Polls, polls, polls. They have always been a feature of election campaigns, of course, but in recent years there have been an explosion of the things even during the normal ‘peacetime’ period of government. Now that the campaign proper has begun, we will be deluged with them. Who’s up, who’s down, all analysed to the nth degree.
Accorded great but ephemeral significance, until the next one comes out a day, or perhaps even hours, later. It wouldn’t be surprising to wake up one day and find out they had become real-time events and displayed as a ticker trail, like stock prices are on American news programmes.
The deluge of polls reflects a move to a more data-centric world: “Big Data”, “Predictive Analytics”, “Artificial Intelligence” – buzzwords abound. Many people understandably regard these developments as rather sinister and threatening, but in essence they are just tools to be used and misused like any other: powerful statistical analysis of complicated data patterns can, for instance, help reveal to politicians the existence of marginalised and alienated groups in society they had been hitherto unaware of. In any case, you can make a strong argument that politics has been data influenced ever since George Gallup published his first opinion poll in 1932.
However, what is very wrong is the way an estranged and aloof political class now uses data to strip the public of its basic humanity – politics has become not so much data influenced, but data-driven: we are all chopped up, sliced and diced into smaller and smaller segments and targeted ruthlessly.
You would think that, armed with all those Oxford politics, philosophy and economics degrees, the political class would be aware of the philosophical limits of reductionism, but apparently not. Often brilliant but shallow careerists who live purely for the personal now and the personal future, they lack an organic connection with those they wish to govern, and cannot appreciate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: that deep down people yearn for a greater meaning than technocratic solutions to their individual problems.
The central tragedy of our age all lies not in the imagined ascendancy of Bladerunner-style intelligent machines, but in politicians who insist in treating us as such. An approach based on division and categorisation is ultimately bound to be divisive, and has surely contributed to the atomisation of British society. Nor is it in the long term particularly successful: for instance, the obsessive concentration on the floating voter in recent British elections has led to an unprecedented revolt of both Tory and Labour core voters.
The most extreme reaction to this dull, contemptuous and thoroughly mediocre understanding of the governance of human affairs is, of course, the rise of romantic nationalism in Scotland. Such a fundamentally emotional approach it is not without its own weaknesses and dangers, perhaps extremely serious ones. However Salmond and Sturgeon understand what the London elite does not: that right or wrong the future always belongs to those with passion and conviction, to those who know that the ghost is always greater than the machine.