Polls: Bad for Debate?

images-2

In this general election we seem to be bombarded with polls on an almost daily basis. Whilst it is fascinating stuff for the political wonks to pour over, I wonder if it is skewing the debate in an adverse way that is bad for the democratic process.

It seems to me the polls affect matters in two ways. The first issue is the media treatment of the information. Polling has now become the main story, and instead of a forensic analysis of the relative merits of the manifestos, we instead get bombarded on a minute by minute basis with speculation about coalition building and potential alliances. Now, I am not saying that this is not important, but the matter has become so prominent that the content of the manifestos seems to have been largely forgotten by commentators and interviewers. It also means that the smaller parties, who may eventually hold the balance of power are receiving a disproportionate amount of coverage to the detriment of the main issues.

The second disadvantage is a philosophical one really, and that is that the daily polls seem to be encouraging people to vote tactically in marginal seats. As a result, votes will be cast on the basis of which policies people wish to avoid rather than on the basis of which policies people prefer. Now this seems to be a very negative aspect to me that devalues our democratic right. It may provide some instant satisfaction when a party is kept from power but the cost is that the government that does eventually form may not actually represent what people want and this will increase voter dissatisfaction in the longer term. It seems to me we should cast our vote in a positive way for what we want rather than for what we don’t.

It is interesting that some countries such as France, Italy and Spain ban polls in the run up to elections, and I wonder if we should consider doing the same. The media wouldn’t like it because it gives them daily fodder to talk about, but it might improve the outcome of the result. There would need to be a discussion on when the ban should start but I would have thought 3-4 weeks prior to the election should do it.

Avoiding The Debate

image

There is nothing more frustrating and boring than watching a politician avoid answering a question, and it is little wonder that public respect for MPs and the political process has sunk so low. But how is it that we have arrived at this point and are MPs solely to blame? The mother of parliaments was once regarded very highly, and its members were largely seen as public-spirited and principled. Now the electorate yawns at the day to day political tussle, and MPs are mocked and set alongside merchant bankers in the court of public opinion.

To my mind, the primary reason for this state of affairs is the manner in which the political debate is hosted and targeted. Modern communications are instantaneous, and fickle media outlets provide such fleeting opportunities that politicians often only have time to spill out some short and catchy, yet inane, sound-bite that they hope may later command a headline in the following day’s paper. There is very little opportunity for considered argument about the pros and cons of a policy: only its one-sided and instantaneous promotion.

This problem is made worse by the misreporting of any kind of admission by a politician that a counter-argument may have some merit even if he believes that those disadvantages are outweighed by the advantages of his own position. What tends to happen is that if a politician acknowledges both sides of an argument then it is often the fact that he has acknowledged the disadvantages of his proposal that is reported as the main thrust of the story. As a result, his reasoned debate that might well have interested the audience is left unexposed.

But why are political discussions reported in this way? It is quite clear that many media outlets have their own political allegiances and will spin a story to suit their own political allegiances. So, for example, from the same interview content, The Telegraph would report that a Minister favours tax cuts to stimulate the economy whereas The Guardian would report that the Minister wants to cut services to make tax cuts for the rich. The party whip system also makes this situation worse. So utterly tribal has party politics become that absolute adherence to the party line is demanded and anyone caught going off message is immediately dragged into the Whip’s office for a metaphorical (or real, who knows?) spanking. The problem with this approach is that it not only discourages MPs from discussing matters rationally, but it encourages the media to make the thrust of their story the very fact that a minister or MP has raised their head above the parapet to occasion proper 2-sided debate.

Finally, I suspect that there is another altogether more cynical component to this issue. With the erosion of 2 party politics has come the rise of the special interest groups and ever more research into the polls. Rather than steering public opinion through good leadership and strategic vision, parties now seek to be all things to all people in the hope that they can court the maximum vote. This is a strong driver for avoiding reasoned debate because any clearly stated position risks alienating a potential voter somewhere. How intellectually dishonest is that? It is obfuscation, and it is driven purely by the thirst for political power rather than a desire to make the world a better place.

I don’t know where the answer to this problem lies. In the first instance, I really wish that media outlets would act more responsibly by encouraging fair reporting and creating the conditions to allow politicians to make their arguments properly. Second, the local party associations, whips and party apparatchiks need to recognize that opinion cannot be uniform and that it is not necessarily damaging for both sides of an argument to be exposed. Indeed it is healthy for the country. Finally, it is possible that we will have to re-examine our electoral system. Whilst I was always a supporter of the first-past-the-post system, perhaps the other factors I have mentioned mean that it has finally had its day. Whatever the answer, we cannot go on with matters as they are. Democracy relies on proper debate and voter engagement, and we don’t appear to have either at the moment. Anyone got some good ideas?