Q & A with Sir John Curtice
The doyen of elections discusses 1992, its impact on New Labour, and the challenges facing pollsters both then and now.
IFTC spoke to Britain’s leading election analyst and author of Labour’s Last Chance: The 1992 Election and Beyond, Sir John Curtice about New Labour’s misreading of the 1992 election and what really happened to the Labour vote, pre-election polling, and the post-election media coverage.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
After the 1992 general election, British media outlets were fixated on the idea that a late Tory swing and the influence of the Murdoch-controlled right-wing media apparatus had snatched victory from Labour, but you argued this analysis was wrong. You indicated that weakened loyalty to the Labour party was a much bigger factor in its election defeat. Can you explain what you mean by party loyalty?
What we were referring to was the concept of party identification, which was invented in America in the 1950s, then got exported to large parts of Western Europe by the various members of the American National Election Study Team. They helped start election studies in various parts of Western Europe—including Donald Stokes, who teamed up with David Butler to do the first British election studies in the 1960s.
The idea is that people form a social identity with political parties. They say, “I am Labour” or “I am Conservative.” They will also recognize other people who say the same thing as fellow Labour or Conservative supporters, and of course, historically it is underpinned by similar social background and class identities.
People who have a strong identity are more likely to remain loyal than those people who don’t. It becomes a partisan lens through which people interpret the world and their interpretation of the world is consistent with their prior predispositions.
One of the things that Anthony [Heath, a co-author on the study] wrote up after 1992 was to look at the way in which the change in class structure was working to Labour’s advantage. The crucial question of the 1950s was: how is it possible for the Conservative Party to win elections given that the class that they are associated with, the middle class, is the minority class? The question the Labour Party was facing in the 1990s was: how do you win elections given that the class with which you are associated with is now becoming the minority?
That was in tune with the way in which Blair interpreted Labour’s situation. We used to ask questions about whether voters thought the Labour Party interests the middle class or working class and one of the things that we picked up between 1987 and 1997 was that people no longer regarded the Labour Party as being particularly associated with the working class. Of course, nowadays it isn’t.
One of the arguments I sometimes like to point out that gets everybody on all sides of the Labour Party upset, is that Jeremey Corbyn essentially acquired the kind of election that Tony Blair was aiming for: predominantly middle class—lots of liberal people, and not so strong among the working class. This was exactly the kind of election that Blair was aiming for, but didn’t necessarily achieve.
The Labour Party of the mid-1990s didn’t come away with the same understanding of what had happened in 1992.
Labour fundamentally misunderstood what was going on in the electorate. They came away from 1992 with the understanding that it meant they couldn’t increase taxation.
42 percent of people voted for the Conservatives, 34 percent of people voted for Labour that was for increasing tax, and 18 percent voted for the Liberal Democrats that said they were going to increase tax. A majority of the electorate voted for parties that were either thought to be associated with or said they were going to increase taxation.
By 1997, it was very clear that the electorate were much more concerned about the state of public services than they were about the level of taxation. But it took a long time to twig this. About two years after entering office, New Labour finally caught on. They increased taxation and increased public spending by an enormous amount.
Why did Labour win in 1997? Was it Blair? No. It was Black Wednesday . That’s the crucial development. After that Labour were way ahead. Blair inherited a party that was way ahead. All he had to do was to make sure he didn’t upset the apple cart. I have great fun pointing out to people that under Blair Labour never did as well as it did under Margaret Beckett in the European Elections before Blair became leader.
We also see Blair reset the relationship with the British media after 1992.
There is no doubt that at the margin there was a relationship between the newspaper that people were reading and how they were moving. People who were reading the Daily Mirror were more likely to stick with Labour than people who were reading the Sun. But even by this stage the proportion of people who were reading newspapers was beginning to fall away quite a lot.
Once you take into account that the Sun was pushing some people in one direction but the Mirror was pushing people in another, the net effect was approximating zero.
People who are reading a newspaper whose position is out of line with their own fairly rapidly change the newspaper that they read if they read one at all. You are talking about a relatively weak newspaper market in which there was quite a lot of volatility and loss of readership. Why did the Sun back Blair in 1997? Because Blair was going to win, and the majority of readers were going to vote for Blair.
The other thing that goes to show why the position of the Sun was not that important was that in Scotland it backed the Scottish National Party (SNP), yet it was in Scotland that the Tories made the most progress.
Of course you want the press on your side and you can argue about its more insidious effects, like the way newspapers can set the agenda with the rest of the media (the Daily Mirror has been making life more difficult for Boris Johnson, for example) but once you start talking about aggregate effects of newspapers on their readers in so far as you can measure it, [it’s negligible] by this stage. The election was lost before the campaign started.
If there wasn’t a late Tory swing in 1992 and frayed bonds with voters was the issue, then why were the pre-election polls so wrong?
We are talking about an era when a lot of people were living in council housing and this was strongly correlated with Labour voting. They [pollsters] quoted by the percentage of UK households that were living in council houses. But because families living in council houses tended to have fewer people in them, they should have been quoting by the percentage of the population living in council houses. You were ending up with [a weighting of] too many people living in council houses. That at least was part of the story.
1992 was the last election in which [polling] was done by face-to-face quota sampling. After that it moved on [to phone polling]. Interviewers were less likely to wander up long drives in order to find people with a professional occupation, for example. They would find people in flats and properties that were easier to reach.
The other issue that my colleague Roger Jowell picked up, and this continues to be an issue, is that it seems to be the case that if you’re polling in a relatively short space of time, Labour voters are just easier to get hold of. This could be that Tory voters are less willing to collaborate because they think pollsters are a load of left-wing sociologists, or perhaps, more prosaically, that Tory voters are more likely to go out because they’ve got more money to spend [and are not at home to survey].
How has polling changed today? What are the challenges facing pollsters nowadays?
Today, the challenge facing pollsters is what undid them in 2015, this very strong relationship between age and party choice; young people vote Labour and older people vote Conservative. The people you get that respond to internet polls tend to be more politically engaged than the rest of the population and are not necessarily representative of young people in general.
Since 2015, the polls have done work in trying to get more people in the samples who are not interested in politics, and that seems probably to have done the trick—although in 2017 they still tried to compensate for the bias and they overdid it, which is why they underestimated Labour’s position. 2019 was reasonably okay.
So, it’s a different challenge. The challenges of polling move on. Class is no longer the major divide in politics, age is the demographic divide and that creates its own challenges.