Time our political hacks grew up

by Stephen Tall on September 19, 2005

“Ditch Kennedy if you want to be taken seriously, say voters” urges The Times. “Kennedy gets personal endorsement: 58% want him to continue as leader” retorts The Guardian (sorry, theguardian). Well, I’m glad that’s all clear then. Nothing symbolises better the death of serious political journalism than the over-reliance by journalists on opinion polls to lend some spurious pseudo-scientific credibility to their own pre-conceived notions. Take a bow, Mr Peter Riddell of the Thunderer.

I’m singling out Mr Riddell for writing this asinine sentence in Monday’s paper: “a third of the public (and 35 per cent of Lib Dems and 40 per cent of swing voters) say that people would be more likely to back the party if Mr Kennedy were replaced with someone who would be a more credible prime minister.”

Now I’m not practiced in the art of opinion polling (though I take a keener interest in it than is healthy), and I have no qualifications in psephology – but that strikes me as a no-brainer of a question. Of course the party would do better with a better leader! I’m far more intrigued by the 65% of Lib Dems and 60% of swing voters who think people would be less likely to back the party if our current leader were replaced with a new leader who was “more credible”. As the ubiquitous (and splendid) Nick Clegg, the new MP for Sheffield Hallam, observed: this is like asking “whether you want £1m or £4m”.

So why did The Times major in on the Kennedy non-story? It could, of course, be that Mr Rupert Murdoch’s quality (ahem) tabloid was not over-enamoured of the results their opinion poll uncovered. For despite the determination of the media to make the Lib Dem conference a “Should he stay or should he go” sideshow, the findings reveals an encouraging picture for the party, as Mr Riddell (to his credit) reports:

  • “The party’s general image remains favourable. More voters think the Lib Dems share their values; understand the way people live their lives; are honest and principled; are united (by a huge margin); and have clear ideas for the most important issues facing Britain, than take that view about either the Conservatives or Labour.”
  • “Just under a half of all voters, and even two fifths of non-Lib Dems, think that the party would do a good job of running the country.”
  • “half of non-Lib Dem voters in May said that they would seriously consider voting for the party if it had a chance of winning.”
  • “half the public highlights the attractions of a strong commitment to civil liberties in debates about ID cards and anti-terrorism measures.”

Today’s ICM poll in theguardian is also a harbinger of some good news, suggesting that Mr Kennedy’s Lib Dems would fare well if Labour were led by Mr Gordon Brown and the Tories by Mr Ken Clarke: our current poll rating of 21% would rise to 25% in such circumstances. It’s a moot point how much can seriously be read into such ineffable hypotheticals – at this point in the last Parliament, Mr Blair had yet to decide to lead this country into a disastrous and illegal war against Iraq on a flawed prospectus, yet that was to be the single biggest defining issue come the general election.

However, two aspects of Mr Julian Glover and Mr Michael White’s co-authored report struck me as lazy thinking. First, is the repetition of the tired canard, “people are backing the party because they dislike the alternatives, not because they are attracted to Lib Dem policies.” It is not because the criticism is wrong that I object to it – rather that it is such a commonplace of voters’ rationale that it could be applied to all three parties, and is therefore utterly devoid of meaning.

Political views are often as much defined by what we are against as what we are for. On the canvassing trail, I have met many, many voters who view British party politics as an essentially binary process. They vote Labour because they hated what “that bloody woman did to the country”; or they vote Tory because they “remember rubbish and unburied bodies piling up in the streets”. And sometimes they vote Lib Dem because “the other two have had their chance”. Such are the negative faute de mieux choices by which this country’s political classes are elected. To assume that this works solely to the benefit of the Lib Dems is fallacious.

Their second lazy thought is the Lib Dems’ faithful lament – the absurd predilection of journalists for dividing politics into left and right strait-jackets: “29% saw the Lib Dems as being to the left of their own position and 15% to the right; 26% thought the party was in the same position as themselves.” It is possible I will be thought (at least by non-Lib Dem readers) to be disingenuous when I say: I have absolutely no idea what this means. But I don’t. Really, I don’t.

I don’t think of my opposition to the war in Iraq as left-wing: I think of it as liberal. I don’t think of my dislike of ID cards as left-wing: I think of it as liberal. I don’t think of my support of the European Union as left-wing: I think of it as liberal.

Equally, I don’t think of my view that drugs should be legalised as right-wing: I think of it as liberal. I don’t think of my belief that tuition fees are essential for well-funded universities as right-wing: I think of it as liberal. And I don’t think of my support for part-privatisation of the Post Office as right-wing: I think of it as liberal.

I am sure I cannot be alone – even among Guardian reporters – in viewing such left/right tags as an anachronistic hangover. There is no real right-left economic divide any more (if indeed there ever were – ‘Butskellism’ dominated British political discourse for 25 years, just as ‘Thatcherism’ has since): all three mainstream political parties have signed up, to one degree or another, to a broadly liberal capitalist model.

Of course, it is much easier to continue to talk left/right, to stick with the familiar, to hold onto such bipolar epithets as an ideological comfort blanket. But journalists might at least have the grace to understand why we Lib Dems get a tad uppity when constantly forced to identify our philosophies by such clichéd over-simplifications.