Winning political parties put their faith in polling rather than punditry
By Tim Montgomerie
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What's wrong with the Right? Throughout this week we'll be looking at weaknesses in how the conservative movement thinks and how it operates. We'll be thinking about the changes we still need to make in order to end our four election run of failing to win a majority. Today I want us to consider if we have what in America David Frum is calling a 'Conservative Entertainment Complex';
We need to realise that most right-wing media organisations can prosper with hundreds of thousands of readers or viewers. The Conservative Party needs ten to twelve million voters.
The allegation is that there are a range of media organisations out there who don't care a huge amount about whether the Tories win the next election. What they care about is whether or not they tickle the tummies of their readers or viewers. Sometimes giving their readers what they want to hear may coincide with helping the Conservative Party's cause but we shouldn't see many individual columnists or bloggers or national newspapers as anything other than self-interested commercial operations who might or might not be pointing the Conservative Party and its supporters in the right direction. The need to entertain 500,000 readers is a very different objective from gaining twelve million voters at a general election.
How does this divergence of interest evidence itself?
In my column for today's Times (£) - Don’t get frothed into a right-wing bubble - I give a few examples of where the right-wing media is unhelpful:
- A lack of realism about deficit reduction manifests itself in many ways. The Government is often urged to cut deeper and faster but few ideas are ever presented as to how this might be done. You could sometimes get the impression from some national columnists that cutting the aid budget was the key to fiscal conservatism. In reality a key would involve the cutting back of middle class benefits but much of the right-wing press fiercely defends those benefits.
- Much of the Right-wing media gives the impression that it hates much of modern Britain. That's certainly true of Peter Hitchens' column in the Mail on Sunday. And then there's a patriotism that descends into rudeness. Simon Heffer's column in the Daily Mail recently suggested Angela Merkel was building a "Fourth Reich" in Europe. Much of Fleet Street can't talk about Germany or Europe without being taken over by Basil Fawlty-ism. All of this undoubtedly makes for good copy but is a model for the Conservatives to avoid. If we want to tap every Eurosceptic vote we appeal to the moderates who worry about the economic cost of Europe and not those people who think Angela Merkel has a secret plan for world domination.
- Finally, and in my view the most dangerous feature of the Right-wing media is the libertarianism of the Right-wing blogosphere. The opinion polling evidence is that anti-State fundamentalism is a fringe pursuit. The Conservative Party must not be tempted by it.
Journalists do not run good campaigns
Mark Textor, Australian business partner of Lynton Crosby, wrote this a few months ago:
"Ignore media commentators and stick to your part of the plan. Especially ignore their strategy, marketing poll interpretations. There are almost no former journalists who have been successful campaign managers. This is because they are tactically focused on Monday morning's headlines and not the long-term strategy required to get a consistent and, critically, a salient message to the public."
He's absolutely right. I'm delighted at Lynton Crosby's appointment - partly because he gets the importance of research. Do you remember how every pundit in the land laughed at the supposed shallowness of the No2AV campaign? One of the reasons that campaign worked was because it was immersed in market research. It wasn't based on a hunch as to what might convince voters to keep First-past-the-post. That's what Lynton Crosby will bring to Operation Cameron. He believes in the long campaign, famously arguing that "you can't fatten a pig on market day". He and Mark Fullbrook, his UK partner, were planning Boris' re-election two years ago. They were thinking then what three or four issues they wanted voters to think about when they entered the polling booth. They'll be doing that now and from that end goal they'll be organising the whole Conservative battleplan to ensure that those three or four issues are indeed uppermost in target voters' minds by election time. Crosby joins at a time when, thanks to Stephen Gilbert and Andrew Cooper, the Tory polling and field operation is in good shape. 25% of all discretionary Tory spending is now devoted to market research and that's how it should be. Obama won because he was steeped in the biggest opinion research database of any political candidate in history. His campaign wasn't guided by loud voices on the Left of American politics or by gut instinct but by a clear understanding of voters' hopes and concerns.
This is not to say that opinion polling can do everything
Polling cannot, of course, do everything. It cannot give politicians the authenticity or competence that voters crave. It cannot tell a leader if a gamble on an unpopular austerity policy will pay off by the time of the election by delivering economic improvement. Polling will never be enough on its own but think of every opinion poll as one thousand scientifically selected voices. Those one thousand voices are more likely to capture the national mood than a pundit armed only with anecdote, ideology, gut instinct and a desire to entertain.
Here's how I end my Times column:
"If pollsters don’t ask the right questions they can miss big movements in the political substrata. The greatest failure in recent Tory polling has been the failure to predict the rise of UKIP. Again and again Mr Cameron was reassured that UKIP was a passing phenomenon. Internal Tory polls failed to capture what columnists had long warned — that his relationship with many traditional Eurosceptic voters was at breaking point. Now, egged on by Britain’s right-wing entertainment industry, a quarter of Tory voters are now ready to vote UKIP but, as worrying for Mr Cameron, only 18 per cent of UKIP’s growing army of current voters seem open to voting for him.
But good polling is not enough: there is still a central place for judgment, vision and authenticity. Leaders find those qualities within themselves and also within the sections of the commentariat who haven’t yet surrendered to the idea that journalism is simply another form of audience titillation."
As my Deep End colleague writes today: Conservatives need commentators that tell us what we need to hear not what we want to hear.
> In the second part of this 'The Wrong Right' series tomorrow, we look at Working Class Toryism.
> This series was previewed yesterday.