UKIP much higher or much lower.
And by the way, it’s not enough to get it ‘right on the night’ – for providing true value to the democratic process, one must tell the right story as it develops, as far ahead and as continuously as possible. Polls are taken seriously by the media, by politicians, and by the public. They help inform the debate: we can speculate about the kind of government we might get and what we should do to influence it one way or another if we have good idea of what is going to happen next. So we need to know who can be trusted to give all-round continuous reliable data. (I should in fairness should admit that our final AV referendum vote underestimated the size of the majority; but then again we were the only pollsters who predicted from the very start that AV would lose.)