Thrustings on the hustings

Political Communications
October 6, 1995

Harold Macmillan was once asked by an interviewer whether he had learned anything from fighting general elections during his long parliamentary career. "Yes," he said. "You win some, you lose some."

Those with an appetite for a more detailed account of political behaviour when a national ballot is in the offing need look no further than this lively and informative study of the 1992 general election. (That was the one, you may remember, when John Major spent much of his time balancing on a soap-box, but Neil Kinnock took the final tumble.) Political Communications is a record of the proceedings at a weekend conference at the University of Essex, where, the dust of battle having settled, key participants from the major parties met to exchange notes and compare their scar tissue. The press were there; so was a chastened group of pollsters, limping bravely into the lecture hall to describe their sampling methods and explain how their forecasts came to be so impressively adrift from the final results.

The list of protagonists may point to a rather dull text: do not be deceived. All the relevant facts are assembled, but the book is in no danger of drowning in its own statistics. Indeed, what rapidly emerges is that a campaign seen in retrospect can be a good deal more enlightening than the real thing. And what a relief it is to have seasoned MPs drawing on their experience in an intelligent exchange of opinions instead of squabbling in front of the television cameras.

Wisely, the parties were represented at the conference not by their official leaders, but by those directly involved in the overall planning and conduct of the campaigns. This kept the focus, as intended, on an assessment of strategy and tactics, rather than on a mere reaffirmation of party policies and principles.

In his contribution, Lord Holme, one of the Liberal Democrats' leading strategists, points out a particular difficulty which the change of Conservative leadership presented. He writes: "Labour must have shared the same fundamental problem of how to get an amiable, pragmatic, rather grey prime minister in the sights with the same clarity as we had his predecessor, the restless radical and, by the end, highly unpopular figure, Mrs ThatcherIJohn Major was a very different opponent to fight, combining low-key affability and genuine classlessness with no clear policy thrust."

John Wakeham (now Lord Wakeham), who worked on the campaign in harness with the then party chairman Chris Patten, was never in any doubt that his party was going to win. His certainty came, he says, from a realisation that John Major - "the principal change-agent in British politics" - was unwavering in his own confidence of victory. But he was surprised that the Labour party - aside from looking "tired and out of date, lacking in imagination and innovation" - allowed the Tories to hammer home so persistently their favourite theme ("Where is the money to pay for Labour's promises coming from?").

Labour's senior spokesman, Robin Cook, readily admits that mistakes were made, but thinks the Conservatives ran a totally negative campaign. "Insofar as the campaign made a difference," he writes, "the single most effective element was that the Conservatives invented a dishonest tax price tag and were successful in frightening enough people into voting against Labour because of it." Other errors on his own side included failing to keep ammunition in reserve for the final week of the campaign, getting too deeply involved with proportional representation and not doing enough to register support from women (particularly under 35). He also complains with restraint, but genuine bitterness, about the right-wing bias of most of the national press.

Des Wilson, the Liberal Democrats' campaign director, accuses some of his own party colleagues of "sniping" at him through jealousy, but claims that the objectives agreed by Paddy Ashdown and himself were achieved. "Could we have done better? Possibly a little, but I do not believe we could have done much betterIIf we had a fair electoral system, we would have won more than 100 seats." (They actually won 22.) The opinion pollsters take over 80 pages to explain their own methods and difficulties. The latter have given rise to "serious, detailed, deep and even controversial inquiries" within the polling agencies and the Market Research Society, writes Robert Waller. Exit polls, once much in vogue, now appear to be in bad odour. As two other contributors, John Curtice and Clive Payne, report: "Forecasting the number of seats each party will win in a British general election on the basis of an exit poll is one of the riskiest research exercises imaginable." Both the BBC and ITN would no doubt endorse that view. People's growing reluctance to tell pollsters how they voted could be one of the distorting factors. Refinements in exit poll procedures to take account of such things are even now being sought.

An element of schadenfreude is reportedly manifesting itself in public reactions since the polling organisations came unstuck. Such an attitude is, of course, to be deplored. I must wipe this smile off my face.

Don Harker was director of publicity, Conservative Central Office, from 1970- 74, and later director of public affairs, Granada Television.

Political Communications: The General Election Campaign of 1992

Author - Ivor Crewe and Brian Gosschalk
ISBN - 0 521 45396 8 and 46964 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 8

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