EYE ON THE WORLD

What British election results say about voters

Current opinion-polling methods are out, along with class hatred. People want help to succeed.

POLITICS is a brutish, cruel business. Exactly a week ago, Mr Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, was hailed as a providential figure: He was anointed as the next British prime minister, a proud scion of a famous left-wing family.

Today, he commands nothing apart from mocking newspaper editorials, and his Labour Party lies vanquished and rudderless. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron - the man who only a few days ago political observers in London dismissed as having "just 5 per cent chance" of retaining power - was triumphantly re-elected, and can not only expect to run Britain until the end of this decade, but is also likely to become the second longest-serving Conservative prime minister since the 19th century.

What happened in Britain offers some important lessons which leaders worldwide would be well-advised to study.

Picking winners

THE most striking feature about Britain's latest voting is that every single opinion-polling agency got its predictions disastrously wrong. Pollsters unanimously declared that neither the ruling Conservatives nor their chief Labour opponents would get a majority, only to discover when the ballots were counted that the Conservatives won, exceeding most predictions by a whopping 50 parliamentary seats.

Desperate to defend their reputations, pollsters offered a variety of justifications for their failures, ranging from the smug to the ridiculous. The Ipsos MORI polling giant continues to claim that its predictions were "within the margins of error for all the parties except for Labour whom we over-estimated", which is a nicer way of saying that the projections were correct, apart from the supposedly small matter of actually identifying the winner and loser.

Other pollsters tried to explain their failure by blaming Britain's "shy voters", the group of people who, allegedly, secretly vote Conservative but do not want to admit this in public, for fear that they will not be considered "cool". But the phenomenon has been known for decades, and polling agencies have claimed long ago that they "regularly compensate" for such "anomalies".

And then came the usual, self-serving argument of pollsters caught with wrong predictions: A supposed "last-minute surge" in the number of people voting for the Conservatives. The snag with this explanation is that there is no evidence of such a surge, and that opinion polls conducted hours before ballot stations opened in Britain last Thursday indicated no shift in sentiment.

So, what accounted for the pollsters' failure? First, it is obvious that the old techniques of collecting data are no longer working. In Britain, there was a substantial difference between polls conducted online, with people answering questions through their computers, and people being canvassed through their mobile phones. Those who answered questions by phone tended to favour the Conservatives, while those answering online opted far more for Labour.

Yet the overwhelming majority of polling firms ignored this significant discrepancy and continued to rely just on Internet surveys. The reasons? Costs and convenience. Internet surveys are dirt-cheap to conduct, but telephone surveys are not, largely because most people no longer use their landlines, so they need to be contacted through their mobile phones. However, obtaining random mobile numbers is sometimes illegal and always labour-intensive. And contacting people on their mobile phones is even more expensive: In the US, legislators allow the use of automated software to contact landlines, but demand the manual dialling of every mobile phone number.

The result is that polling agencies may be relying on flawed data supplied online by people who enjoy giving their views on any topic, the sort of people who may appear to be representative of society at large in terms of age, gender and profession, but are actually not so in every other way.

It is striking that the failure to predict the results in Britain comes only a few months after pollsters confidently predicted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in deep trouble, only to see him pulling off a sweeping electoral victory.

Pollsters also failed to gauge the level of support for President Barack Obama when he faced re-election in 2012. In short, the failure in Britain is part of a pattern which indicates systemic polling problems.

Opinion polls also under-estimated the scale of the rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP), a movement pledged to win Scotland's independence from the rest of Britain. The SNP wiped out Labour's presence in Scotland: As one British commentator cruelly put it, there are now more panda bears in the zoo in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh than there are Labour MPs in Scotland.

Shying from the truth

BUT another reason for the pollsters' failure is that they made the wrong ideological assumptions about British voters. They assumed that rising support for the UK Independence Party (Ukip), a nationalist movement which wants to pull Britain out of the European Union and restrict immigration, would come largely at the expense of the Conservatives.

It did not.

The bulk of Ukip's votes came from the less-educated, poor members of the working class, people who usually vote Labour.

They are the ones who feel threatened by immigration and who are attracted to a nationalist campaign. If pollsters were less obsessed with treating every nationalist movement as "right-wing" they could have realised that a movement such as Ukip is actually a left-wing one in social terms, and one which hurts Labour.

Being ideologically blinkered translates into blindness to facts. The real problem may not be that of "shy voters", but of shy pollsters, who do not account for realities they do not like.

The moral of the story? That politicians should not treat opinion polls as either science or gospel, and certainly not as a substitute for the hard job of governing.

Leaders should follow their own convictions and offer the electorate what they think is right and workable, rather than what plays well with opinion polls, which may turn out to be wrong.

Another interesting conclusion from Britain's surprise electoral result which applies worldwide is about the aspirations of today's electorates.

Mr Miliband was persuaded by arguments that after years of economic austerity, "a mood of rising left-wing populism" was again becoming important. The success of economists such as Mr Thomas Piketty, who recently authored a best-selling book highlighting rising inequality in the Western world, also persuaded Mr Miliband to campaign on a left-wing agenda.

However, this flopped badly, for electorates are less stupid than their politicians assume.

British voters did not like the five years of austerity which they experienced, but opted for five more years of the same, largely because they did not find Mr Miliband's alternative of more spending and more taxes very convincing.

The old politics of class-hate, of telling voters that their salvation lies in taxing the rich in order to supposedly help the poor do not work: People want to be helped up the ladder of success, rather than see those who are successful knocked down.

Instead of outlining plans for big construction projects to reduce the severe housing shortage in Britain, Mr Miliband pledged his Labour Party to the imposition of a so-called "mansion house tax", a special duty on people owning expensive homes.

And instead of offering tax relief to young couples trying to establish families, he promised to increase taxes on the rich. Labour talked about the top and the bottom parts of society, but had nothing to say to those in the middle - the majority of the voters.

Labour ultimately lost the elections not because it was kicked out of Scotland, but because it was rejected in England, where the bulk of the voters are.

Working electoral system

AND the much-maligned British electoral system - one inherited by every former British colony including Singapore - worked precisely as intended. Sure, it was unfair, in the purely mathematical sense: The nationalist Ukip polled 3.8 million votes, but secured only one parliamentary seat, while Scotland's SNP polled 1.4 million votes, and got 56 seats.

Yet that is exactly the purpose of the British voting system: In order to maintain political stability, it depresses the importance of newly established challengers such as Ukip, but magnifies the strength of any movement which has strong regional roots, such as the SNP. The results may be skewed, but they strike a right balance between regional nationalism in Scotland which requires immediate treatment, and broad anti-foreigner sentiment, which will not be allowed to upset the operation of a parliamentary system.

None of this means that political life will be plain sailing for PM Cameron. He has no better than even chances of keeping Scotland as part of Britain. And he has to deal with anti-European backbenchers.

Still, his victory signified a return to more traditional politics of common sense and common values, of less public relations and opinion polls, and more understated substance.

Conservative perhaps, yet with a small "c".

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com