In recent years, Nate Silver has become something of a cult figure. The American statistician is “a new kind of political superstar”, according to the Observer, “the poster boy of political predictions”, in the words of British GQ, and one of Time’s “100 most influential people in the world”. In the 2008 US presidential election, Silver correctly predicted the results of 49 out of 50 states; in 2012 he got all 50.
In July this year, however, he left the New York Times – where his blog had accounted for a fifth of the traffic to the paper’s website in the week of the 2012 presidential election. Why? “Nate disrupted the traditional model of how to cover politics,” wrote Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, in July. “His entire probability-based way of looking at politics ran against the kind of political journalism that the Times specialises in: polling, the horse race, campaign coverage, analysis based on campaign-trail observation, and opinion writing, or ‘punditry’, as he put it, famously describing it as ‘fundamentally useless’ .”
You might expect me, as a political pundit, to recoil from Silver’s approach but I can’t. Consider the recent media coverage of Ed Miliband. Taking their cue from critics within the Labour Party such as the former deputy prime minister John Prescott and Miliband’s former “guru” Maurice Glasman, commentators and lobby correspondents have lined up to pronounce the Labour leader a failure, a loser and a liability. “Ed Miliband is a pale shadow of Tony Blair” (Times). “Ed Miliband must be such a comfort to David Cameron” (Daily Express). “Miliband flounders” (Daily Mail). This is political punditry at its most “useless” – shallow, superficial, speculative and, worst of all, fact-free.
For a start, most people don’t have a clue who Glasman or even Prescott is. The typical voter struggles to identify any politician other than the PM, the leader of the opposition, the Mayor of London and, perhaps, the Chancellor. Politicians and pundits inside the Westminster bubble refuse to recognise this inconvenient (and ego-pricking) truth.
What matters is public opinion, which hasn’t budged significantly over the past three years, let alone the past three weeks. The numbers don’t lie: Labour has had a poll lead over the Tories from the moment Miliband was elected leader in September 2010, peaking at 16 points in May and September 2012. Michael Ashcroft’s extensive poll of 9,000 voters in 213 marginals in April this year showed, in the Tory peer’s own words, that “Ed Miliband’s party is ahead in all of the clusters of seats in which it will challenge sitting Tories at a general election”.
As Silver wrote in the London Evening Standard in April: “It’s almost certain [the Tories] would lose an election if one were held tomorrow.” Nonetheless, the Miliband haters continue to carp and complain, moan and groan.
Labour’s lead over the Tories just isn’t big enough, says the party’s doom-and-gloom brigade, and has often fallen below the 6-point mark. So? As YouGov’s Anthony Wells confirms, on a uniform swing and assuming the Liberal Democrats get 15 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives need a lead of 7 points to secure a Commons majority, whereas Labour needs just 2.
Second, the Blairites, in particular, are quick to point out that Labour may lead the Conservatives on voting intention but the party trails far behind on the economy. Again – so? The Tories led Labour by a whopping 22 points on the specific issue of “managing the economy” in April 1997. Yet we all know what happened the following month.
Third, Miliband’s personal approval ratings are far worse than Cameron’s, wail his critics. So? On the eve of the Tories’ 1979 landslide, voters preferred “Sunny” Jim Callaghan to the opposition leader, Margaret Thatcher, by a 19-point margin.
This last point is worth considering in detail. How much do leaders, and their approval ratings, matter? Not much, say some of Britain’s leading political scientists.
“In parliamentary democracies, at least, voters’ evaluations of leaders have not as yet become a substitute for their evaluations of parties in deciding how to vote,” wrote John Curtice of Strathclyde University in a 2003 paper entitled “Elections as Beauty Contests: Do the Rules Matter?”. “Becoming prime minister still primarily involves persuading voters to like your political allies rather than just yourself.”
Vernon Bogdanor of King’s College London agrees. “[T]he British people have tended to show a marked distrust of charismatic leaders – in peacetime at least,” he wrote in a New Statesman essay in October 2011. “Winston Churchill did not manage to win a general election until the third time of trying, in 1951, and even then the Conservatives secured fewer votes than Labour . . .”
Yet political punditry in the UK continues to be leader-centred and personality-obsessed. Is Miliband weak? Is Cameron strong? Can Clegg survive?
I have to admit, it makes life much more interesting for a columnist. Who wants to write dry pieces about psephology? Or policy? Or the state of the economy? Drawing together off-the-record criticisms of party leaders from their anonymous colleagues makes for much more readable copy – though it has little impact on elections.
One of the reasons the other US political journalists had it in for Silver was that he undermined their conventional wisdom that the 2012 election was “too close to call”. (Obama beat Mitt Romney by 332 votes to 206 in the electoral college.) I’m not saying it won’t be close here in Britain come 2015, but the simple fact is that Cameron’s Conservatives have an electoral mountain to climb. Miliband’s Labour Party doesn’t.
Everything else is noise.