UK pollsters got it wrong because no one wants to admit they're voting for Tories
Published 11/05/2015 | 02:30
The British Polling Council is about to carry out an enquiry as to how the pollsters could have so wrongly forecast the outcome of the British general election: there was David Cameron writing his resignation speech in preparation for a hung parliament and a constitutional crisis (and Samantha Cameron allegedly packing up the kitchenware to move from No 10) when came the stunning surprise: the vote produced a Tory majority government, and the lowest Labour support since 1983!
I think I can help out the British Polling Council's investigation into itself: and no algorithms or psephological forensics are required.
The truth is, a person of functioning sanity would no more admit to voting Tory at a north London dinner party than an individual with a normal instinct for self-preservation would disclose that he was a practising Catholic - who even sought to send his child to a Catholic school, the extremist! - at a soiree in Dublin 4.
I was in several locations in the south of England during the long run-up to last Thursday's election, and I don't think I saw a single "Vote Conservative" banner in anyone's window. And a roadside "Vote Conservative" poster was rarer than "Vote No" posters all over Ireland for the May 22 referendum.
In the aforementioned trendy north London, you would rather have a tooth drawn without benefit of anaesthetic than put up a "Vote Tory" sign on your residence: and yet in Hampstead and Kilburn, the Conservative obtained 22,839 votes (just pipped by Labour at 23,977); and the Tories would have taken this quintessentially London Lefty seat (formerly held by Glenda Jackson, who turned from thespianism to politics) if UKIP hadn't garnered the difference.
Even in the Dover constituency, a seaport no one would call fashionably aware, I saw no public avowals of voting Conservative. Labour banners fluttered everywhere, yet the Tory had a comfortable win with 43.28pc of the vote.
There was much head-scratching over the discrepancy between what people tell the pollsters, (and, especially, what people tweet) and what people do in the privacy of the actual polling booth; yet it's not as much of a mystery as the experts imagine.
We live in an age of relentless self-branding, of which the "selfie" photograph is just one manifestation. We are all increasingly aware of our image, and how we project ourselves, and naturally, we all want to project ourselves as warm, compassionate, nice people.
To admit to voting Tory is almost like admitting you are some hard-hearted, selfish oligarch grinding the faces of the poor in the dirt, or a crony of the "bastard bankers". Just as to confess publicly to being an orthodox Catholic in certain circles in Dublin is to invite self-descriptions of being a bigoted homophobe clerico-fascist reactionary. Because these are the "brands" that have been so successfully identified, especially through influential social media.
And no one who isn't a masochist or a martyr wants to be associated with a negative "brand". Thus, when people speak to pollsters, it is often their own self-image, or their "brand", that they project.
For example, almost every young person I encountered in recent weeks said that they favoured the Greens. I was so impressed by this anecdotal experience (especially around the campus of a well-known university) of Green support that, were I a betting woman, I'd have gone forth to Paddy Power and put half a monkey on the Greens being part of a coalition government.
If I had done, I'd have lost £250. The Greens managed just 3.8pc of the vote, and returned their one MP in bohemian Brighton.
I must presume that many of these young folk talking up the Greens were evidently involved in "self-branding". They wanted to express how compassionate they felt about endangered polar bears and the horrid ravages that globalised capitalism may inflict upon the marginalised of the world. But (if they actually voted) did they really want horse-racing banned as a "cruel sport", as the Green party aspires to do?
Will they really stop flying by budget airlines? And will they really stop buying bargain clothes from Bangladesh sweatshops? They like to think they might - we all like to think we might - but between the aspiration and the action lies many a slip.
I'm not saying that self-interest always triumphs over self-branding aspirations. People are still capable of voting altruistically, and I daresay many do. It's more that a certain natural instinct may run deeper than fashionable political constructs.
The Darwinists tell us that humans (and animals) have a self-preserving streak of conservatism, and thus there is a bias towards the natural law.
The Norwegian rat, the most intelligent laboratory animal used in experimental clinical work, is extremely cautious about innovations offered to him. He selects a weaker member of his group to experiment with any such innovcation, and if it turns out to be successful, then ratus norvegicus will accept it. But the rodent puts conservative self-preservation first. And it could be that this primitive part of the human brain spontaneously overtakes the "self-branding" of personal PR projections.
The parallel between the British general election and the Irish referendum is not exact - people have nothing to lose, economically, in the May 22 vote, and there is no cost to casting a vote.
But it would be wise to beware of what pollsters report all the same, because what they are hearing is often more how we like to brand ourselves than what we truly believe. @MaryKenny4