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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Opinion polls ensure that the wise views of voters are heard between elections

Janet Daley, writing in the Sunday Telegraph made a from-the-heart plea for less focus groups and opinion polling in politics. Here is a cut-down version:

Politicians have never been so unpopular, while never has so much effort been expended in finding out what voters think and want... Never before in political history has more attention apparently been paid to the systematic study of public preferences... The most common complaint about modern politicians is that they are more inclined to follow public opinion than to trust their own convictions and lead it... Could it be that the very business of turning politics into a hyper-sophisticated branch of mass marketing, replete with state-of-the-art techniques for product testing and opinion sampling, has made it repugnant and alienating?

I admire Janet, and wish she had said more - because what is striking about her piece is that, unusually, she doesn't actually make any recommendation. She implies what she desires, but only through a set of questions; clearly she isn't really sure. Would she actually prefer a politician in power who followed a disastrous course, so long as he truly believed in it?

We tend to elect politicians because we want to kick out the ones who have displeased us, not because we love their replacements. Imagine if this slightly random process happened one day to get us a genuine liberal for Prime Minister. A true leader who gave us membership of the Euro, much higher taxes, heavy regulation of business, open-door immigration, abolition of private health and private education, and for good measure did away with prisons except for the nastiest murders. Would Janet exclaim; "At last! A politician who follows his own mind!"?

Or perhaps we'd get someone whose passionate convictions led him to the other side: exit from Europe, pull up the drawbridge, privatise and deregulate everything possible including all schools and hospitals, build a hundred new prisons for a three-strikes-and-it's-life policy, and slash welfare. There are plenty of smart professors, wise civil servants and brilliant wide-eyed politicians who'd support one or other of those platforms. The public never would.

Maybe Janet would argue: I personally wouldn't like these guys in power, but at least I would admire their inner resolution. So imagine instead if Gordon Brown had been faced not with David Cameron in 2010, but with a man who ignored public opinion and imaginatively led with an undisguised radical agenda of huge ambition, with clever policies that frightened the voters - and we got another five years of Brown? Would that have made her feel better about the state of politics?

Janet is herself wise and sensible, and we can appreciate an occasional cris-de-coeur, but we shouldn't be misled by her interesting, unresolvable questions. We must remember that public opinion, though often wayward, is ultimately wise; or at least, even when it isn't wise, we don't have a safer method for deciding the big issues.

Representative democracy was an arrangement created to deal with the (geographical) size of the state - an earlier age could not technologically accomodate an Athenian-style everyone-involved democracy. We use opinion polling as a proxy for mass involvement. It creates its own problems, to be sure: answering a poll is not the same as thinking hard and taking personal responsibility for a decision. And polling methods are not always reliable; and pollsters are not always objective; and focus groups can often be profoundly misleading for the reasons Janet states.

But until we have a better method of engaging the experience and judgment of all willing paicipants into public policy-making, this flawed process of opinion research, creating platforms that the public will vote for every five years, relying between elections on a messy mix of political ambition, civil servant caution, imperfect polls, academic input and activist media commentary, is the best method we've got.


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