BRITAIN: ANOTHER BAD DAY FOR POLLSTERS
In Obama’s re-election they did not predict his lead,
And in Israel they were doubtful Netanyahu could succeed.
And then the British pollsters were mistaken, one and all.
Once more they were quite certain it was TOO CLOSE TO CALL.
Astonishing! Unbelievable! Everybody, but everybody, knew that this election would end without a winner. Even Nate Silver, the one pollster who got the Obama 2012 victory right, this time joined the consensus that no single party could prevail. Yet here we are with David Cameron’s Conservatives winning a clear majority of seats over all the other parties combined.
Explanations abound. There is the unfairness of the first-past-the post system: the Conservatives won their 331seats with 37% of the votes, while the 13% for the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party gave them exactly 1 seat. Labour’s losing almost all its Scottish seats to the Scottish National Party was calamitous; though it would still have lost even if it had held all those seats. Critics in the Labour Party blamed the party’s lurch to the left from the era of Tony Blair’s middle class appeal; yet Blair is something of a pariah in Britain because of his enthusiastic backing of the Iraq war. The inquests will go on and on.
But there is one factor of particular significance to this blog. While the targets of political satire range across the entire spectrum of the political process, its most obvious subject matter – especially for cartoonists -- is the style, character and personality of political leaders. Now, British general elections are ostensibly fought by parties not, as in the U.S., presidential candidates. Nominally the party leaders contend for election to their local constituency rather than the nation. Yet the qualities and reputation of the leaders can be a major factor – and in this election the Conservative leader, David Cameron was clearly preferred to Labour’s Ed Miliband.
Not that Cameron had a free pass from the satirists. They depicted him as the “posh” candidate. The satiric weekly Private Eye had a Downton Abbey montage on its cover with Cameron as the Earl backed by Margaret Thatcher in the Maggie Smith role and various members of his Cabinet as supporting cast members. Much more brutal was the Guardian cartoonist, Steve Bell, who repeatedly depicted Cameron with his face enclosed in a condom, suggesting his quintessential, public relations smoothness. (http://jonslattery.blogspot.com/2010/11/steve-bell-why-i-put-cameron-in-condom.html)
But if Cameron fell well short of Churchillian levels of appeal, he had no difficulty in besting Ed Miliband’s personal standing. Miliband had narrowly beaten his own brother David in the contest for Labour party leadership, the outcome having been determined by strong backing for Ed by the trade union members of the party. He is a former Cabinet member, highly intelligent, and passionate in his conviction that the working and middle classes had been shabbily treated by the Conservatives and their Liberal Democratic coalition partners. But as a leader in the age of television and social media he was simply miscast.
I have previously discussed his problem in a May, 2014 blog which focused on the fact that the Labour Party had hired the American David Axelrod as a key election consultant, tasked with bringing U.S. style techniques to the campaign and the Labour leaders. I showed that Axelrod’s ability to demonstrate Miliband’s prime ministerial qualities would be difficult indeed in face of the kind of onslaught presented week after week by Private Eye that Miliband was a well-meaning but bumbling Mr. Bean in “The Adventures of Mr. Milibean.” The series quoted him as saying of Cameron: “Apparently he’s hated, feared and ridiculed. I’m only ridiculed.”
Now, all political leaders are ridiculed. None are exempt from having their personal shortcomings and policy equivocations mocked. Yet somehow they must convey the impression that their serious qualities outweigh their inadequacies and that they are fit to be our governors. Axelrod had been brilliantly successful in his presentation of Obama. Miliband was no Obama.
In fact, he was no Cameron. Poll after poll showed that while many of Miliband’s policy positions (especially on the National Health Service) were preferred to Cameron’s, the latter was far ahead (well beyond any margin of error) when voters were asked which of the two had the strongest prime ministerial qualities. And the media, especially those controlled by Rupert Murdoch and other Conservative supporters, delighted in showing Miliband in awkward and embarrassing situations. They pounced, for example, on a photo showing him in an ungainly effort to bite into a large sandwich. Previously Cameron had been seen during a visit to America eating a hot dog with a knife and fork. But apparently it is more damaging in Britain to be depicted as a clumsy Mr. Bean than as a posh Downton Abbey Earl.
A more serious mishap came during a Miliband leadership speech to the Labour Party. Eager to demonstrate his fluency without notes he forgot to mention Labour’s policy on the budget deficit – the kind of omission which made Texas governor Rick Perry a laughing stock during the Republican 2012 debates.
As he resigned as Labour leader after the election Miliband declared “I take absolute and total responsibility for the result and our defeat in this election.” This is a noble mea culpa, but almost certainly excessive. The majority of voters, however dissatisfied with the Conservative economic performance, preferred it to Labour’s past record and current proposals no matter who presented them. Still a different leader
– perhaps his brother, despite having been foreign secretary under Tony Blair – might well have narrowed the gap.
Satirists will now turn their attention with renewed vigor to Cameron and his prospective battles over the economy, Scotland, immigration, and Europe. But for the moment he will savor his triumph over all the other parties – and, of course, over the pollsters.