Interview: Ben Page

Getting inside voters' minds is not always a straightforward business, as Ben Page knows all too well.

Ipsos Mori's chief executive understands that what the public want can often be very complicated indeed. Part of the problem is what Page has termed 'cognitive polyphasia' – the ability of the general public to want more than one thing. Border controls should be toughened up, they think, but those lengthy queues at borders are completely unacceptable. Global warming has to be tackled, it's agreed, but measures to enforce recycling are simply unacceptable.

Then there's the basic mechanics of coming up with trustworthy numbers. Polling is grounded in science; take a random sample of "1,000 sentient beings in the universe" and you'll get a reflection of their views to plus or minus three per cent. "The problem is we never achieve a random sample," Page says. That's where the art comes in: going to find people, knowing who you're talking to, is what matters as efforts to 'weight' data struggle to overcome the poll's weaknesses. "The art comes in the adjustments."

No wonder politicians rely on polling companies to help their way through the murk. Page says the big bucks are in America (of course), where the Democrats and Republicans get daily numbers on everything under the sun. The Labour party can't afford that level of insight, that's for sure.

Still, "it's like fish and chips, politicians and opinion polls", he says. "The increasing sophistication of political marketing means you can divert your resources. Polling allows them to focus those resources on the places where it has the biggest difference. Which is both good and bad – but you aren't going to put the genie back in the bottle."

There are lots of areas where the political world cares about what other people think. But it is public opinion about politics itself which unites the Westminster bubble and beyond. The politically conscious spend their days nervously worrying about the significance of the fact that, increasingly, most people couldn't care less. Ipsos Mori's numbers show that the public's trust in politics has always been fairly low, but dipped to very low levels in the wake of the expenses scandal. Now it has rallied somewhat, as journalists have "blotted their own copy book". So here I am, an untrusted journalist writing about untrusted politicians. Should I be worried?

"The problem comes down to whether people think their vote will make a difference – will the government always get in?" Page says. As the spike in turnout showed after the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen threatened the Elysee Palace in 2002, when people think it will make a real difference they will drag themselves down to the polling station.

Page sees parallels with this and 'nudge' theory, which Ipsos Mori does a lot of work on. If you suggest to people that we might be running low on fuel, there is inaction. "It's only when the public thinks something might happen that something flicks over and there's an avalanche of stuff that happens. It's only when it really seems to matter to you personally."

Elections become less significant when their ability to make a difference to a person's life falls away. "There's a disenchantment with party politics as practised in a first-past-the-post system where until recently less ideological differences existed between the parties," Page says.

The politics of ideology is fading. I suspect a politics of personality is stepping up to fill the gap. This is more than a suspicion, Page suggests, when I put it to him. According to Ipsos Mori, which has been asking voters the same question at every general election since the early 1980s, 2010 was the first year when as many people said they were voting on the character of the leader as much as they were on his party's policies. This trend was partly caused by the first televised debates, of course, but may also be due to the limited difference between the parties' policies.

British political culture is turning to personality to fill the ideological gap, I suggest, and the constitutional innovations of the coalition – elected mayors, police and crime commissioners, even elected peers – are a response to that problem, even as they try to address the engagement problem. Page scoffs. "It's lipstick on a pig," he says. "A lot of politicians would rather win on a ten per cent turnout than lose on a 90% turnout."

If politicians have a difficult relationship with voters, the problem is at least partly the fault of the latter. Their contrary nature seems to run deep. When we mention referenda, Page laughs. "The public love the idea of a referendum," he says. "They won't actually turn out to vote, but they like the idea of it." On the same theme, people want higher standards of behaviour than they would be prepared to live up to themselves. They want someone to blame, but are not prepared to take any responsibility themselves.

Voters like their own MP more than they like MPs in general, Page continues. They are deeply cynical – but this is not something new. He cites a Gallup poll carried out in August 1944 which asked voters whether they believed politicians in the wartime coalition government were acting mainly in the interests of their country, party or themselves. Only a third thought politicians were acting in the interests of the country. "They're all thieving scum" just about sums it up.

Voters often accuse MPs in the Commons of behaving like children, but the refusal to confront difficult decisions often makes it seem the voters are the really childish ones. "What the public really think is politics is where very difficult decisions are made," Page says. "Often the public doesn't really want to confront them. This is where representative democracy actually has some benefits."

While the public can afford to enjoy the mental comforts of cognitive polyphasia, politicians are the ones who actually have to make the tough calls. There is a reflex attitude among voters of "'I don't want to make these choices, that's what we elected the bastards for'."

The headlines might be all about political disengagement, but Page understands that the reality of the relationship between politicians and the people they represent is complicated. Which explains why working out what on earth the voters are thinking, a key part of any politicians' job, is not as easy as it sounds. And this, of course, is where Page and his colleagues come in…