John McTernan: Grabbing all the headlines

The advent of 24-hour news has led to politicians becoming caught up in publicity stunts. Picture: Getty
The advent of 24-hour news has led to politicians becoming caught up in publicity stunts. Picture: Getty
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The pernicious rise in polling is driving politicians to be more focused on attaining the perfect soundbite than shaping the future direction of our country, writes John McTernan

ANOTHER day, another poll. Who’s up, who’s down? The headlines scream breathlessly: “Ed in trouble”, “Tories in freefall”, “Farage on the march”. It’s hard to remember, but this obsession with opinion polls is a very recent development in British politics – and it is a pernicious and deeply corrosive one.

The first point to make is that constant polling is the ultimate seepage of the celebrity culture into politics. We can vote for our favourites in X Factor, and vote off those we don’t like on Big Brother. Now, polling companies tempt us to take the same approach to politics. This is the very opposite of what most people claim they want from politicians.

Ask voters and a constant criticism is that politicians are too short-term, too focused on the electoral cycle. Well, if that is a problem when that cycle is itself four or five years long, how much worse will it get if the focus becomes the daily poll?

The 24-hour news cycle is bad enough. With too little news, mainly, to fill our screens all day, broadcasters have to choose between repetition and getting politicians to say something new. They settle, of course, for the latter. And they are aided and abetted by their co-dependents – the political class, who generally have an existential dread of disappearing if they are not in the media regularly.

This leads to the second problem of perpetual polling – parties, and particularly governments, are tempted to try to gamble on public opinion. So David Cameron promises pensioners jam now, jam tomorrow, jam forever – with one eye on YouGov.

While Ed Miliband’s pitch yesterday to be the champion of the middle classes was widely interpreted as a necessary response to polling – whether the new Mori poll with a “shock” fall in Labour’s lead over the Tories, or other questions on economic management.

Now, it’s pretty clear that Miliband’s move is a strategic one – with the new year under way and only 15 months until the general election campaign starts, it’s time to set out his vision for Britain more clearly.

That’s how it should be, and voters should be interested in the detail that is coming out on housing, the economy and welfare. But the more that any interventions are interpreted as tactical, the greater the temptation to become tactical in your political communications. The incentives are all about winning the headline of the day, rather than shaping and selling the right vision for the future.

This is the third challenge: polling is, in some ways, the opposite of democracy. The glib phrase and the slick soundbite are privileged in a fast-moving discourse whose aim is to influence the passing trends, rather than to change the fundamental flows of feelings and opinions.

Very few of the big decisions facing the UK are simple. They are complex and multi-factorial. They lack a clear or obvious villain, and they do not have one-club solutions. At the heart of democracy is a deliberative discourse: one that opens policy questions up to debate; that recognises there is more than one solution for most problems and acknowledges that no policy is perfect – all will involve trade-offs.

This is, in a funny kind of way, exactly the politics that should succeed in the modern era where far fewer voters are party aligned and where parties themselves have become more pragmatic and far less ideological. With a better educated electorate, and one that is equipped with many more communications channels to interact with politicians, there should be more chance of intelligent engagement. Instead, we have the opposite – a kind of ADHD politics.

I write with some feeling about this having experienced Australian political coverage, which often marches to the drumbeat of polling. With the fortnightly publication of figures from the major polling company Newspoll, comes feverish speculation – all heat and no light. But the key is commentary; fresh polling legitimises a reheating of opinions. Facts are expensive to establish, comment far less so. It is, in a way, surprising that the culture of constant polling has taken so long to get to Britain, but it is here and it is hurting us.

Reducing complex politics to a binary proposition – rather like the conclusion of gladiatorial combat – is not unknown outside opinion research. Referendum campaigns do much the same – and are consequently very blunt tools for decision-making, which are best used sparingly.

The putative referendum on membership of the European Union is a case in point. On the one hand, it is transparently a party management device for Cameron – deployed to defuse splits in the Tory Party, or quiet them down at least for now. The national interest does not come into it. And it’s been a failure for a simple reason. Eurosceptics are Trotskyists: make a concession for the sake of peace and they pocket it and come for more. This isn’t about rationality, but ideology.

On the other hand, the public has a rich and nuanced set of opinions on Europe that are not readily reduced to “In/Out”. Members of the public are in favour of the European Union. Of course they think it has problems – which political institution doesn’t? – but they don’t buy the idea that there is an obvious, simple solution. They do indeed say they’d like a referendum to be held – but that is really an answer to a different question. All voters say Yes when asked that question – to them the alternative is effectively to say “I am stupid and/or totally uninterested in public affairs”.

All in all, what is being driven out of public debate is intelligent, informed deliberative discourse. Which is paradoxical, because not only is there a better informed (and less deferential) public, there are fewer simple problems in public policy – the easy to do has, by and large, been privatised.

A lot of the frustration that the public has with politicians is attributed to their actions – expenses scandals or broken promises. The focus on these symbols of political failure ignores the narrowing of the context in which they operate.

The rise of polling is not solely to blame, but a quantitative increase in its use by media is resulting in a qualitative change. Some of the factors that have changed politics are irreversible: 24 hour news is here to stay – as is the centrality of social media. But while short forms of communication – whether tweets or soundbites – seem to demand message discipline and boring repetition, the winners in the modern age are old-fashioned characters like Boris or Nigel Farage. Authenticity is the new black. Just as New Year’s resolutions have encouraged some to go cold turkey on social media, maybe the press should give up polls for a month and politicians give up message discipline. Who knows? We might just find we are all a lot more interesting than we thought, and we might like each other a lot more, too.

If we don’t, we are going to have to get used to politics being a lot more like gossip – who’s in/who’s out, who’s up/who’s down – and a lot less like a battle of ideas and ideals.