Book Review from the February 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
Explaining Labour's Landslide. By Robert Worcester & Roger Mortimore. Politico's.
Opinion polling has been a feature of British political life since 1938. (57 percent of people were satisfied with Neville Chamberlain's performance as Prime Minister). By the last general election, however, the pollsters were on trial as never before. They had, horror of horrors, got the result of the 1992 election wrong.
In the end, their predictions of Labour's victory in May 1997 turned out to be creditably close to the mark. The Tories lost 177 seats. Labour won its highest ever number of MPs, and had a majority of 179. Worcester, who founded the MORI agency in 1969 and has been closely involved with political polling ever since, and Mortimore tell the story of that election through the data the polls provided.
The Tories were doomed long before the campaign began, they argue, because of problems almost entirely of their own making. To any socialist, this is deeply uninteresting stuff. The high point of this part of the book, as it was of the campaign, is the man the Tories paid to dress up as a chicken and follow Blair around. Which of them talked more sense is still hotly debated.
And yet, this is not a boring book. It argues strongly from a position of hard facts supplied by the polls that bias in the press does swing votes. During the 1979 election, two thirds of Sun readers didn't know its political allegiance. (Its front page on polling day consisted of two words: "VOTE TORY"). By 1997, "the print media did . . . have significant influence on the voting behaviour of their readers". In this case at least, greater political awareness seems to be a handicap.
The authors are suitably cutting about the cynical and meaningless astrological "predictions" spouted by several papers. The Express, for example, claimed that "a Tory victory is written in the stars . . . Tony Blair is doomed due to the poor positioning of something called the planet Rahu". Shelley von Strunckel in the Evening Standard was cleverer, taking a whole page to hint at a hung parliament without actually committing herself to anything at all. This under the headline "Forget polls, the result is in the stars".
Most interesting for socialists though, is the section What is public opinion? Clearly for anyone concerned to see a huge shift in human consciousness, this is an important area. The book gives much food for thought. "Public opinion", it maintains, comprises three things. There are "opinions: the ripples on the surface of the public's consciousness, shallow and easily changed; attitudes: the currents below the surface . . . and values: the deep tides of public mood, slow to change, but powerful". Political convictions generally (we are told) come from this third element. To dump our upbringing for capitalism frequently entails a shift in these deep values. It is possible, as the existence of the membership of the World Socialist Movement proves. But it may not always be easy.
The book of course was not written to give us ideas about how to speed up this process of human change. But what is the alternative? A man dressed as a chicken, pecking at the heels of another man who would soon be sending bombers round the world to serve British capital's interests. Pathetic, maybe; but nine out of ten people think it was childish too—the chicken bit, at least.