‘Betting on the favourite’: 1870 engraving

Bookies, mugs and pollsters

As Sunak’s campaign stumbles from bad to worse, Paul Demarty looks at the latest turn in the betting scandal and, in the absence of any differences of substance, the media obsession with the polls

It is clearly beyond the Conservative Party to actually compete in this election. But surely they can make it three days without some fresh gaffe or scandal.

The tediously named ‘Betgate’ affair began as a mere scratch two weeks ago, when The Guardian discovered that Rishi Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary, Craig Williams, had bet on the date of the general election, and was being investigated by the Gambling Commission. That one Tory could be found stupid enough to think these things are not monitored was embarrassing, but hardly apocalyptic (at least compared to the catalogue of disasters that has characterised this campaign as a whole).

But then Tory candidate Laura Saunders was revealed to be in the same kind of trouble with the commission - and it turned out that so was her husband, Tony Lee, who had been suspended from his job at Conservative HQ (small world, eh?). Three became four, four became five; the Metropolitan Police hinted at related inquiries into its own officers (at least six are now known to be under investigation by the Gambling Commission). As usual wrong-footed, it took Sunak until June 25 to suspend the parliamentary candidacies of Williams and Saunders. (One Labour candidate was also suspended for similar reasons - Kevin Craig bet that he would never win the Central Suffolk and North Ipswich constituency, in which the Tories had a 23,000 majority in 2019.)

It is not a good look, to put it mildly. The average person in the street knows very well why the gambling activities of sportsmen and women are kept under close watch. (Readers may remember the extremely long ban meted out to the footballer Ivan Toney of Brentford and England, last year.) Politics is a rather different sort of endeavour, but it is nevertheless a series of contests, with an interesting landscape of probabilities to explore. It is, therefore, something on which the bookmakers will take bets. Someone who bet on a July election in the spring would have gotten a good price, given how obviously stupid calling such an election would be (and so it has turned out). If the allegations are true, this is patent, obvious and vulgar corruption.

Worst of all, perhaps, is that it is so petty. This is not corruption on the grand, Watergate, al-Yamamah scale. It is a Del-Boy wheeze - the small pursuit of small sums by ever so small people. For once it is hard to disagree with Keir Starmer, at his most high-minded, when he told a Northampton rally:

It goes to the heart of what the Tories have become when their first instinct in relation to a general election is not how to serve the country - ‘How do I get the message out?’ - it’s ‘How quickly can I get to the bookies and make some money?’


It is thus quite an unflattering portrait of the present caste of career politicians - to which, of course, Sir Keir belongs. There is a certain anti-political cynicism taking root among many people, both here and elsewhere and, given the prevailing balance of forces, it is most commonly taken hold of by the right. Politicians pretend to care; but they only, at the end of the day, care about themselves. They would rather make a few hundred quid than rebuild a country that is (without much exaggeration) disintegrating before our eyes, be it NHS waiting lists, rotting infrastructure or (lest we forget) entirely dysfunctional government.

On the left, this is usually explained by the collapse of the social democratic post-war order, and the associated deindustrialisation and hypertrophy of finance capital. It is possible to see gambling as a minor branch of finance capital in itself even. Both brokers and gamblers put money at risk to bet that some more or less unlikely outcome will take place. The relationship in each case between the bet and actually useful economic activity is, at best, obscure. There is a proportional relationship between risk and reward. Indeed, after the 2008 crash, there were many denunciations of ‘casino capitalism’, which brings to mind one other similarity: both in ‘casino capitalism’ and the casino itself, the house always wins.

Political betting has grown in prominence in these years. It has become a hobby of people in politics-adjacent jobs, or who merely fancy themselves as savvy. Exactly where the ethical line lies is somewhat obscure. You could take the case of Sean McElwee - the co-founder of a think-tank aligned with the Democratic Party in the United States, focused on polling analysis and suchlike - who had to resign from his post in 2022, when questions were raised over political bets he had made. Was his Data for Progress outfit - which badly misjudged that year’s mid-term elections - influential enough to make this an ethical problem? (In any case, later and more serious allegations that McElwee had set people up as straw donors for the disgraced cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried would have done for him, we assume.)

This raises wider questions about the increasing dominance of opinion polling in the overall reporting of elections. On the face of it, there is nothing very alarming about it - we all want to know how things are going, roughly, and get some hint of the result. The trouble is that the causation goes both ways. Opinion polls change the behaviour of parties and candidates - both as regards minor tactical questions on the campaign trail, but also in the round. Authority in the campaign shifts towards pollsters and numbers people; politics becomes ever less about the substantive issues it is, on paper, supposed to decide, but on salami-slicing the electorate with specially crafted ‘messaging’.

Of course, most people know very well that this is going on, not least because it is going on in public - ‘What are you going to do to turn around these poll numbers?’ every trailing candidate is asked. And so on. The result is even more severe cynicism, which tends in different ways to invalidate the models of the opinion pollsters.

Underlying this dynamic is precisely the history we previously outlined: the advent of neoliberalism meant aggressively curtailing the range of available political options, and with it the relevance of voting. It also tended to disintegrate and/or bureaucratise those institutions, like parties and trade unions, that could offer any meaningful countervailing force. Neoliberalism produces the atomised electorate, their anxieties imperfectly massaged and exploited by technocratic pollsters and policy wonks.


Even this history, indeed, does not mention the fundamental dynamic: that capitalism and democracy do not go together, except insofar as capitalism creates the proletariat, which has the potential power and the incentive to fight for democracy. Neoliberalism is a tale of the defeat of the political and economic organs of the working class, and thus in a sense a return to ‘normal service’ after the scare of the USSR’s brief existence. Severe decay of what democratic functioning existed was to be expected. The flipside of the ‘individual freedom’ promised by the politicians of the 1980s, 90s and 2000s is impenetrable managerialism at the level of politics - just as the anarchy of the market is inseparable from the tyranny of the factory floor.

That is the real scandal of ‘Betgate’. After all, the sums of money involved here are likely to be trivial, compared to the various ‘fast lane’ sweetheart deals Tories gave out to their mates for pandemic supplies. To a population which is, in aggregate, increasingly cynical about electoral politics, it says, ‘You’re right: this is all a game to them.’ Hence, equally, the ferocity of the bourgeois press in going after the story, since they are part of the whole machinery here. Their jeremiads about an imminent woke-socialist one-party state (or else the danger of a fully Faragised Tory government) are rather hard to take seriously, when it begins to look like the politicians are not dangerous fanatics at all, but merely opportunistic and grasping careerists.

As we mentioned, the chief beneficiaries of all this - given the weakness of the working class left that has brought it about - has been the right. This has been exacerbated by the tendency for those leftwing formations that break through at all to be rapidly coopted, whether that be the participation of the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista in the Romano Prodi governments of the 2000s, the similar absorption into coalition politics of Podemos in Spain, or - most spectacularly - the Syriza government in Greece, utterly unable to resist the onslaught of the international financial system.

The right cannot readily find a way out either, however. The present post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia government in Rome has caused no serious change in the functioning of the political system - merely slathering it in ugly rhetoric. The French Rassemblement National, which is likely to emerge the largest party in the National Assembly next month, has already drifted far from its old Euroscepticism and promises to be a responsible manager of the French economy. The cycle begins again - this time even further to the right.

It is up to the left to build something that can stand as a real alternative, which means in the end offering a real alternative to the fake democracy of the existing liberal constitutions. That would allow everyone to start talking about the substantive matters, rather than just talking about (and betting on!) the numbers.