The idea that politicians don’t care about opinion polls is, at best, a half truth. In my experience politicians rarely care about individual polls (unless their own name features on the ballot paper) but instead focus on the trends in polls. Sometimes individual polls do stand out that make professional politicians stop and ponder them.
This has happened to me over the last few days. It was not the Red C opinion poll in the Sunday Business Post that caught my attention. Rather it was the collection of polls that were published in the UK that saw a dramatic reduction in the Conservative Party lead. One poll suggested a Tory lead of 2%, others suggested that it was between 5 and 7%. The Conservatives appear to need a 10% lead in the popular vote to win as many seats as the Labour Party. With a 5% lead this could mean that the Labour Party actually end up with more seats than the Tories.This is due to the allocation of votes across different constituencies and also the ‘first post the post’ voting system in the UK.
All of this is such a change that it prompted speculative selling of the UK pound during the week, when the pound fell below the $1.50 mark against the dollar. Nick Clegg has now come out today to say that his party would not prompt an immediate general election in the interests of ‘UK plc’.
Does this have any relevance or learning’s for opposition parties here in the run up to the next election?
Well, there is an obvious one. Mistakes in policy do matter. But only a certain kind of mistake, and these are errors in relation to economic policy. Cameron wobbled on the issue of recognising marriage in the UK tax code despite the fact that it was the one of the few clear commitments that he made in the last couple of years. More broadly, Osborne has been advocating a tougher plan on deficit reduction but refusing to say how, while his front bench colleagues have been making spending commitments in health and oversea’s aid. This prompts a confusion which voters notice and one that the media pounce on.
Secondly, the tone of Gove, Hague and others has been gloomy. Britain is plagued by a ‘broken society’. Cameron has argued that they need to move to a ‘post bureaucratic age’. This anti statism just doesn’t reflect or chime in with the mood of middle England.
Finally, personal attacks might incentivise your base and activists. But they rarely chime in people who live ‘beyond the Beltway’. I don’t think most people are surprised that Gordon Brown has a temper or that he hit the roof when presented with the loss of personal data for millions of citizens. We’ve seen that so clearly in Irish politics. Leinster House residents (including me) get agitated by the fates of O’Donoghue,Lee, O’Dea, Burca and Sargent but it doesn’t make a jot of difference to how the people view the major parties.
Any learning’s for those of us wanting to get rid of Fianna Fail? The only thing that matters is the economy and showing a plan to the country that the light at end of the tunnel is a new dawn and not the lights of another train of economic calamity. This lesson might appear obvious but these polls show that all opposition parties are capable of forgetting it.