In December 1824, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, received a decidedly unpromising piece of correspondence. One Joseph Stockdale, pornographer and scandal-maker, informed him that he would shortly be publishing the memoirs of Harriette Wilson, notorious high-class London courtesan. Contained in these memoirs would be:
Various anecdotes of Your Grace which it would be most desirable to withhold, at least such is my opinion. I have stopped the Press for the moment, but as the publication will take place next week, little delay can necessarily take place.
On Stockdale’s part, this was a naked attempt at blackmail. Wellington, national hero (not to mention devoted husband and father) was being asked to pay money to be left out of the sordid publication. His response entered the annals of fame. “Publish and be damned!”
It is unknown whether any such conversations took place between Lord Ashcroft – co-author of Call Me Dave, another explosive book about a Tory prime minister shortly to hit the shelves – and David Cameron, its subject. It must be presumed not. But while Wilson’s memoirs had no effect on Wellington’s reputation or popularity, will the same be true of Cameron?
Thus far, the focus has been on an admittedly amusing but rather grotesque tale involving young David and a pig. And the emphasis here should be on tale, given the spectacular failure of either Ashcroft or Isabel Oakeshott, his co-author, to verify the account. Of itself, it’s a piece of salacious gossip, likely to seriously harm Oakeshott’s hard won reputation. Ashcroft, as we shall see, is rather above such things, however.
The book also highlights Cameron’s use of marijuana at university – no shocks or anything significant there – and his belonging to various private clubs known for their hedonism and excess. Again: what’s the story here? But today’s revelations, which won’t be discussed anything like as much, are actually of considerably more import.
There has always been a question about David Cameron. Namely: does he understand or even care about those less privileged than he is? Somehow, through 10 years as Conservative leader, five as prime minister, nothing has ever stuck to him. Just like his role model, Tony Blair, the public view him as a likeable enough centrist; a safe pair of hands, someone they can trust.
That likeability means Cameron has always been able to obscure the sheer, wanton venality of much of his government: which lays waste to the welfare state; deliberately sets the young against the old; presides over thousands of deaths as a (direct or indirect) result of benefit sanctions so punitive, they’re being investigated by the United Nations; helped precipitate the European refugee crisis by bombing Libya, abandoning it, and turning it into a failed state; unbelievably wanted to bomb the Syrian government, and effectively do something which would help Da’esh, the most evil organisation seen anywhere since the Nazis; deliberately undermines democracy by changing voter registration rules; is very clearly trying to not just defeat, but destroy the Labour Party, with catastrophic consequences for democracy; and above all, never gives the impression of being interested in governing the country. Only for itself and people like it.
People, curiously enough, like the ‘Chipping Snorton set’, serialised in the Daily Mail today. 500 of the UK’s richest, most powerful and best-connected: a veritable British Bilderberg, if Ashcroft and Oakeshott’s description is taken entirely at face value. “Whatever happens in the marquee will stay in the marquee… whenever anyone new is invited to one of these gatherings, their name requires the approval of all”.
Leaving aside the image this unintentionally conjures up of something roughly akin to the mansion scene in Eyes Wide Shut (like the authors of Call Me Dave, I have nothing if not an over-active imagination), this section alludes to the alarming fusion between British politicians and the media. Among the guests at a New Year’s party in 2008 were Cameron (then Leader of the Opposition), George Osborne (then Shadow Chancellor), Andy Coulson, then Tory Director of Communications and former editor of the News of the World; Alan Yentob and Mark Thompson of the BBC; and Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth.
History records the trouble which Coulson, Rebekah Brooks (and for a time, Cameron) later found themselves in. Before the serialisation of this book, we might’ve theorised that relations between certain movers and shakers in the British press were dangerously incestuous (in a strictly metaphorical sense, of course) with some of the country’s leaders. Now we know they were.
More than that: how can someone who continually moves in such high company, is so at ease amid such wealth and excess, possibly have the remotest sense of the impact of his government not only on the poorest, the weakest… but merely on the common man? Plenty of Tory prime ministers came from privileged backgrounds; plenty were patrician in nature. But Cameron? While he speaks of governing as a One Nation Tory, in practice, he governs as a One South-East England Tory, and anecdotes like the above explain why.
Elsewhere, today’s segments in the Mail underscore Cameron’s hopelessly naive, wilfully incompetent approach to both Libya and Syria: with military expertise ignored and sidelined, just as it often was in Iraq during Blair’s time. Lessons have not been learned; so much so that in Libya, as Michael Ancram correctly puts it, Cameron “did an Iraq”. This is not the conduct of a statesman acting in Britain’s best interests; but someone whose calculations are always short term and nakedly political: with far reaching consequences.
Cameron, of course, been been marked by personal tragedy. The book also movingly outlines the torment and heartbreak which Cameron and his wife, Samantha, experienced over the death of their son, Ivan. In April, Samantha spoke at length to the Mail on Sunday about that awful time, revealing how hard they had fought to get Ivan into the special needs daycare centre he desperately needed; and were able to afford night care, which eased the horrendous strain on their marriage:
Looking after a disabled child pushes you to the limits of what you can cope with…physically, emotionally… By the end of the first year we’d both been working and Ivan needed 24-hour care. We were totally shattered and pretty much at breaking point.
Cameron frequently references this tragedy in his speeches, often to reassure the public of his commitment to the NHS. Yet in light of his family’s experience, it is extraordinary how savagely carers have been hit by austerity; and that the very respite care which the Camerons depended upon is being cut by local authorities.
Changes were made to the Disability Living Allowance under the coalition; and catastrophically, the Independent Living Fund has been axed: removing at a stroke the chance for severely disabled people to lead more independent lives. To live with dignity. Restrictions and cuts to the Employment Support Allowance would simply be the icing on a quite despicable cake.
Ask yourself: how can someone who knows how demanding it is to raise a disabled child, who knows how incredibly important high quality care for that child was, possibly oversee such abhorrent cuts? The answer could only be that David Cameron does not understand what life is like for those without the wealth he and his family enjoy; nor, it must be concluded, does he care either.
Today, The Sun is leading with news of a party in 2011, attended by the prime minister and his wife, where guests were openly “snorting cocaine in various rooms and in the toilets… the extraordinary thing is the guests didn’t feel they were doing anything wrong by taking drugs around the PM”. Yet also in 2011, by express order of the government, posting stupid messages on Facebook was punished with four years in jail; and a student with no previous convictions was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for stealing bottled water worth £3.50. There were many other such cases too. One rule for the rich, another for the poor: that is the story of Cameron’s time in charge of this country.
Will any or all of the examples set out by Ashcroft and Oakeshott bring the PM down? No. It’s the narrative they speak to which is so troubling, however – and with the revelations set to keep coming for several days yet, will have a drip-drip effect, embarrassing Cameron and weakening his authority bit by bit.
Much more serious for him, though – and more than that, for British democracy – are the enemies he has made during his premiership. Two in particular: Rupert Murdoch, and that man Ashcroft. As the only thing which ever concerns Cameron are the opinion polls, he was mightily quick to distance himself from Brooks and Coulson following their arrests for suspected phone-hacking; while Murdoch was found by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to be “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company”. The protection which The Digger had so long enjoyed from British governments of all hues was at last denied him.
In May, in a piece for Open Democracy, I noted Murdoch’s subsequent support for the SNP and the instrumental role of an opinion poll commissioned for the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times, published 12 days before the Scottish independence referendum. This was the only poll with a sample size of more than 1000 in the entire campaign to favour ‘Yes’; yet the panic it triggered across the British establishment resulted in The Vow, and Labour’s eventual meltdown across Scotland.
I also noted Ashcroft’s extraordinarily rapid rise to prominence as polling guru (despite not being a pollster himself, nor revealing where his company buys its data from) and “friend of the political process” – as well as how, after a general election campaign in which the polls were completely wrong throughout, the result could, only as the happiest of coincidences of course, hardly have been better for someone who (a) had long since fallen out with Cameron; but (b) certainly didn’t want a Labour government either. A tiny Tory majority, boxing Cameron in and making his life impossible, bringing his exit closer and ensuring a quick transition to someone more amenable; someone by the name of ‘Boris’? Perfect. Yet uncannily how things turned out.
On the BBC yesterday, Oakeshott protested that if the book “was just a revenge job, then Lord Ashcroft and I could have published it before the election”. As she well knows, this is nonsense: Ashcroft may hate Cameron, but he doesn’t hate the Tories, and was hardly going to cut his nose off to spite his face. This book is about reminding the Conservative Party where the true power really lies; and disturbingly for Cameron, it isn’t with him at all.
Ashcroft, indeed, has been quite open about his motivations. A “not insignificant job” was promised in the build-up to the 2010 election, only for him to be offered the trifle of junior whip in the Foreign Office:
After putting my neck on the line for nearly ten years – both as party treasurer under William Hague and as deputy chairman – and after ploughing some £8m into the party, I regarded this as a declinable offer. It would have been better had Cameron offered me nothing at all.
Imagine just how untouched by the vicissitudes of public opinion and colossally removed from everyday life someone must be to openly acknowledge being motivated by bitterness against the prime minister because of failure to buy a prestigious post in the government. Imagine, too, how this bitterness can actually include said prime minister’s handling of his then non-domiciled tax status. Ashcroft, while paying no tax in Britain, was nonetheless able to make an enormous financial difference to its most successful political party; and indeed, practically rescue it from bankruptcy in the dark days of the late 1990s.
News of his tax status finally emerged in March 2010, the worst possible moment for the Tories. Ashcroft’s name became mud throughout the election campaign, undermining Conservative hopes. In light of that, Cameron would’ve had to have been mad to have given the noble Lord a big job afterwards: but in twenty-first century Britain, the politics of patronage are still alarmingly pre-eminent, as Cameron’s recent stuffing of the Lords with Tory placemen demonstrated.
The problem is this. In this so-called ‘democracy’, money – lots of it – buys influence and it buys power. When, as in Murdoch or Ashcroft’s cases, it fails for any reason to do so, whoever incurs their wrath – including a prime minister who is himself the beneficiary of colossal privilege – had better watch out. The people? Their needs? They come way, way, way down the list.
Consider for a moment the curious case of former Tory MP, Louise Mensch. Once considered a rising star at Westminster, Mensch enjoyed her finest moment in July 2011, when questioning Murdoch and his son James while on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Her questions were “sharp, precise and coolly scornful”; she even asked one of the most powerful men in the world whether he had considered resigning.
Three days later, she received an email from an ‘investigative journalist’ named ‘David Jones’ alleging that she had taken drugs with Nigel Kennedy while working at EMI records during the 1990s. Her wonderfully brassy response – “Although I do not remember the specific incident, this sounds highly probable… I am not a very good dancer and must apologise to any and all journalists who were forced to watch me dance that night at Ronnie Scott’s” – endeared her to many new admirers and appeared to have nipped matters in the bud. Appeared.
In April 2012, contrary to her severe questioning of the Murdochs during the inquiry, Mensch disagreed publicly with Tom Watson and Paul Farrelly over whether the Committee’s conclusion of Murdoch’s unfitness had been discussed prior to Watson’s tabling of a Commons amendment. She described the report as “partisan”; while Watson went on to accuse her of tabling pro-Murdoch amendments which would’ve “exonerated” James, and allege that private conversations had been leaked to News Corp.
In August, citing family reasons, Mensch unexpectedly stood down as an MP. In January 2013, she became a columnist… for Murdoch’s Sun on Sunday. Thus had the woman who made her name speaking truth to power abruptly jumped ship and started working for that very power. I leave it to readers to join the dots.
Almost comically, Mensch can now be found on Twitter excoriating Oakeshott; but not her co-author, Ashcroft. Within the space of a few tweets, she derides Oakeshott as a “former journalist” and a “novelist”, and states she has “nothing but contempt for her”; yet she “remains a big fan of Lord Ashcroft”. Consider the utter absurdity of that position (not least from a self-proclaimed feminist): she attacks the monkey relentlessly, yet continues to indulge the organ grinder.
Like David Cameron, Louise Mensch is a very wealthy, successful, even – in relative terms – powerful individual. But that wealth and power are nothing when set against that of Ashcroft or Murdoch… and she knows which side her bread’s buttered on. She now faces the rather invidious prospect of working for someone, Murdoch, who may well – especially with Brooks ominously restored at The Sun – be about to commence a campaign to bring down her other boss, Cameron. If he does, she can only watch on helplessly from the sidelines.
One final point. As well as personal spite and fury, what is the motive on the part of these two colossally powerful men? The EU referendum. Both favour British withdrawal; both will have been left aghast by Cameron’s efforts at manning the big battalions in support of the UK remaining. Forcing him out before the campaign really begins in earnest must be the goal: but if so, the PM’s only option is to bunker down and hang on for grim death.
It’s not the stories by themselves which will bring Cameron down. It’s the men behind those stories. Some enemies are just too big to make; and since his as dubious as it gets purchase of The Times and Sunday Times in 1981, no British political leader has managed to get on Murdoch’s bad side and survive to tell the tale. In the bitterest of ironies, the Old Etonian prime minister may himself be about to discover that in British politics, money doesn’t talk. It swears.
Thursday May 7, 2015. Britain goes to the polls at what is universally – entirely wrongly – believed to be the closest General Election in fully two generations. The opinion polls are deadlocked, and have been for months. The choice facing the country is by far the most stark since 1992: this wasn’t, contrary to what 99.99% of people assumed, a close election – but it was certainly a watershed.
On Tuesday morning, I set out why I believed that almost all forecasts and predictions were wrong: Ed Miliband’s strategy had been hopelessly flawed; his party would find itself squeezed from all sides; and above all, that the methodology employed by every single opinion polling company was wrong. Alarmingly wrong. Disastrously wrong. Inexcusably wrong.
At this point though, I want to highlight that, in no small part, I was wrong too. While I foresaw an enormously disappointing night for Labour, I did not anticipate such an apocalyptic one. Whereas I expected that the Scottish National Party (SNP) surge would hold, and count horribly against Labour not only in Scotland, but even more in England, where it had become the central plank of Conservative strategy to frighten voters into giving David Cameron a proper mandate, I did not foresee the almost complete wipe-out which resulted. And contrary to my belief that the Liberal Democrats’ positioning themselves as a sensible coalition partner would enable their support to hold up to some extent, it instead entirely melted down: Nick Clegg’s party squeezed even more horrendously than Labour amid the strange, Byzantine beast of First Past The Post (FPTP).
True, despite all that, I still did considerably better than any of the forecasting websites, any of the polling companies: I got the big picture right, you might say. But even I stopped short of stating the Tories would win a majority; I thought a further Tory-Lib Dem arrangement was likely, and never foresaw that half of this equation would all but vanish from the electoral landscape altogether.
A little later, I’ll be introducing readers to the man who did get it right: the only man prior to the formidable exit pollsters who got it extraordinarily, almost impossibly right. But if you’ll forgive me, on this awful morning for progressive politics across England and Wales (if certainly not Scotland), I want to indulge in a spot of something so often beloved of those on the left: self-flagellation.
You see, what happened at this election – this supposedly cataclysmic shock – was supposed to happen all along. The government, while embarking on a series of horribly divisive, almost entirely unnecessary economic policies, had experienced no disasters. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings remained good; at times, remarkably good. Those of the opposition leader were, thanks to his palpable lack of gravitas and the toxic reputation of his party (blamed both for Iraq, entirely justifiably; and the 2008 financial crash, rather less justifiably) poor: at times, extraordinarily so given dramatically rising food bank use, rising inequality, and a prolonged fall in living standards unparalleled since the Second World War. Most of this directly affected those who would, surely, represent Miliband’s core constituency – yet any sense of cut-through remained elusive.
Then consider that, for reasons I set out last month, the nature of Britain’s electoral system has made it impossible for any party standing on anything resembling a truly radical, progressive agenda to get anywhere near winning an election since 1979 (in fact, since 1974): with the early 1980s split on the left meaning that, in effect, the entire voting system was dragged ever further to the right, a self-perpetuating process which is still ongoing and shows no signs of slowing down. And above all, on by far the most important indicator of any party’s readiness for government – economic competence – the Tories had remained well ahead of Labour ever since the crash; considerably because of the latter’s extraordinary failure to challenge a narrative about ‘austerity’ which isn’t only misleading – but is fallacious and increasingly dangerous to Britain’s medium and long term future.
This narrative, parroted relentlessly by the increasingly hysterical Tory press, the BBC, and both the Tories and Lib Dems, meant that when Miliband said perfectly reasonably that no, Labour had not over-spent before the crash, most viewers were horrified. How could they trust someone so irresponsible, not even prepared to apologise; who’d been part of a government which, so everyone insisted, had ‘run out of money’?
Never mind that no country in charge of its own money supply can ever run out of money (it simply prints more); never mind that Britain wasn’t even remotely imperilled in the manner of southern European countries trapped in the euro zone and crucially, without control of their money supply or economic policy; never mind that the effect of coalition-imposed austerity was simply to remove huge amounts of liquidity from the system, grind the economy to a dead halt, and it only began to recover when those policies were significantly ameliorated; never mind that almost all macro-economists around the world (notably the Nobel Prize Winner, Paul Krugman; the Merton College, Oxford Professor, Simon Wren-Lewis; and even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) itself) had rejected austerity as a busted flush; never mind that not Labour, but the coalition, had doubled the national debt, and left it massively more exposed to an increasingly possible second crash; never mind that the economy had been growing rapidly when Gordon Brown was forced out of office; never mind that borrowing costs are historically low, and inflation is at zero; never mind that the welfare state itself had been built by the postwar Labour government at a time the country was technically bankrupt (so it simply borrowed instead, investing in infrastructure and setting a course for the Keynesian consensus); never mind that the now immortalised Liam Byrne note was a playful aside to his successor in the manner of long established Treasury traditions; never mind that, mindbogglingly, the Tories were proposing a more extreme version of the very policy which had failed so completely in the first place… none of this mattered.
If a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes the truth. Thus both coalition partners asserted that Labour’s much more balanced approach to deficit reduction would “pass our debts on to our children and grandchildren”, even when Tory policy will, by preventing growth or re-balancing, actually do that very thing; both continued to espouse the risible nonsense that Britain’s debt (which remember, they had doubled) was somehow comparable to a credit card debt, or that running a country is akin to running a household budget.
The press, run by barons who benefit enormously from the continuous upward funneling of wealth to the super-rich, and who would be personally impacted by a mansion tax, the return of the 50p tax rate, and especially the removal of the absurd protection of non-doms, hammered the message home again and again: Labour would endanger everything. A shockingly economically illiterate public (so illiterate that this itself poses an increasing threat to public policy, and certainly to the UK’s fiscal health) would inevitably acquiesce: despite policies which do most of them ongoing financial and social harm. And once the ‘danger’ posed by a party with the brass neck to have huge numbers of MPs democratically elected by Scottish voters was thrown into a wholly disingenuous, toxic mix, the die was cast: with public minds panicked into nonsensical comparisons with the 1970s, told that Nicola Sturgeon would ‘drag’ Miliband to the left… despite the SNP actually standing for slower, more drawn out austerity than Labour.
But throughout the last five years, Labour themselves have been horribly culpable: for failing to challenge a false narrative, or set out their own plans in any convincing way. When Miliband defended the Brown government’s record during the televised debates, he needed to assert why it hadn’t over-spent – but in keeping with serious communication issues which dogged him throughout his leadership, he couldn’t. Instead, like a rabbit in the headlights, hoist by the petard of his own foolish commitment to austerity, he froze – and his failure to ‘take responsibility’ will undoubtedly have hung particularly heavy in undecided voters’ hearts in the polling booths yesterday.
That the public have continued to blame Labour for hardship caused by the coalition is a huge part of the reason why Miliband’s results at local, European and by-elections were so poor; and those results, as we shall see, represented an enormous, critical warning: not only to Miliband, but the pollsters. Both ignored them (in the latter case, incomprehensibly so); both will have plenty of time to reflect and repent on this now.
To recap: miles behind Cameron on approval ratings, public credibility, and especially economic competence; lacking in authority or leadership skills; leading a party with a toxic image (and with a Shadow Chancellor who embodied this in public minds more than anyone else); standing on a progressive platform the like of which hadn’t succeeded at any general election in 40 years; overseeing continually poor electoral fortunes despite mid-term ballots almost always providing a huge boost to any modern day opposition (and for that matter, failing to pull into anything like the kind of mid-term lead which any opposition needs in order to win the big one); and up against a government regarded by most as perfectly competent, how could anyone possibly have believed that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party stood the remotest chance of being returned yesterday?
Every single key electoral indicator was against it and in favour of the Tories. The apocalyptic, beyond seismic fall-out from the Scottish referendum – incorporating a Scottish left feeling completely betrayed by the last-minute announcement of The Vow and Cameron’s apparent shifting of the goalposts the moment a NO vote was confirmed; furiously mobilised against a Scottish Labour Party who had stood alongside the hated Tories and therefore confirmed itself once and for all as ‘Red Tories’, who neither represented their interests nor had delivered anything resembling social justice despite 13 years of government – which, true to form, wasn’t so much ignored as entirely missed by Labour’s laughably oblivious London headquarters until it was already far too late – was only the latest of many factors which, combined, could only lead to one conclusion. Miliband would lose; and he would lose big.
Thus, a week after the referendum, a time when most commentators were incomprehensibly expecting a Labour majority, and had not picked up on what was happening in Scotland in any way, I stated that he would inevitably lose in this post on The Guardian. When challenged, I even forecast the share of the vote: 37 or 38% for the Conservatives; 31 or 32% for Labour – and posited:
I think we’ll start the general election campaign, ie. a month before polling day, with everyone anticipating a hung Parliament. We’ll finish it, as a minimum, with the Tories as the largest party – and probably with a majority.
To me, this was the only logical outcome. As we moved towards the election, I treated any Tory lead as a sign of the inevitable; but was bewildered as Miliband appeared (according to the fatally, catastrophically flawed polls) to overtake Cameron during the campaign, then as things remained level pegging all the way to polling day. I simply grew more and more suspicious: what was wrong with the polls? Why were they all saying something which I could scarcely even conceive of being true?
Yet even then, I didn’t follow this through to its logical outcome. In my article on Tuesday, everything I highlighted should have left me forecasting a Tory majority: not merely that Miliband could not possibly become PM. I should also have better appreciated that, given a hitherto merged party encompassing both the Liberals and Social Democrats had effectively cut its latter half away by joining the Tories, but would be facing those very same Tories (who the polls were under-stating) in most of its key seats – who basked in public approbation for economic competence, while the Lib Dems played the Aunt Sally role of being blamed for any of the coalition’s more pernicious policies – Clegg’s party wouldn’t just lose half its support. It would inevitably haemorrhage a whole lot more: and be lambs to the slaughter when up against the Conservatives.
Instead, naturally enough I suppose, I asked myself, “in 2015, with all their sophisticated techniques and given all the lessons of the past, could ALL the pollsters – even including Nate Silver, for goodness’ sake – really be THAT wrong?” So I restricted myself to predicting another Tory-led coalition, rather than extrapolating in conclusion the very thing which all my arguments should have led me to. My forecast remained much more favourable to Cameron than almost any other anywhere; but still, mea culpa. A lesson learned.
Then on Wednesday night, as the nation slept before crunch time, and the likes of May 2015 asserted preposterous levels of hubris about the likely outcome, everything suddenly became clear. I had chanced upon the one and only forecasting hero of this long campaign: whose services will surely be in the highest demand in the years ahead, who had conducted comprehensive, demonstrably proven psephological research, and whose findings drove an absolute coach and horses through every single professional forecaster and polling organisation… as well as sending an unforgettably cold chill down my Labour-supporting spine. For the Conservatives, his work spelt Nirvana; for the opinion polls, it spelt Nemesis.
In an extraordinary tour de force, the best, most counter-intuitive piece of electoral research I believe has ever been conducted in the modern day (better even than Silver’s in 2008 and 2012), the website Number Cruncher Politics (NCP) explained that, according to all possible indicators and variables, the polls were telling a wildly different story to that accepted by just about everyone.
As I had done, NCP strongly suspected a repeat of 1992-style Shy Tory Syndrome; but unlike me, as the man behind it is possessed of the scientific expertise necessary to trawl through exhaustive amounts of data going back some 50 years and model it in various ways, he had the ability to conclusively prove it. By examining electoral data covering the previous 35 years, toplines from the last half century, and opinion polls from this Parliament, he identified a very clear statistical pattern, which repeated itself through three separate models. His main findings were as follows:
1. As I had noted in my article, opinion polls at British General Elections are usually biased against the Tories and in favour of Labour. The exception, when both the Conservatives and Labour were a little understated in 2010, while the Lib Dems were wildly overstated, was in all likelihood, a one-off (and to me, easily explicable by how vulnerable the soft progressive vote invariably is under FPTP. The same demographic of voters inflating the Lib Dem position 5 years ago were, I intuited, having an identical effect on Labour this year).
2. The unusual fluidity of the electorate during this last Parliament (so many Lib Dem voters abandoning the party; Tory and Labour voters heading over to Ukip) had almost certainly undermined – perhaps even entirely negated – the adjustments made by pollsters after the debacle of 1992. Especially when it came to the usual method of reallocating ‘don’t knows’ – because far fewer of these would vote for their traditional party, but amid a new, multi-party landscape, how could pollsters possibly determine who would, and who would not?
4. Conflicting internal polling – reports of which I noted in my article, and clearly precipitated a dramatic change in strategy over the last week as a panicking Labour campaign desperately courted the notoriously unreliable young vote (again, the same voters who failed to turn out for the Lib Dems in 2010, despite so many of them having promised their support) – bore uncanny resemblances to 1992.
9. All three models – based on adjusted topline numbers; polling internals; and actual votes – were telling an extraordinarily similar, unbelievably alarming story about this year’s election; and combined, when tested against the polls at every General Election since 1983, outperformed them on all but one occasion (2010, when the difference was a mere 0.2 points).
10. What was that story? Namely, that the Tories were heading for a victory by between 6, and more likely around 8 points – despite the opinion polls all suggesting things were dead level.
The sheer, overwhelming exhaustiveness of the research left no room for doubt. I was awestruck by what I had just read, and given my habitual sense that the polls were very, very wrong, knew it could only mean one thing. The Tories were heading either right to the cusp of an overall majority; or their first majority since, you guessed it, 1992.
Three final opinion polls were now due to be published before 7am. Inexplicably, none were; allappearedseveral hours later instead, along with a fourth too. Had the polling companies seen the NCP research, appreciated the catastrophe it foretold for them, and reappraised their data? I have no idea, but can only suspect not. I tweeted it to May 2015, but got no response: instead, the New Statesman’s forecast site happily updated the news that the final polls still suggested a tied race, and Miliband premiership.
(1)No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed—
(a)any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted, or
(b)any forecast as to the result of the election which is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information so given.
Above, point 1(a) refers to exit polls: which of course, are never released until 10pm. But 1(b), while not explicitly doing so, appears at all elections in the past to have been taken to cover opinion polls released after voting has begun. This was the sixth General Election I’ve experienced – and never before have opinion polls been published after 7am on polling day. Why were they on this occasion?
In fairness to the pollsters in question, the Act was hardly designed for an internet age dominated by social media and, at this election, by forecasting websites: all of which continued to apply the latest data despite point 1(b); while on Twitter and Facebook, various candidates re-tweeted endorsements from voters and voters declared who they had voted for. As The Telegraph notes today, some form of mild campaigning still seems to have been going on beyond that.
A mess, then, which the Electoral Commission would do well to resolve ahead of future ballots – but there are two vastly more serious points here. First, for the duration of the campaign (and, for that matter, a good 2 years prior to that, according to NCP), all polling companies and forecasting sites have been publishing wildly, at times ludicrously inaccurate information which inevitably influenced the race, and the outcome. When parties are assumed to be tied, their strategy changes; media treatment of them substantially changes (never more so than in Labour’s case this year); public responses change too. In the latter case, how many more voters are likely to vote a certain way out of fear that those they’re opposed to are in touching distance of victory? And under FPTP, how many vote tactically who would otherwise not have done – and vice versa?
In practice, as the NCP model conclusively demonstrates, Labour were never ahead, and have probably been several points behind throughout the campaign. Yet that’s not what the polling companies were saying. Should organisations with such disastrously flawed methodology and a consistent record of inaccuracy which, as exposed by NCP, dates back at least 32 years, be allowed to dominate the agenda in such a way; and above all, to have such heavy influence on debate and public discourse?
Remember: huge amounts of the Tory campaign were dedicated to frightening English voters into stopping a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP – but in practice, this was never the prospect it appeared, because Labour were doing much worse than was believed. Enormous amounts of discussion were put over not to policy, not to manifestos, but the electoral and Parliamentary arithmetic – but this bore no resemblance to the reality.
Is it any wonder the British public have such little understanding of macro-economics when whole election campaigns – leading to a decision hugely determining the futures of them, their families, their loved ones – are given over to constant reactions to never-ending opinion polls: even when these polls are completely wrong? Other countries (most notably, France) do not allow polling firms to play such a huge role during the final week of election campaigns; why on Earth does the UK?
To make matters worse, the thesis I set out on Tuesday focused heavily on the role of Lord Ashcroft: whose constituency polling has been a huge feature of this campaign, and clearly became central to most forecast sites: most notably, May 2015 and Election Forecast. My piece concluded that his data was almost certainly awry; and in that, we now know that he was in very good company with all other polling firms.
At The Telegraph, virtually ever since Ed Miliband was elected Labour leader, Labour-supporting Dan Hodges has consistently (and we now know, quite brilliantly) forecasted Miliband’s demise. He must be experiencing very conflicting emotions this morning; as a fellow Labour traveller, I know I am. In February, he asked a question which the British polling world should have already been asking: “What does Lord Ashcroft want?”
As Hodges set out, over the last 5 years, Ashcroft has morphed in public persona from hugely controversial non-dom to friend of the political process: opening up the business of polling to the public in a manner never seen before. But Ashcroft, contrary to what so many must assume, is not a pollster: he buys in polling from other companies, publishes the results, but won’t reveal who these companies are. He himself is not a member of the British Polling Council either.
Not only that, but he’s an extremely wealthy Tory peer, and former Deputy Chairman of the Party. During tbis campaign, he’s tweeted his admiration of Sturgeon – whose ‘danger to England’ just so happened, by purest coincidence, to constitute the central plank of the successful Conservative strategy. I have never known a Tory give such regular praise to a nationalist in the way Ashcroft has.
His final ‘snapshot’, released well after 7am yesterday, had Conservative and Labour tied, and only added to the bigger picture that the two parties were deadlocked. But ask yourself, purely hypothetically: if you were a Tory who naturally desired your party to win as convincingly as possible, would you want the final poll to have them well ahead… or locked in a race too close to call, which would encourage maximum possible turnout? More to the point: purely hypothetically, if you were a Tory who wanted maximum possible negative exposure of Labour throughout an election campaign, scaring the public into voting heavily against them, would you want them to be well behind… or seemingly on the verge of victory?
How far the obvious flaws in Ashcroft (sorry, I mean the companies which he buys his polling in from)’s data help explain the almost identical flaws in every other firm’s data, I couldn’t possibly begin to imagine. But how has such an obviously self-interested individual become the most influential figure in opinion polling? Why were at least two very well-publicised forecasting sites so dependent on deeply flawed data? Why haven’t more questions been asked about his motivations?
One man who has asked such questions – many, many such questions – has been the Labour peer, Lord Foulkes. He conducted his own online pursuit of his Tory contemporary throughout the campaign: leading to frequently entertaining exchanges, but never leaving observers in much doubt as to what he thought. Foulkes has hinted for many days that the polls were wrong; and in February, went a great deal further. Opinion polls, he fulminated, were increasingly:
“Being manipulated at the behest of people with money, whether they be the media or individuals, as part of the political process… What is clear now is the media in particular, but others as well, are demanding instant polling, determining when it should be done and how it should be done. The academic rigour that ought to be carried out isn’t being carried out.”
And to be sure, given what this article has set out, who could possibly argue true academic rigour had been carried out on a whole series of polls which haven’t just been a little wrong – but a lot wrong? Very wrong. Astoundingly wrong.
Similarly astounding, when you stop and think about it for a moment, is how, after half a century’s dominance of Scotland, the Labour Party have been swept away just like that via a speeding yellow flash; meltdown triggered, as noted above, by The Vow and its ongoing fall-out. But what’s so often forgotten about the referendum campaign – the democratic event that changed Scotland irrevocably forever – is that between August 2013 and polling day itself, just two opinion polls (and only one with a sample size of over 1000) put YES ahead. That latter poll, by YouGov and the Sunday Times, was publicised with unusual relish by Rupert Murdoch on Twitter, and sent shockwaves through the British establishment.
Its response to one solitary rogue poll? The Vow. As soon as it had been made, Labour were in no position to control what resulted; and when that involved Cameron cutting the rug away from Gordon Brown’s feet on the steps of Downing Street, suddenly, a party which for so long had dominated Scottish politics was faced by an oncoming train it (because it was in government in neither England nor Scotland) could do nothing about – which yesterday, flattened it completely, destroying its broader electoral hopes in the process.
Opinion polls, then, can be remarkable things with yet more remarkable consequences. Especially when they’re conducted for a newspaper de facto owned by someone with a surprisingly good relationship with the then First Minister of Scotland; even more when they help trigger the collapse of a party which had taken that someone on in a manner of no other British political party in my lifetime. What did that someone’s lead redtop do during the election campaign? Simultaneously support the SNP (against Labour) in Scotland; the Tories (against Labour, while banging home the message of dangerous, rebellious, left wing Scots coming to rule over the English) in England.
Rupert Murdoch, of course, was humiliated by the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking; deemed “not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company” by the British government, and has been investigated by both British and American authorities for bribery and corruption. This perhaps helps explain The Scottish Sun’s enthusiastic support for the SNP; The Sun’s vituperative opposition to Ed Miliband, whose ideas threatened to end any remaining influence of Murdoch over the UK media, and its voicing of a narrative which would inexorably pull England and Scotland apart, threatening the imminent break-up of a 308-year-old Union.
Through his actions, Murdoch has left no doubt regarding his open hostility to the UK and British establishment. Hell hath no fury like a global press baron scorned. At the same time as Murdoch has fallen from grace in Britain, Ashcroft’s star has dramatically risen. Which is, presumably, entirely unremarkable – but the examples of both provide a heavy reminder of what can happen when vested interests collide with the democratic process.
As Foulkes has noted, extraordinarily, the ever more influential polling business is entirely unregulated. In such a world, despite their consistent inaccuracy, all polls are effectively taken on trust: a remarkable state of affairs. Foulkes has therefore introduced a Parliamentary Bill intending to establish an independent regulator; which will also place restrictions on polls being published in the three weeks leading up to an election. In light of all that’s happened in this campaign, one can only wish his Bill speedy and safe passage.
To return, though, to yesterday. I now knew conclusively that the polls were hopelessly askew – but the dear old British public did not. Neither did the BBC presenters: who in tandem with the entire watching world (but not, at least, maybe two or three of us) greeted the exit poll with incredulity. The moment I saw that poll, I was entirely sure it was either (a) absolutely accurate; or (b) still underestimated the Tories’ position. The latter was how it proved. While frantic Labour supporters initially clutched at the straw of an exit poll that wasn’t – a YouGov re-contact survey confirming the previous day’s numbers, which had been arrived at via all the same mistakes as all the other polls – I simply told my friends that it was over. And it was.
We’ll never know whether those in charge of the exit poll had been alerted to NCP’s work. Either way, though, they at least did a magnificent job in hellishly demanding circumstances; they at least emerge from this complete fiasco with their heads held high.
As I type, David Cameron is now back in Downing Street, gleefully clutching a 12-seat majority. He and the Tories, though, will soon discover that in politics, as in life, we should be careful what we wish for; for with an EU referendum now certain, Cameron is likely to be even more boxed in by his lunatic fringe than John Major was after 1992. The chaos of that period destroyed the Tories’ public image, opening a chasm in the party which even the staunchly Euro-sceptic Cameron has been unable to close. With the economy now likely to be sent straight back into recession by even heavier austerity than before, I would be moderately surprised if the Prime Minister makes it as far as the referendum; and in the event of a vote to stay in, even more so if the Conservatives don’t do what they’ve been threatening to do for over a generation, and split completely and irrecovably.
For the other big winners of the night, the SNP, the path to independence is clear. How can a country with one Tory MP and 56 nationalist MPs possibly be governed from London by a majority Tory administration? Answer: short of immediate full federalism and an immediate change to proportional representation – preventing such a scenario ever occurring again – it cannot. The Union’s days are numbered.
And Labour? With Miliband having resigned with typically good grace, now the party must put right its awful, tragic error (for both men) in choosing the wrong brother in 2010; and resolve its ongoing internal debate between the kind of quasi-social democratic agenda offered by the now departed Ed, and something closer to the Blairism necessary to win under FPTP. Chuka Umunna would plainly represent the latter; but in truth, if Labour are ever to regain a foothold as a natural party of government (especially once what we know now as Britain becomes merely England and Wales), it desperately needs to reach out to and reconnect with the many millions of working class voters it has shed since 1997.
Tony Blair knew how to win; but did not know how to create something truly long lasting and self-sustaining. Only by shunning both Blairism and Milibandism can Labour hope to do that: it needs to forge a new non-statist, localist, communitarian approach, in which the ties of family, friendship and community are reborn; power is devolved downwards to localities and through federalism, and offers real remedies for Britain’s increasingly divided, fragmented, discordant, atomised society.
That huge bloc of traditional support (the latest chunk of which voted SNP and Ukip last night) must be won back; the sense of alienation they feel must be listened to and engaged with. Their aspirations – as well as those of small business or bigger business – must be met: a much larger, much more coherent coalition of Labour support than is ever generally appreciated is out there, but has been almost entirely neglected for a whole generation.
As the country discovered yet again last night, British politics only works for a few. As it regathers its energies from this latest devastating blow, it is Labour’s task and will always be Labour’s cause to ensure that, by offering new solutions to both new and old problems, it finally begins to deliver for the many.