It sounds like a obvious point, but when people answer survey questions, they know what you’re up to: coming round here, asking all your questions about voting intention and elections tomorrow, you’re just going to add up the figures, weight them and publish them in the newspapers. I know your game matey.

This may seem a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it does have an important impact in how you should interpret poll findings, particularly on one of my personal bug-bears, the “would X make you more or less likely to vote Y” question.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of, say, a staunch Conservative supporter who likes fox hunting. The man from ICM rings you up and asks “would you be more or less likely to vote Conservative if they promised to bring back fox hunting”. Now, you’ll vote Conservative anyway so really you should say no difference, but since you like fox hunting, you want the poll to show that fox hunting is a popular policy, and you can genuinely say that you’d scamper along to the polling station with more of a spring in your step with that policy in that manifesto, so you say yes.

You see the problem. Questions like this are liable to be used by people to give a preference on the policy being asked about, without them really considering whether it would change their vote. To their credit YouGov normally ask the question with two no difference options, one saying “no difference – I would vote for party X anyway”, one saying “no difference – I wouldn’t vote for party X anyway” to try and push people towards really thinking about whether it would actually change their voting intention, but I’m sure a lot of people are still likely to use it to indicate approval or disapproval of a policy.

Migration watch have one today – it has 33% of people saying they would be more likely to vote Tory if they promised to limit immigration to the level of emigration, with only 5% saying it would make them less likely. This certainly suggests it would be a popular policy, but it probably overstates its electoral effect: look at the actual figures and you’ll see over half of that 33% are people who already say they are voting Tory anyway. True, they may be indicating that that it would firm up their intention, but they could also just be Conservatives who want to indicate support for a policy they like.

Questions like this probably over-egg the importance of any policy they ask about anyway. Firstly, “more likely” is a long way short of actually changing your vote, secondly it draws undue attention to a specific policy which would probably be a minor factor in actual voting intentions. My view remains that broad party image is the important factor, specific policies are important only in how they affect that. A hardline anti-immigration policy may make people who support that policy think of a party that adopts it as being in touch with their feelings, prepared to stand up for people like them… but also risks being seen as bigoted, negative, spiteful and so on.

Immigration, as it happens, is an interesting example. Polls always show that people are negative on immigration and that they support harsh policies on it. Yet parties generally don’t play on it because it is perceived as actually being electorally unpopular to do so. At the last election the Conservative ran very heavily on immigration, and it was seen as a flop.

The exhaustive polling that Michael Ashcroft commissioned privately during the election campaign shows that the messages that people overwhelmingly recalled from the Conservative campaign were those on immigration and travellers (despite the fact that as the campaign progressed the Conservative’s didn’t actually concentrate on them that much). The same evidence tells us that the Conservative campaign didn’t work – only 20% said afterwards that the campaign made them more positive about the party, 36% less positive. 49% thought it was “mean, negative and nasty”. 41% characterised it as negative, it was also seen as aggressive and depressing.

That said, polls also showed that the immigration policy itself was popular. This seems strange, but consider that even after a campaign where one party, deliberately or not, made it the perceived main plank of their campaign, only 12% said it was the most important issue for them in deciding their vote, and some of those voted Labour or Lib Dem. For those who immigration policy was the deciding factor, it presumably helped the Conservatives. For the other 88% of people it probably contributed to the party being seen as negative and mean.

To return to those “more or less likely” questions, I suppose they have their uses, especially if they are carefully filtered so you can see the answers of actual swing voters – people who say they are undecided or likely to change their vote – and exclude people who will definitely vote for their party anyway. It is often a lot more complicated than policy that seems popular in polls equals electoral success though.

(Danny Finkelstein offered his own take on what he called the immigration mystery a couple of years back here, which incidentally includes a fantastically boneheaded comment from a would be constituent on the doorstep)

28 Responses to “Would you be more or less likely to vote if…”

  1. tactically the best way forward for the tories might therefore be along the lines of ;

    “We’ll continue with Labours policy, only we’ll make it work”

    That way they can’t be accused of playing the race card but can still be for tougher immigration while playing on the public perception that Labour can’t impliment it’s policies properly let alone run the country.


  2. One’s views on the effectiveness of the Conservative campaign in 2005 depend a lot, I think, on whether one thinks the election was winnable. If it was, then the campaign was obviously a flop. If it wasn’t, and I think it wasn’t, then it was pretty successful. It wasn’t just that the Conservatives gained 33 seats, but also the fact that seats that were lost by several thousand in 2001, were lost by hundreds in 2005. The Conservatives got back into the game.

    My personal experience (based exclusively on parts of North London, and South Herts.) was that the immigration issue gained, rather than lost, votes for the Party.

  3. But we WANT them to think that we aren’t voting for them already, even if we are, so that they change their policy. This is the problem with parliamentary parties. We should have direct referendums like in Switzerland. Yes, I know, here comes the death penalty. And then we get thrown out of the EU, but 45% would vote for that too.

  4. A suspiciously – timed poll. I wonder if the Taxpayers’ Alliance have commissioned one in advance of the conferences?

    I remember the imagery working against the Conservatives. The sight of Michael Howard putting his head over the fence and staring at a travellers’ site, the posters outside schools saying “Are You Thinking What We’re Thinking?”

    This poll might just backfire on Migrationwatch.

  5. Daniel Finkelstein’s Sikh is clearly taking the piss and quite funnily too. The second comment is quite bone-headed though.

  6. I don’t think the Sikh’s comment was “boneheaded” -nor do I think he was “taking the piss”.

    He was expressing a concern about his job.

    Back in the Sixties when working at the offices of a large company in the Midlands, a middle aged member of it’s staff told me how worried he was about the effects of the wave of immigrants into the area at that time.He finished his list of concerns (which included his job security) with the thought that “anyway they are not British are they?”

    He was a Pole.

  7. As I understand it the Migration Watch Poll-which was carried out by YouGov-was in the context of advice it has given to the new Cross Party Group on Balanced Migration.

    I sincerely hope that this grouping is allowed to progress it’s ideas & thoughts without generating the chants of “racist” which I thought we had progressed beyond.

    Anthony’s article demonstrates how subtle & nuanced are peoples views on matters like political preference & immigration.

    Perhaps Polling companies can never hope to frame questions which capture all of that subtlety & personal circumstance?

  8. A large company near me replaced a lot of its IT staff with cheaper Indian workers. All good for the shareholders.Then it realised
    1. They were taking all its expertise away from the UK and giving it to rivals
    2. They were the same ethnic group involved in suicide bombing in a nearby country.
    No surprise then that IT specialists can no longer be imported from outside the EU.
    PS Why is the Sikh’s comment bone-headed?

  9. I don’t think anyone has said it is. I was talking about the other comment.

  10. The Sikh man’s comment is self-interest, and in a certain way, I’m glad that he can (perhaps unthinkingly) express such an opinion whilst talking to a complete stranger on his doorstep.

    I see a points-based system as far better than some “one in, one out” system, but I think that the report has hammered home a few political realities. Once the “even the Labour party” says it, it becomes hard to simply swat it away as “racist”, which passes a half-credible thought to people who deserve no such gift.

  11. Wolf,

    “2. They were the same ethnic group involved in suicide bombing in a nearby country.”

    I am from the same ethnic group as the IRA, who until recently let off bombs in a nearby country, what impact do you think that should have on my employment prospects…..


  12. ‘But we WANT them to think that we aren’t voting for them already, even if we are, so that they change their policy. This is the problem with parliamentary parties. We should have direct referendums like in Switzerland. Yes, I know, here comes the death penalty. And then we get thrown out of the EU, but 45% would vote for that too.’

    And the world would be flat, the Earth would be still…finally their are weaknesses with referenda. Some issues are complex and do not suit yes/no answers. And some issues are simplified to pointless examples. Do you really want to be run by the Daily Mail?

  13. Jack
    “Do you really want to be run by the Daily Mail?” No I want to live in a true democracy, where most issues are decided by referendum. This would not mean that we were run by the Daily Mail. Is it the newspaper with the largest circulation? No.

    One thing that concerns me about immigration is not so much the numbers now, but the potential demographic makeup of the country in say 50 years’ time. The birth rate among the indigenous population is low, and amongst immigrants it is high (if only because their average age is much lower than the general population).
    This could lead to the indigenous population being a minority in the foreseeable future. If this is what people want, fair enough, I just think that it is an important consequence of mass immigration which never seems to be discussed.

  14. Ha Ha, too complex for the moronic masses to decide upon you mean?
    Personally I’d rather place my trust in any majority of the ‘great unwashed’ rather than a government (almost always) elected into power by a minority of voters.

  15. PeteB,

    Fifty years is a long time and more than enough to adapt. I suspect that in that time both the existing UK population and the children of immigrants will have changed out of all recognition.

    if my eight year old was to go back forty years to my school he would look like he had come from another country, if he went back to my parents school when they were eight he’d look like he’d come from another planet.


  16. Hi Guys,

    Long time no see. I’ve come out of hiding now.


    According to Wiki..

    “Best-selling papers as of July 2, 2006, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, [4] are the News of the World (Sunday only), 3,471,415; The Sun, 3,148,700 and The Daily Mail, 2,340,255.”

    I think that’s pretty clear evidence that referendums are generally a bad idea. The general public as a whole (not any of you guys of course) are pretty stupid. Personally I’d prefer to be governed by any of the main parties than be governed by mob-rule.

  17. steve wheeler (lab)

    its not that the public are thick its that the propergander that is put out makes people think that what they are voting (for) is right when in fact the oppisist is true, but any properganda that is put out by the labour party on any iseue is now seen as spin spin and more spin well what do you think any party in power would do and they all do it all the time.

  18. So the views of nine million odd possible voters are void because you do not agree with their choice of reading matter? Wow! The populist press is not neccesarily the choice of the ‘mob’ but perhaps the choice of those who want a bit of light-hearted fun with their coffee.

    You don’t have to be ‘pretty stupid’ to hold right leaning/ populist views. Indeed, in reverse, I could take the view that some of the decisions taken in recent times by the mostly liberal minded, Guardian reading Labour elite have been fairly stupid?

  19. Peter Cairns: If your 8-year-old went back to earlier times he would find that the vast majority of his schoolmates were indigenous to the country. In 50 years time (and even now in many areas) this will no longer be true. More to the point, many of our companies, political parties, government departments etc will be run by non-indigenous people. As I say, if that is what people want, fair enough, but it should at least be discussed.
    Ivan the terrible: Hear hear! One comment I would have is that in ancient Athens, the model for true democracy, all citizens voted on important matters. The trick was though, that not everyone was a citizen. There might be grounds for restricting the franchise nowadays – e.g. to exclude anyone who has never held a job down for more than 6 months, on the grounds that they make no contribution to the state and therefore should have no say in how it is run. Of course you’d have to make various exceptions such as for the “physically impaired” or whatever the current jargon is.

  20. Ivan – it’s a lot more than nine million when you take into account that more than one person will read each copy. Those papers do influence views (and reflect them), which is not to say that those views are wrong – it’s just that I would hope those who are elected will rely on deeper, more detailed research and discussion when coming to make decisions that affect us all. That’s why we pay them.

  21. “Of course you’d have to make various exceptions such as for the “physically impaired” or whatever the current jargon is.”

    The people you refer to would generally prefer to be addressed without resort to jargon.

  22. Ivan/Peter,

    Yes, okay, fair enough, referring to all Sun/Mail readers as being “pretty stupid” was a bit facetious of me. Like you say, a lot of them probably buy newspapers for some light reading and get the “proper” news from TV or wherever.

    Nevertheless, if you look at the massive margin by which the trashy papers out-sell the broadsheets, you have to be a bit concerned. Coupled with the pretty dire state of some of the TV news (ITV especially) plus, as you rightly point out, the lies and deceit we have come to expect from our politicians, I think it’s fairly safe to assume that the majority of the public are pretty ignorant of the political issues of the day.

    To use a specific example; my flatmate is studying for a PhD in Quantum Mechanics and has designed a new type of Laser out of InSb (i.e. she’s definitely not stupid) but she was completely unaware that Georgia and Russian have had a bit of a falling out recently.

    The fact is, most people today, whether very stupid or very clever, do not care (or at least do not pay attention) to the news and for that reason in almost all circumstances referenda are a bad idea. IMHO only of course :)

  23. So there’s no space for different perspectives, different specialisations and different interests? And of course there’s no space for different opinions which are equally valid, right?

    And everybody who disagrees is just stupid or ignorant. Of course, now I know where I’ve been going wrong all this time!

  24. Thomas,

    Now you’re just being silly. I already admitted that my original comment about Sun/Mail readers being “pretty stupid” was slightly unfair but I didn’t say anything about there being “no space” for people with different opinions.

    My point, which I will make again since you obviously didn’t get it the first time, is that most people are not experts in government policy so Athenian style democracy would be a very bad thing. I trust my health to my doctor because he’s a health expert, I take my car to a car mechanic because he’s an expert at cars, why on Earth should I trust the running of my country to non-experts? We already get to vote for who’s in power once every four or five years. That’s enough.

  25. “I trust my health to my doctor because he’s a health expert, I take my car to a car mechanic because he’s an expert at cars, why on Earth should I trust the running of my country to non-experts”

    I see a flaw in that argument. By having no recourse to referenda, by definition, the government of the day is given the power to make decisions on things that you yourself have admitteed are not in their area of expertise. MPs are almost exclusively ex-lawyers and union stewards so what more do they know about policing, science, health care, housing etc than I do?

    As a libertarian I must admit that I have a mistrust of the ‘all powerful minority’ whereas you, as (and I know I’m out on a limb here!) a ‘socialist’ may have the same mistrust for the ‘uncontrolled majority’. We’re just coming at this from different political viewpoints.

  26. Who are these experts of whom you speak? Who knows me better than I do?

    I do not escape the consequence of my actions (or those taken on my behalf) by absolving myself of any responsibility to participate in the making of those decisions. Nor should I escape criticism for my part in failure.

    I do not trust the so-called experts all alike. The self-proclaimed and annointed ones are equally capable of mistakes as the next – and who shall insure against the temptation of prejudicial motive, which may strike each man at any time?

    No, let that the wisest among us be known for his advice, not his power!


    Apologies to any classical scholars.

  27. Ivan,

    In fairness, I think that’s a very good point. I’m a scientist (although not a particularly successful one) and it does annoy me that a lot of government decisions seem to be more focussed on more on getting votes than on actual evidence of what is successful.

    On the other hand, I think referenda remove decisions even further away from the experts. At least I can hope that ministers will listen to the relevant professionals whereas it’s pretty unlikely that the entire country will spend the necessary time researching into what they’re voting for.

    What I would really like to see is the upper house to be reformed to contain a lot more professionals. It would be a lot more sensible if teachers, policemen, physicists, doctors etc were the ones with the power to overturn government legislation.

  28. Peter

    The IRA never posed the economic threat to English white people’s wellbeing that the export of jobs to India does. Also it’s fair to say that Irish people didn’t present as a monolithic block. I wish there was a Tamil equivalent of Val Doonican just to balance things up.