There is a lots of coverage for a YouGov poll conducted for the Open Rights Group, which suggests widespread opposition to the government’s proposals to cut off the internet connection of people caught filesharing (or, more specifically, to cut them off without the requirement to get a court order – the poll concentrated on what the legal requirements would be to cut people off rather the principle of whether or not they should be cut off.)
Personally I’d have worded the question differently, but nevertheless the public response was pretty overwhelming, 16% thought an ISP should be able to disconnect people having been informed of several infringements, 68% thought the evidence should have to go before a court.
As a caveat, while online polling can work, certainly it works for political polling as YouGov have proved time and again, there are some issues where it is going to mislead – to take an extreme example, you couldn’t use an online poll to find what proportion of people have internet access (Wow! It’s 100%!). In this poll the first two questions obviously have to be looked at in the light that there are another 38% or so of the population who don’t have home internet access, and for whom loosing internet access would obviously have no impact whatsover.
Finally the poll found that 31% of people said they would be much less likely to vote for a party that followed this policy. As ever, I’d advise people to spurn all “would it make you more or less likely to vote” for a party questions – except just possibly when they are asked only of a group of floating voters, when they should only be compared against similar questions.
It’s worth dwelling a bit longer on this type of question – those which attempt to measure how important an issue is to the public, or how much impact it might actually have on an election. It’s a type of question that often turn up in polls for many other organisations (and for that matter, newspaper polls), and it’s right that they should – after all, whether an issue has an impact is not just down to whether people agree with it, but also how much they care about it. Pressure groups and charities often commission them, because they create the impression that people think their issue is jolly important, and that MPs should take it seriously because it might cost them votes. Unfortunately, the way they are asked often suggests issues are more salient than they are.
Looking at the two ways they are normally asked, more or less likely to vote questions are misleading since more or less likely are very undemanding terms, voting intention is actually quite sticky but it’s very easy to say in a poll you might consider changing your vote. It’s even worse when the question asks specifically about a party (e.g. would it make you more likely to vote Labour?) since it will normally include lots of people who in reality already support that party, or would never do so anyway. Generally speaking respondents seem to use questions like this just to indicate whether they like or dislike a policy.
The alternative approach of asking people directly if they think issue X is important is even worse, as unless the issue is obviously petty and insignificant respondents will almost always say yes. It doesn’t actually cost anything to say “yes” to a survey, and when people are asked about these things by pollsters they will naturally think “Yes, that does sound like an important thing I really should care about” rather than look like an uncaring swine. In really however people will not be forced to consider that issue in isolation – it will have to compete for attention against all those other issues like the economy, health, crime, taxation, immigration. The question that matters is whether people think it is important compared to other issues.
The best way of judging how salient issues really are is Ipsos MORI’s monthly poll on issues. These ask people what they think the most important issue facing the country is, and then any other important issues they think there are out there. Importantly, it does not prompt people at all, there is no list of options to choose from, they are not forced into the pollster’s or the client’s predetermined agenda. The overwhelming majority said things like economy, crime, health, unemployment, immigration and so on. I don’t think issues actually make a massive difference to voting intention, more people vote on broad party image rather than the specifics of policy, but if they do vote on issues, these are the ones.
Even this question isn’t perfect. To take an example, I’m sure there are people who vote on the single issue of fox hunting, but who wouldn’t necessarily claim that fox hunting is one of the most important issues facing the country. The ideal would be an unprompted question asking what issues would matter to people in deciding how to vote at the next election (which MORI also ask, albeit less frequently, the most recent was last month.)
Of course this is oversimplying things a bit. The issues people care about can easily change, and sometimes issues people don’t care about can matter. Low salience issues can still have a wider impact on how parties are perceived. For example, under David Cameron the Conservatives have talked a lot about the environment, an issue of comparatively low salience, as a way of making themselves look like a more caring and progressive party. They have pretty much ignored the issue of immigration, an issue of high salience, because it would have reinforced negative perceptions of the party as being being insular and bigoted.
This has drifted a long way from digital rights, so coming back to it, respondents clearly don’t like the idea of people being disconnected for filesharing without the approval of the courts. Would it really have a large impact on how a third of people vote? Well, do you see any civil liberty issues up there when MORI asked people what issues would decide their vote?