The UK is in the middle of a hard fought election. Each new TV bulletin features the latest public opinion poll results. They are supposed to show us where the parties currently stand with the voters. Independent litmus tests of our polling day intentions.
I don’t trust them from personal experience. Back in May 1979, with the Labour Party in power, amid a general disillusionment with James Callaghan as PM, the Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher, was campaigning against him. She was the new leader of the Conservatives. As polling day grew closer the poll predictions had Maggie leading by a canter. It was going to be a landslide.
I was then on the Daily Mail, a UK Tory paper. They set up an editorial Election Desk, a separate ‘mini’ editorial room. I sat with the election desk news editor as picture liaison man. As the political stories rolled in I picked out the picture worthy ones. Come the eve of polling day the news editor’s phone rang, just before print deadline time. It was Lord Rothermere, the paper’s owner, with his nightly check on the poll prediction.
The news ed. told him, ‘Thatcher’s running away with it.’ The good Lord paused and reflected, then issued his instructions. In his paper, on polling morning, there would be an overnight ‘shock’ swing to Labour of 7%.
And so, as the voters finished their egg and soldiers and prepared to go to the booths, the 1st Edition ran with that prediction.
Cannily, he didn’t want the Tory faithful not bothering to come out and vote, assuming Maggie had won it easily without them. So he gave them a shock headline, and it worked, as we now know.