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The three percent problem

Posted by Richard Sunday, April 17, 2005

If it wasn't for other newspaper polls showing markedly different results, Conservative activists reading the Sunday Telegraph poll today might be feeling more than a little suicidal. With Labour supposedly opening up a ten-point lead, the paper is predicting another Labour landslide.

But what makes even more gloomy reading is the breakdown of the poll, conducted by ICM, which ranks issues according to their importance, as perceived by the respondents to the poll. Predictably, the health service comes top of the list, with 20 percent regarding this as the key issue, followed closely by "taxation and public services" at 15 percent and "law and order" at 13, sharing third position with "education".

The gloom comes with the ranking of "Europe", way down the list attracting a mere three percent of respondents who feel this issue will be the most important in influencing their voting decisions.

More perplexing, given the considerable majority of people who profess to oppose the EU constitution, the Conservative opposition to the same and Labour support for it, when it comes to judging which party has the best policy on European Labour scores 31 percent against the Conservatives who trail with a mere 23 percent.

I cannot even begin to make sense of this latter result, other than to suppose – with no evidence to support any such assertion – that the "Europe" score merely reflects the more general support for the Labour Party expressed in the poll. It may be the case the respondents, having told the interviewer that they support Labour, are less inclined then to tell that same interviewer that they then oppose Labour on specific policies.

Certainly, Peter Kelner, writing in the Sunday Times supporting his own YouGov poll, which puts the Conservatives a mere one point behind, points up the "interviewer effect" as a major source of error, in which case we could be seeing a distorted result.

But, in other respects, the rankings may also be distorted. Given the concentration on a narrow band of issues by politicians of all parties, aided and abetted by the media, it is hardly surprising that when asked by pollsters, people – many of whom have not yet thought deeply about the whole range of possible issues which might affect their votes – simply reflect what they have seen and heard. In other words, people – or some, at least – are not offering their own opinions but simply parroting the second-hand views of the players.

It is in this context that the Booker column today is so important, as it is beyond belief that people, if asked, would not find some of the issues he has listed of some concern.

For instance, energy specialists have been warning that our gas stocks are perilously low and that, at times, the national grid has been on the point of collapse. Given that there is no new investment going into building new power stations and several of the large coal-fired stations, on which we rely, are due to come off-line within ten years, there is a serious and increasing possibility of the nation suffering widespread and prolonged power cuts within the term of the next government.

Now, while all might agree that "schools'n'hospitals" are important, I am sure that everyone will also agree that continuity and reliability of power supplies is equally important – but "energy" does not even feature as an issue in peoples' concerns. And, of course, if it did, the EU dimension would have to be a factor in any debate.

Therefore, I would assert that the rankings given to various issues are, in fact, not in the least a reflection of peoples’ concerns, but simply a distortion engendered by the activities of the media and the politicians who have, so far, successfully, narrowed down the issues.

In this, of course, we cannot blame the politicians for wanting to control the debate, to their advantage. To expect otherwise would be naïve. But what of the media – and especially the public service broadcasters? There is no reason why they should take their agenda from the politicians, and every reason why they should not.

What would stop the Today programme – as it so often claims to do – from setting its own agenda, deciding to tackle on a series of days particular issues and refusing to interview politicians on anything other than they issues it had selected?

In many ways, however, that is equally naïve – the media share the same obsessions of the political classes and we are not going to get any sense out of them. In fact, when we see The Sunday Telegraph devote front page space - and column inches inside - to the views of the prime minister's son's girlfriend, we can only conclude that civilisation is close to its end.

Thus, major issues are not going to get discussed with any intensity - or intelligence - Europe included. We will continue to be plagued with with the "three percent problem". As long as it exists, with witless hacks and their editors giving space to the trivia they seem to find so beguiling, this election campaign will remain a charade.