Back in the summer I wrote a piece titled “Why Voting Intention Polls Matter” largely about the Brown boost in the polls but making the point about the real importance of opinion polling in politics today.

It isn’t about predicting what the next election will be, because apart from those taken immediately before an election, polls can’t do that. They aren’t really important because they measure public opinion either – they can do so, you can tell if people’s gut instinct is in favour of inheritance tax or against environmental taxes or whatever, but it takes quite a lot of analysis to get anything concrete out of it. Most newspaper polls are written with a view of getting a good news story out of the results, rather than actually aiding understanding. You’d have to look at questions asked various different ways, in different polls, looking at issues from different angles, before you really got a good understanding of what the public think about an issue.

Polls are important because they set the political weather. They are the means by which we know if a party is doing well or badly, if a leader is on the up or on the down. In that sense, they have overwhelming power to set the agenda, to decide if interviewers begin an interview by asking why a party is doing so badly, to decide whether media reports talk about a party leader fighting back or enjoying a honeymoon, to determine whether a party’s policies are reported as something that might actually happen in the future, or just a doomed suggestion.

Gordon Brown would always have pondered the possiblity of a snap election, but the only thing that turned it into something that was actively considered, the only reason why some of the young Turks around him were pushing for an early election was that the polls told him Labour had a double figure lead. If there hadn’t been polls commissioned that week, or if they had shown only a narrow Labour lead, would an early election ever have become the likelihood it briefly seemed?

The only reason Gordon Brown eventually decided not to call an election, whatever he may say, is surely that opinion polls told him he might well lose it. Again, had there been no opinion polls that week, or had they showed Labour still with a double point lead, isn’t it likely that we’d be in the middle of an election campaign now?

And Menzies Campell, it seems clear that the reason he had to step down as Liberal Democrat leader is at least partially to do with the recent polls showing the party down at 11% or 12%. If the polls still showed them at 18%, or if there were no opinion polls to point out how low they had sunk, wouldn’t he still be there? That is the power of the polls.

Are the polls too important, too influential? What would the alternate be, people will always want to try and measure public opinion. Were polls banned tomorrow people would look at local council by-election results (and many already do), or Parliamentary by-elections, or silly voodoo polls on the telly or whatever. You would just get less accurate measurements of public opinion. And, at the end of the day, polls are but a way of measuring public opinion – the best way we have. What encouraged an election, cancelled an election and removed Ming Campbell was public opinion.


89 Responses to “The power of the polls”

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  1. Well said Anthony. Its a bit like in Quantum Physics the Heisenberg Uncertainy Principle. One can never know for certain where exactly things lie, even trying to measure it will feed back into the system and move what you’re measuring, but ultimately you can know to a pretty reasonable degree.

    I have said all summer long that we were in a state of an unusual position due to the changes happening and we’d have to wait until Parliament resumes after the Conference season to start “politics as usual” and see where we stood then. Was right about not judging over the summer, things have changed post-Conference, but we’re not quite yet back into “politics as usual”. For that we’re going to have to wait until the New Year, possibly until the May local elections now. After all the volatility this year, I think they (and the Mayoral election) will end up taking far more significance than normal – and than they are really due.

    ————-

    In the short term the Lib-Dems are likely to get a boost in future polls now (maybe not the next set, surely during/after the leadership contest though) because of the publicity. Who they’ll gain from: Lab/Con/Both/Other is unclear though.

    There are potential risks and benefits to both main leaders too.

    Cameron risks not being the “New Kid on the Block” which could take away some of his selling point – but that could also support him. It could give him more relative gravitas and help his seeking now not to be seen simply as new, but as the future PM in waiting.

    Barring a comeback by Kennedy, Brown will be the only leader who will have been around visibly for years before this Parliament. That could help him portray experience – or it could make him seem even more tired and old himself with Ming now gone, with both parties able to portray a “time for a change” theme.

    No doubt some will come here now insisting “this will happen [which happens to be what I want to support my own party]” – I won’t say with any certainty aside that I predict they will go up one way or another in the short term . . . and that we continue to be in interesting political times and the next few months polls shall continue to be looked forward to eagerly.

  2. Good article, I agree that we will have to wait until probably February at the earliest now for any solid sense of public opinion which isn`t effected by the volatility of the past month and the Lib Dem leadership election (maybe a boost December and January).

  3. Spot on Philip.

    I agree that the only certainty in the short term is a modest increase in the Liberals’ polling as a result of what may well be two months of leadership chatter. The net effect is likely to be that both main parties will initially shed a few points as the floating voters show some interest in the new Clegg on the block.

    As you say, the polls that will really matter will be in the Spring when memories of the current period will have faded and we will back to normal politics. The local elections in May 2008 will be hyped up in a way that local elections have not been before particularly as there will be elections in London.

    What I want to know is what has happened to ComRes? Have they bottled it?!

  4. POLLS cetainly do affect the decisions of political parties and can also influence the voting intentions of undecided voters – they can spur people to come out to vote who probably would’nt normally because they think their party is lagging behind in the POLLS .

    As for the Liberals – they will only get a short , small boost in the POLLS based on more media coverage .

    As for the posters on here that think that a young face for the Liberals will be a direct problem for Cameron still don’t see why the POLLS have shifted towards to Tories – Cameron was behind in the POLLS – he only went ahead of Brown when it was seen that Brown was full of hot air and was still spinning like Blair .

    The postings on here give the image that the British go for age – NOT TRUE !! Cameron is his own man – and has proved it – the Liberals like Labour are without a vision or ideas

  5. It would be interesting to see where the Lib Dem vote has gone in order to get an idea of how the voters will react to the possible new leaders. Whatever happen they’ll get a bounce but as always it’s do the keep it that is the issue.

  6. The polls have ceratinly fed the media narrative (especially in The Sun) over the past week on Gordon Brown’s troubles and David Cameron’s success – whether they feature as strongly over the coming weeks if the respective parties’ ratings change remains to be seen.

    The Lib Dem leadership election – as in early 2006 – should add a few per cent to their poll rating simply due to the media exposure – even before a successor is chosen. Clegg certainly looks their best bet at this point if they are to win support back from Cameron’s Conservatives, particularly if any scary right-wingers like Redwood get too overconfident and vocal. Support that has returned to Labour post-Iraq will be harder to recover.

  7. The idea of not having polls (banning them?) is ludicrous as it is something that could not be policed and would be legally unenforceable. It is best to be open (transparent) about these things and if people misread what they are saying, or not saying, then that is their mistake.

    As it is Gordon Browns position has been weakened because he allowed himself to be seen as looking for a quick party political gain and lost the high moral ground of getting on and being a good Prime Minister.

    Thanks for your overview of what polls are really about.

  8. A very interesting article with some good points.

    I think the situation at the moment is one of a great deal of volatility. With the relatively good Tory conference and the election/no election episode and new Lib Dem leader in December it’s difficult to see where things currently stand. My guess is that we may not begin to see the true political picture until the spring.

    As for opinion polls, I would certainly be in favour of banning the publication of them once an election is called, the argument being is that we shouldn’t allow polls to so heavily influence the outcome of an election as may have been the case currently or previously.

  9. Polls are needed for a few things.One to keep the leaders of the parties up to date to what the most important voters of all thin,the floaters.You cannot rely on their own private poll.I always believe they lead to bias.Keep the public interested.A swing one way or the other makes good press.PMQ’s s to coin a phrase “Joe Public” does not.Put it bluntly it lets parties know if theri leader is a duffer.But I think the most important is the Floating voter intention,as these are the voters that win or lose elections.

    Floating voters are called that because they float.The typical floating voter at the moment thinks Brown/Darling can run the economy better,Brown is a better leader and ahead in most of the issues but asked who they would vote for at the next election say Conservative.A strange lot.

    The fall in and out and in love with Cameron is just as strange as the fall in then out of love with Brown.If Brown had held an election,Cameron may have won even though he was behind on leadership,economy and united party…How does that work out?It seems with exception of the hard core,and at one stage Cameron couldn’t even rely on them.Remember the poll that said more Conservative voters said they thought Brown would be better for leadership and economy than Cameron.The rest are very soft in voting intention.

    It’s the most open in terms of a result for an General Election for a long time and if Clegg becomes leader of the LDems,thats another thing for the floater to contemplate.

    Strange times in this countries politics.If ever a time “EVENTS” could sway an election,it will be this one.

  10. What do you think of the suggestion to mark events on the graph? I think it would make is easier to analyse the polls. I suggest this because I was mentally marking the point on the graph where Ming resigned to see what happens to the party from there. The BBC did it at the last election on their website.

  11. Mike,

    “Cameron is his own man – and has proved it”

    We won’t know until the Conservatives win and Cameron isn’t there yet. Would he have majority comfortable enough to prevent him being undermined by the rightwing whackadoos to the extent that John Major was?

    Voters can go off politicians as quickly as they go on them and that is something that has already happened with David Cameron.

  12. Mike R – Nice to see one of those non-partisan rants that keep the sane minded on here entertained.I have actually spoke to the Oxford English dictionary to see if the word polls can be replaced with POLLS!

    Any chance of falling out with a few more fellow conservative leaners,that is when your are at your most entertaining?

  13. Excellent analysis all round – I’ve said before that I came looking for this site last year because I couldn’t find much mention of the polls in the papers – the election had been and gone, so the polls weren’t news any longer. Manna, this site.

    Philip – Now I know ecatlty what to quote to my father when we bang on together about statistics! Heisenburg! I’m going to look it up.

    I poarticuylarly agree with Philip’s last paragraph about allowing one’s allegiance to colour one’s predictions of what might happen, and will carry on trying to tread that line!

    How long will it be before Brown is accused of “putsching” Ming out by hyping then delaying the election in a manipulation of the news? Some chess move! (I don’t believe it myself)

    Cameron is now the most experienced as leader (unless/until Kennedy comes back). I reckon Brown is still finding his voice at PMQ’s, which he can’t rehearse for as much as for Budget speeches.

    Whackadoo’s? Great word, it’s in my lexicon now, and I’ll use it against extremist loonies of every stripe and hue!

  14. LOL @ T Jones :)

    Technically John, Cameron already was most experienced as leader per se, the difference is that he was standing against two other party leaders who may have been leaders for less time (not by long in Campbell’s case) but had held other high positions (Foreign Affairs/Chancellor) since before Cameron came to the fore. That will no longer be the case with either Huhne or Clegg.

  15. If Ming was ousted by LD grandees on account of their recent low poll ratings, then that is less a reflection on the power of the polls than a lack of nerve by the LD leadership.

    The low ratings for LDs were to be expected as both main parties were grabbing headlines in what was briefly a pre-election period. Maybe the squeeze was fiercer than expected, but recovering a few points in the run up to Christmas will not really help present a coherent campaign in May.

    What the party may not have factored into their scheme to present a younger leader, is that the debate attendant on the leadership campaign may actually serve to highlight the inherent contradictions in LD policy / positioning, which Ming had in fact succeeded in burying.

    It may seem attractive to opt for a young leader on the right of the party, but how will that help win back voters lost to Labour, while why should centre-right voters opt for “Cameron lite” when they can vote for the real thing ?

    Alternately, if they turn to someone on the left of the party – such as Simon Hughes – they might retain disgruntled Labour voters, but will drive away many more previously won over from the Tories. The electoral impact is easy to compute, and does not make happy reading for an LD supporter (just check the Target Constituency link).

    One final point – the LDs have had a Scottish leader for thirty years now, and that has helped underpin their position as the second party in Scotland by Westminster seats. Their position in Scotland has weakeaned considerably this year – but again I do not think the blame should be laid at Campbell’s door. If they opt for a southern English MP as leader, this could undermine them still further in Scotland where they are vulnerable to Con and SNP in a number of seats.

  16. Well poor Ming! What a dirty game politics is!

    I wonder if he will be recruited to Browns all encompassing party – or will the Tories follow the theme that experience means too old and not wanted any more? Ming Campbell has a lot to offer politics in general – he was in the wrong party!

    The new leader of the Lib’s is likely to pick up 2% or so from the Tory vote. The Tory vote is clearly very volatile and not firm enough. It is unlikely there will be a move from Labour to the Lib’s as they had that bonus in 2005 because of Iraq and Blair and those voters have returned to Labour.

    When all this has settled down again the Libs will be back to around 18%, Tories around 34/35 and Labour 37/38. A G.E result of 37:35:18 in Labours favour would give Labour a majority in the high 50’s – better than the present majority if the boundary changes are taken into account. That I feel is a realistic outcome for 2008/9.

  17. SURELY lib-dem wont risk voting for Huhne-look at his majority! Yet another leadership problem after the election.

  18. colin: Electing Huhne ensures they win at least one marginal seat. I expect a lot of Lib-Dems to get unseated next time, but never the party leader. He could have a negative majority post-boundary changes and would still be favourite even in a bad year to get himself re-elected. Of course unseating a Big 3 party leader would be a major coup and historical moment – but I can’t recall the last time it happened. The leader just gets so much personal publicity there’s no way his vote won’t increase.

    I believe Ming has one of the safest LD majorities in the country, but given his age and the fact he’s now lost the leadership surely it will make sense for him to stand down at the next election. I see no reason for the Chiltern Hundreds, but a new candidate should fight it next time. In which case, anyone know if without the personal vote to Ming will the seat remain solid LD or could it be targeted by Lab/SNP/Con?

  19. Philip,have you ever known a leader with majority as low as Huhne?there would be apersonal vote -but big enogh to overcome big swing against lib-dem?unlikely?

  20. Such a low majority? Yes actually, though it happened down-under and not in the UK: Kim Beazley in 1996 was elected to the division of Brand in the Australian House of Representatives (same as our Commons) by just 387 votes and was then made leader of the Australian Labor Party.

    Was amusing because following the ALP defeat that year Beazley was favourite to become the new party leader, however the recount took a week because it was so close so they didn’t at first even know if he had a seat or not in the first place!

  21. Interesting to note that the media coverage of the resignation of Campbell did’nt dominate the news channels to the degree that the Cameron / Brown debacle did in the past 2 weeks . The media know that the Liberals are not particuarly news worthy – they are there more as an annoyance to the 2 main parties and can only really be included with “others” in the POLLS .

    Even the BNP , UKIP and other smaller parties have beaten the Liberals before .

    Once again though i have to mention that any growth in the POLLS for the Liberals during this change of leader will come equally from both Labour and Conservative – so any of the wishful thinking from the left partisan posters – is just that , “wishful thinking” .

    T.JONES :-

    You of all people should know how right i always am !!

  22. Back to the more recent polls, the ones about IHT and the two main commonly regarded as a fair, redistributive tax whose threshold needed to be tweaked up to keep pace with house-price inflation (Formerly Labour policy) and clear of most middle class families.

    The fact that POLLS (leave him alone T Jones!) pointed to it being regarded as fair by most people surprised me and proved that politicians tend towards doing the popular thing instead of they think is the right one.

    (of course there’s an argument that the couples rule change simply took fees from lawyers and simplified things for un-sophisticates, and an argument that £2m (less fees!) is a reasonable threshold, but that’s not my point.)

    That is the power of the polls. They are independent, as Anthony said, “weathermen”, but not meteorologists, telling us what is going on, but not why, and yet influencing the major decisions of the day . I do wish we had more “meteorologists” in the media debate, discussing what drives people to decide “right and wrong”, and more factual detail.

    At the moment, one side says “they’ll do/say anything to cling to power”, and the other side says “they’ll do/say anything to achieve power”. Limiting, isn’t it?

  23. First line should read …”and the two main parties’ reasons for changing their policies. I had though it was commonly regarded as a fair, redistributive tax…”

    Don’t know what happened, hope it’s legible.

  24. and “regarded as “unfair”, not “fair””. I need more coffee.

  25. Philip,still think wont be room for Huhne in Lib-Dem taxi after next election.

  26. Mike R – Yes I know how right you are,just left of Oswald Mosley.

    Nice to see one of your “non-partisan” posts squeezed through the editing stage.I can assume the only reason they do is that they are so hysterical,we need then to lighten up amongst all us deep thinking politicos.

    Nice touch saying that the Liberals are not news-worthy,an inconvenience to the two main parties and should be included as others in the polls….sorry,should that be POLLS!!

    Does NASA do space shuttles to your world,so we can all go and find out what you really are going on about when you post on here?

    PS.I think you are a cracking advert for David Camerons new Conservative Party.If only we could get you on TV.

    On a more serious note there are more marginal seated bye-elections on the 25th.So people on here can draw false conclusions of the results in a weeks time,totally ignoring the fact that they are local bye-elections and are more to do with local issues than the national picture?Entertainment to the fore and more whackadoo postings to come.

    Anthony – Any news on the next set of polls?

  27. You don’t see what doesn’t get through! YouGov’s normal monthly poll for the Telegraph should be next week, as – I assume – should be ICM’s for the Guardian.

  28. Thanks Anthony
    I’ve smiled at a lot in the last 10 days,(mostly at the appalling nonsense that gets through elsewhere), but you were the first to make me laugh!!!

    I think you should compile a “best of the rest”, where the wittiest whackadoos compete for the prize of entertaining us. Capitalisation is not an offence,T JONES, though if a referendum was offered on the subject, I reckon it would become compulsory by typographical default! (Sorry, I still can’t do winky smileys, can anyone help?

  29. T JONES :-

    Your response to my posts is not normally worth a reply – but i think the phrase “kettle calling pot black” comes to mind after reading your latest diatribe !! The camparison to my postings and the teachings of Oswald Mosley are even for yourself quite desperate – but as i believe in free speech , unlike many who support your way of thinking , i am open to any comments .

  30. Can’t wait Anthony-thanks for the prompt.

    The Lib Dem front runners seem to be Huhme & Clegg-neither of whom appears to have been exposed to the real world outside journalism & politics. Both went to Westminster School-so no sneers about privileged education from them I presume.

    Thank goodness Vince Cable and David Laws ( who both know what the real world is actually like )have both declined. They would have a home with the Conservatives if it gets too lonely on the Lib Dem deck.

  31. Re Paul H-J:
    “One final point – the LDs have had a Scottish leader for thirty years now, and that has helped underpin their position as the second party in Scotland by Westminster seats… If they opt for a southern English MP as leader, this could undermine them still further in Scotland where they are vulnerable to Con and SNP in a number of seats.”

    Steel, Kennedy, Campbell yes, but is Paddy Ashdown Scottish, and is Yeovil in the Scottish part of Hampshire? ;)

  32. John T – I would agree with you about having a referendum but like Brown I would have to have a look at the POLLS!! before I make my decision.

  33. Please try to understand that opinion polls do not tell us what people think. They tell us how well propaganda is controlling what people think.

    The evidence of the last few weeks should strongly indicate that the media is as good as telling people what to think and vote. A swing of 18% in two weeks for no other reason then a bit of a MSM break from kissing Browns backside 24/7, is sad indeed. What that says about the sheep like British public, the power of the MSM and BBC especially should leave us all feeling sick in the gut.

  34. Atlas – I take it we are in the midst of MSM and BBC kissing Camerons backside then?

  35. You state quite logically that Brown called off the election because the polls said he might/would lose.

    This is a completely wrong way to look at the situation, and I am sure that when you think about it you will also understand why a correct analysis is so vital.

    A more accurate statement would be.

    Brown called off the election because the people that ultimately control the worlds MSM clearly did not want Gordon to go to the country now or any time soon.

    The question is why?

  36. My quoting of Brown and the POLLS was a part of an obviously poor jest between myself and John T about something else completely different.

    Obviously it flew right over your head.

  37. Anthony,

    Whether it be the SNP winning in Holyrood or the LibDems in Dumfermline one of the key things polls can indicate, that also has an influence, is that a result is possible.

    Close to an election polls can show a potential result that lets people see what can be achieved, and that makes them react, either to switch party, vote tactically or come out and vote for a party they were less than happy about.

    I think it’s that ability to inform tactical voting rather than on the issues that leads nations like France to ban polls in the immediate run up to elections.

    Peter.

  38. Oh and on the power of polls, and particularly the potential effects of bogus ones, the BBC News Website politics apge has one on “Should charles Kennedy stand for LibDem leader”.

    On 16,000+ votes ( or rather hits as you can vote as often as you like) the yes camp has 76%…..

    Now that might well be enough to start the ball rolling.

    Peter.

  39. I look forwards to the next set of POLLS very much. It will be interesting to see if thr Libdem rating in the POLL has gone up at all.

    Mike- when you talk about the POLLS in real life, do you shout that word whist otherwise speaking normally?

    Anyway, Mike R’s ticking clock was right, despite people laughing at him, so I have nothing but admiration for his predictive powers.

  40. But as Charles Kennedy said himself, Peter, they might be Conservative or Labour voters wanting him to stand. He went on to say “it was time for the long knives to be passed to the next generation”. Good man.

  41. Cllr, isn’t it the case that US presidential elections are affected by early exit polls, which lead to one side or the other increasing turn-out in “too close to call” contests?

    Atlas, the voting public have a well-earned reputation for giving either side a kicking – I’m sure it’s not that we all swallow propaganda whole.

    A few years ago, BBC Five Live ran a poster campaign whose strap-line read “Five Live Speaks Your Mind”, and the regular jingles on the “drive time” show had a voice-over saying the line. After a week, the voice-over was re-recorded and changed to “Five Live. Speak Your Mind” The listeners had obviously done so, but the posters remained up for a while. The point is, I think the public are in control when we really want to be.

  42. Banning public opinion polls in the run up to a general election might be attractive if one thinks that this would encourage the electorate to make up their minds in a more objective way but one could equally consider that a luke-warm supporters of part A might be more likely to vote if the polls indicated that party B was in the lead…do the polls have any impact on turn-out?

    I also think that any ban would just lead to the leaking of private polls, endless possibly unsubstantiated speculation and general misinformation. As we’ve seen from comments on this site, the main problem is the inaccurate reporting of polls in headlines and comment in the press and it’s very difficult to see how this could be improved….maybe the first sentence or two of the polling company’s commentary on a particular poll needs to be very carefully phrased as that is probably the only bit a lot of journalists actually read and digest.

  43. Luke Blaxill, you are being too generous, Mike R’s ticking clock was only right right because he kept changing it to fit the polls. Strange how our perception of reality can be molded by people making unfounded claims and then others backing those claims up. Mike R claimed “I reckon the polls will be back to a Tory lead by September”, he changed this to the end of September and then to the beginning of October!!

  44. I think that the issue of opinion polls and the events of the last few months reflect a deeper problem for British democracy.

    In the summer Cameron was attacked for his indecision and the misjudgements in his politics of the debate on grammar schools, the floods and his trip to Africa and the seemingly meaningless policy vaccuum he clung to to avoid exposing deep party divisions. The opinion polls reflected this media led image of the man. And anyone through their leadership of the Tory Party that can get Margaret Thatcher to stand on the steps of Number 10 with a Labour Prime Minister shows true skill.

    Brown’s indecision was also reflected through the polls as much as influenced by them. It was as if the media had built him up, they had a chance to knock him down and therein create the competition they desired between the two larger parties. The polls influenced all of these decisions, not in themselves but in what people interpreted in them.

    Ming has been a victim of polls translated into the media also on his leadership style and age. The Lib Dems might be hunting for a leader to beat the squeeze, but that has been influenced by the polls reinforcing the idea that they are being squeezed. Two by election results before the summer had them beating the Tories into a poor third place. The Cameron versus Ming actual election result was different from the media portrayal of Ming.

    This weeks events I think expose this dangerous drift in British politics towards presidential elections and media set agendas. New 24 and sky news decide now how politicians are perceived. Yes they are their own worst enemies by playing to the gallery of the media. Its like the disease of presidential politics feeds off of the 24 hour news media, and opinion poll setting agendas. The one can not live without the other and truth and real political debate on issues are the first casualties.

    The issue is the secondary point, the real debate about policy is the after thought. Its all about image, style and presentation.

    Cameron is the heir to Blair in his style obsessed kind of new Tory politics. Brown’s I’m a man of serious intent is just as much an image thing. Poor Ming was beaten by his own image. Opinion polls do determine the landscape of politics exactly as Anthony suggests.

    And the political class at Westminster, born of Universities and straight into the Westminster cauldron are at the center of this. The apparatchik horde of not so bright young things with no experience of life other than Westminster are changing British Politics. All sides are to blame, its cultural thing not a party thing.

    This is a very cynical view but I read the posts here and just agreed with so much of what was written.

  45. Luke W – Check back.Mike’s ticking clock was wrong.First he said the start of September,then the end of September,then first week in October,then before the coference season,then like alot on here he went missing for a few weeks(now I wonder why that was).Then when they eventually did turn which was after the conference season he claimed he was right.

    Maybe he has spinned you so much about his POLLS,like David Cameron,you believe anything he says.

  46. Paul
    Well said, I ‘d add that many journalists go straight from University into the news media part of the Westmiinster cauldron, and having studied “the process”, and “spin”, are quite happy to build their careers on political insights, rather than detailed analysis of real issues. So there was a hugely controversial “noisy” debate about, say, student finance, and yet very little discussion of. the nitty-gritty of figures, interest rates, etc.

    Investigative, documentary, and conflict-reporting journalists are not heard nearly enough. The “political correspondent” has a career path of its own, with promotion through the ranks to “Chief Political Editor”, and it’s possible to get there without knowing anything apart from the constituents of the grease on the pole. And how to ascend it oneself.

  47. I don’t quite understand the “complaint” that the Polls “influence public opinion”.

    If we are to believe the pollsters, the results of their polls reflect public opinion.

    If we believe that the polls in some way represent a minority strand of opinion -which then influences the vast majority of people to change their minds, the polling companies must be employing flawed methodology, or deceiving us; and the majority of the public must be fickle in the extreme.

    I don’t believe any of those things.

    If publishing polls was not permitted, then only political parties and the press would be aware of public opinion.How would that serve the public interest?

    I think the polls provide a very valuable service in a democracy.They can encourage people who felt their view was a minority one, to understand that it may not be. Conversely they can make people aware that a long held belief now appears to be losing favour.That is thought provoking, and encourages discussion.

    I have one caveat only-we are absolutely reliant on the Polling Companies methodology being able to extract a nationally representative viewpoint from a very small selection of people.

  48. As I already said I certainly would be in favour of banning the publication of polls once an election is called (though not in the period between) so that they are unable to influence the outcome.

    A notable example is the 1992 General Election where a number of polls during the campaign showed Labour to be neck and neck or even slightly ahead of the Tories. This is thought to have influenced many more Tory supporters to come out on election day to stop Labour and the result was that the Tories finished 7% ahead and with the largest number of votes ever recorded at a British General Election.

    When the pollsters did their analysis as to why they got it so wrong they referred to the so-called “spiral of silence” effect which argued that all polls up to then had underestimated Conservative support due to the reluctance of some voters to admit that they were Tories because somehow they were ashamed. This is meant to have been corrected in polls conducted from the mid 1990s onwards but I’ve no idea what methods the pollsters used.

  49. Martin –
    The inquiry in 1992 explained the error in three ways:
    1) Late swing, which is part of the deal what you can’t really do anything about, just ensure that polling goes on as close to election day as possible.
    2) Unrepresentative samples, the quotas used to draw up samples were out of date and didn’t reflect society properly. The majority of pollsters reacted to this by switching to random phone polls rather than face-to-face quota samples, relying upon the laws of probability to give them a representative sample so they didn’t have to worry so much about their quotas. In addition, ICM pioneered political weighting of samples using past vote to make sure their samples were politically representative.
    3) The “spiral of silence” – people being embarrassed to admit to supporting a minority or unpopular party and instead saying don’t know. ICM and Populus adjust for this by reallocating some of the don’t knows to the party they voted for last time.

  50. I agree with the power pf the polls in one way; all it means though is that the only poll which maters is a long time away. A week is a long time…

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