The polls still aren’t looking good for the Tories

It shouldn’t be, but this election remains close.

So there I was on Friday night, sitting next to Kelvin MacKenzie on the BBC News Channel's new Campaign Show, listening to the ex-Sun editor and right-wing rabble-rouser claiming that the Tories had "won" the first week.

His evidence? The next morning's YouGov daily tracker poll for the Sun, showing a 10-point lead for the Conservatives over Labour. The BBC's Laura Kuenssberg, who was also in the studio, chipped in to remind us -- and the viewers -- that even Alistair Darling had praised George Osborne's tactical brilliance in the opening days of the campaign.

But even in the midst of general election campaigns, politicians, and political correspondents, remain permanent residents of the bubble often referred to as the "Westminster village" (or, in the United States, "inside the Beltway"). Last week's "row" over National Insurance, for instance, dominated the political and media debate, but as the Indie's Johann Hari tweeted over the weekend, "I haven't heard a single real person talking about this National Insurance row. Has anyone? Amazing how pol coverage ignores real concerns."

So let's look at some of the weekend's polls that Kelvin was so keen to highlight as evidence for his claim that the Tories are "winning". The YouGov 10-point lead for the Tories on Satuday dropped to 8 points on Sunday and is down to 6 points today. The ComRes poll for the Sunday Mirror showed the Conservatives ahead by 7 points, suggesting Cameron would be 15 seats short of a majority.

A BPIX poll in the Mail on Sunday also gave the Tories a 7-point lead. An ICM poll of the marginals for the News of the World, despite being spun by the Murdoch-owned paper as "good news" for Cameron, gave the Tories a 6 per cent swing from Labour in those seats -- 2 per cent down since January. Meanwhile, our own New Statesman poll of polls suggests a Tory lead, nationally, of a little over 7 points. It's difficult to disagree with a Bloomberg headline from yesterday:

UK Polls Before Manifestos Point to Hung Parliament

(Interestingly, as John Rentoul points out on his blog, eight out of eight of the nation's top pollsters have publicly predicted a Tory majority, not a hung parliament. Do they not believe their own "data"? Or is there something they know that they're not telling us? John has a useful guide to the opinion polls here. And as my old friend Alex Barker of the FT points out: "A unanimous consensus is always something to be wary of, particularly when it doesn't quite reflect the evidence available." Groupthink alert!)

So where is this imagined Tory boost, outside of the ICM poll in the Sunday Telegraph showing the Tories had doubled their lead over Labour to 8 points over the past weeks (but, with a 38 per cent share of the vote, still below the crucial 40 per cent share need to guarantee a parliamentary majority)? Where are the swing voters flocking to Cameronomics, with its intriguing combination of tax cuts, efficiency savings and deficit reduction?

According to the ComRes poll in yesterday's Sunday Mirror, the public don't seem to agree with the Westminster consensus that Osborne is getting the better of Darling, or the media consensus on Saint Vince as the best man for No 11:

Alistair Darling was voted the best chancellor with 23 per cent in our poll. Lib Dem finance spokesman Vince Cable was second on 21 per cent with Mr Osborne trailing in third place with the support of just 19 per cent of those surveyed. The remaining 37 per cent are listed as "don't knows".

I think it was a mistake for Darling to concede, even if only on a tactical level, the first week of the campaign to the Tories. So far, this election campaign has been more like a phoney war, with no real blows landed by either side. I mean, will anyone actually remember Stuart MacLennan on 6 May, for example? I doubt it. The (unprecedented) televised leaders' debates starting this Thursday, however, could be game-changers.

Fingers crossed.

You can now follow me on Twitter.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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GM should not be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations

People may be opposed to GM crops and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But people facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice.

My parents researched malnutrition and under-nutrition in India, especially among children, and found that many diets recommended by Western nutritionists were in fact completely inapplicable to the poor. So they formulated cheap, healthy diets based on indigenous food with which people were familiar. Yet despite their many other efforts, a quarter of people in India and nearly one in nine people around the world do not have enough food to live a healthy active life.

The World Bank estimates that we will need to produce about 50 per cent more food by 2050 to feed a population of nine billion people. And the past 50 years have seen agricultural productivity soar – corn yields in the US have doubled, for example. But this has come with sharp increases in the use of fertilisers, pesticides and water which has brought its own problems. There is also no guarantee that this rate of increase in yields can be maintained.

Just as new agricultural techniques and equipment spurred on food production in the Middle Ages, and scientific crop breeding, fertilisers and pesticides did so for the Green Revolution of the 20th century, so we must rely on the latest technology to boost food production further. Genetic modification, or GM, used appropriately with proper regulation, may be part of the solution. Yet GM remains a highly contentious topic of debate where, unfortunately, the underlying facts are often obscured.

Views on GM differ across the world. Almost half of all crops grown in the US are GM, whereas widespread opposition in Europe means virtually no GM crops are grown there. In Canada, regulation is focused on the characteristics of the crop produced, while in the EU the focus is on how it has been modified. GM crops do not damage the environment by nature of their modification; GM is merely a technology, and it is the resulting product that we should be concerned about and regulate, just as we would any new product.

There are outstanding plant scientists who work on GM in the UK, but the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments have declared their opposition to GM plants. Why is there such strong opposition in a country with great trust in scientists?

About 15 years ago when GM was just emerging, its main proponents and many of the initial products were from large multinational corporations – even though it was publicly funded scientists who produced much of the initial research. Understandably, many felt GM was a means for these corporations to impose a monopoly on crops and maximise their profits. This perception was not helped by some of the practices of these big companies, such as introducing herbicide resistant crops that led to the heavy use of herbicides – often made by the same companies.

The debate became polarised, and any sense that the evidence could be rationally assessed evaporated. There have been claims made about the negative health effects and economic costs of GM crops – claims later shown to be unsubstantiated. Today, half of those in the UK do not feel well informed about GM crops.

Everyday genetic modification

GM involves the introduction of very specific genes into plants. In many ways this is much more controlled than the random mutations that are selected for in traditional plant breeding. Most of the commonly grown crops that we consider natural actually bear little resemblance to their wild ancestors, having been selectively modified through cross-breeding over the thousands of years that humans have been farming crops – in a sense, this is a form of genetic modification itself.

In any case, we accept genetic modification in many other contexts: insulin used to treat diabetes is now made by GM microbes and has almost completely replaced animal insulin, for example. Many of the top selling drugs are proteins such as antibodies made entirely by GM, and now account for a third of all new medicines (and over half of the biggest selling ones). These are used to treat a host of diseases, from breast cancer to arthritis and leukaemia.



Millions of acres growing GM crops worldwide. Fafner/ISSSA, CC BY-SA

GM has been used to create insect-resistance in plants that greatly reduces or even eliminates the need for chemical insecticides, reducing the cost to the farmer and the environment. It also has the potential to make crops more nutritious, for example by adding healthier fats or more nutritious proteins. It’s been used to introduce nutrients such as beta carotene from which the body can make vitamin A – the so-called golden rice – which prevents night blindness in children. And GM can potentially create crops that are drought resistant – something that as water becomes scarce will become increasingly important.

More than 10% of the world’s arable land is now used to grow GM plants. An extensive study conducted by the US National Academies of Sciences recently reported that there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop since the widespread commercialisation of GM products 18 years ago. It also reported that there was no conclusive evidence of environmental problems resulting from GM crops.

GM is a tool, and how we use it is up to us. It certainly does not have to be the monopoly of a few multinational corporations. We can and should have adequate regulations to ensure the safety of any new crop strain (GM or otherwise) to both ourselves and the environment, and it is up to us to decide what traits in any new plant are acceptable. People may be opposed to GM crops for a variety of reasons and ultimately consumers will decide what they want to eat. But the one in nine people in poor countries facing malnutrition or starvation do not enjoy that choice. The availability of cheap, healthy and nutritious food for them is a matter of life and death.

Alongside other improvements in farming practices, genetic modification is an important part of a sustainable solution to global food shortages. However, the motto of the Royal Society is nullius in verba; roughly, “take nobody’s word for it”. We need a well-informed debate based on an assessment of the evidence. The Royal Society has published GM Plants: questions and answers which can play its part in this. People should look at the evidence – not just loudly voiced opinions – for themselves and make up their own minds.

The ConversationVenki Ramakrishnan is President of the Royal Society, and Professor and Deputy Director at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article