By Paul Goodman
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David Cameron fought the last election on a manifesto theme that was never tested with voters. "An invitation to join the Government of Britain," it proclaimed – but no-one seems to have tried to find out whether the electorate would like to. At first glance, it is surpassingly baffling that a leadership so consumed by changing the party to please voters didn't bother to find out whether the Big Society would do so. Perhaps Steve Hilton simply didn't want any polling, and Cameron therefore wouldn't have it. Perhaps – since no-one was clearly in charge of the campaign – the decision was so rushed that there wasn't time. Or perhaps the Prime Minister believes in the idea so strongly that he believed testing it unnecessary.
I don't believe that opinion polls are the be-all and end-all of politics – as they came close to being under New Labour – but they have their place in it: as David Davis puts it, they should be a speedometer, not a compass. The party certainly commissions them. When I was in the Commons, MPs were regularly shown CCHQ's polling (or parts of it, anyway). So what's puzzling is that it tends to use opinion polls so partially and incuriously. This brings us to gay marriage. I am against the proposal, but the debate's gone back and forth on this site, and I see no point in adding to it now. What is worth adding, though, is that the idea provides a good example of where a little private party polling would do no-one any harm.
We know that younger, secular and urban-based voters tend to be in favour. We also know that older, religious and rural-dwelling voters tend to be against. It's reasonable to suppose that both groups hold their view strongly. But how do these distributions break down in terms of marginal seats? Do church-going Roman Catholics and Anglicans share the views of their bishops? How important is the proposal to the growing number of Muslims? Does it really matter to most voters, anyway? My hunch is that in America, where different states have different laws, party polling would be more rigorous than it seems to be here. I also suspect that roughly 60 per cent of voters would support the proposal. But it would be worth CCHQ probing the detail.