Running to stand still

In September 2008, Populus conducted a survey which recorded 52% of voters describing themselves as ‘in the centre’.

This may not seem a very exciting finding, but I remember at the time thinking it was obviously the ground David Cameron was after. That didn’t take an enormous flash of insight either, but these figures did hit me: voters self-assigning as ‘to the right’ represented 23% of the electorate, and those ‘to the left’ a mere 18%.

Put another way, people who want a steady, pragmatic progress with the minimum of polemics and optimal use of commonsense outnumbered socialists by 3 to 1; and Thatcherites by more than 2 to 1. They’re not really people ‘in the centre’ I suspect: they just don’t want any more of what free market vulgarity and ‘big government + pushy unions’ have to offer. They don’t like extremism, and they are suspicious of ‘ideas’. They’d prefer action that makes sense.

I realise I’ve sprinkled lots of qualitative hypotheses all over the findings of that Populus study, but in the light of later events they would make eminent sense. The emergence of Unite as a pernicious influence upon the Labour Party did them no good at all. UKIP has grown in stature, but not the BNP. When the full extent of banking madness became apparent, British voters became more angry than at any point in my lifetime. The massive wealth of Lord Ashcroft has pulled the rug from under Tory marginal strategy. And the simple ability of a third alternative to come across as ‘more honest’ than the other two has resulted in massive gains in voting intention for the Liberal Democrats.

The one thing those 2008 respondents didn’t know about was the MPs’ expenses scandal. This now widely-used title for the scandal of the Century so far doesn’t do the wrongdoing any justice at all: it was in fact just over half of the main legislature’s members working the system and falsifying tax invoices in order to put six-figure sums in their back-pockets – on top of what were already large five-figure salaries.

I think it would be interesting to see Populus repeat this survey, but this time ask (first) ‘Which ONE of these descriptions would you say best reflects your political view?’

a. Conservative b. Labour c. Liberal Democrat d. None of the above.

Then ask ‘And which ONE of these statements most closely matches your own views?

a. Overall, I think our political system is fine as it is
b. We need to make a few minor adjustments to our political system
c. The political system needs to be reformed in several major ways
d. Only drastic reform will make our political system work better
e. We should throw away the whole political system and start again

The first question could give us intriguing insights into a number of things – primarily by the addition of ‘none of the above’. Clegg-surge or not, it would provide a reading on how far alienation from the system has gone. (A key point here is that the sample would be random weighted, not quota on the basis of intention to vote at all). But it would also show how many people really think of themselves as ‘Labour’ any more. Given the grisly figure of 18% from the 2008 study, the question has to be raised: does the Labour Party have any role at all any more? As I write this, the Party is a poor third in the polls.

For me there is also the interesting question of whether left, right or even centre remain convenient pegs on which to hang Parties – or whether they are now simply getting in the way of progress.

But it’s the second question that could really, finally help Westminster politicians with the wood/trees thing. I fancy that a very large number of people would tick d – and a worrying number even e. And a smart idea at that point would be to recruit some focus groups from the d and e crowd, to see if they really know what reform is necessary. I’d wager that most of them don’t – and that the niceties of proportional representation wouldn’t be appreciated by many. (Perhaps this is why the LibDems have foolishly downgraded its importance to them).

This is the problem with research – and indeed, with democracy. The US Constitution is wrong to conclude that all men being equal is self-evident: they self-evidently aren’t. Most people don’t know the detail of what they need on any issue – be that related to brands, politics, banks, entertainment, the economy or the EU.

Focus groups in politics have led to a knee-jerk idea that one listens to the voters, and then does anything to please them. The missing element in that equation is leadership. What the current crop of Westminster MPs do is pretend to listen to the voters – and then do something crass. So instead of accountable leadership, we get secretive muddle.

Repeating that Populus study with the suggested changes might concentrate the governmental mindset. It might also remind the electorate that one Nick Clegg doesn’t make a Summer – or break the system.