I mentioned before that the 2010 General Election probably has more parallels with 1992 than 1997, and I’m particularly starting to form this impression with regard to the opinion polls. Those of us who are old enough will remember how John Major’s Tory government trailed in all but (I think) one of the surveys carried out during the 1992 campaign, yet spectacularly found themselves returned to power with a working majority once the real votes had been counted.
The polls at the moment seem just as erratic – one minute Labour activists are cock-a-hoop at polls which show the gap narrowing to four points, the next minute Tory smugness returns as another poll shows them twelve points ahead. There is no clear picture and it’s very hard to put your finger on a trend. Only one thing’s for sure – someone’s getting it all wrong.
The 1992 disaster (from the pollsters’ perspective) was put down to the phenomenon of “Shy Tories”. The theory went that, since the Conservatives had been in power for so long (thirteen years by then) and seemed so universally unpopular, it was embarrassing to admit to supporting them. Instead a significant number of respondents told pollsters they would vote for Neil Kinnock ahead of the hapless John Major. (Kinnock regrettably took the polls at face value and indulged in a fit of triumphalism at Labour’s pre-election rally in Sheffield – a sight still guaranteed to make Labour supporters wince.)
I suspect that the problem still exists (to be fair, who would want to admit to anyone that they think George Osborne might make a good Chancellor of the Exchequer?) but are there also a number of ‘shy’ Labour voters out there who choose not to admit their support for Gordon Brown?
And perhaps we should factor in a general cussedness among many when it comes to answering questions about their political views. I have previously lied blatantly to an opinion pollster (purely for sport, you understand) and I very much doubt that I’m alone in this. As people become more and more cynicised by the entire political process it’s surely no surprise that they don’t take ‘being polled’ particularly seriously. Add to that the residual effect of the expenses scandal and it begins to look like an election that will be volatile right up to the end. Such an election would be very difficult for anyone to predict.
It seems there is little to be gleaned from the endless avalanche of polls. Perhaps we could surmise that the Tories are ahead, but not by much; Labour look set to lose a number of seats; and the Liberal Democrats may yet have a say in what happens after the big day. The truth is no one knows exactly what will be the outcome on 6th May – the only thing we can be sure of is that we will get no concrete answers from the opinion polls.