I can’t count the number of times people have said to me on Twitter or Facebook that the polls have “told them” (as if the polls are some present day Oracle at Delphi speaking especially and directly to them) that Jeremy Corbyn is ‘unelectable’. This usually happens when you demolish their narrative (I won’t dignify their discourse with the word ‘argument’) that only a Blairite or a similar stuffed shirt would make a better Labour leader. They base this notion on the fact that he (Blair) won three General Elections in a row. That the Blair-led Nu Labour party won those elections is irrefutable, however as I pointed out in a previous blog, Labour lost 5 million voters in the space of 13 years. Of course, that fact is also ignored because it reveals an uncomfortable truth: the policies of Nu Labour and its variants Blue Labour, and the unfortunately coined ‘Brownism’, are unpopular with many people. So why do people persist in citing polls as some kind of ‘evidence’?
For eons, humans have sought to master nature. One way in which people have tried to achieve a mastery over powerful unseen forces is by attempting to predict future outcomes. For some, tarot cards do the trick and for others, it means consulting their horoscopes in the papers. Sometimes, the future will be divined from random signs that have their origins in folklore: bones scattered on the ground and animal entrails thrown onto a fire have both been used with little or no success.
Polling deals with numbers, so it is seen as being more scientific and less susceptible to human fallibilities. I mean, numbers don’t lie, surely? Well, they do. It all depends on how numbers are interpreted and who is doing the interpreting. Sadly, polling companies don’t employ people who have been produced in an ideological vacuum and free of discourse. They may make all kind of plausible claims that their ‘research’ (sic) is ‘rigorous’ but this is done to throw people off the scent. I mean, how objective was Lord Ashcroft’s polling? At least he declared his political position from the outset. Polling companies don’t do that and will claim to be ‘objective’, but as many academic researchers will tell you, it isn’t possible to be totally objective. This is why qualitative researchers use self-reflexivity. Pollsters don’t bother with such things because they see themselves as the impartial interpreters of signs and that’s their weakness. Thus, we can regard them, quite literally, as the self-appointed high priests of psephological divination. In the eyes of the mass media, therefore, they are uncritically accepted as politically-neutral soothsayers; mere observers of a history to come. Their legitimation having come entirely from their claim of being impartial.
But it’s not just the numbers, it’s how people arrive at their responses . This is rarely, if ever, discussed. Polls exist, not to gauge public opinion, but to shape it. Thus, the questions that are asked of respondents are equally important as the numbers themselves. Since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the right-wing press and the Nu Labourites of the Parliamentary Labour Party have persisted with the narrative that Corbyn is “unelectable”. There is no basis for this claim and it seems to be based entirely on antipathy towards him, rather than his policies or ability to connect with voters (which is also disputed). Narratives like this and “Corbyn has failed to reach out to working class voters” are trotted out frequently as kinds of truths. But if you start to subject these narratives to scrutiny, they quickly fall apart. Polls may start with a statement like “It has been said that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable”. To this, a question will be added that reads something like “how likely are you to vote for a Labour Party led by him”? The polling companies prompt respondents to react in a certain way. Thus the narrative has been planted in their minds from the outset. The narrative will also be repeated in the mass media as a kind of Truth.
This article in the New Yorker asks if polling is destroying democracy. If polls are being commissioned by the newspapers and broadcasters, then questions need to be asked, not only of their validity but of their purpose. Last week, the Daily Express produced a story from a survey that claimed “Most people want to go down the pub with Boris Johnson”. My first question was “who did they survey” and my second question was “who commissioned this rubbish”? Perhaps the most important question is “who is this story and survey for”? It tells us nothing and if The Express commissioned this poll, then it begs the question of why it’s still in business as a serious (sic) newspaper.
The failure of the polling companies to predict the future was brought into sharp relief by Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory and last year’s UK General Election. Their fallibility was laid bare for all to see. “Ah, but what about the margin of error”? What about it? Whenever polls are criticized, especially in the case of their claims of Corbyn’s apparent unelectability, the margin of error canard is deployed as an appeal to authority. Crucially, those who defend polls never consider the fact that those questioned in these surveys may be Tories who won’t vote for Corbyn or who may not even vote at all. They may even change their views between now and election day. Some respondents may even lie. Apparently, these variables are factored into polling but how accurate is this margin of error? Not very, by the look of things.
YouGov is often cited by polling experts and watchers as being the most accurate of the polling companies, but this company was founded by Tories, Stephan Shakespeare and Nadhim Zahawi. The latter still has questions to answer over his involvement in a Jeffrey Archer charity in which millions of pounds, apparently destined for Kurdish refugees mysteriously vanished. Shakespeare is a twice-failed Conservative Parliamentary candidate and former member of the Socialist Workers’ Student Society.
The latest YouGov poll repeats the by now familiar “Labour is x points behind the Tories”. Polling companies and the mass media work hand-in-glove with each other. The latter produces a constant stream of negative stories and the polling companies respond by producing a poll, which reinforces the claims of the former. Sometimes the poll will be commissioned by persons or organizations known or unknown. In any case, they feed each other.