Well it’s official. The General Election will be on May 6th. The Conservatives knew it; the Lib Dems knew it; the public knew it. I even think that Gordon Brown knew it, which judging by his performance as PM might come as a surprise to many. When the date came to make the trip to see the Queen, I wonder if the PM was tempted to change the date just to annoy the press, who collectively strut around the airwaves like the cock of the walk. The monolithic mass media feeds on information, but not the ordinary facts and figures, no, only the rarefied cuts of fresh meat, tender slices of “exclusives” will do. So they stood there looking ever so smug about knowing it was happening before it had actually happened yet when Mr Brown stood on the steps of Downing Street and officially announced, the media reported it as if the population had suffered collective amnesia and that this was news to us. But that’s by the by; something for another time.
What is really irking me so far in the election campaign (including the unofficial period) is the focus on polls. These statistical ubiquities seem to be the be all and end all of election coverage; no news segment is complete without a mention of the ‘latest YouGov poll’, or Mori’s latest findings. As an additional cricket bat around the head, the BBC has Jeremy Vine dancing around CG-land showing us a plethora of ways the same information can be displayed, replete with a paternal condescension. Maybe it’s just because he’s on the radio.
Whilst a simple nod to the polls is all well and good, this information is more useful for the Parties involved than it is for the citizens. The focus on what is termed the horse-race (who’s in front, who’s behind) comes at the expense of serious examination of policies, but of course these simple, easy to digest statistics are easy to sell to the public as opposed to a fusty news piece about fiscal stabilisers (I’m not sure if they exist, but if you put two words like that together, they generally mean something important yet incredibly dull). I’m not advocating a return to the dry old days of news broadcasting, where the Queen’s English was the only regional variation heard, and presenters used starch to maintain their stiff upper lip, but focusing on relatively pointless opinion polls is not conducive to an informed electorate.
What difference does it make to the average voter that the Conservatives are 7% in front of Labour two weeks before the election? Democracy does not revolve around the backing of a winning horse, or the feeling of peer pressure to vote similarly to compadres; it is a personal choice based on at least a base consideration of the party’s platform. But the media could not give two hoots about such a reflexive process, as that is not going to sell papers or gain market share. Instead this is another example of the future trying to be predicted. By stating as fact the latest opinion polls we are invited to see the provisional make-up of Parliament, which consequently disregards the methodological weaknesses of such poll data (margin of error, is it generalisable?). Yet such trivialities does not feature on the media’s radar as their desire, their bloodthirsty need to consume and regurgitate all information before it happens leads them to reporting more on the future than on the present. The implications of polling data are irrelevant two weeks before the election; the possibilities of a Hung Parliament based on ICM’s research should not sway people’s perception of actual policy positions.
But this distortion of the true course of Party Politics will of course continue. Maybe some time in the future they will scrap the General Election hand that over to Gallup to perform, but until that day comes we should all focus on the only Poll that matters, the one on May 6th.