DJ Taylor: The polls are not infallible. Popes, on the other hand...

Single-issue voters will always wrong-foot the pollsters; papal protesters need to see the bigger picture; why most of us are posh; blind planning; and slang
Click to follow
The Independent Online

An article in last week's New Statesman drew attention to the surprisingly large number of firms which will be measuring public opinion in the run-up to the general election. To such reliably long-lived concerns as Ipsos-Mori, ICM, YouGov, Populus and ComRes can now be added five more organisations that are either new to UK political polling or only produce data intermittently: Harris Interactive, Angus Reid, TRS-BMRB, BPIX and Opinium. All are keen to establish their credentials in a notably overcrowded market, and Angus Reid, in particular, has been advertising some newfangled online sampling process, whose last set of results gave the Conservatives a somewhat implausible-sounding lead of 13 per cent.

The fact that, as Dominic Lawson pointed out in his Independent column last week, for the next month and a half we shall be living through a kind of psephological blizzard can only be justified by the extremely volatile nature of the material to hand.

Predicting how people are going to vote was a mug's game in 1945, when amid widespread assumptions of a Tory victory Attlee's Labour Party romped home with nearly 400 seats (although it should be noted that some primitive early polls gave Labour an eight-point lead). It is even more of a thankless task 65 years later when, with most of the great ideological separations that dominated politics in the 1970s and 1980s papered over or otherwise disposed of, there are hardly any macro-political "issues" but only a huge number of micro-political sticking points. Even at this early stage in the pre-campaign, several newspapers have packed their reporters off to the marginals to "see what people are thinking" and the results have been unutterably bizarre.

Thousands of electors these days are apparently swayed by single issues peculiar to themselves, ranging from the inadequacies of their local council to their inability to procure a parking space. How these irritations will work themselves out in the reductive privacy of the polling booth is anyone's guess.

Then there are those long-term dissatisfactions that no amount of contemporary ointment can ever soothe. I remember reading a diary column written by the left-wing Labour MP Eric Heffer shortly before the 1983 general election in which he described canvassing a very old lady in his Liverpool constituency. No, she certainly would not be voting Labour, she declared. When (politely) asked why, she explained that back in the 1930s the local Labour candidate had promised the local children a victory party if he won. This had never materialised, hence her life-long aversion to socialism. A wonderful thing, democracy.


The papal visit to the UK will not take place for another six months – His Holiness is due to arrive at Edinburgh airport on 16 September – but already

"questions have been raised", as media reports have it, over the cost to the British taxpayer. The pontiff's four-day trip – during which he will visit Glasgow, Coventry and London, celebrate an open-air Mass and preside over the beatification of Cardinal Newman – will apparently cost £15m, although the Catholic Church has said it will help to pay for the pastoral elements, such as the Mass and the beatification ceremony in Coventry.

As a non-Catholic, raised in a Protestant home that regarded Catholicism as more or less on a par with devil-worship, I have no particular interest in Pope Benedict's visit. On the other hand, to the country's five million Catholics it will be an event of major spiritual significance in which they can be expected to take a thorough-going delight. Given the vast amount of public resources which our institutions have cheerfully squandered over the past 13 years – the £1m the BBC is apparently shelling out on its state-of-the-art World Cup backdrop, the vertiginous salary levels of the corporation's top brass, the £8.7m earnt by Ernst & Young in advising the Treasury on its asset protection scheme – £15m on a papal visit seems pretty small beer. The nation's Catholics – never mind the rest of us – are perfectly entitled to it.


I was intrigued by the piece of genealogical research, much discussed in the early part of the week, which suggested that a survey of most people's antecedents would show them to have surprisingly upmarket forbears. As a result of the sexual incontinence of previous generations of noblemen, one in five of us, it is estimated, may be scions of the upper class. Those mentioned in despatches – who, entre nous, sound pretty upper-class to begin with – are Samantha Cameron, apparently a distant connection of Charles II's mistress Nell Gwyn, and the Mayor of London, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who is a direct descendant of George II.

Fascinating as all this is, experience counsels a certain amount of caution. One warning sign is the ease with which family trees can be fabricated. My grandmother's family – the patronym is Castell – had a sumptuous chart alleging that the original "de Castelli" were Spanish aristocrats who "came over" – a marvellous phrase, worth a dozen coronets – with William the Conqueror. In fact, more detailed research revealed that they were Flemish weavers who joined the Huguenot diaspora of the 16th century.

Another reason is the extraordinary subtlety of the English class system, and the minute distinctions and exaggerations that are always brought to the question of social precedence.

My father, raised on a teeming Norwich council estate, always liked to believe – or to affect to believe – that his marriage to my mother involved a stratospheric leap up the mid-20th-century class ladder. "Silver spoons, boy," he would remark, of my mother's upbringing, before going on to conceptualise my maternal grandfather's early life as "young Master Tom in the governor's cart". In reality, my grandfather was the son of the smallest of small shopkeepers in a Suffolk market town. In much the same way, the novelist Anthony Powell – a colonel's son who went to Eton and married an earl's daughter – used quite seriously to maintain that he was "a poor boy made good".


A terrifying parable of the failure of the modern planning system could be found this week in Gorleston, Norfolk, where Great Yarmouth Borough Council approved an application to build 15 terraced houses on the site of a recently demolished pub. No fewer than 975 objections to the scheme had been received from residents of the nearby Magdalen Estate – a planning inspectorate record – complaining that the development would exacerbate parking problems and encourage anti-social behaviour. A local councillor, Brian Walker, objected to the plans on the ground that too many houses were being crammed into too small a space, leading to the creation of a "concrete jungle".

Why then did the borough council allow the scheme to proceed? According to the local paper, because "it would be hard for the authority to fight any appeal by the developer if the scheme was rejected because of parking concerns". But what this form of words disguises is the extreme (and understandable) reluctance of local authorities to call a developer's bluff because of the likely financial cost. The fact that a thousand local people are sufficiently animated by a threat to their neighbourhood to resist it takes second place to budgetary caution.

One great service that the Green Party, or indeed any well-heeled non-party philanthropist, could do the British people is to establish a fighting fund aimed at heading-off abuses off this kind, so that a local council with a superstore trying to gobble up one of its playing fields could endure the inevitable series of planning appeals in the knowledge that its costs would be covered. However desirable the idea of local democracy may look in the abstract, at the moment there just isn't the money for it.


The book I most enjoyed reading this week was a reprint of Philip Allingham's vastly entertaining Cheapjack (1934), an account of its top-hatted and evening-suited author's career as a palmist in the travelling fairs of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Allingham, mysteriously absent from all the literary histories of the period, turns out to have been the brother of Marjorie Allingham, the celebrated crime novelist.

Though full of incident, and first-hand observation of life on the Depression-era road, his memories of telling fortunes at the fair, are also remarkable for their luxuriant use of inter-war slang. As Francis Wheen points out in his introduction, not only does much of its idiom turn up in the slang dictionaries, often as the first citation, a good deal of it seems startlingly up to date. Who would have thought, for example, that the average Romany traveller of the 1930s liked hanging out with his "homeys" (ie, men) or habitually referred to children as "chavvys"?