Friday 9 June 2017

Why Did the Pundits Get the Election Wrong?

What an amazing night. We'd had hints from the YouGov and Survation polls that things were going to be close, but even those who allowed a few meagre rays of hope into their hearts were haunted by the memories of so many times the pollsters were wrong. And not forgetting that a good chunk of polling opinion still indicated the Tories could look forward to commanding a thumping majority in the House. There are so many things that can be written about the 2017 general election, but more on trying to understand the return of two-party politics, the battering the SNP took in Scotland, and the Tories' love-in with the Democratic Unionists later. Right now I want to focus on the result itself or, rather, why so many pundits got this election completely wrong.

On one level, it's obvious. Your Dan Hodges, Andrew Rawnsleys, Laura Kuenssbergs and practically everyone who has a berth in broadcast and print media didn't have all the facts, and then didn't join them up the right way. What they sorely lacked, and why they get caught out regularly is because they do not have a sociological imagination. That is the simple but obvious (and yet overlooked) idea that society consists of and is constituted by dense webs of social relationships, and their influence effectively makes us as individuals (or subjects, if you insist on the parlance). And, of course, these relationships are configured in particular ways and certain types of them exert greater weight than others. The role of sociology is to untangle these dynamics and produce research projects and theories aimed at trying to understand how they work. What you then do with such knowledge is the subject of much debate, but as far as I'm concerned it's about providing theory and analysis the labour movement finds useful so it can meet socialist objectives.

The diagnosis of one problem begs another. While commentators and pundits are, in general, intelligent (with some notorious exceptions) and quite capable of reading books, why have none of them cottoned onto the fact that a) political parties are coalitions of strata of forces and interests, b) that political parties reflect deep underlying structural principles that organise broad swathes of social life and impact on all of it in some way, and c) when there is movement among these forces, political parties and votes at election time express them? It's not because they're especially ignorant, nor that the ideas of political sociology are particularly difficult or airy-fairy: it has everything to do with the situation they find themselves in.

Consider this, for example. I felt very optimistic before going into last night's results, despite past experience telling me to keep a hard head. Disappointment was the default setting of socialist politics often times in recent years. Yet the optimism kept bouncing back, despite trying to shut it down. Why? I'm plugged into my social media echo chamber like everyone else, so that had an effect. At work, being surrounded by Labour supporters enthused by the campaign, that had an effect. Speaking to friends and acquaintances who have never voted before but were going to turn out for Labour, that had an effect. And lastly speaking regularly to students, most of whom take much more of an interest in politics than was the case for my generation at university, that had an effect. And you cannot discount the campaigning, especially that first weekend of the dementia tax where I saw previously sceptical voters (don't knows and againsts) all coming to Labour, that cannot but have an effect. It's a case of my being, i.e. what I do and who I come into contact with in everyday life, conditioning my consciousness. This works on all of us, all of the time, all our lives.

A similar sort of process is at work with our professional Westminster watchers, but is ramped up to a higher degree. Firstly, consider what mainstream commentators observe. They watch the comings and goings, the toings and doings of senior politicians. They see how MPs club together in the Commons, formulate policy, take legislation through the House and involve themselves in massive rows with one another. This, more or less, forms the basis of copy that comes to thousands of hours of broadcasting and millions of words year in, year out. And this is politics. What happens in the chamber matters simply because that's what appears to matter - it's where policy is brought forward and enacted into law. What goes on in politics outside, like local council and devolved administration stuff simply isn't on the radar, because they don't see it. Likewise, movements that occupy the streets or, indeed, transforming a political party are curiosities but unworthy of real analysis and understanding. It's all such a sideshow to Parliament's main event.

This focus is also bounded by the media the commentators produce. Famously, the BBC take its lead for what the hot politics stories are from the front pages of the broadsheets. Likewise, hacks in other operations parasite off the BBC and each other to fill the schedules, put stuff out, and meet the insatiable appetite for hot takes. The result is little time for thinking, a scramble for a story or an original angle, and a tendency toward herding thanks to the recursive universe generated from the quantum foam of chatter. It produces a mode of thought that is based entirely on appearance without trying to understand what may lie behind what immediately presents itself. For instance, the Tories are the new party of the working class because minimum wage rises. Labour's members have foisted the disaster onto the party because atomised members of the public tell focus groups. There is no sense of movement, little idea that parties as expressions of interest evolve and move, nor that the people who support them, actively or passively, have connections with multitudes of normal people that can pull, persuade, cajole masses of them and transform them into a collective that starts making its own history. As none of them regularly go on the doors outside of the capital, they have to rely on what the pollsters tell them and, as we saw last night, only two of the established firms come out of the election with any sort of credit.

The worldview of the pundits then is a distorted view, and it is also one shared not just with media people but with politicians too. Again, it's not because they're thick but because they have a common outlook underpinned by an economy of how media people need to do media things. What last night's result has done is bust it wide open. They will settle on some explanation - young people, May's missteps and u-turns, the weather - before it closes up again and returns to its recursive ways. What they won't consider is what actually happened: the political mobilisation of a rising class of working people, of the networked worker overcoming its atomisation and making its presence felt through the Labour Party. And because they don't know, let alone understand this composition of a new constituency of people, they are likely to get caught on the hop time and time again.


Baden said...

Your second paragraph raises a very good point. The 'Cultural Capital' of many poor working class areas is a false one. i.e structured by simplistic media narratives which form their identity, a false sense of self worth which is structured by hatred of false targets. Just think of tabloid headlines as a reference.

The way to counter this is partly through information and partly through lessening inequality, as less inequality means less status competition.

I personally found the areas Labour did well were very predictable by just applying basic sociological intuition/assumptions. This could be tested too.

Indeed I listened to a Radio 4 discussion you were on well over a year ago. It was way too broad brush an approach on issues, predictions and as such highly prone too error. I suspect for many on the panel much has been learned since.

James Semple said...

Survation did pretty well in predicting the result. I saw nothing about sociological imagination on their website. Is it possible that - like most practicioners of minority fields of study - your analysis is too restricted? Blinkers, rather than microscopes?

Dialectician1 said...

Yes, having a sociological imagination is crucial. It is always important to go beyond the 'common sense' assumptions we build up through our daily interactions with the social world. To paraphrase Marx, if things were the way they appear, we wouldn't need science. Going beyond the 'taken for granted' (being critical) is hard work. It demands seeking evidence and often pits you against others, who want you to confirm their prejudices/world view, not confound it.

This applies to Kuenssberg & Dimbleby etc. I watched BBC Election Night on Thursday night/Friday morning. It was caught in a time warp. They wheeled in Jack Straw, Mingus Campbell and other has-been senior politicians who were equally unable to explain what was happening. Dimbleby, in particular, does a good impression of the daft lad at the back of the class - the buffoon who shouts out nonsensical questions - just to get attention. Like you say, this lot were clueless, they had no understanding beyond a formatted view that sought explanation through looking at the youth vote or national identity but denied even a rudimentary class analysis.

Even a cursory glance at the web site Britain Elects, which has been tracking poling averages, clearly shows a massive Corbyn surge since early May. Or a butchers at Oddsmaker, which would have told them that by Wednesday the hot money was being placed on a hung parliament, when the odds really started to drop.

Boffy said...

I didn't get it wrong. I set out On Wednesday, why Labour would win. Well Labour didn't actually win, but the Tories certainly lost, the other parties, including the SNP have been consigned to the dustbin of history, and in Marxist terms that distinguishes appearance from reality, Labour did win.

Labour won a moral victory. Labour won because the right/soft-left opponents of Corbyn have been proved wrong, and equally consigned to the dustbin of history. Labour won because it secured this vote despite the internal sabotage and the unprecedented Tory media attacks on Corbyn. Labour won, because it has mobilised the votes of millions of young people that the Tories, media and Labour Right have continually insisted would never bother to vote. Labour won, because it has drawn those millions of young people into activity, and not just protest activity like the SWP does of simply marching, or even striking, but into actual political activity, real class struggle activity, that posits the political interests of the working-class against those of capital, as opposed to just the immediate economic interests of workers. Labour won, because even Corbyn's opponents have now had to accept that the momentum is massively in Labour's direction, and in the direction of the left-wing of Labour.

That's a string of correct predictions I've had as against the professional pundits. I predicted the collapse of the Liberals in 2015, the victory of Leave in the Referendum, and of Trump in the US elections. Its good this time to not only have got the prediction correct as against all of the professional pundits, but for it to be a correct prediction that shows history now moving in a progressive direction.

I look forward to making lots more such correct predictions of the forward march of history.

Anonymous said...

Or even just a remotely empathetic imagination. Media reactions still, two days or so on, dominated by the notion that Brexit was the big hammer; completely ignoring e.g. the idea that all sorts of people might be experiencing all sorts of issues and vulnerabilities in a way that the Lab emphasis on public services connects with.

Joseph said...

It may seem an odd point, but I wonder if the polls that told May that the Tories were ahead 6 weeks ago by 20% were wrong? Or has the gap been massively closed over the 6 weeks since?

John said...

It's most likely both. The polls that were correct at the end of the election were the ones that adjusted their turnout model to reflect the increased youth vote. So, the polls 6 weeks ago were underestimating labour support amongst likely voters. But that doesn't explain the entire picture, labour definitely managed to get its message across more effectively during the election than in the previous 2 years, probably through a combination of legally enforced neutrality of the media and normal people deciding to pay attention so they could make the right decision.

All of these things were possible to predict ahead of time, and many corbyn supporters actually did. That most commentators and pundits missed it demonstrates their mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, many within the party didn't expect the result on Thursday.

I saw lots of comments from members and activists expecting the worst, particularly in the North and Midlands (where we did lose seats). The polls certainly narrowed over the final 2 weeks of the campaign but even at the end it looked likely the Tories would get a decent sized majority. Reading the press over the last couple of days, it seems our HQ wasnt expecting some of the swings and results that happened on the night.
My own experience didnt fill me with great optimism as 2 locally held seats were thought to be under great pressure, while winning a Tory marginal was considered to be possibility but a bit of a stretch. I didnt sense any great surge towards us when out campaigning, nor did fellow activists. In the end all 3 seats were comfortably won.
There's a lot of unpicking of the data and analysis required before we get to a full understanding of just how we arrived at the result we got.


Braingrass said...

I just need to remind you, if you think that YouGov was one of your reputable poll companies, that their last poll was ridiculous. Mysteriously they changed their methodology and gave the Tory party 7 point lead. They have since, of course, taken it off their front page. The polling companies have been appalling, because they too lack any social imagination.