Last week there were a couple of polls on AV. YouGov’s regular tracker on how people would vote in an AV referendum had AV on 33% and FPTP on 39%. Meanwhile an online ICM poll for the ERS had AV on 35% and FPTP on 22%.

I posted on it here, and suggested that the difference was probably the wording, suggesting three possible reasons the wording might produce different results. First, YouGov gave respondents summaries of what AV and FPTP actually were. Secondly, ICM only mentioned AV in the question, while YouGov mentioned both AV and FPTP. Thirdly YouGov presented the referendum as a coalition government policy, ICM just as something that was happening in 2011.

It was the last of these differences that seemed to attract the most comment – did mentioning the government make people more likely to vote no? On this at least, I can give a firm answer. YouGov reasked the question the day after their latest regular tracker, but changing the wording to remove the mention of the government – the results were virtually identical (32% for AV, 40% for FPTP). Mentioning the coalition in the question does not make any significant difference to the result.

Since the polls last week, we have some more AV polling to play with. Firstly there is a second ICM poll for the ERS, once again conducted online. This one found 36% in favour of AV, 30% in favour of FPTP and 34% don’t knows.

There was no option of people saying they would not vote, indeed, the question was not presented as being how people would vote in a referendum, but just yes, no or don’t know to the actual question that will be on the ballot paper. Normally I’d be a bit wary of that – how people vote in a referendum does not necessarily match with their views on the issue actually being voted upon. In this particular case, the question came after a question about how likely people would be to vote in the referendum, so respondents should at least have been answering the question in the context of the referendum.

Comparing this ICM question and ICM’s question from a week before, mentioning both AV and FPTP in the question rather than just AV seems to have increased support for FPTP by about 8%, although some of that difference will also be the lack of a “won’t vote” option (most people who told ICM they definitely wouldn’t vote went on to say don’t know to the AV or FPTP question, but those who did express an opinion were more likely to prefer FPTP.)

The second bit of “new” polling (both this and the “new” ICM poll were conducted a couple of weeks ago) is YouGov for the British Election Study. As well as the BES’s main studies before and after elections, they do rolling monthly surveys between elections. One of the regular trackers they include is voting intention in the AV referendum. They use the referendum question as initially proposed (they may change it to match the amended version in time, I don’t know) and ask how people will vote in the May 2011 referendum.

“How will you vote in the May 2011 referendum on a proposed change in the UK electoral system? Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”

The most recent results for the YouGov/BES AV question at the beginning of this month were AV 34%, FPTP 34%, Wouldn’t vote 5% and Don’t know 27% – so AV and FPTP neck and neck. Compared to the normal YouGov/Sun AV question with the summary of the systems, this has more don’t knows and fewer FPTP supporters, suggesting that telling people what the rival systems are boosts support for FPTP by roughly 5%.

It has a slightly higher level of support for FPTP than the second ICM/ERS poll, but in the same ballpark. It could be down to asking it in the context of voting in a referendum, or it could be sampling differences, or the difference could be just good old random variation (if the “true” level of support for FPTP was 32% both polls would be within the margin of error).

So for anyone who is still following, the leads shown using the different question wording

No systems summary, referendum context, prompted by AV only: AV +13 (ICM/ERS #1)
No systems summary, no referendum context, prompted by AV & FPTP: AV +6 (ICM/ERS #2)
No systems summary, referendum context, prompted by AV & FPTP: even (YG/BES)
Summary of systems, referendum context, prompted by AV & FPTP: FPTP +6 (YG/Sun)


27 Responses to “Making sense of AV polling”

  1. Surely the appropriate wording is simply the referendum wording with nothing further: “Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”

    A factor which is hard to control for will be turnout. You can’t just ask “will you vote?” as it will be skewed by local elections. Turnout in Scotland should be around 50% due to the Scottish Parliamentary elections, whereas it may be below 25% in London.

    My guess is that this helps “Yes” as Scotland will be voting the same day using a similar system with no “fear factor” while on balance I suspect those who bother to turnout where no other election is on will be voting for change rather than status quo (just because it tends to be the more motivating thing – and I know there are many on here who will scream that they will enthusiastically vote “no” but that doesn’t necessarily generalise). But it’s very hard to tell.

  2. Yep, all very true, Sir Norfolk.

  3. @ Anthony

    Out of curiosity, have any pollsters done a poll on how people would vote if the choice was between FPTP, AV and PR?

    (I’m probably going to find hundreds on google now ;))

  4. Anthony

    In the context of your analsis is the mild implication that once people have the AV and FPTP explained there’s a rise in support for FPTP….or am I misrading you?

    Either way, a the moment the don’t knows are probably the biggest single group…..and education is the going to be the biggest single issue for the Commission. It somewhat weakens Mr Clegg’s arguemnt that it’s legitimate for this to jostle with other business in the voters’ minds particualrly in Scotland and Wales.

    I wonder if gnorance/ apathy/ indifference to the systems will lead to a small turnout? Are there any figures on those who intend to vote….I guess we’re not looking at anything like the ?60% in the Common Market referendum in 1975.

  5. 1. Don’t assume Scotland’s voters will vote in favour of AV because we have STV for the devolved elections. It doesn’t follow that we like it; or that we think that AV is the same as STV.

    2. SNP could ask its supporters not to vote – in protest at it being on the same day.
    8-)

  6. As Billy suggested, would be interesting to see how support for PR varies against support for AV.

    Could it be that people hear electoral reform and think a more proportional system is meant, as that’s what the argument has been about in the past, but then when they have AV explained realise it’s not enough of a change?

    Am I being way too ambitious in interpreting the reforming zeal of the great British public?

  7. @ Andy T

    At the moment a quick survey of google has turned up only this interesting snippet:

    “In polls carried out between 1999 and 2000, more than 60% of the people asked claimed that they would favour a system of proportional representation (PR) to make the electoral system more fair and the results more representative.”

  8. Sort of answered my own question:

    “A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times showed 62 per cent of voters favoured a more proportional system of voting.

    A BPIX poll for The Mail on Sunday found 60 per cent would prefer proportional representation to the current system.

    The Sunday Telegraph commissioned an ICM poll which found 48 per cent of voters favoured a move to PR while 39 per cent backed the current system.”

    The caveat, I suppose, is that it’s not distinguishing between PR and AV as the proportional systems and I think these were taken before the No and Yes campaigns got going.

  9. so on aggregate, slightly more people favour AV than FPTP but slightly more don’t know. A 3 way split. It’s all down to persuading the don’t knows one way or the other. So, who has the more persuasive argument?

  10. These polls aren’t picking up the fact that it will be the first major opportunity to give Nick Clegg a bloody nose and destabilise the so-called coalition. I can’t see the electorate not taking that chance. I will be voting a great big NO to Nick Clegg – happy to scream it enthusiastically as Sir Norfolk says!

  11. @Ian C

    Even when David Miliband supports the Yes Campaign?

    Also, another “these polls are all failing to show that most people really think the way I do”?

  12. IAN C

    Couldn’t agree with you more – people just can’t understand why Clegg and Co have simply accepted the Tory agenda on cuts and other matterts.

    To take one example, why on earth are n’t the Lib Dems in he government kicking up endlessly about the absurdity of spending £3 billion on reorganising the NHS when that £3 billion would be much much better spent on front line services especially when the NHS is facing an efficiency squeeze.

  13. Billy –

    Here’s a YouGov poll for the ERS in Nov 2009 that asked how people would vote in a three way referendum.

    http://today.yougov.co.uk/sites/today.yougov.co.uk/files/YG-Archives-pol-elecReform-VotingSystems-091113.pdf

  14. @ Jay

    Even when David Miliband supports the Yes Campaign?
    ———————————————-
    Does he? There’s another good reason for voting no, then. ;-)

    If Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham & my local MP recommend a yes vote, I might consider it.
    8-)

  15. Oops, momentary brain fault… I did of course mean Ed.

  16. @ Anthony

    Thanks for that. Reveals what I thought – PR vote splits more or less evenly between AV and PR.

    Although only FPTP and AV were explained in the question. And the question seems to be weighted more towards FPTP and AV.

  17. @Amber

    Thank you for the info on the previous thread. Apologies if I was being unfair or partisan earlier. I was just annoyed with the headline that the’ ONS was wrong on UK growth’ when we are looking at minor revisions of notoriously unreliable data which didn’t justify that headline. Poor journalism IMHO.

  18. @Ian C

    Skewing the electoral system to advantage or disadvantage a given political party is a profoundly immoral act. This is the UK, not pre-Civil Rights Mississippi.

    @Amber

    * Both Ed and David Miliband are supporters of AV. See h ttp://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/conference/2010/09/ralph-miliband-labour-party
    * I don’t know which way Andy Burnham goes on this. I know Peter Hain (consistently pro), Ed Balls (consistently anti) and Diane Abbott (indecisive, currently anti)

    @Colin Green

    You said “…who has the more persuasive argument?…”

    Me.

    (I think I’m contractually obliged to add “MWWWW-HAAAH-HAAAH! PUNY EARTHLINGS!” after that).

    Regards, Martyn

  19. Ah, comments as tribalist as ever. Stick to form, what what.

    Since electoral reform was the main issue influencing my vote in the GE I have cause to remain cautiously optimistic looking at these numbers.
    On the other hand who spins the best may end up being the decider, and I would be surprised if the Murdoch Media Empire came down in favour of any measures which could be seen as making voting more democratic.

  20. All the comments I’ve seen just underline my belief that we need a referendum bill. That is a bill which sets out how how and when a referendum is triggered and how the question is framed. This should allow for the government or a groundswell of opinion to cause a referendum to be held but the wording would be set out by statute.

  21. “All the comments I’ve seen just underline my belief that we need a referendum bill.”

    The question of whether there is need for a referendum bill seems very suitable for a referendum.

  22. Perhaps now, folk who are not all that interested in ‘politics’, will not be bothered in the method of voting even less since they see the Lib-Dems in coalition and the knowledge that it is a desire of the Lib-Dems for a change to AV.
    To put it even more simply, anything associated with Nick Clegg will result in a resounding no. I think he has really done himself an irretrievable amount of damage.
    Many ‘ordinary’ people, (not political), will have had their mistrust of politicians totally reinforced.

  23. @Councillor John S. Bggam

    Great idea.

    @Bob Milton

    You said “…Perhaps now, folk who are not all that interested in ‘politics’, will not be bothered in the method of voting even less since they see the Lib-Dems in coalition and the knowledge that it is a desire of the Lib-Dems for a change to AV. To put it even more simply, anything associated with Nick Clegg will result in a resounding no. I think he has really done himself an irretrievable amount of damage…”

    You raise a horrible paradox. The entire point of referendums (Referenda. Whateva) is that decisions should be moved from professional politicians to us. But that only works if we are able to stand back and look at the case on its merits – i.e. be responsible grownups. If we don’t do this, but let other people do our thinking for us (“the Libs are for it so I am against it”), then power will remain with the professional politicians.

    You said “…Many ‘ordinary’ people, (not political), will have had their mistrust of politicians totally reinforced…”

    If we mistrust politicians, then we should take power away from them and return it to us. Voting “Yes” to AV will help that. If we do not vote “Yes”, then we are in the same mess we are now and will remain in it for ever. This is the only chance you have to fix things.

    Regards, Martyn

  24. Anthony, you appear to have come to a similar conclusion as Peter Kellner of YouGov, and appear to have missed a crucial aspect of the two polls’ wordings.

    Please see the commentary I posted on Peter Kellner’s article here: http://bit.ly/hCbpKR , which examines how YouGov’s wording has a built in skew towards First Past the Post in that its explanation of First Past the Post is misleadingly simple and incomplete, while its explanation of the Alternative Vote is offputtingly complicated and confusing in comparison. It is no surprise that YouGov moves people from “don’t know” to “no” and it has little to do with giving people a clearer understanding.

    I’d also like to had that the fact that ICM names AV but refers only to “the current system” rather than First Past the Post should have no bearing whatsover. Everyone who votes in general elections understands how the current system works. They do not however all know that it has the name First Past the Post. The name First Past the Post is a misnomer anyway, as explained here: http://bit.ly/h1CFqz

  25. @Martyn
    –you say—-
    “You raise a horrible paradox”
    —-And
    “If we mistrust politicians, then we should take power away from them and return it to us. Voting “Yes” to AV will help that. If we do not vote “Yes”, then we are in the same mess we are now and will remain in it for ever. This is the only chance you have to fix things.”

    You may be right about fixing things.
    I was only setting out what I beleive Mr/Mrs/Ms Ordinary voter is likely to do.
    Maybe their ‘take’ on a situation may not be subtle.

    regards,
    Bob Milton

  26. @Bob Milton

    Oh, I see: thank you, Bob, fair point.

    Regards, Martyn

  27. “First, YouGov gave respondents summaries of what AV and FPTP actually were.”

    Hmmm… but did they explain about wasted votes and the difference between relative and absolute majorities? I suspect not, there is a bid difference between explaining how voting works and how votes are transfered, and explaining that AV wastes less votes and produces a result where every MP will have the support of >50% of valid votes cast.