The only people interested in these dull political polls are the editors and their chums in Westminster, says Carol Sarler
The question in last week’s MORI poll for The Sun was straightforward enough: "How would you vote if there were a General Election tomorrow?" The answer, had common sense applied, should have been equally straightforward: "But there isn’t. Come back and bother me in three years time."
Instead, far being it from The Sun to waste their investment, they handed over the better part of an above-thefold half page to a solemn reporting of the "shock poll" results — the "shock", predictable to any with the slightest interest, was that "Dave Takes A Dive" — for all the world as if it mattered.
They were not, of course, alone in clearing the decks for their clever charts. Only days before The Sun’s effort we had the ICM/Guardian poll (being nicer to Dave) and the You Gov/Sunday Times poll (being horrid to Gordon); only two days after it we had the ICM/News of the World poll (this one a big-up for Gordon).
Perhaps I have previously managed just to sleep through the tedium, but I honestly cannot remember a time when there was so much Fleet Street enthusiasm for political polling at such a great distance from an election.
Now, I can see why the increasingly focus-grouped labours of the individual parties might wish to attempt to monitor even the smallest fluctuations on a daily basis. What I can’t see, however, is why their essentially flawed research does not stay within their camps, where it sensibly belongs, rather than being endlessly released in the guise of "news" — which, in any meaningful way, it is not.
Hypothetical questions, such as The Sun’s above, offer insight into nothing.
The roughly 20 per cent of the population, who make up the floating vote that will actually pick our next government, famously does not commit until the last possible moment; rather than asking it now you might as well save your breath, and your money, and ask Mystic Meg.
So if these poll results tell us nothing of real use, the only other justification for their taking up so much prominent, daily newsprint is if they are nevertheless somehow entertaining or interesting.
In fact, they are about as gripping as watching their ink dry.
I am almost certainly possessed of above-average political literacy — in this trade it pretty much goes with the job — and my friends, journalists and otherwise, read the newspapers at least as assiduously as I do. Yet with the possible exception of the run-up to an imminent election, say within the very last few days of a close-call campaign, I have never once had a conversation of either excitement or terror that has begun, "Omigod! Did you see that ICM poll this morning?
And if we who read our papers with a professionally heightened awareness of the implications of wavering public opinion are being dished up figures and graphs and pretend cakes cut into pretend slices that we do not study with sufficient interest even to discuss them, then we must conclude that civilian readers — who care even less — are not being properly served by editors whose existence is supposed to depend upon pleasing them.
It is a strange anomaly, this one. Rule of thumb says that the editor who succeeds is he or she with finger on pulse and eye on ball; in almost no other field of subject could they persistently fill choice positions in their pages with stuff to bore the pants off those who feed them and expect to get away with it.
The exception is made here, I fear, because the higher up the paper-chain you look, from senior executive to editor and on even further, to proprietor or to board of trustees, the more likely you are to see people flattered into playing to their own interests, even where these might perilously oppose those of the readers.
I personally know mid-ranking section heads who would give teeth to reduce the quantity of political minutiae, polls being an aching example, that they are routinely leaned upon to run.
But as long as head honcho is regularly wined and dined in the fabulously seductive environs of the Westminster village (and it is, it is; I love it too), as long as he is persuaded, first, that this is where the real power of the land lies and, second, that while he stays good and close, the stardust of that power rubs off on him, then the tiny, boring detail of his new best friends’ concerns become his concerns too — thence to inflict upon uninterested readers whether they like it or not.
Most of us, I suspect, have some appetite, varying from one person to the next, for a certain quantity of speeches, policies, debates, scandals and political frisson. We see the Left foot in, we see the Right foot out, we do the hokey-cokey and we shake it all about until, when election day comes, we weigh it up as well as we can and exercise our civic duty.
Between now and then, much as it may be riveting for the politicians and their editor chums, there is scarcely one among the rest of us who cares how many people in Wolverhampton, allowing for statistically recognised margins of error, naturally, find Gordon Brown to be dour or David Cameron to be bland. After all, why should we? Why should my knowledge of Mrs Jones’s view from Aberystwyth, courtesy of The Sun or anybody else, colour mine?
If polls, costly analyses and focus results do not get relegated to a far lower profile, there is serious risk of overkill; a risk that another three years of this will impede the democratic process because voters will just stop looking, listening or giving a toss. But there is another risk, too: that if our editors continue to thrust upon our readers that which is neither wanted nor needed, then they will be guilty of plain bad journalism. From where I sit, that’s an even greater crime.