Weary, wary voters were looking for real change before they would elect Labour

Francis Beckett argues plausibly that "old" Labour could have won the election in 1992, which was lost only after an untimely stumble in support precipitated by televised images of the Sheffield rally, and by their reception in the press ("The myth of John Smith the loser", 11 December). Certainly, the vast majority of campaign polls had shown a Labour lead; but there is a possibility, not convincingly dismissed by the Market Research Society's post-mortem on alleged "polling errors", that they hid a true parity or even a Conservative lead throughout the campaign.

Most voting-intention polls were quickies, rushed through for headline "value". Either in face-to-face interviews or even by telephone, some respondents may have been shy to disclose support (the "spiral of silence") for what the press, and indirectly the broadcasters, too, portrayed as a loser; an inhibition which is less effective in the privacy of the polling booth. In 1992 I supervised two audience research studies on the election. Unlike other pollsters, we found a seven-point Tory lead three days before the election. The question was placed at the end of a longish interview, during which trust could be built up, disarming shyness. In another study where the respondents filled in their own forms, results were similar. I suspect that these findings were correct in their time and that real changes were necessary to produce the outcome in 1997. These changes were Tory exhaustion and corruption, Labour's perceived idealism and its takeover of the political centre. But John Smith could probably still have won, even with less centrist policies, as he came across as solidly honest, unlike his opponents.

J M Wober
London NW3

I agree with Francis Beckett that Neil Kinnock did not "attract public confidence" and the Sheffield rally effectively ended the campaign with a week or so to go. He was also right to say that John Smith "was the most popular and respected Labour leader since Attlee". But while the article flowed, one could almost sense the bitter attack that was due at the conclusion. Why can't people like Beckett cease this pent-up foot-stamping? After 18 years of chronic failure we got new Labour - and about bloody time. For the millions of people who celebrated on the night of 1/2 May 1997, Tony Blair and his modernisation - a "cant word" according to Beckett - meant the end of a long nightmare. Modernisation meant the updating of a party from a shambolic, backward-looking, soon-to-be rump and the successful input of another cant word, "confidence", from the general electorate.

Phil Miles

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition