I addressed the CIPFA luncheon on the outcome of the General Election and raised three far-reaching consequences of it.
Firstly, the result of the election (and indeed the exit poll) was a shock because the pollsters and pundits got it wrong.
This raises serious issues about polling and punditry generally, particularly the former. What, precisely, is the point of an opinion poll if even a series of them turns out utterly wrong? If this can apply to an election (where the error is demonstrable), how do we know it does not apply to everything else? For government departments carrying out consultations or businesses carrying out market research, how do we know this is in any way meaningful? In fairness to forecasters and pundits, they can only work from the information they have, but if basic indicators such as economic competence or preferred Prime Minister so heavily favoured one side, should someone not have picked it up?
It seems to me that this era of mass information is becoming an era of erroneous information. Pollsters and others crowd around a particular forecast, afraid of being attacked as an outlier, and no one is rewarded for standing clear from this crowd. The crowd, however, sometimes (often, even) gets it wrong.
Punditry also suffers from a lack of judgement in selecting the “expert”. Immediately upon presentation of the exit poll, one pundit on BBC NI said “exit polls in 1992 and 1970” were “wrong”. In fact, the exit poll in 1992 was not much further out than this year’s; and the exit poll in 1970, taken in a single constituency, was absolutely spot on and the first indication anyone had of the correct result. In fact, exit polls have rarely been far out; yet pre-election polls have quite frequently been. There is a clear distinction, and no “pundit” should miss this. Again, pundits go with the crowd and are too impressed by fables about the past which are in fact untrue (such as that 1992 exit poll) or by social media propaganda – look how many, for example, predicted a Sinn Féin win in Belfast South, where in fact they came a distant fourth (as anyone actually knocking doors there or even with a basic knowledge of electoral trends locally would have known).
We have now to be much more careful, fundamentally, about what information we buy, and choose our suppliers much more carefully.
Secondly, Northern Ireland is now into a period of time where it is vulnerable to external shocks which are predictable, but which it is choosing to ignore.
There will be obvious financial shocks. Already, a ludicrous public discussion has broken out about how to “stop austerity” rather than how to deal with it. Northern Ireland has seen about 14% knocked off its spending in real terms – we complain about this, but it is less than half the equivalent reduction across the border in the Republic and it is not as bad as experienced elsewhere in the UK. The failure of Northern Ireland parties to budget properly (while pretending they do not have to) is already causing considerable grief – the voluntary sector in particular is taking a hit, but so are universities, road construction projects and school buildings, among others. Unless there is a dramatic change at the 2016 Assembly Election to parties prepared to tell it as it is and prepare accordingly, this will only get worse.
Less obviously, there is the issue that “the Union”, the defining issue of Northern Ireland elections supposedly, is no longer actually remotely in our hand. Already, effectively, there is no longer a UK Government, but in effect an English Government which takes additional responsibility over Defence and Foreign Affairs for the wider Union. With Scotland yellow, England blue and London red, the Union is changing dramatically and will surely become federal, including with significant financial powers. Northern Ireland, reliant on tens of billions every year from South East England, has taken no serious steps to reform its public services. remove inefficient segregation and promote export markets – on the contrary, reform processes are blocked, segregation is protected deliberately at great cost, and we do not even have a direct air route to Europe’s largest market. Those demanding “devolution of economic control” will get a hell of a shock when that actually happens and they have to introduce tax hikes which make prescription charges look like pocket change.
Looming large also will be Europe – and, generally, the UK’s place in the world and its global and economic structures. Already, the attempt to remove the Human Rights Act is tampering with the 1998 Agreement. Any hint of exit from the EU will make investors less certain, and thus hinder the prospects of adding jobs immediately to make up for those lost in the voluntary sector. Actual withdrawal from the EU would make all-Ireland networks we take for granted harder; will remove funding upon which farmers and community groups are reliant; and will cause further constitutional upheaval within the UK including a second “Indyref”. As the UK’s role in global influence diminishes, it will lose control of its own security, dependent as this is practically on shared intelligence and military cooperation – something difficult for the whole UK but a particular risk in Northern Ireland. None of this is being seriously debated in Northern Ireland because it has no real leaders prepared to tackle the issues as they are – either political or civic.
Thirdly, there is the challenge of dealing with what the election result shows us – that people across the UK (at least, outside Scotland) view the world fundamentally differently from the way in which it is seen in the media (particularly the social media). That is, perhaps, the biggest shock of all. While discussion on the campaign trail and in the TV studios was of “Tory cuts”, the people actually voted for them – including here in Northern Ireland, where the largest party’s financial policy is defined by low tax (and thus low public spending, even if they omit that bit in public debate). There is a serious breakdown there as, again, a world of manic and constant communication means a lot more is said and written, but a lot less is truly understood.
Which takes us back to the pollsters and pundits, perhaps…