Polling provides the map but leaders pick the path

“Polling may need a shot in the arm, but it certainly does not rate a shot in the back. The snipers on all sides are having a field day.” (from In Defense of Public Opinion Polling by Kenneth F. Warren)

These are the sort of words that could have been said in the offices of UK polling companies over the last few weeks. The fact that they were actually said by pioneering US pollster Archibald M. Crossley in 1949 only proves that the challenges pollsters face today aren’t new.

The Scottish independence referendum has placed opinion polling under fresh scrutiny. Those involved in surveying the Scottish campaign were accused of promoting panic, undermining the strength of Sterling and causing billions of ‘unnecessary’ extra pounds to be pledged to the Scottish people. They led a former Speaker of the House of Commons, Baroness Boothroyd, to call for opinion polls to be banned in the run-up to UK elections. They led the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, to get stomach ulcers.

Polling is once again in the dock. Yet the trial facing those of us who work in the industry is not just about short-term questions of polling accuracy, but a more fundamental question about the relationship between polling and leadership. Today polling is seen by some as a substitute for, rather than a support to, effective political leadership. The key tools of the pollster, like focus groups, are regularly cited as evidence for the way politics is now bankrupt of ideas and politicians empty of principles.

As an example, writer and business commentator Stefan Stern argued this week that polling and focus groups are part of the “conventional politics” which is “stuck, stale and discredited”. He cites Kevin Toolis’ play about politics under Gordon Brown, whose key character complains about the “phoney” circular nature of politics driven by focus groups. In contrast, Stern mentions the “apparently artless and spontaneous figure” of a Nigel Farage or Alex Salmond, who don’t need traditional campaigning techniques to tell them what to do.

Stern is not alone. In their book Citizen Renaissance (written in 2008), Robert Philips and Jules Peck argued focus group politics has emasculated government, “ensuring that policies and decisions are taken not out of necessity or a conviction of leadership, but as a way of pandering to swing voters”. This surrender was permitted by Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair, resulting in “a population deeply disillusioned with politics and political affiliation”.

Their criticism sounds remarkably familiar to those who’ve been around in politics a while. Indeed, a decade earlier, Clare Short, who was about to become a Cabinet Minister in Blair’s government, attacked “the people in the dark” who created an obsession with focus groups that was “making us look as if we want power at any price”. The same point was made of the Clinton administration. A Wall Street Journal editorial at the time complained: “Spend too much time following polls and you simply forget how to lead”.

As someone who regularly spends evenings ‘in the dark’, in the back room of a focus group facility listening to the public talk about their attitudes towards everything from politics to Pampers, I feel it is time to redress the balance. I can certainly think of examples both of poor polls and unprincipled pollsters and I happen to share Stefan Stern’s sense of unease at the state of conventional politics. But the widespread critique of polling as inaccurate and unreliable is itself flawed. For me, rather than being part of the problem of political and corporate leadership, regular polling is a key part of the solution.

Let’s first address the questions raised by the Scottish referendum. Instead of being an example of polling at its worst, you could easily argue the opposite. Pollsters took a fairly unique political situation – a single vote on a question where there is little historical data to measure answers against – and came up with predictions in the final days before the election that were both accurate in their assessment of who would win and also mostly within 2-3% of the actual votes (within the margin of statistical error).

It is true that all these polls underestimated the strength of support for No, but that is plausibly explained by a shift in opinion amongst the voters in the final 48 hours (see YouGov President Peter Kellner’s explanation of this). Indeed John Curtice, Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and an expert on public opinion, considers that the industry should feel “relatively unscathed” from the referendum experience.

Even if most polls are accurate, what does it say about the leaders who follow them? Here the critics seem to be reliant mostly on myth and hearsay rather than reality. Yes, it is true that the team around Tony Blair used focus groups heavily in the period before 1997 and during the re-election campaigns in 2001 and 2005. But it is nonsense to suggest this equates to ‘government by focus group’, certainly not one I witnessed. Polling was used as a sounding board, to understand public perception of politics, develop ideas and refine language, not as a master to be followed. It also seems to be without irony that the very people who allege Blair was happy to follow public opinion wherever it took him are often the same critics who disparage him for not listening to it over Iraq.

It is equally fanciful to imagine there is a group of politicians who just ‘lead’, in defiance of any opinions around them, public or otherwise. The heroes of the moment, the Nigel Farages and Alex Salmonds, of course rely heavily on a sense of what the public wants which helps them to define their political message. The very image of Nigel Farage, the regular guy who rejects traditional party politics and drinks a pint in the pub, is exactly the sort of political profile that tests fantastically well in focus groups. But no doubt UKIP are already aware of this. Farage and UKIP are polling frantically right now and are using this polling to try and lure more Conservative and Labour MPs to jump ship. Alex Salmond, for all his natural charm and charisma, also used polling heavily during the referendum to understand the frame for the campaign though, if the papers are to be believed, his pollsters seem somewhat unique in believing he would win.

So it seems polling is commonplace, undertaken not just by those leaders out of vogue. Nor should it be seen as a threat. Polling is not about usurping leadership, it is about helping leaders to do their job better. The apparent contradiction between listening and acting is, of course, a misconception. Political and business leaders should not do everything the polls suggest. Public opinion doesn’t give an instruction, it gives an insight. The skill is in understanding it, interpreting it and then applying it to your vision and approach.

I find the best analogy is to image polling as a map. It details the contours and characteristics of the world around you, the mountains and the valleys, the boundaries and boulders. It can reveal previously undiscovered sunny uplands and also highlight the hidden quicksand. It provides the perspective, but not the path. Which route you take requires leadership, judgements based on a view of where you want to go and the resources you have available. You would no more respect a mountain leader who wandered off with no sense of the nearby cliff edge than you would someone who sat all day at base camp staring mesmerised at the map.

In his inimitable style, the master of the focus group, Philip Gould, made a similar defence of polling in his book The Unfinished Revolution. Gould was quick to call the hype about focus groups “nonsensical mystique” and, rather than anti-democratic, he saw polling as one important part of a wider vision of democracy where politicians are able to hear the voters’ voices directly.

By way of illustration, he recounts a tale from Labour’s campaign in the 1980s. The party wanted to understand what the public thought about their idea of “public ownership” so this and other existing policies were put into focus groups. Somewhat surprisingly, the respondents in the group really loved the idea of public ownership. They thought it was great. Only when the respondents were probed further in the groups did it become clear that what they understood by the policy of public ownership was “privatisation – selling the shares to us, the public”.

This, for Gould, was why polling matters most. It is about listening to what the public think and feel, the words and the language they use, not so it can be copied but so it can be understood. As he argued:

“Campaigning is about dialogue with the people. The most important thing a party must do in a campaign is listen to what the voters are saying. This does not mean doing what they say, it means knowing what they are thinking and feeling, and respecting it.”

There should be no sense of contradiction between understanding the world and enacting a vision. On the contrary, I would argue the two things need to go hand in hand.

Polling is not the enemy of political change but its friend. The challenge for modern politicians is not to abandon the views of the public but to be better at listening to them, and then marry these views with a vision of a world they want to create. Modern politics brings to my mind the image of a rather jolly group of ramblers, wandering lost on the moors with no sense of where they’re heading. Polling can help provide the map. Mostly it is a pretty accurate map. But it doesn’t tell them the path they must go on. That is down to leadership.

Click here to find out more about our political campaign work.