When 300 men go to the polls

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The Independent Online
In the aftermath of the Tory party leadership poll, several questions are still to be heard in the land, such as: "Whatever became of John Redwood? Whatever became of the Euro-sceptics? Whatever became of democracy?

"But the most interesting question I have heard raised is quite different. It is the question of whether or not the result is actually sustainable.

"Legally, the result of the Tory party leadership election is on shaky ground. What is worse, it is statistically flawed from beginning to end. If this were an opinion poll, it would be laughed out of court. If I were asked to find out whether people preferred butter or margarine, I would use a more sophisticated method than that used by the Tory party to select their leader."

Who says so? None other than Robert Q Sample, head of Wooster Polls, perhaps the country's most feared opinion-seeking body, and a man who has superintended more opinion polls than Egon Ronay has condemned hot dinners. What does he mean by saying that the result is shaky on legal grounds?

"Oh, just that there is nothing in the laws of Britain - as opposed to the custom - that says that the leader of the party with most Parliamentary seats should be Prime Minister. To be really pettifogging, the post of Prime Minister itself is not very safely defined in law. To understand how it works, you must see the post of Premier as a kind of unelected head of a quango. No wonder someone like Major feels able to appoint so many quango heads without feeling that he is acting undemocratically. He is in the same sort of position himself.

"But it isn't the job of an opinion pollster like me to point out the flaws in our political hierarchy. Mark you, it doesn't seem to be anybody's job to do anything about the flaws in the political workings of the country, which is slightly worrying. No, as a pollster my chief concern is with the adequacy of the poll which selects John Major as our Premier. And I have to say that, if I announced the result of a poll with as narrow an opinion base as the Tory party poll, I would be given the bullet."

Robert Q Sample has never been very happy with our elections. Each time a general election has come round, he has pointed out the shocking inefficiencies contained therein. It's a wonderfully big sample, he says. Never in his lifetime will he ever be able to muster tens of millions of people on one day. But then it is all ruined by dividing people into arbitrary groups which are called constituencies, and taking the average of these group results as the real result.

"That way," he says, " you can get one party in power when the majority have voted for the other party. It's criminally inefficient. The parliamentary election system would be admirable if you were merely electing local representatives, but that hasn't happened for hundreds of years. You are now using a 200- year-old system to get an answer to a modern question. Result: widespread dissatisfaction.

"However, the inadequacy of the Tory party leadership poll makes the general election look perfect. It takes 300 people and asks them who they want to be their boss. Nowhere in the question form is it mentioned that the leader of these 300 people will also be the leader of over 50 million people. Do you think a man who leads 300 people will also be the best person to govern 50 million? It seems a doubtful proposition to me.

"Then again, look at the make-up of the sample. The 300 people who were eligible to vote were all from the same narrow band of the electorate - almost all male, white and middle class, and none young. Women, Asians, youth and the working class were virtually unrepresented, as were the unemployed.

The Tory party system for choosing a leader for 300 MPs is admirable. As a system for choosing a representative leader for anything else, it is hopeless. Do you remember at the time of the last election John Major condemned opinion polls for being inaccurate? Well, if he was right, then he should be even more contemptuous of the basis of the Tory leadership contest."

Well, if Robert Q Sample were given 300 male, white Tory MPs to ask questions of, what subjects would he choose to test their opinions on? "Hair treatment methods. Travelling. The psychological pressures of living in an all-male community. Not much else. In fact, nothing else. Certainly not anything to do with running the country."

Thought for the week: "I would much rather be governed by Jacques Chirac than anyone else. I would certainly rather be governed from Brussels than from Westminster. You don't get people like Tony Marlow at Brussels." - Jonathan Meades, on Sandi Toksvig's programme on Radio 4