The pro bono gig that kickstarted one pollster's international consulting career
Before Margaret Thatcher’s legacy vanishes from public discussion, I’d like to offer a window into history. What follows is the story of how Thatcher brought upscale patio furnishings to her political foes and kick-started my international political consulting career.
It was late in the summer of 1990 and I was in London for a meeting with my pro bono client, the Liberal Democrats. The pro bono element was not by choice—the stark reality was that the party had very limited resources, and American consulting help was an immediate candidate for a line item veto by its treasurer. So pro bono it was, and there I sat plotting strategy for the upcoming by-election in the constituency of Eastbourne.
At the time, the country was in the throes of a debate regarding Thatcher’s poll tax. Unlike the U.S. variety, this was not a tax on those seeking to vote but a fat tax on the number of people living in a home. This tax hit the elderly and homeowners particularly hard.
Despite the poll tax, to suggest the Lib Dem prospects in Eastborne looked dim was a gross understatement. The previous Conservative MP had died via an IRA bomb setting of a surge of nationalistic Conservative fervor. The Tories had held the seat since sometime around the signing of the Magna Carta, and Labour was not even contesting it. Indeed, the British betting establishment Ladbrokes recognized this futile position with 100-1 odds against the Lib Dems.
That’s when I suggested we do a poll. This was a novel notion for the Lib Dems at the time. They had done only one poll. It was one I had written for them during a by-election in northern Yorkshire. We finished 100 interviews before they terminated the survey to use the phones for “knocking up.” That’s British for getting out the vote.
I told them that the margin of error for a survey of this size was over 10 percent, but if these results were from a larger sample poll, the Tory candidate William Hague would get about 40 percent of the vote. That would be just enough to win as the Lib Dems would split their vote with other left of center parties.
Well, Hague got around 37 percent, and the Lib Dems came in third. The Lib Dem leadership thought I was a polling mastermind for predicting the result. To them, statistical margin of error was not part of their calculus.
For Eastbourne, the leadership debated the merits of a poll for an hour. Why do a poll that would only tell us we were going to lose? But others wanted to at least know what issues were of concern to the voters, because it couldn’t be the poll tax in this Tory stronghold.
So they finally agreed that a poll was in order as long as it cost nothing, and the sample size would be no more than a paltry 250. After five nights of volunteers and staff calling from the parliamentary offices in Westminster, we had our 250. (Note: this methodology would not remotely pass the Nate Silver sniff test.)
I met the following morning with the leadership to inform them that, surprisingly, the poll tax proposed by Thatcher was very unpopular in Eastbourne. Moreover, the poll showed that less than 30 percent of the voters thought their next MP should be another Tory. Over 50 percent of the voters were over age 60—those most affected by the poll tax.
The Lib Dems were 20 points down but all the data suggested that the prime minister and the Tories were in a heap of trouble and the Lib Dems might possibly pull an upset. It was at the end of my brief presentation when I uttered words that made some people briefly wealthy. I said, “You know, we can win this.”
At first, the immediate and rapid departure of the party staff made me think they wanted nothing to do with this polling nutcase from the Land of the Revolt. Then I learned their destination. They all went directly to Ladbrokes to place 100 pound bets at 100-1 odds.
As in many campaigns, the winner ran the “least worst” campaign. The Tories, assured of victory—Ladbrokes told them so—selected a candidate who lived at least 100 miles from the constituency. They followed this by failing to address the impact of the poll tax on the overwhelmingly elderly Eastbourne electorate.
But ultimately, they hoisted themselves on their own petard when they held a press conference citing all their great works in Eastbourne including a new hospital. Unfortunately for the Tories, the address they provided for the new hospital was a rubble strewn vacant lot. Within hours the Lib Dems were distributing a leaflet with a photo of the vacant lot and the headline, “The Tories Call This a Hospital.”
The Lib Dems won by 10 percent. The day after the election there was a line of Lib Dem campaign staff at Ladbrokes cashing in their bets while the London tabloids called it, “The biggest upset in over 80 years in British politics.”
Shortly thereafter, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister, and I had a fine quote from the Lib Dems extolling my political and polling acumen.
Today, I visit homes of former Lib Dem staff who point with pride to their purchases made in late October of 1990. Only last summer, one poured me a scotch and announced, “Let’s have a seat outside on the Eastbourne by-election patio furniture and drink to Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax.”
Rick Ridder is the president and cofounder of RBI Strategies & Research, a Democratic polling firm.