Friday, 24 July 2009

A fable from Norwich North

Today, prime minister Gordon Brown demonstrated one of my favourite rules about politics: if you’re a politician, never comment on by-election figures or opinion polls because anything you say will come back and bite you on the bum.

Commenting on the result of the Norwich North by-election, Brown said:

"I don't think any party can take a great deal of cheer from this, the Conservative vote went down, the Liberal [sic] vote when down - only the fringe parties saw their votes going up."

Mr Brown’s comment on the figures was quite correct, as far as it went. The Tory vote as a share of the total number of qualified electors was down by 2.2 per cent from 2005. The Lib Dems were down by 3.5 per cent. UKIP saw their vote go up by 3.9 per cent and the Greens’ improved by 2.8 per cent.

I think you can guess the punchline. Labour’s support crashed by 19.2 per cent. Only one in three of those who voted Labour in 2005 turned up to vote for them yesterday. Brown had by far the worst result. He lost a seat that has had Labour MPs for 45 of the last 59 years.

The PM showed how politicians trying to make a clever point about by-election results– or, more likely, explain away a disastrous outcome -- are quickly caught out.

This is more likely to happen with opinion polls. I’m always fascinated by the way some politicians make excuses for dismal poll results by trying to pick at the details, playing with figures to no great effect. Or else they try to trace trends or make comparisons that just don’t stack up. It always sounds like making excuses. Remember Michael Heseltine’s tragic attempt, just days before the Tories’ 1997 debacle, to explain away dismal poll results? Like all politicians playing in public with adverse polling figures, he embarrassed himself.

So, governing parties everywhere: if you lose a by-election, just acknowledge that people are angry and then get on with it.

Politicians everywhere: if you get a bad poll result, just declare that the only poll that counts is the one of general election day. Better still, don’t ever comment on polls at all.

And never forget that great adage in the political novel Primary Colours: losers spin but winners grin.


Arden Forester said...

I like the way you noticed that Brown always says Liberal. He just can't bring himself to say Liberal Democrat. He's the only politician in the country to behave this way.

I'm sure the LibDems are bemused. I get the impression at PMQs that he does it to rile Clegg.

It's rather like the Conservative MPs of old always referring to Labour MPs as "the Socialists". I remember one Labour MP actually getting quite upset about it.

Bill Quango MP said...

Thought exactly the same thing.
When Newsnight calls, tell them no one is available. They will find a talking head to explain away the disaster for you. Especially if you have Kevin or Polly or Yasmin ready to defend you. You can tell them what to say beforehand, and if they are made to look foolish, so what?