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21 June 2024

Polling should be banned during election campaigns

Talk of a Labour “supermajority” distracts the public from the real issues and could affect how they vote.

By Freddie Hayward

Little will humble a politician more than spending half an hour taking questions from an unimpressed audience on BBC Question Time – as party leaders did last night. They couldn’t hide behind cheap jibes against their opponents, or reframe a question to make it less challenging.

The resulting spectacle was cagey and subdued. Each candidate seemed to compete to be more earnest than the last. Who could remember more audience members’ names? Who could frown with more sympathy? Or say sorry (for Liz Truss, austerity, or Jeremy Corbyn) with more sincerity? This was an apology tour for British politicians.

Ed Davey looked like he was at confessional, seeking atonement for the original sin of raising tuition fees. John Swinney, in his first big UK-wide outing since becoming Scottish First Minister, was stoically contrite about his own party’s woes. I suspect SNP members will be happy that he’s restored some normality to the party. Rishi Sunak perfected his pitch on deporting migrants. He enjoyed telling the audience that he disagreed with them, and was angrily reminded that when the prime minister becomes a laughing stock abroad he embarrasses the whole country.

Keir Starmer, who again seemed less prepared than Sunak, fumbled through his answers in a way that will neither subtract nor add to Labour’s vote count. As Andrew writes in his excellent review, the audience did not seem to have been won over by anyone.

At one point last night, an audience member mentioned a Labour “supermajority”. The Tories have been pushing this term for weeks to scare people into voting to elect an opposition, a tacit admission that the Conservatives are no longer fighting to be the government. But it’s a misnomer. This is not America, where supermajorities are constitutionally required to pass treaties or overcome a presidential veto. Laws passed with a majority of one in the Commons have the same constitutional weight as those passed with a majority of a 100. Even the now repealed Fixed-Term Parliaments Act  which required a two-thirds majority to call an early election  could have been overridden by a simple majority voting for a “notwithstanding” clause. Parliament, or more specifically, a simple parliamentary majority, is sovereign.

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So what’s going on? Talk of a “supermajority” is designed to make people vote for the Tories in order to constrain Starmer’s forthcoming elective dictatorship. But the strategy does not seem to have helped the Conservatives in the polls, not least because betting-gate has scuppered any chance of them winning votes this week.

Nonetheless, there are fears in Labour this could boost support for the Lib Dems and Greens. As one party insider said: “The Tories being totally written off is a problem. People think the election is done, they don’t need to bother voting for change, [and that] it’s safe to stay at home or vote Green.”

It’s strange that Labour’s success is often a precondition for the Lib Dems doing well when they both sit on the progressive side of politics and would, you’d think, be natural opponents. But the more likely a Labour victory seems, the greater licence voters have to risk looking elsewhere and still eject the Tories.

Others worry this effect could deplete Labour’s vote share. One Labour MP I spoke to thinks the lack of enthusiasm for Labour, and support for long-standing individual Tory candidates (see Bob Geldof’s endorsement of cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, for instance), will depress Labour’s vote. Questions could arise if Labour win fewer votes, or a smaller vote share than Corbyn did in 2017.

The overall concern is that voters are taking a Labour victory for granted and therefore they won’t vote to make it happen. Morgan McSweeney, Labour’s election chief, might have to worry more about complacency in the country than he does in the party.

Such talk is yet another reason why banning polling during election campaigns could benefit the political debate. It could shift the conversation, or the election race, to the issues. The polls mean that parties are fighting to overcome perceptions that are already baked in, not settled during the campaign. Polling turns the debate into meta-analysis  ie analysis of the polling analysis. Perhaps this is only a problem among politicos; most people don’t track polling figures religiously. But if, as some in Labour think, polling impacts the way people vote then that presents a democratic problem far greater than bad punditry.

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