A by-election is an over-sized poll with one crucial difference: the politicians can cheat

The electors of Henley have for the last couple of weeks been suffering under the collective affliction of a by-election, an affliction which is going to reach fever pitch in the next 72-hours as they go to the polls and the media strain their blood-shot eyes to try and see right into the very depths of their souls. I always feel sorry for people who are forced to endure a by-election. They must feel ever so slightly like a field of corn set upon by a swarm of locusts or a cultured continental city swamped by the bacchanalian philistinism of travelling bands of football followers. All of a sudden their part of the world – at least what was their part of the world – is taken over by carpet-bagging politicians-cum-activists who have come to make them do as they’re told and the Panopticon-media come to watch the people who have come to make them do as they’re told. It is a strange, slightly unreal Russian doll scenario.

And what’s more they have to relinquish any preposterous notion they might have to the effect that they are the voters of Henley – particular people with specific concerns like vandalism on Edwards Street or the over-subscription of St. Barnabus’ specialist school – and submit to their new role of symbolic representatives of the nation. In by-elections people cease to be individuals; instead they have to form a new understanding of themselves as types, exemplars and weathervanes. Henley – no matter how bad the fit, no matter now risible the notion – becomes the paradigm of the nation. They can’t expect to be treated in their own terms or allowed to go about the drab, but important, business of choosing their parliamentary representative; they have to resign themselves to be exploited, fought over and (although it is counterintuitive) ignored. Henley, like Vietnam, isn’t important in itself. It is a piece of inhospitable jungle in South-Eastern Asia full of rice and people with a yellowed complexion; no one would ever want to go there. It matters because the wider world is watching. And defeat in Henley (whatever that might mean) could cause all of the neighbouring dominoes to fall as well as vividly demonstrating the vulnerability of the loser.

This seems to me ample reason to feel sorry for by-electors, but in this instance there are additional reasons to be sympathetic. After all, this is the by-election to replace Boris Johnson. Just read back that previous sentence; it scarcely even makes sense. How could anyone replace Boris Johnson? Johnson is sui generis; he has an appeal to voters rooted in his aristo-ironic bonhomie that no one else presenting themselves for election is going to be able to reproduce. And so this is the ultimate hangover by-election for them; a dreary Groundhog Day Monday in which they are forced to choose between nondescript and banal politicians, haunted as if through a nostalgic haze by ethereal glimpses of Johnson. The sense of disappointment that attends their choice will be made more pointed still by the fact that they cannot console themselves with the thought that Johnson is incapacitated, incarcerated, mad or dead. Johnson is fine. In fact, he’s better than fine: he’s the nation’s most powerful Tory; the capital’s most feted man; the politician with the second biggest direct political mandate in Europe after that pesky President of Portugal. Johnson left because he became too big and too important for Henley. He needed a more exciting stomping group, a more historic backdrop for his political tomfoolery. The people of Henley were betrayed; Johnson would condescend no longer to be their mere MP.

By-elections seem to bore ordinary people: people in the constituency being polled and people elsewhere. Presumably it’s because they know that nothing real is at stake. Most people have no direct contact with their MP and are sceptical about what they can achieve as a local lobbyist, so they only care about their election when it feels like a contribution towards the election of the government. Political elites and their camp-followers feel differently. For politicians, media-types, think-tankers, party agents, volunteer activists and their ilk by-elections are festival occasions. By-elections are political carnivals – and the political elites are carnies and carnival-goers all wrapped up in one.

Everyone likes to get out on the road; everyone likes to go toe-to-toe with their hated opposite numbers, but those aren’t the fundamental reasons why the people who live for politics love to by-electioneer. Political types love by-elections because they are institutionally-sponsored, taxpayer-funded, prestige-added polls. With one crucial difference: the politicians can cheat.

You might hear politicians telling you on the radio or television that ‘They don’t read the polls.’ But what they mean when they say that is: they do read the polls. Everyone involved in politics reads the polls. In fact, they read them obsessively, think about, talk about and pray to them obsessively. The polls are their Gods; they worship them as if they (not the voters) were the source of supreme power in the political universe. The power of the polls is not deific, though; it is the power of astrological calendars and runes. That is, they can tell the future. There is even a slight suspicion that they don’t so much forecast the electoral future as determine it. The people will support who the polls tell them they support…

But no matter how important they are to you, you cannot rig the polls. ICM, Ipsos Mori and Populus look after their own. So you can’t discover who the randomly-selected, hallowed ten-thousand are and find out ways venal, devious or violent to help them along the path to political enlightenment. They are untouchable. All you can do is perform better: govern better, oppose better, soundbite better, lie better, insult your opponents better, trick the electorate better. There is no direct way to coerce the polls; politicians are compelled to rely entirely on that motley collection of indirect and unreliable methods.

By-elections are different. Magnificently, deliciously different. The normal rules of polling do not apply. You know who the sample is and that means you can cheat. Outrageously. Like a mob boss on trial you have the chance to tamper with the jury. You can unleash a horde of button-men on the town, train a cadres of Question Time-profile politicians on the electorate, overwhelm the populace with a flood of rosette-wearing sycophants. Armed with the finest ideas of the party’s wonkiest eggheads, the filthy lucre of its most disreputable financiers, and the honeyed words of its suavest propagandists you and your army can go to work on the electorate. You can charm them, indoctrinate them, bore them, suffocate them, appal them, threaten them, out-fox them, hoodwink them, pulverize them – anything to make them promise to vote the right way. Nothing is forbidden, everything is permissible so long as it produces the desired result. Get the vote out if that’s going to help; if it isn’t, keep them at home – lock them in their homes, tell them that the election has been cancelled, turn the arrow pointing to the polling station round Wacky Races-style.

Can you see the dirty, saturnine beauty of it now? The beguiling genius of the by-election? You don’t have to be more popular than your opponent, you don’t have to be better. You can simply fight the more adept, artful, brutal campaign. The Liberal Democrats have been doing it for years…

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2 Responses to “A by-election is an over-sized poll with one crucial difference: the politicians can cheat”

  1. Mr Kinman Says:

    Adam… you really are very good at this. You deserve far more than “no comments”. You certainly deserve better comments than this, but with the world seemingly sluggish in its wakening to your prose, please view me as some sort of karmic stop-gap

    My one criticism is you enabling comments at all. My instinctive elitism, combined with a year in PR has lead me to hate ‘Web 2.0’ (as commonly articulated) with a passion so intense it actually hurts.

  2. 45govt Says:

    Actually, I think you have a couple more comments than you deserve.

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