Up the avenue

Peter Clarke

  • Election Rides by Edward Pearce
    Faber, 198 pp, £5.99, April 1992, ISBN 0 571 16657 1

Don’t be put off by the title, since it’s only a laboured allusion to Cobbett’s Rural Rides, lacking the alliterative euphony of the original. What Edward Pearce of the Guardian offers is a record of his 19 days on the road during the General Election, visiting as many constituencies, each time in the company of a particular candidate, of varying party. There are glimpses of the circumstances of its composition at several points, including one gratuitous (I trust) advertisement for the delights of the Hark to Bounty Inn in Slaidburn, a fitting climax to the lyrical expedition across the Pennines from Richmond to Clitheroe. It’s nice to see that the author pulled in quite a lot of ‘countryside of the sort lucky not to have been stripped out and exported to Japan’. How different from his final slog from Birmingham to catch the count at Huntingdon, which evinces the comment that ‘a journey across west central and east central England by major road is best occupied reading proofs.’ So that’s how the book came into my hands within a week of polling day! If it’s more of a diary than a work of retrospective lucubration, it’s none the worse for that. This wasn’t the election for pundits to be wise after the event, given their failure to be wiser than the rest of us before it.

Hence the book’s claim: ‘It is, quite simply, what television coverage has not been: an account of the election!’ To be sure, this was sup posed to be the television election, the campaign in which the box celebrated its final triumph over the soap box. Television did not simply report the campaign: it created the campaign, as a series of media events contrived to produce a predetermined image. Even when John Major defiantly got out his own soap box, it was an artifact, a television prop, a designer soap box. It was a surrender to show business, a triumph of trivia, a debasement of debate. Never in the history of electoral conflict had so little been said by so many to so few. Disconsolate citizens looked in vain for the orators who once held vast crowds spellbound addressing the weighty issues of the day. ‘It isn’t like Gladstone, is it?’ one Lancashire voter confided. ‘Where has it all gone?’

One answer is the familiar historian’s retort that the snows of yesteryear were never quite what they are cracked up to be, and that there is, as Adam Smith would no doubt be saying if he had sat through the saga of Jennifer’s Ear, a deal of ruin in electioneering. The Grand Old Man was actually no slouch at the game of media manipulation. It was he, above all, who succeeded in using the new technology of his day to project his policy and his personality in the country. While other leaders rested on the reputation they had made in Parliament, Gladstone went out of doors to take politics to the people. He showed that the Liberal Party could thrive amid the vulgarity attendant on a mass franchise, which horrified many of his upper class cronies. It had no terrors for a leader manifestly able to preach a populist message.

In an age when the pulpit provided not only moral uplift but popular entertainment, Gladstone’s politics of conscience were beamed at his Nonconformist followers in an idiom with which they were perfectly familiar. His charismatic presence was that of a hellfire preacher, turning a providential vision into an election winner. And he knew what he was doing as well as any spin-doctor. He realised that he was a performer, playing to the public. He was a true professional who acknowledged that, whether he felt like it or not, he must ‘put on the steam perforce’. His steam oratory matched the steam-engines which took him on his whistle-stop tours and the steam presses which produced cheap newspapers to spread the word throughout the land. Even when the train failed to stop on schedule, the presses still rolled with a verbatim account of a speech Gladstone never made, taken down from his own dictation by the shorthand reporter from the Press Association. No sound-bite was more factitious than this, only shorter.

When the People’s William went on the stump, he was well aware that he was speaking not only to the thousands who attended his meetings – yes, even in Sheffield – but to the millions who only read about them. Professional football was catching on as a spectator sport in much the same way. The politics of vicarious participation did not have to wait for the invention of the cathode-ray tube, even though poor Gladstone had to make do with newsprint to seize his opportunity – including the photo-opportunity, as shots of him felling trees sufficiently indicate. The designer axe was not far behind.

Lloyd George, too, did his bit to lower the tone of politics once secularisation had made the pulpit an obsolescent model. As A. J. P. Taylor liked to point out, Lloyd George’s platform oratory owed a heavy debt to the music hall. He could control an audience with the inspired timing of a stand-up comic. His one-liner about the House of Lords – ‘five hundred men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed’ – was fit to bring the house down. He was the politician as entertainer, subordinating reason to emotion as much as any party political broadcast in the last campaign. He could pirouette, like Chaplin, from the broadest belly-laugh to tear-jerking pathos without having to say: ‘but to be serious for a moment, ladies and gentlemen ...’ Yet, as the last of the great pre-electronic politicians, Lloyd George became a hapless victim of technological advance in the Twenties. While, like Archie Rice, he was still having a go on the public stage, Stanley Baldwin stole into the sitting-room of anyone lucky enough to have a new wireless. His avoidance of histrionics in favour of the fireside manner was pitched perfectly for his middle-brow, middle-class constituency, and showed that the public meeting, in its classic form, was doomed. Baldwin could be relied upon to rise to the small occasion.

Just like John Major? Edward Pearce listened on his car radio to the Prime Minister’s hour-long phone-in on the eve of poll and was frankly impressed, both at the time and subsequently. ‘For once, the whole point of John Major’s presence in politics was made – the absence of bullying, hectoring absolutism, was evident, the flair in one-to-one discourse was in full operation.’ When Pearce snatched a word with the victor after the count, he asked: ‘Did any one thing help you, though?’ ‘I think it mattered finally being able to be me and not somebody’s idea of me.’ The final verdict on the television election, then, may be that both its novelty and its impact were much overrated; that, given the changes in technology and idiom, most of the tricks of populist media manipulation had been tried before – and anyway they did not make any difference in the end. What mattered was a matching of the medium to the message which produced Pearce’s epiphany by car radio on the road from Shropshire to Selly Oak.

This sort of qualitative evidence, so diaphanously insubstantial, cannot be proved right: but since the quantitative evidence was demonstrably proved wrong, it may provide the best verdict we will get. Pearce is a good character witness for his own case, with many subtle shafts which attest an acute sensibility to nuance, tone and flavour. In this most aural of elections, his own ear is good. He observes the man in Battersea who asks whether ‘anything is going to be done to get back the hanging’. Cue for a nice little digression on the use of the definitive article in working-class London, as in ‘the football’ or ‘the women’. ‘Thus might one have spoken to voters concerned to get back “the bear-baiting”.’

Pearce’s antennae seem to be picking up the signals properly. Up in Radcliffe, just outside the market, he reports ‘one of the most intriguing conversations with an elector so far’ when the Tory candidate has to put up with a good telling-off from one of his own supporters. ‘It must represent an important and large constituency, the chastising loyalists – people angry with the Government, but willing to extend probation to it,’ Pearce muses. ‘This is the articulation surely of a high proportion of those “think about its” and “haven’t decideds” – angry people who could save the Tories.’ Well, that reads well enough after the count, suggesting the need for just the sort of belated reconciliation which Major achieved. But had it always seemed so clear to our clear-eyed observer? On Tuesday 31 March, ten days before polling, both he and Alan Beith in Berwick expect a small Tory majority. The fact that the polls are telling a different story, however, is inevitably unsettling. It is only on 4 April that ‘the idea of a rout, a runner so recently’, can be dismissed. On 6 April, the Mail on Sunday provides a comic spectacle when, with its own poll showing a 6 per cent Labour lead, it leads the front page instead with David Owen’s long-expected endorsement of the Tories. Ha, ha. He quips: ‘And indeed David Owen may have found a last role as hired mute at a Conservative funeral.’ But whose was the last laugh? Pearce still expects the Liberal Democrats to outpoll expectations. On 4 April he invokes the authority of David Butler, ‘the Psephologist Royal’, in support of this contention; on 7 April the dispassionate analysis of a Conservative candidate, no less than John Biffen, points to the same outcome. ‘He expected at this date 30 Lib Dem scats in Parliament,’ Pearce records. ‘I concurred and inclined to edge the figure a little higher.’ On 9 April, however, the electorate ignored these shrewd prognostications and inclined a little lower.

Pearce met enough of the sort of voter who decided the outcome – ‘the close-mouthed cute-eyed guardians of their dreary little secret’ – to inform his own uneasy sense that, opinion polls notwithstanding, this election was not over till it was over. The opinion polls made an interesting and perhaps influential error. All four polls published on the final morning underestimated the Conservative share of the vote by around 5 per cent, and correspondingly overestimated the share of the opposition parties by the same amount. There was only one disagreement between them. Three polls distributed the opposition’s fairy gold equitably (an erroneous inflation of the Labour poll by 3 per cent and 2 per cent for the Liberal Democrats). The exception was NOP, which gave all the fairy gold to Labour, producing an error of no less than 7 per cent, but with the minuscule consolation that it thereby more or less predicted the Liberal Democrats’ share correctly.

The result was surprising, therefore, because the electorate voted in a different way from what had been predicted, not because of a perverse relation between votes cast and seats won. In fact, Conservatives could reasonably have expected to net more seats at Westminster on this level of poll. Even the Liberal Democrats, who are systematically cheated in every general election, had no special cause for complaint in 1992. Since 1983, when the Alliance polled over a quarter of the vote and returned a miserable total of 23 MPs, its successor party has declined by 7 per cent of the poll for a net loss of only three seats. From the Conservatives’ viewpoint, their share of the vote is marginally higher than in the great Thatcherite triumphs, yet their majority has been cut from 100 to 20. The electorate rather that the electoral system is the reason Major won.

To some extent, as the much-reviled opinion polls faithfully reported, this was because there was a late movement of support towards the Conservatives. Labour should have – secretly may have – realised that to be neck and neck on polling day was not enough. Maybe it was enough, however, to persuade the doubtful that a vote for the Liberal Democrats, that redoubt of the doubtful, could turn out to be an expensive luxury. The findings of the opinion polls were thus almost ideal for the Conservatives in producing a self-falsifying effect – or a self-correcting one, as they might say. Did the polls get it so wrong after all? Or did we get it wrong? Were we misreading a dynamically charged input into the opinion-forming process as a prediction of stable intentions? Up to a point, Lord Gallup – a percentile point, of course.

For the other half of the explanation, as it painfully emerges from the pollsters’ postmortem, is a mismatch between their carefully designed samples and the electorate for which these purport to stand proxy. The men and women in the street, with their declared readiness to vote Labour, are somehow not the same men and women who, in the polling booth, just a couple of times in a hundred, vote Conservative instead. Some may have kept ‘their dreary little secret’ when asked by a pollster; and been silently replaced in the quota by a more co-operative respondent, wearing the same sort of overcoat, but with a vote worn on the sleeve instead of buttoned up with the wallet inside. This might be called the psychological quota gap, which is at any rate a more polite hypothesis than accusing our fellow citizens of lying. Then there is the appealing theory that the Poll Tax lived up to its name in the most literal sense by deterring large numbers of putative anti-Conservative voters from registering. Can’t pay, won’t pay; won’t pay, can’t vote. But it’s still a free country, and your freedom to tell the pollster how you would have voted is not impaired.

One need not subscribe to a full-blown paranoid theory to suspect that the discrepancy between the adult population and the numbers on the register is a growing problem. There is, moreover, a qualitative discrepancy. Not simply because the quota samples do not allow for the disproportionate registration of the more affluent sections of the population, but because this population itself, and hence the electorate, are more affluent than has been reckoned. By the tune the pollsters can use the data from the 1991 Census, with its fossilised imprint of the Thatcherite social revolution, perhaps quotas will be constructed which more accurately reflect the embourgeoisement already adumbrated in the polling-booth. In short, the pollsters’ construct, the man in the street, was getting a bit past it; the adults in the avenue, the citizens in the crescent, as encountered so conspicuously in John Major’s upwardly-mobile, commuterised Huntingdon constituency, may have prompted him to a better hunch of what was really happening – and what is likely to go on happening. If it was he who got it right in the election, it was because he struck the idiom of the Nineties. As Pearce shows, the fine mesh of mere words can catch insights which elude the most assiduous pollster.