Why politicians cannot rely on PR to get them out of a mess

This is a cautionary tale about four products. The first is public opinion polls. I have yet to meet anyone who says they expected Labour’s stunning landslide. No one I trust who had been on the doorsteps envisaged such a Tory debacle. The frankest estimate put the Conservatives ten per cent down with a week to go. On that basis, I forecast a Labour majority of 65. Yet the polls had for years been pointing to something like the 179 Labour ended up with.

This is a cautionary tale about four products. The first is public

opinion polls. I have yet to meet anyone who says they expected Labour’s

stunning landslide. No one I trust who had been on the doorsteps

envisaged such a Tory debacle. The frankest estimate put the

Conservatives ten per cent down with a week to go. On that basis, I

forecast a Labour majority of 65. Yet the polls had for years been

pointing to something like the 179 Labour ended up with.



There will be all kinds of complicated explanations for why we did not

believe them. I prefer the simple one: the pollsters made such a hash of

the 1992 election that, however broadly consistent they were this time

round, nobody thought that the Tories could be so unpopular with the

economy booming.



The second product is the press. Not even Rupert Murdoch’s brash,

turncoat Sun has had the cheek to say this time that it was the one ’wot

won it’.



I know of no evidence to suggest that newspapers or even Labour’s

superior campaigning skills had much effect. The people had made up

their minds a long time ago that the Conservatives had grown stale,

arrogant and self-indulgent in office. The six-week campaign had not the

slightest impact on their views.



This brings me to the third product - the Conservative Party itself.



It was and is demoralised. For five long years, from our ignominious

flight from the ERM, through assorted MP misbehaviour and the blood feud

over Europe, the Tories had presented themselves as a rabble. Nothing

could save them, not even their real successes in producing the best

economic outlook this century and having the dominating political

philosophy.



All this goes to show that PR people cannot make a silk purse out of a

sow’s ear. Nor should we pretend we can. The greatest contribution we

can make to the nation’s well being is to tell people bluntly when we

believe that they are unsaleable in their existing state.



The fourth product - the Labour government - has been in the forge for

only a week. Prime Minister Tony Blair made an election virtue out of

not promising too much in his ’contract with the people’.



But on the eve of the poll he vowed: ’I will not let you down’. That was

a promise too far. However well he performs, he is bound to disappoint

us. That is in the nature of Government - and especially one with next

to no experience of this pitiless business. I don’t like being a spectre

at the feast, but far too much is expected of this Labour product before

we even know whether it works. If I were in No 10, I would be doing a

lot of dousing.



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