‘Honoured that you are writing my father’s biography’ the late Tony Benn, ‘...wonderfully written’ Hilary Benn

‘Sparkles with fascinating detail…a remarkable story of Liberal and Labour politics in the first half of the twentieth century.’ Michael Crick, Political Correspondent, Channel 4 News

‘Casts much light both on the evolution of British radicalism, and on the legacy which he bequeathed to his son, Tony. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, King's College, London

‘Brilliant biography…wonderful reading about the father and...discovering more about the son.’ Steve Richards of The Independent

‘Well-written and carefully researched, this fascinating biography brings to life a major figure in British political history…an excellent job of weaving together the strands of a complex life…as well as filling in the background of the Benn family’ Richard Doherty, military historian

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Ukip at 22%. Calm down, Dear. It’s an Opinion Poll

Ukip’s opinion poll rating has reached 22% in the latest survey published today. How exciting is that? What does this mean?

It means that (give or take 3%) the equivalent of 22% of people told the pollsters that they would vote for Ukip, if there was an election tomorrow. Unfortunately for Ukip, the party cannot cash this in, as there is no election tomorrow.

But, are the figures believable? Opinion polls do pretty much do what they say on the tin. We can trust the pollsters accurately to have reported what people told them. In the same way, we can trust the 2001 Census to have accurately reported that 390,000 people said that their religion was Jedi.

Even allowing for a few people jumping on bandwagons or having a laugh, this does sound like a pretty impressive poll rating for a new party. That is, until you see that in December 1981 the newly-formed SDP managed to clock up an opinion poll rating of 50.5% in a Gallup poll – and they were up against Margaret Thatcher as Conservative leader.

So how well did the SDP do at turning this opinion poll rating into seats in parliament? The party was led by the Gang of Four, all respected former cabinet ministers - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers - who had a well thought-out set of policies. The SDP agreed a comprehensive national electoral pact with the Liberals and it managed to attract 29 sitting MPs who defected into the party (28 from Labour and one Conservative). Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams fought by-elections and won.

When the next election arrived in 1983, the SDP won six seats – holding five of the 30 seats it was defending and winning one new one.

In the end the SDP split. Most of its members joined with the Liberals, to form the Liberal Democrats, who incidentally had an opinion poll rating of 34%, just before the last election in 2010.

So how excited should we be? That is entirely up to you, depending on your point of view. I should declare my personal interest. I was one of the 50.5%, who got quite excited in 1981. Personally, I will get excited again when we see a poll rating of 51% or more, as then we will be in record-breaking territory.

I also have to declare a schoolboy rivalry. My old school (St Dunstan's in Catford) just never managed to turn out a consistent product, having produced Labour MP Chuka Umunna, Conservative peer Michael Grade and me. Whereas, our rivals down the road at Dulwich College managed to produce Nigel Farage AND Bob Monkhouse.

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