Iain Dale, and others who oppose 42 day detention are greeting with great joy a new ICM poll for the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust that suggests 60% of people think the limit on the length of time terrorist suspects can be held should be less than 42 days. I’m afraid I have to rain on their parade.

Firstly, some bloggers are interpreting this poll as showing that that David Davis’s campaign has swung public opinion against 42 day detention. I’m afraid it doesn’t – what it does show is that if you ask the question in a drastically different way, you often get a very different answer. If you want to discern a change in public opinion, you need to compare like with like.

On PoliticsHome they have done just that, asking their panel indentically phrased questions on the 20th June (2 days after David Davis resigned as an MP) and this Monday (7th July). Back in June at the start of Davis’ campaign the figures were 65% supporting extending the period terrorist suspects can be held without charge from 28 days to 42, with 31% opposed. This Monday the figures were 66% support, 30% oppose. There is quite obviously no significant change at all in opinion.

So, if there is no shift in opinion why does the ICM/JRRT poll show such a different answer? Because of the way the question was asked. It prompted people to begin with by reminding them of the long standing traditions of British justice: “Britain has long-standing rules and principles that have been put in place to protect people from being arrested and wrongly held for an indefinite time in custody.” This is perfectly true, but isn’t necessary for people to answer the question and risks skewing answers.

It then asked about offences in general, then murder suspects, then terrorist suspects – this firmly grounds the treatment of terrorist suspects as part of the wider legal system in the UK, when in political and media discourse it is often talked about as if it is a separate thing. It also made the fact that the people being held may be innocent far more explicit than most questions.

So what do people actually think? When designing surveys with clients something I often need to point out is that a poll is designed to measure public opinion as it is, not as we would like it to be. If the public are ignorant of the arguments about something, then generally speaking a poll should not try to educate them about it, because it only serves to make them more informed than the wider public they are supposed to be representative of!

The JRRT poll suggests that when people are primed to consider 42 day detention for terrorist suspects within the context of Britain’s legal traditions, comparison with treatment of other suspects and that those people might be innocent then support is lower. In reality do people really consider those arguments when forming their opinions about 42 detention? Probably not, or unprompted polls wouldn’t show such different answers. If people thought more about these particular angles upon the issue then no doubt they would have different opinions (and that is a positive sign for those campaigning against it – opinion on this can be moved), but if you give people a straight yes or no on 42 days then around about two-thirds of them consistently say they support it, and there is nothing to suggest that has changed yet.


30 Responses to “Has David Davis changed people’s minds?”

  1. Good to see the comment, Anthony.

    I’ll post some more reflections later.

  2. So if people are kept in the dark about the impact of 42 day imprisonment without trial then the government of the day triumphs.

    In short Ignorance is Strength.

    Its also immoral, cowardly, and not befitting our great country.

    I would argue that David Davis has been successful – as your very post makes plain.

    You can no doubt remember people being lynched and attacked because the job sounded like paedophile. That’s the first ignorant response – but no one who thinks should believe the debate should be left there.

    Why does the government’s only hope to rely on ignorance and people being ill informed to carry the day ?

  3. 4 DD etc, the same could be said of a whole range of issues that people express an ill-informed opinion about.

    If you’re going to start educating the sample before asking your question, then where do you stop?

    It’s up to campaigners like you to educate us, not Anthony or his ilk. Otherwise there’s no point in pollsters – as Anthony eloquently points out, your sample ceases to be representative.

  4. “If the public are ignorant of the arguments about something, then generally speaking a poll should not try to educate them about it, because it only serves to make them more informed than the wider public they are supposed to be representative of!”

    Hi Anthony,

    I disagree with this because people don’t have conversations about issues without context. And that context matters. So immediately after a terrorist atrocity support for ‘lock them and throw away the key’ might be higher than in an otherwise peaceful environment. TO that extent you could argue no point doing a poll immediately after an event because the context is still fresh in their minds.

  5. Sunny,

    I didn’t mean that you needed to exclude the context (that’s impossible to do anyway) but that you mustn’t do things that would mean the sample are answering things in a different context to the wider public. If people bring their own context, then’t that’s OK – they are still representative.

    Something your comment reminded me of – polls about the death penalty are almost only ever commissioned after some particularly grisly or horrid crime, or the trial of someone in relation to the same. You rarely if ever get a question about the death penalty in “peace time” as it were. That means we don’t have a good idea about what people’s underlying attitude towards the death penalty would be when there isn’t a grisly murder in the news.

    That doesn’t stop those polls being accurate for the periods in which they are conducted. A poll can only ever be a snapshot of opinion at that moment in time, so a poll on the death penalty taken just after a horrid murder accurately reflects public opinion at that moment, in that context. It can’t tell you what people thought about it three weeks before.

    What would be wrong would be if a poll conducted on the death penalty prompted people with statements about, say Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, ensuring they answering it in the context of thinking about particular heinous crimes, even if they aren’t on the public agenda at the moment (or indeed, vice-versa if it prompted them to answer the question in the context of miscarrages of justice).

  6. What I think this poll does show is that the support for 42 days is not very deep. And it is arguable that “do you support the detention of terrorist suspects for 42 days without charge” also misframes the question, because most people don’t realise that it means “…even if, after 28 days, there isn’t enough evidence to show a reasonable suspicion that they have committed an offence”

  7. So what we find is that if people were slightly more informed and considered they would totally reevaluate their view on this issue.

    I think once again the lesson that is staring us in the face is the folly of a system driven by the collective unwisdom of the generally ignorant and stupid populace.

  8. Lukw,

    “I think once again the lesson that is staring us in the face is the folly of a system driven by the collective unwisdom of the generally ignorant and stupid populace.”

    No what it proves is that you can get people to change there views if you control the context of the question.

    The fact that they change their mind doesn’t necessarily mean they are better informed, the information that “informs” them could be quite erroneous or deliberately distorted.

    As Anthony points out asking about the death penalty will get you a different response if asked after a high profile child murder. Is that better informed or just reacting to the tabloids reaction.

    Indeed you could argue that those of us who feel they are better informed are in fact just anoraks who spend to much time on sites like this and that it’s the rest of the population who are cynical or indifferent to politics that have got it right.

    Peter.

  9. Hi Anthony, I take your point, but basically that means you’re tranferring the inherent bias to events around the poll than to the question.

    It may seem the more pure way to do things, but that still means both types of polls, especially when done after big events, are broadly unreflective of what opinion might be in ‘normal’ circumstances.

    As it is, I think there is inherent bias in asking a question immediately after an event because that helps your case, just as offering some context might do.

    And to be honest, the context offered in either polls is roughly the same. It comes down to how you word the question. Of course I prefer the wording of this poll over the previous one :)

  10. This is not a trivial Westminster village point scoring issue, to be discussed in some technocratic way.

    Just remember –

    It is about keeping the traditions of an old democracy well shored up – whatever is thrown at it. The principle matters – so no-one else in the future thinks it can just be chipped away at a bit more.

    That, I think, is what David Davis is saying, and why I am supporting him, despite my disappointment of losing him from the Tory front bench.

    Anyone who thinks it is acceptable to lock an innocent person up for 42 days should think again.

  11. ANTHONY said – that the question “Britain has long-standing rules and principles that have been put in place to protect people from being arrested and wrongly held for an indefinite time in custody.” was a leading question .

    If that what it takes to get it through to the mass populous in this country that we are all being railroaded into accepting less and less freedoms and civil rights in the name of “terrorism” – then i say so be it!

    All POWER to David Davis’s campaign – his by-election will at least highlight via the media the basic freedoms we are all losing !

  12. I am more than surprised that nearly two thirds of the country support a measure that means the end of Magna Carta. I have no idea what contextual questions you, or Joseph Rowntree asked, but there should have been some. Asking whether ‘terrorists’ should be arrested without charge, doesn’t mean that people think it right for everyone. That is what will happen and that is what David Davis is trying to highlight.

    Secondly, instead of point scoring against Joseph Rowntree, it looks like there is a serious issue in these polls, because they are producing widely different results on similar questions. So I trust neither without the contextual questions.

    Thirdly, with the above in mind neither poll show the David Davis has been successful or unsuccessful. And PoliticsHome is doing itself no favours trying to point score. David Davis has received support from both Tony Benn and Bob Geldof – that in itself is a triumph. He has received next to no coverage in the press, and endured the sneering of the Westminster Village – who are really quite a contemptuous bunch. Infact, maybe that is what the politicshome research shows – people’s views have not changed, because there has been little to change them.

  13. Sunny – you say

    “I think there is inherent bias in asking a question immediately after an event ”

    This was particularly the case after the conferences last year when snap polls taken for Channel 4 I think showed public opinion jumping around straight after the leaders’ speeches.

    Davis might be right, but he can’t use loaded polling questions to prove it.

    The issue itself is a matter of whether the “ancient” freedoms are protected sufficiently. I suspect a 12th/13th century Baron, fresh from a religious war in the Holy Land would probably vote against Davis to-day, and laugh at his reference sto the Magna Carta.

  14. “I think once again the lesson that is staring us in the face is the folly of a system driven by the collective unwisdom of the generally ignorant and stupid populace.”

    Luckily, we don’t have such a system – we have one where we vote for people and parties, not policies.

    The only really relevant poll question would be:

    How has the handling of the 42 days question affected you support for each of these:

    [2d grid with politicians and options from greatly increased to greatly decreased]

    I find it hard to believe it hasn’t cost Labour at least 5% support, 10% is believable. Which has to be a catastrophe for a relatively minor extra power that will probably never be used, and was only ever justifiable on the basis of popular support, not actually providing any measurable benifits like reducing bomb risk.

  15. Miranda, no-one thinks it’s right for “everyone” to be detained for 42 days (apart from Kelvin Mackenzie who would probably want everyone locked up for ever). Loading the question applies to posts on here as well as to dodgy polls.

    Likewise, “popular” support is not the only driver. It certainly will send a powerful deterrant message to anyone considering flirting with extremist murderous activity, so you could add that to “populism” for a start.

  16. Anthony,

    You write that David Davis has not managed to swing public opinion. That might be statistically right, but it misses the point.

    Stating that DD wanted to swing public opinion is I think a misrepresentation of his position. What he said was that he believes the opinion polls that show >60% or so support for 42 days detention are misleading, and that in his view the British public, when given the proper context, were *already* against it.

    I think one can conclude the ICM poll has shown Davis’ assumption to be correct.

    I am also unsure about your comment that polls ought to be designed to measure public opinion as it is, not as we would like it to be. Of course that’s true. But as you say in you answer to Sunny, you cannot exclude the context, and in my view straight yes / no on 42 days polls also have an implicit context, namely that longer detention (and 42 days specifically) has a status as an important issue / consideration (otherwise why the question?). Yet if I remember correctly unprompted opinion polls on the big issues of the day suggest it isn’t really up there. Simple yes/no questions can also be loaded, and this one to my mind is.

    In the case of detention of terrorist suspects, the question I would ask would be ‘How long should the police be allowed to hold terrorist suspects without presenting them to a judge?’, either unprompted or offering a choice of 1 day, 1 week, 2 weeks, 3 weeks … 53 weeks, longer.

    Christian Schmidt

  17. Christian – I don’t know if it was DD’s aim actually, he may have been aiming to get it up the agenda and make people think civil liberties were a more important issue. Maybe he has succeeded, but there weren’t any polls that singled out civil liberties from before his resignation to compare to.

    Asking about an issue does make people think that issue must be important – that’s the reason we can’t easily measure it (we can’t ask, “has it made you think civil liberties are more important” for example), but this is measuring agreement or disagreement with it, not the salience or importance of the issue – which DD could easily have succeeded in changing. We don’t know.

    You would not believe the number of clients I talk to who think that the public agree with them secretly and the polls would show it if they were asked if they were just given the “right” information… or how hard it is to convince them that this is skewing a poll to give them the answer they want, rather than what people think.

    The trick is to give respondents the absolute minimum of information necessary to give their unsullied response. Your question would be perfect (though it’s a slightly different issue) – especially it is was umprompted.

    Prompting brings us into the whole different issue of framing responses. For example:

    “How long should the police be allowed to hold terrorist suspects without presenting them to a judge?”
    1 day
    2 days
    1 week
    2 weeks
    4 weeks
    6 weeks or more

    would probably produce very different answers to:

    “How long should the police be allowed to hold terrorist suspects without presenting them to a judge?”
    Less than a week
    1 week
    2 weeks
    4 weeks
    6 weeks
    9 weeks
    12 weeks
    26 weeks
    A year or more

    It wouldn’t be as simple as all the people who would tick 9,12,26 or a year on the second question ticking “6 or more” in the first question. It serves to frame what people think are reasonable answers, and they will sometimes assume the ends of the list of options are “extremes” and shy away from them.

    ==

    Soru –

    Questions like that don’t actually work very well. Some people who support Labour tribally, but don’t support 42 days will say it has damaged their support for Labour as a way of showing disapproval over 42 days, but would actually always support them anyway.

    Some Conservative supporters opposed to 42 days would say it has damaged their opinion of Labour when actually they already loathed Labour so it made no difference (plus of course, vice-versa for Labour supporters, supporters of 42 days and so on).

    The only way of telling how it effects party support is looking at the voting intention figures, which of course don’t tell you the answer, but at the same time as there being debate about 42 days, there are a million other things affecting voting intention like the economy, taxes, sleaze, MPs allowances etc, etc.

  18. Off-Topic:

    But why is this country’s hub “UK-and-Southern-Europe”…? ‘Banana-Republika, septica…?’ [Kudos to St Bob!]

    Will now wonder off to Mike’s place to peruse the discussions of DD’s great victory for we English! Polls; just frame the question! ;)

  19. Hub? What are you on about Fluffy?

  20. There is a lesson in discussing the impact of public debate on polling – levels of support for ID cards fell once the matter was subject to public scrutiny. The same is true about 42 days, DNA databases and other aspects of our ‘sleeper’ police state. Which is, I guess DD’s point however poorly manifest.

    Last Tuesday in answer to a question about RIPA, the leader of Bradford Council revealed the expent to which this is used for investigations by council – and most frighteningly for me was that the most common use was covert surveillance of the Council’s own staff.

    Anthony, I agree about not leading the witness but how often are you asking question the answer to which is not necessarily encapsulated by the choices presented to the respondent. Surely most people’s answer to the 42 day question – if given the chance to think about it – will be; “it depends…”

  21. Simon – it would be for almost any question! Opinion poll questions by necessity force peoples answers into convenient little boxes, real people’s views are more nuanced than that.

    There was a poll on 42 days for Liberty a month or two back that gave people the option of keeping 28 day detention and allowing post-charge questioning instead, and given the choice between the two post-charge questioning proved more popular than 42 day detention (sadly that poll also had it’s drawbacks, since it missed the rather obvious option of having 42 day detention AND post-charge questioning – hence it didn’t tell us about the popularity of 42 detention per se, only that post-charge questioning was even more popular!)

  22. I think there is another interpretation of this so called change of heart due to people being better informed.

    By and large proposals are focus group tested and tailored to get a positive message before being released. In follows therefore that after a short while you could expect to see some drop once the alternative view catches up and the original proposal is scrutinised.

    MP’s and indeed parties are supposed to do this but things like the poll tax and abolishing the 10p rate still get through while they are sleeping.

    In addition as with referendums you can get a cumulative anti effect during a campaign where the proposal has to fend off a series of attacks many of which can be quite contradictory.

    We saw this in Ireland with the EU treaty where business was warning that it could mean to many restrictions on employers while unions warned it might erode workers rights.

    Both positions can’t be right but they were both arguments for voting No.

    Peter.

  23. Anthony,

    I should make myself clearer. If you visit http://www.yougov.com the Research Hub [left-hand panel] is UK and Southern Europe. It reminds me of some child’s request to Jim’ll Fix-It back in the dark-days of the ‘Seventies.

    Sorry for the confusion….

  24. The Green Party last night scored our highest-ever percentage in a byelection (beating our previous high, back in our best-ever-yet year of 1989), and claimed an unprecedented second place.
    We asked, in this byelection, why 28 days (Davis’s preferred number) was so infinitely better than 42, and suggested (as Liberty believe) that it cannot possibly be just in a civilised society to keep someone for more than a week without charge – that habeas corpus is incompatible with 28 days, let alone 42 days.
    And this is what is so gratifying about the election result: that, while Davis was supported by a long list of celebs and of politicians from the old Parties – by Bob Geldof, Anthony Barnett, Martin Bell, Bob Marshall-Andrews etc. –, and naturally (with new- and old- media complicity) he romped home, the second place didn’t fall to someone (such as Jill Saward, an Independent who attracted a good deal of press coverage and tacit Labour support – but who lost her deposit badly) to Davis’s authoritarian ‘right’ on this issue, but to us, who took the risk of arguing that Davis wasn’t going nearly far enough.

  25. Rupert Read,

    Did you wipe the sweat from your brow when you just beat us English Democrats in the recount? Until a few months ago very few contributors claimed to know who the E.D.P. were.

  26. > By and large proposals are focus group tested and tailored to get a positive message before being released. In follows therefore that after a short while you could expect to see some drop once the alternative view catches up and the original proposal is scrutinised.

    Just the sort of comment I’d expect from a Nat . . .

    I would actually go further. Not only are the issues focus group tested, but different focus groups are fed different contexts (e.g. as in the ICM poll, in a terrorism context). The results are not simply used to decide which policy is popular and should be adopted, but to find out how a given policy that has the potential to cause problems to your political opponent must be packaged to maximise the damage.

    As you rightly state, the problems for the proponents start when the alternative view of the same issue gains popularity. But this alternative view must be pushed, and that’s what Davis tried to do.

    And I suppose I was somewhat over the top in my earlier post. If the alternative view had really gained popularity, it should feed through even to questions that set out a different context. (That is, if people start to associate 42 days with civil liberties, then even the answers to straight yes/no questions should shift.)

    Christian

  27. The purpose of focus groups is also to pick up on unforeseen objections.

    Surely it would be quite simple for the promulgation of a focus-group driven policy to include a pre-emptive answer to those objections? Why wait until the objections are raised before answering them?

    Do such opposing questions simply get ignored once the decisions are made?

    Christian – I wouldn’t worry about going OTT. Just read some of Fluffy’s posts!

  28. john tt,

    Christian – I wouldn’t worry about going OTT. Just read some of Fluffy’s posts!.

    OTT: is that Over-my-Thinkable-Thoughts…? :P And here was me thinking that I was a political puppy.

    P.S. Camer’s gets a positive response form this week’s The Economist. Independent commentary; don’t you just love it…? :)

  29. A complete exercise in uselessness. David Davis is so sore he lost to Cameron he’ll try anything to get back at him including wasting a quarter of a million pound on a non event where only 30% of the people bothered to vote. Doesn’t he realise we are at war with terrorists and need every help we can get, including 42 days. As for the streetcams,look at the crime they solve.