How our belief in the polls reduced politics to an equation

Opinion polls 'gave the illusion of solidity to what was in reality pure wind'
Opinion polls 'gave the illusion of solidity to what was in reality pure wind'
Adam Bienkov By

Ken Livingstone's former economic advisor John Ross has spent many years producing charts and equations which sought to prove that the Tories were somehow in terminal decline and would never win a majority again. This argument was superficially attractive to many on the left. Not only did it fit our prejudice but it also contained graphs.

Similar mathematical quackery was used in the run-up to this year's general election. An entire mini-industry of websites popped up over recent months which somehow 'proved' that Ed Miliband was overwhelmingly likely to become prime minister. Pollsters and forecasting websites spewed out endlessly wonkish explanations for why Labour would triumph and the Tories were on their way out.

This reduction of politics to a mathematical equation was highly appealing. Constant daily polling allowed us a limitless supply of evidence to support whatever case we had. It also allowed those with completely opposite views to prove their own case - often by using the exact same polls.

This reliance on maths gave the illusion of solidity to what was in reality pure wind. It was a con, wrapped up in a lie, shrouded in an equation.

Of course if the national polls had been more accurate, this illusion would not have been so obvious. But even if the opinion polls had been broadly right, any attempt to extrapolate national figures to a nation of 60 million people taking part in 650 different elections, was a task with such a high margin of error as to make it basically meaningless. More importantly, while our heads were all stuck in the charts, we missed the real story of what was actually going on around us. It's easy to blame the opinion pollsters for this, but this was a failure of journalism as much as a failure of opinion polling. Yes the opinion polls deceived us, but we allowed ourselves to be deceived.

This obsession with polls also helped strip our politics of any sense of ideology, principle, or cause. In this clinical world, all that mattered was the numbers. If the numbers didn't move (which they almost never did) then nothing else mattered. Every speech, every policy and every debate was reduced to a simple sum. Commentators and politicians became little more than accountants, balancing profit against loss.

This week's polling catastrophe gives us on opportunity to once again talk about what we actually believe in, rather than what Lord Ashcroft and his hugely expensive collection of redundant charts says we should believe in. It's an opportunity we should all take.


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