Students of opinion polls were surprised by the outcome of the British general election but students of history should not have been. Politicians, it appears, are not the only people who tell lies at election time. The opinion polls were universally and spectacularly wrong, and not, although this is their favorite excuse, simply because they failed to measure the full force of a late swing to the government. They were wrong because throughout the three-week campaign they failed to catch the deep ambivalence of voters as they pondered how to cast their ballots.
People were angry and disappointed with the government, hurt by the economic recession and the high interest rates which were serving to prolong it, worried by rising unemployment, and smarting still under the unfairness of Margaret Thatcher’s local poll tax. But they also had little confidence in Labour’s ability to provide better economic government, were worried that their taxes would rise, and unimpressed by the qualifications of the Labour leader Neil Kinnock to become prime minister. So having registered their protest to the pollsters, on election day enough of them proceeded to give their actual votes to the devil they knew and confirmed the Conservatives in power, although with a much reduced parliamentary majority, for a fourth successive term of office unprecedented in this century.
The inaccuracy of the polls is material to the inquest into Labour’s failure to win an election fought at the bottom of a business cycle, after thirteen years of one-party rule, against a government with a dismal record in its third term, and in spite of what was widely seen as its own superior campaign. The last-minute-swing theory—although some late swing back to the government there plainly was—has been seized upon by those who prefer to believe that this was some sort of near miss for the left—the “we wuz robbed” defense that transfers the blame for defeat to the unscrupulous scare tactics of the ruling party and its lackeys of the tabloid press. None of these alibis checks out; they take no measure of the scale of the left’s defeat, avoid the real explanations for it, and obscure its historic meaning.
A historian who had the courage to ignore opinion poll findings, which throughout the campaign, and for many weeks preceding it, reported the two major parties running neck-and-neck, with Labour, if anyone, in the fractional lead, and who proceeded instead entirely by induction would have called the contest correctly. For a Labour victory in Britain in 1992 would have gone against all known socio-demographic trends and defied the tide of history in Europe and much of the world beyond.
The outcome vindicates the thesis that the socialist or social democratic left in Britain, and probably in all developed or “postindustrial” democracies, is in a long-term and perhaps terminal decline. Consider first the numbers. In spite of the government’s intense unpopularity and failure to deliver the economic goods which the citizens of democracy today take to be their natural right,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.