William V Shannon
William Shannon

Fellowship Title:

The British General Election: Polls, Politics, and the Press

William Shannon
June 8, 1970

Fellowship Year

It is a common American misapprehension that British election campaigns are much shorter than presidential elections in the United States. That used to be true and, under certain circumstances, could be true again in the future, but it is certainly not a valid judgment in 1970. There have been so-called “snap” elections such as the one which Stanley Baldwin unexpectedly called in 1923 on the tariff issue and that which Ramsay MacDonald called in 1931 when he formed an all-party coalition to deal with the economic crisis. But the general election, which Harold Wilson has scheduled for June 18, is no surprise and no short-run affair.

In Britain, the politicians, the press, and the five to ten per cent of the public who follow politics with an active interest have been preoccupied with the coming election since January. It would not be stretching the word “preoccupied” very far to say that these same people have been preoccupied with the election since last September when the annual party conferences were held in successive weeks in Brighton. This time span is roughly the same as the American political season which in presidential years begins in January, builds toward the first primary in New Hampshire in early March and concludes with the election in November.

What makes the British election seem shorter is that the Prime Minister does not publicly disclose the date of the election more than a month in advance. This year he announced it on May 18, and campaigning began with the dissolution of Parliament on May 29. The great majority of the public who are busy earning a living, raising a family, and watching television presumably do not give much attention to politics until this three-week campaign gets underway. Only then do political subjects bear in on their consciousness inescapably every day. But most Americans are no different. It is a truism among politicians that campaigns do not catch fire until after the first week in October when the World Series is over. Not even the most hardened political buff (and this writer is one) can really believe that 200 million other Americans really share his interest in comparing the vote percentages in Indiana with those in New Hampshire and so on throughout the spring primary months.

At their end, British campaigns can have a trap door. In the U.S., an election ends with one man in the White House for four years, for better or for worse. In Britain, as in any parliamentary country, a general election can produce an evenly divided house in which no party has a working majority. That means the campaign is not really over. The winning party positions itself to call another election and try to increase its majority. During such intervals, the political scrimmaging is almost continuous. In 1950, Labor won by a majority of six seats, called another election in twenty months, and was defeated. In 1964, Labor won by a majority of five, waited eighteen months, and that time was rewarded with a working majority of ninety-seven. Some observers believe that the forthcoming election will again produce a stalemate and force another election next year. Because of this contingency, it would be difficult to say that in the long run, the British system really involves less party politicking than the American.

The political configuration of Britain is in several ways like that of the United States. The inner neighborhoods of the industrial cities are Labor Party strongholds as they are Democratic Party centers of strength in the U.S.; the rural areas and the wealthier towns belong to the Conservatives as they do to the Republicans.

Although 630 seats in the House of Commons are nominally contested, each of the two major parties has a big bloc of safe seats, and the outcome is decided in 90 “marginal” seats. These doubtful seats are in areas which are either perfectly balanced between an industrial town and a rural hinterland, or are in communities which are in a process of self-definition (such as the planned new towns and the newer suburbs) or of transition (as from rural to industrial or from lower middle-class neighborhood to disorganized slum).

Ethnic factors count for much less in British politics because Britain is ethnically a much more homogeneous country. But minorities do exist and they act politically in ways that are familiar to any student of American politics. The Irish Catholics, the Jews, and the colored immigrants are predominantly supporters of the Labor Party. There are exceptions, particularly among the well to do, but most members of minority groups either because of principled convictions or self-interest or some combination of the two feel more at home with Labor than with the Tories.

Regional forces are likewise important. Americans are familiar with the agricultural Middle West as the Republican heartland and with the now-broken Democratic grip on the Solid South. In Britain, Labor depends heavily on its overwhelming strength in Wales and Scotland. In the Parliament just dissolved, Labor held 32 of the 36 seats in Wales and 44 of the 71 seats in Scotland. Without the strength in “the Celtic Fringe” the Wilson Government’s parliamentary majority would virtually have vanished. Only in 1945 when Clement Attlee led his party to a great victory has Labor ever won convincingly in England itself. The Conservatives are strongest In the “home counties” which are near London. For example, in 1966, which was a good year for Labor, the Conservatives held all ten seats in Surrey, most of them by 2-to-l margins. In its political behavior, Surrey is comparable to Westchester County in New York.

The Conservatives have traditionally had a bonus of ten or eleven of the twelve seats in Northern Ireland. Their identification with the keeping of Ulster within the United Kingdom and with the Protestant ascendancy inside Ulster has meant certain victory in a region where religious feelings decide all questions. But the emergence of the Rev. Ian Paisley and his followers as an extremist Protestant Political force challenging the Conservative-Unionist old guard has placed some of these seats in jeopardy.

The major difference between the two countries in pre-electoral maneuvering is that in the U.S., politics is fought out in the presidential primaries in an effort to influence the judgment of the national convention, while in Britain, the decision as to when to call the election and what strategy to pursue is determined by one man, the Prime Minister. Since Parliament by law cannot sit longer than five years, Mr. Wilson had to call an election by May, 1971. The question was – when?

For months, the political columnists and editorial writers engage in prolonged analyses of every shred of evidence: the results in a by-election, the results in local government elections, the findings of the most recent public opinion poll, the latest favorable or unfavorable economic event. Sometimes, these analyses are aimed at guessing what the Prime Minister will do about the election. Sometimes, they are aimed at telling him what he ought to do in his own or the country’s interest. In turn, each of his speeches and parliamentary maneuvers is interpreted not on its intellectual merits but on its probable political consequences. Like any politician who enjoys the practice of his profession, Harold Wilson delights in all this. He could hold his own with Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon in playing cat-and-mouse with the newspapermen, “leaking” stories to advance his own ends, and trying to throw his political opponents off balance.

Like an American President, Mr. Wilson has used the prestige and news-making capacity of his office to his own advantage. Shortly before he announced the date of the general election, he arranged for the first televised presentation of Chequers, the country estate, which goes with the office of Prime Minister. As host, he showed viewers around the grounds, chatted briefly about the paintings and the furniture, and recalled anecdotes about illustrious predecessors. He then settled down for an interview. Since Chequers had not previously been shown on television, many more people listened to the Prime Minister than would have if he had been interviewed in a London studio.

What is surprising to an American political journalist observing his first British campaign is the reverence with which the politicians and journalists treat the opinion polls. The trauma of Truman’s victory over Dewey and lesser upsets by other politician outsiders have bred some skepticism in the U.S. about the absolute accuracy of polls. But the polls have never been proved dramatically wrong in a British election. With one partial exception, which is discussed below, the polls beginning in 1945 have always guessed the winner although they have usually been off by two or three percentage points in predicting the margin of victory.

Because of this record, a British election is more ruled by the pollsters than even an American election would be. Five London newspapers sponsor opinion polls, including Gallup and Harris. Inevitably, they conduct their interviews at slightly different periods with the result that almost every day, the pundits and the politicians have some new statistics to chew over. When Mr. Wilson announced the election, all five polls showed his party in the lead. Ten days later, one poll reported that the Tories had slipped back into the lead by two points. Another poll had Labor still ahead nationwide but behind in the crucial marginal seats which, if borne out on election day, would mean a stalemated House of Commons in which neither party would have a working majority.

To this outsider, common sense would seem to suggest that the polls are much overrated. In countries like Britain and the U.S. which have a healthy two-party system, there are only two kinds of elections: a landslide or a close shave. If it is going to be a landslide, nobody needs a poll to predict the outcome. If it is going to be fairly close, it will be too close for any poll to predict with dependable accuracy. That is because with the small “samples” which these polls use they can only be accurate within a range of 6 per cent either way. A poll showing Labor with a lead of 5 points would be regarded as accurate—by statisticians if not by disappointed partisans—if the actual result was anywhere between a Labor victory by up to 11 points or a Tory victory by one point. Even if the sample is much larger and the margin of error cut in half, that still means the actual result could vary three percentage points either way from what the pollster predicts. In short, if an election is reasonably close, the pollsters are trying to calibrate a fog. They are right more often than they are wrong but their prophecies could be treated with more reserve than the allegedly phlegmatic British accord them.

In this election, the polls have had an unfavorable effect on the Conservatives similar to that which they had on Hubert Humphrey’s campaign in 1968. In the latter case, they showed Humphrey trailing badly from August to late October with consequently depressing effects on his fundraising and canvassing. Only in the last days did they report him closing the gap. The election actually ended in almost a dead heat. In Britain, the polls showed Edward Heath and his fellow Conservatives ahead of the Labor Party in 1968, ‘69, and into the spring of ‘70, sometimes by enormous margins up to 27 points and as recently as last December by 12 points. When this handsome lead suddenly disappeared in April and May, the optimism bordering upon euphoria among Conservative supporters naturally gave way to demoralizing despair. This cycle of emotions would have occurred if the polls did not exist because by-elections and other evidence showed the Government’s unpopularity in 1968-69 and also its subsequent recovery. But the polls have heightened the optimism and deepened the gloom because they measure what used to be immeasurable. Confronted with exact statistics, almost everyone forgets that what is being measured—human opinion—is less like a stone and more like a flowing river.

Only once have the British polls been partially wrong about an election result. In 1951, the Gallup Poll predicted a Conservative lead of 2.5%. Labor actually polled 1.5% more votes. Nevertheless, Gallup was right inasmuch as the Conservatives did win the election because they won a plurality of seats though they polled fewer votes. That anomaly, which has not happened in the U.S. since 1888, despite its much criticized Electoral College, occurred because Labor piled up huge majorities in many of its safe seats while losing marginal seats by tiny pluralities.

The Labor Party politicians have understandably been determined that if the 1970 election were close, they would not again be deprived of victory by the workings of the system. Under British law, parliamentary seats are supposed to be redistributed periodically by a Boundary Commission made up of neutral experts. Traditionally, the Commission’s revisions are routinely endorsed by the Government and enacted into law by Parliament. Last year, the Labor majority acting at the Government’s behest rejected the Commission’s boundary changes. The Conservatives screamed “Foul!” Their complaint is readily understandable. This election will be fought on boundaries laid down in 1954. Because of shifts in population, a score of districts have swollen to nearly twice the average population while a dozen others have dwindled to one-half or less than the average. The largest constituency has an electorate of 124,000 and the smallest has only 18,000.

But what looks like “rotten borough” gerrymandering from the Conservative viewpoint looks like justice from the Labor viewpoint. Of the eighteen smallest constituencies, 15 are held by Labor, 3 by the Liberals, and none by the Conservatives. Most of them are old working-class neighborhoods in the center of cities where slum clearance projects have drastically reduced the population density. Professor David Butler, Britain’s foremost expert on elections, points out that the overvaluing of these inner city constituencies exactly corrects the “wastage” of two per cent of Labor’s total vote; that is, the surplus votes in its safest districts. Because of the shifts in population since the redistricting of 1954, Labor’s seats in the House of Commons now correspond to its percentage of the vote nationwide. Adoption of the up-to-date districts proposed by the Boundary Commission would have reintroduced the inherent bias in the system which produced the anomaly of 1951.

Superficially, there is a parallel between the Labor Government’s refusal to redistrict and the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, which the Supreme Court has been overturning. But there is a significant difference. Gerrymandering in the U.S. affects only the legislative power, important though that is. What is at stake in Britain is not only the legislative but also the executive branch of the Government. For that reason, the more accurate parallel is not with the redistricting of the House of Representatives but with the working of the Electoral College. American critics of the Electoral College fear that it might defeat the will of the majority. In Britain, Labor learned by hard experience in 1951 that the majority could be defeated. Its effort last year to avoid that result again was embarrassingly difficult to defend in terms of principle. Probably only proportional representation would logically meet the difficulty. Moreover it was only a stopgap solution because sooner or later the boundaries will have to be modernized. Yet this undignified stopgap was not the blow to a fair election, which at first glance, it appeared to be.

Received in New York on June 8, 1970.

Mr. Shannon is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The New York Times. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Shannon, The New York Times, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.

© 1969 William Shannon