In response to Theresa May’s announcement of a snap election for June 8, Andrew Marr tweeted, ‘what follows now is a GE unlike any in modern times’. This could be a reasonable enough claim in a post-Brexit world, with the added uncertainty over Scotland’s position in the United Kingdom, and with Labour arguably at its lowest ebb since its formative years. Yet, in one crucial respect, the forthcoming contest will reflect continuity with all other post-war general elections: the power of the polls.
This is what I said would happen – Sunday Times, start of the year – and what follows now is a GE unlike any in modern times
— Andrew Marr (@AndrewMarr9) April 18, 2017
Media coverage of general elections is now habitually dominated by what Pippa Norris has described as the ‘horse-race’. This has led to an increasing focus on personality and the ups and downs of the opinion polls over party platforms and policy pledges.
Since the introduction of polling into Britain by Dr Henry Durant of the British Institute of Public Opinion in 1937, polls have been a staple of election coverage. But rather than offering a complement to scrutiny of election issues, they have gradually become the story, constituting the focal point of media narratives and prompting inquests when the polls proved misleading.
After Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, the Daily Express exclaimed, ‘There is not a political pundit of any political colour who would have dared to prophesy such a result’ despite Gallup forecasting a consistent Labour lead from 1943 onwards. 1
Belief in the power of the polls grew rapidly in subsequent decades, leading to shock when John Major edged out Neil Kinnock in 1992. The Times noted how ‘No opinion poll got near to the final result of the 1992 general election’, defending its own use of Mori polls on five occasions during the contest by falling back on the dreaded margin of error 2
1992 also saw perhaps the most infamous episode in the increasing personalisation of British politics and its media coverage, with The Sun informing its readers, ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’. 3
Newspapers and broadcasters now concentrate their attention on the core party leaderships, and the parties themselves have reflected this shift by hiring PR experts to facilitate packaging and presentation. This was embodied in the styling of Tony Blair in the New Labour years. To usher in the new era, Molly Dineen’s fourth election broadcast for Labour in 1997 even had Blair confessing that ‘Politicians were complete pains in the backside’! 4
Both of these elements – the personalisation of the election campaign and concentration on the polling ‘horse-race’ – will again be in evidence over the next six weeks. No doubt critics on both sides of the political spectrum will lament the dearth of debate on more substantive issues, but coverage of general elections has been this way for much longer than many people might imagine.
This context is important in a world where Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters are particularly vociferous in decrying his treatment at the hands of the mainstream media. In contrast, psephology addicts can look forward to a bonanza in the run-up to 8 June. Public opinion researcher and pollster ICM even managed to rush out a poll just hours after the Prime Minister’s speech. The race is on once again!
Dr David Vessey is Teaching Associate in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. David’s research focuses on modern British political history, specifically the corresponding fortunes of the Labour and Liberal parties, and newspaper history in the twentieth century. He is currently researching British press narratives of the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. You can find David on Twitter @ DavidCVessey.