Do predictions affect results?
Politicians are well known for predicting their own electoral success: in order to win, you tell people that you are going to win. But the UK General Election of 2001 has seen two rather different phenomena.
New Labour was buoyed up by a commanding opinion poll lead throughout the election campaign, which the Tories never succeeded in denting.
But whereas New Labour warned its supporters against an expected landslide, it was the Conservatives, under William Hague, who predicted their own victory a prediction that simply beggared belief given their poor showing in the pre-Election polls.
Even more interestingly, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy acknowledged openly that he had no chance of becoming Prime Minister. His aim, stated in every interview he gave, was to supplant the Conservatives by presenting his party as the alternative opposition to New Labour.
All this defies received political wisdom. Traditionally, politicians are enjoined to predict their own victory and never acknowledge the possibility of defeat.
In the heady days of the Social Democrat/Liberal Alliance in the 1980s, it was Liberal Party leader David Steel who told his annual conference audience to go home and prepare for government.
To go home and prepare for opposition seems a rather more modest aspiration. So what is going on here?
Polls and politics
Just like weather forecasting, opinion polling has become a more exact science. Its greater sophistication has also increased the likelihood that it may influence the events that it seeks to predict. Even if the overall outcome of this election was not affected by the polls, the turnout almost certainly was. At 59% (the lowest since 1918), it was down a full 13% on 1997.
Perhaps because the result seemed a foregone conclusion, people simply did not bother to vote. Yet New Labour still won an overwhelming victory, neatly captured in the media metaphor of an apathetic landslide. The Liberal Democrats might also be seen as victors of the 2001 General Election: with 52 MPs, they have achieved their strongest Parliamentary representation since 1929.
In their various ways, the political parties responded to the message of the polls. Labour tacitly acknowledged its massive lead by warning supporters against complacently assuming the result was a foregone conclusion. Charles Kennedy openly acknowledged the Liberal Democrats' minority status, thereby making their aspirations sound more modest and realistic.
In contrast, William Hague's approach, like that of his predecessor John Major in the 1997 General Election, was based on denial. His persistence in predicting an improbable election victory did not improve his chance of winning; it simply made him sound out of touch.
Opinion polls are now central to each party's electoral credibility. Hague's refusal to acknowledge this made much of his rhetoric sound like so much blagging. Conversely, the political stance of both Labour and Liberal Democrat parties clearly reflected their perceived popularity a tacit acknowledgement of the increasing importance of opinion polling as a political factor in its own right.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, July 2001
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2001