Blurring the line between research and propaganda
Ashcroft shuns Slog’sTwitter challenge, Slog offers readers chance to ask the questions that really matter
Market research asks the questions that the business, social and political Establishments want answered. That’s fair enough – they pay for them. I spent over 30 years in market research, and it is a b2b market like any other: the more demand there is for certain knowledge areas, the more expensive it gets. So expensive, in fact, that for the simpler polling issues, many commissioners ‘piggy-back’ onto research in a syndicate with other clients.
Just about the only type of opinion research that grabs widespread public attention, however, is that involving politics and burning public issues. This makes it both different and dangerous, because there is a well-evidenced syndrome called the self-fulfilling prophecy – the so-called ‘snowball’ or ‘bandwagon’ effect.
We are pack animals, and pack members instinctively want to be on the winning side. When new developments happen in politics, one can get what the media calls a “surge”. Quite often, the reporting of a surge can create an even bigger surge as enthusiasm builds. In that sense, market research conducted towards the end of an election campaign can, in my experience, create an artificial element that favours new and fresh versus old and defensive.
I’m all for breaking the tripoly that operates in UK Westminster politics, but any sea-change should come from voting equality. The last five general elections, the data suggest, have quite clearly been influenced by unelected media barons, often not patriate taxpayers – most notably Murdoch for Newscorp, and the Barclay Twins for the Telegraph Group.
Over the last year or more, however, a new but equally insidious medium of influence and persuasion has blipped onto the political radar. Lord Ashcroft has been gradually increasing the pressure on the Conservative Party by a systematic series of polls – framed and paid for by him personally – largely designed to show that Camerlot is both out of touch and under threat. Like Murdoch and the Barclays, Ashcroft too is a billionaire and former tax-dodger: the only reason he changed back to UK tax domiciliary status was to retain his Lords seat.
It isn’t hard to find the motives behind the Peer’s negative behaviour: his Lordship has form when it comes to influencing politics with money. For a long time he was the Tory Party’s biggest and longest-standing donor. In turn, he has used his money to fund Tory candidates in marginal constituencies. Following David Cameron’s leadership victory, Ashcroft became a big wheel in Conservative Party organisation and strategy. Because he is a truly awful tactician and judge of character, Cameron promoted Ashcroft, who quickly consolidated so much power in Millbank, Camerlot’s key supporters became wary of “this unelected presence virtually buying the Party” as one prominent member said to me during 2010.
As the 2010 Election unfolded, a bitter row broke out in the Conservative Party between the Cameron yes-and-no approach and Ashcroft’s preference for no-nonsense communication clarity. For a brief time, it even looked like Cameron and Osborne were on the verge of a major row. Ashcroft quit that September – in disgust after the May election had produced the bizarre Coalition under which we suffer today. Having used his unelected money to climb to power within the Party, he now seems hellbent on destroying Camerlot from without.
That is not a libellous view. Go to the Lord Ashcroft Polls website, and it becomes instantly apparent that the Peer is not just A N Other pollster choosing his words of reportage with professional research-supplier objectivity:
‘The Prime Minister’s birthday this year is unlikely to be his happiest, but at least he knows what he is going to get. My poll on the Clacton by-election, to be held on 9 October, the day David Cameron turns forty-eight, has found UKIP on 56 per cent, 32 points ahead of the Conservatives on 24 per cent. Labour were on 16 per cent, and the Liberal Democrats and Others on 2 per cent each. More than half (59 per cent) of those who voted Conservative at the last general election said they would switch to UKIP.’ (2nd September 2014)
‘The voters of Uxbridge & South Ruislip welcome the prospect of Boris Johnson as their next MP, according to my latest poll. My survey of 1,000 residents of the constituency, completed on Thursday, found that when asked which party they would vote for in a general election tomorrow, 42% named the Conservatives, 28% Labour and 19% UKIP: a 14-point Tory lead.
But when asked how they would vote if Boris Johnson were their Conservative candidate, the margin extended to 29 points: the Tory share grew by ten points to 52%, with Labour down five to 23% and UKIP down three to 16%’
This sort of Cameron-mincing fare served cold with cucumber relish is pretty representative: it seems to me that all Ashcroft’s polls set out to highlight Tory weakness, not discover the all-round truth. He tends to focus on threats like Carswell’s defection, the rise of Boris Johnson, the surge to UKip…and latterly, the swing towards a Yes vote in Scotland.
I have long held that, because commerce tends to drive market research objectives, when applied to politics the same tendency to narrow rather than broaden the area of enquiry applies: the main Party bigwigs commission research as often as not to find out what they can get away with, or what not to mention. Here is a simple list of political topics I suggest would be of enormous interest to British voters, but for obvious reasons don’t evoke research studies that get into the field and thence the media:
* What is your view on the addition of ‘none of the above’ to ballot slips in UK elections?
* How would you apportion blame in the current Ukraine crisis?
* On a 5-point scale, how do you feel about blind equality in airport checks?
* Yes or No, do you think Britain is in recovery?
* What is your view about having compulsory social service with NO exceptions from the ages 14-16, with no military influence involved?
* Rate from 1 to 10 how connected you think UK politicians are to your concerns.
* On a 5-point scale, tick which opinion is closest to your view of the multicultural society.
* Do you think the giving of political donations helps or hinders equality?
The last one in particular, I suspect, is not high on Ashcroft’s list of survey priorities. You see, Lord Ashcroft is a very right-wing corporacrat of the genus most likely, in my opinion, to join forces with politicians like Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Fallon and Nigel Farage in order to complete what I have come to call the privatisation of politics. He would much rather pay minimal tax, ‘earn’ a Lords seat, and then buy influence – rather than join in the democratic process (or that part of it clinging to survival in Britain) with the rest of the People.
Yesterday, David Cameron blaséd his way through a Commons NATO statement, the Ukraine-related part of which led him to make statements I’d imagine many British people do not trust. So I was thinking afterwards that here we have a shifty Prime Minister distrusted by a shadowy political billionaire donor: is there something that could be done with this? Could Cameron be embarrassed – and some good be done for democracy – involving Lord Ashcroft Polls?
After all, we must live and hope.
This was the challenge I tweeted to Lord Aschcroft today…such is the nature of Twitter, you have to read from down to up:
Receiving nothing in return, I then chivvied his Lordship up a bit by copying Number Ten, and this was his response (and mine to him):
Since when, of course, I have heard nothing in reply to the positive request. Ashcroft’s sole response was a witty but smug observation of my syntactical error.
I think this spells out in large bold letters why we need some more representative market research….and not the personality hate-agendas of a rich, unelected manipulator. And this is not that difficult to achieve if we use the research syndication principle to our advantage.
Crowd-sourcing could work very successfully in this context. Trying to raise enough to relieve the Digger of his Times titles might be too big an ask, but this one really isn’t. One can get such questions tagged onto syndicated research samples for really not much money in the greater scheme of things….and if the crowds were supplemented by some of the press media who want to know the answers (as opposed to suffering from elephant blindness) then this would be something we could get up and running very quickly.
What good would it do?
Very simple: it would force into open, widespread media debate what the People really think about real concerns…as opposed to what Lord Ashcroft wants to highlight – the better to further his own ends – and increase the feather-depth in his already cosy nest.
Simply tick yes or no in the poll above. Then based on the result, I can suggest some routes towards actioning something.
In order not to bias the result, comments on this post will not be allowed.
Yesterday at The Slog: Why the McNo’s have Camerlot in a tizzy