What to do when the polls don't tell you what you want to hear

Snoddy: What to do when the polls don’t tell you what you want to hear

Political polls provide good fodder, but what degree of prominence should right-wing media organisations give to results that run counter to the direction they want the election and the country to go?

Opinion polls have always been a traditional feature of general election campaigns and it is largely news organisations that fund the expensive, labour-intensive process.

In return, they get exclusive splashes — although the life cycle of an exclusive can be measured in seconds these days — and valuable snapshots of how the campaign is going: who is winning, who is losing and the direction of travel.

This is a very unusual election campaign demonstrating surprising levels of one-way traffic, meaning many national newspapers are funding extensive polls and receiving extremely bad news from their point of view.

Conflicting views from GB News viewers

The right-wing press is having to decide what degree of prominence to give to results that run counter to the direction they want the election and the country to go.

One amusing example involves GB News, which asked JLP to conduct a poll on the views of the channel’s viewers. As is well known, GB News has a rather fixed point of view — a Conservative one — and until the election campaign got going and tougher Ofcom rules requiring impartiality kicked in, Conservative MPs were interviewing each other on the channel.

You would assume that viewers of GB News would be diehard Conservative voters. But that’s not what JLP found.

At the start of the campaign nearly two weeks ago, Labour had a lead of 11 percentage points among GB News viewers — more than a little surprising in itself.

But it’s not nearly as surprising as what has happened since.

The Labour lead among GB News viewers has risen to no less than 21 points — almost perfectly in line with results other pollsters have come up with from representative samples of the UK population.

So the channel that has lost close to £100m in its first three years on air has spent significant sums on proving that either its right-wing programming has absolutely no effect on the voting intentions of its audiences or it is has simply been offering them the wrong content all along.

The poll also found that the three main issues GB News viewers were most concerned about were the cost-of-living crisis, the NHS and housing, rather than stopping the boats or “woke” or gender controversies.

With such priorities, GB News viewers were bang in line with most of the population — and they also happen to be policy areas where Labour is more trusted than the Conservatives.

It must be rather unpalatable for GB News to find such a disconnect between its strident right-wing political approach and the beliefs of its viewers.

Fight goes on at The Sun

The travails of GB News are nothing compared with that of The Sun, which has supported the last six Conservative prime ministers, including the present leader, Rishi Sunak, with dogged determination.

Although The Sun, unlike the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, has not endorsed the Conservatives this time, at least so far, its poll last week has provided pause for thought in the ranks of the Rupert Murdoch tabloid.

The YouGov/Sun poll gave Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour a lead of no less than 27 points — one of the largest to be recorded so far.

What to do? The answer seems to have been to concentrate on the Sun website, where  political editor Harry Cole revealed the dismal news for Sunak and his Conservatives.

Luckily for Cole, another poll came out that day that put the Labour lead at a mere 12 points — enough to allow Starmer to form a government, though scarcely a landslide. It enabled Cole to ignore the multiple polls putting the Labour lead at more than 20 points and argue a false equivalence with the headline: “The fight is on.”

If the YouGov/Sun poll and its spectacular 27-point Labour lead appeared in my paper copy of The Sun, I failed to spot it despite having a careful look.

Still on the fence

That day, 29 May, and that behaviour help to sum up the problem The Sun has in deciding what to do about Starmer.

In that edition of the paper, there was neutral news coverage of Starmer’s claim that a Labour government would clear up NHS waiting lists within five years. Sun leader writers were sceptical of such a pledge and noted that taking apart and rebuilding the NHS “would test that pledge to the limit”.

Immediately opposite on the same spread, Leo McKinstry suggested that although Starmer was backing business, “socialism is always about to rear its ugly head”.

It is a neat illustration of how The Sun and the newly remarried Murdoch are still sitting uncomfortably on the fence while bad news from the polls continue to flow in and despite the fact that historically The Sun has always backed the winning side in general elections.

Painful reading

If anything, the news from the polls just gets worse and worse for the right-wing tabloids.

On Tuesday, the Daily Mail carried news of a new YouGov poll of 50,000 electors in every constituency, plus Nigel Farage’s decision to lead a Reform political revolution, under the headline: “Rishi’s darkest hour…”

You could argue that it was also one of the Mail’s darkest hours, with the poll predicting Labour heading for the biggest election victory in its history. It forecast Labour would win 422 seats, leaving the Conservatives with 140 — some polls are suggesting even fewer — and that 12 cabinet ministers could lose their seats.

The findings were properly covered, but greater prominence was given to the prime minister’s promise to cap the number of legal migrants and Labour’s “defence policy muddle” as Angela Rayner remains “keen” on nuclear disarmament.

Nothing that happened in the first leadership debate on Tuesday night will have moved the dial by much, even if the Daily Mail was able to claim that “fiery Rishi had come out swinging” and landed big blows.

Unless something very dramatic changes over the next four weeks, the polls will continue to make very painful reading for the Conservative press — even when they have paid for those polls.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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