Poll pundits predict without perspective

January 24, 1997

WE ARE in the heat of the pre-election period. You can almost smell the cordite as trench warfare takes shape. The parties are hurling their ammunition of propaganda and statistics at each other with relentless spins and instant rebuttals filling the air. Already poster sites are threatening apocalypse if the wrong side wins.

For the many academics who hover around the edges of politics this can be disconcerting. It pushes all hope of cool rational analysis out of the window and draws politicians into unwise commitments that sound good on the Nine O'Clock News but store up trouble for the future.

Nor are they alone in their concerns. According to the conventional wisdom, politics is becoming a perpetual campaign with elections no longer confined to four weeks. Given the evidence that elections are decided more in the six months before than on the day itself, this is not surprising, but it is depressing.

The broader argument is that politics is becoming less rational and is dominated by media experts rather than substance experts. In the television age 20-second soundbites have replaced the hours of debates and kind of speech that William Gladstone made in his Midlothian campaign last century.

Academics who in another era might have been prominent commentators are being pushed aside. If they are not telegenic they do not stand a chance. This view of a steady corrupting of politics is regularly fuelled. For example, Dick Morris's recent memoirs of life in the White House compounds the sense that politics has become a devalued currency. Carlton's television debate on the monarchy was roundly condemned as a raucous ranting match.

But is this a true view? Is political argument really so corrupted? Were earlier generations of politicians and writers, who assumed that a society in which a third of each age group went through higher education would not be fooled by cheap shots and advertising slogans, wide of the mark?

I doubt it. For despite the soundbite, it is hard not to be struck by the seriousness of much political analysis. As the election approaches, an extraordinary outpouring of policy and analysis is taking place that may be less glamourous, less eye-catching, but is none the less significant. Much of it is in the broadsheets, magazines and academic papers. Broadcasters pore over minutiae of every policy shift - not surprisingly since the BBC employs nearly 100 journalists covering Westminster alone. Even Dick Morris's book is probably better understood as an extraordinary exercise in openness and political education than as a "kiss and tell" exercise. Against conventional perceptions, Labour has probably published more policies than any previous opposition, often to an inappropriate level of detail.

The overall problem is not that the lack of quantity or superficiality has driven out substance. It is rather that so little of the analysis has much in the way of distance or perspective. It is often very clever, but not very wise. You can see this in the daily coverage. In the year before the last election I read the newspapers voraciously. In retrospect at least 95 per cent of what I read, even from the best columnists, was strictly speaking rubbish: wrong in analysis, predictions and insights. Fortunately for them no one ever subjects them to any independent scrutiny.

Another symptom of this lack of perspective is that you can read the best political commentary without much sense of the real operating environment for whoever wins the election beyond a few vague speculations about the EMU. We have, in other words, a highly sophisticated political culture, but one that is highly sophisticated only a few months ahead.

Perhaps that is the real impact of television: not so much that it vulgarises things but that it telescopes everything into a perpetual flow.

Geoff Mulgan is directorof Demos, the independentthink tank.

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