I started writing this blog back in 2005, largely because I thought the media’s treatment of opinion polls was so unremittingly awful. One problem was the media’s tendency to treat whatever poll they had commissioned themselves as it if were the gospel truth, while ignoring polls commissioned by other papers. In voting intention at least they have improved on this – I quite often see journalists putting reports of voting intention figures in the context of other polls that have shown similar or contrasting trends in support. However, the problem is still rife with other polling questions – newspapers will write a whole story based on a single question in a poll they have commissioned, ignoring the evidence from many other polls on the same subject.

There is a classic example in the Independent today and their treatment of last night’s ComRes poll. I don’t wish to criticise the Indy too much- they have not misrepresented the poll in anyway, it is reported in an entirely fair and accurate way. Nevertheless, but taking a single poll question in isolation it ends up creating a shallow and one-sided picture of public opinion.

ComRes’s poll yesterday 72% of people agreed with the statement “It is time for the Coalition to change its economic policy to be focused more on promoting growth and less on spending cuts”. Taken in isolation, that suggests overwhelming opposition to the government’s economic policy and support for Labour’s alternative.

However, we don’t have to take it in isolation, as we have lots of other evidence too. I’ve written in the past about the shortcomings of “do you agree or disagree with this statement” questions – they risk skewing answers in the direction of the statement. For example, in December ComRes asked whether people agreed with the statement that “The Government should not increase public borrowing any further and its top priority should be to pay off the nation’s deficit as soon as possible” and found 74% of people agreed. Taken in isolation that would have suggested overwhelming support for the government’s position… except that ComRes also asked if people agreed that “The Government should borrow more in the short term to increase economic growth as much as possible even if it means reducing the deficit more slowly” and found that 49% of people agreed. In other words, 23% of people agreed both that the government should not borrow any more, and also that they should borrow more. ComRes’s findings in that poll suggest that the picture is not as clear as the single question today would suggest.

Unsurprisingly given the importance of the question, other polls and companies have come at the same question from different angles. Populus this month read out two sentences summarising the government view and the Labour view on the economy and cuts (without identifying them as such), and asked people which they most agreed with. They got an almost even split, 48% in favour of the government’s stance, 49% in favour of Labour’s stance.

YouGov do a similar question as a semi-regular tracker, asking people to say if the government should stick to its present strategy of reducing the deficit, even if this means growth remains slow, or whether the government should change its strategy to concentrate on growth, even if that means the deficit stays longer or gets worse. The last time YouGov asked that, also this month, showed 33% supported the present strategy and 39% wanted to change (29% weren’t sure or didn’t want either), so slightly more support for Labour’s stance than the Conservative one.

If you take a broad overview of all the polling evidence you end up with quite a mixed picture – certainly opinion seems to be moving in the direction of more of an emphasis on growth and less on the deficit, but the public remain quite evenly split. Looking at other polls people are opposed to the cuts, and they want to see more emphasis on growth. But they also want to see the deficit reduced, and think the cuts are necessary in order to do that. Ask them if they want to have their cake they say yes, ask them if they’d like to eat it they also say yes. Taking just a single polling question doesn’t give this broad picture at all – and indeed, depending on what the question was could produce entirely contradictory pictures.

The question we should ask ourselves is this – when the media talk about opinion polls, should they actually be doing their best to explain and illustrate the public’s opinion on an issue, taking all the available evidence into account, even if it ends up being muddy, confused, unclear and possibly quite dull? Or should they be plucking out single findings and trying to weave them into a sensational story?


241 Responses to “Polling on economic policy”

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  1. Robin
    You noted the inverted commas (you didn’t?).

    GC
    I don’t write my pieces to be in any way partisan and I think the notion that I could be ‘converted’ (noted the C in GC) is ridiculous. These columns are for discussing public opinion and how it affects VI.

    My posting was taken to illuminate the features of FPTP and how it affects the body politic. There are quite a few councillors around here who have jumped ship because they saw the writing on the wall. We are back to Tory hegemony around here,as I suspect that enough Labour tactical voters will abstain at the next general election, or some indeed at locals, or just vote Labour on a ‘oh well, what the hell,’ basis.

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  2. @ SoCaL

    My son & I are both members of the Labour Party. It is very cool. You can attend the Party conferences (as a delegate, if your CLP appoints you), you get to have input to policy reviews, vote for office bearers including the Party leaders & deputy leaders & you get to nominate members to be local councillors, MPs & MSPs. You also get invited to loads of events. We’ve been to dinners with Ed Balls, Alistair Darling & Alistair Campbell to name three well known names plus loads of events with MSPs, MPs.& Councillors.
    8-)

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  3. SOCAL

    @” I don’t think it’s a Catholic vs. non-Catholic thing.”

    Is there another global church which employs private confession to a priest as a sacrament to free the penitent from his/her sin .?

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  4. @ Green Christian

    “My party membership give me a quarterly magazine, various mailings from different levels of the party, the ability to stand in internal elections (including candidate selection), the right to participate in the policy-making process, and a vote in all internal matters which are not exclusively dealt with by committees.”

    It’s interesting. Just by my voter registration, I can stand for various internal party elections. But I actually have to win those elections to have a right to participate in the policy making process. And of course there are limits to that. I mean, you can fight to put a whole bunch of stuff in the Democratic Party platform and actually succeed in getting it in there. But then implementing it once you win an election is something different altogether. Universal healthcare for example has been promised by every Democratic President since I think Woodrow Wilson. I’m sure there was a fight in 1912 by Delegates to put it in the party platform. They probably felt pretty good about it when they got their plank. They probably had no idea that it would take another 98 years to actually see it come to fruition (and even then, it wouldn’t quite be exactly what they wanted and/or imagined).

    “When it comes to the practical details, party membership in the UK is typical of voluntary organisations. The US model of party membership, on the other hand, is something that I’ve never been able to make sense of.”

    It’s really a way of identifying supporters. And making primary elections easier.

    @ Gary Catter

    “Not sure if anyone would put membership of a political party on their CV.”

    Right. But you might put things that you did with your party membership on your resume. So if you were President of the Pembroke College Labour Club, you might put something like that down. Or if you were treasurer of the Tower Hamlets Conservative Association, you might put that down.

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  5. Interesting stories in the press about Cameron`s closeness to Blair…It`s almost as if Cameron and Miliband are fighting amongst themselves for the title `Closest to Blair`.Shows that Blair is still valued amongst certain groups of voters…And with recent polls showing Labour leading amongst AB voters,all the more important for Cameron to not lose his most favourable constituency.

    But I also think there is a good chance that Cameron`s defence at the Leveson could be pretty similar to Blair`s…` I wanted to do something about the media but I had bigger battles to fight`…Whether he could carry it off as well as Blair remains to be seen.

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  6. Amber
    Yeah, I can do all that. But they want you to pay for the eats, etc. I cannot think of anything more uninviting than sitting down with fellow politicos for pleasure.

    For pleasure? Do me a favour, do. Now if Julie Christie turned out to be Lib Dem ….

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  7. @SoCalLiberal – “Billy Bob will recall… ”

    It was in fact addressed to chrislane1945 at 5:35 am on 8th October 2011, but yes, I do treasure that episode:

    http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/4111/comment-page-9#comments

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  8. Smukesh

    It`s almost as if Cameron and Miliband are fighting amongst themselves for the title `Closest to Blair`.
    I hadn’t realised Miliband was fighting for that title, but then I haven’t really been paying close attention to Labour. I thought Ed Miliband had been walking the tightrope of not been seen as to close, nor disowning him. When did that change?

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  9. @CRAIG
    ` I thought Ed Miliband had been walking the tightrope of not been seen as to close, nor disowning him. When did that change?`

    He certainly made an effort to distance himself from Blair in the conference speech…But recently there have been stories about Blair advising Miliband and he is due to appear alongside Miliband in a Labour fundraiser in June.

    Also the recent appointments to the shadow cabinet(both new appointments Crudas and Adonis are considered to be closer to Blair) and Balls/Mandelson joint letter to Guardian indicate Blair/Brown factions coalescing around Miliband.

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  10. @SMukesh – “Blair/Brown factions coalescing… ”

    I think the one-time SDP member Andrew Rawnsley has the copyright on the universal method for viewing all things Labour… unsurprising that the rest of the commentariat followed suit, but oddly that so many Labour supporters have adopted it as the only reliable prism through which to view everything.

    “The Blair-Brown labels speak much more to the central political concerns of 2001 than than those of 2011″:

    h
    ttp://www.nextleft.org/2010/11/after-factions.html

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  11. @Howard

    Yes, I noticed. I was just playing along.

    @Smukesh

    “recently there have been stories about Blair advising Miliband ”

    There’s a difference between advice opn p[olicy and on presentation. And there’s a difference between taking advice and following it. I’m very happy for EM to take and follow advice on presentation and winning elections…

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  12. apologies for td[ypos

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  13. “Greek polling data can be tricky to interpret, as it can be unclear how ‘don’t-knows’ and abstentions have been handled.”

    AW/Anyone-

    Got any anaylsis of why the Greek polling is so different in different polls? I don’t believe there can be that much swing from day to day. In fact I find it hard to understand why people would vote differently a month later anyway.

    Be nice to know in advance if I need to stock up on cash the day before the Greek election :-)

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  14. @BILLY BOB
    `oddly that so many Labour supporters have adopted it as the only reliable prism through which to view everything.`

    You may be right,but my point was that senior Labour politicians who were fence-sitting and eyeing Miliband with doubt have thrown their weight behind him after the local elections.

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  15. Tonights YG prediction.

    Labour 43%
    Tory 30%
    UKIP 10%
    LD 7%

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  16. Prediction for yougov

    tonight

    Con 30
    Lab 46
    LD 8

    Next week

    Con 28
    Lab 48
    LD 8

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  17. @ROBIN
    ` I’m very happy for EM to take and follow advice on presentation and winning elections…`

    It is reported that Blair is advising Labour on tactics.We can see Labour guests emphasising two things on political programmes 1)that they care about the deficit and can be trusted to bring it down 2)Lib Dems are to blame for keeping a right-wing government in power.It is said to be part of Blair`s strategic advicet that Labour politicians emphasise these to voters.

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  18. Predictions for tonight..

    Labour…41%

    Con’s..33%

    UKIP..7%

    Others…19%

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  19. Predictions! Again? OK:

    Con 32%, Lab 44%, LD 8% UKIP 8%

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  20. Shevii – some Greek pollsters (or the newspapers that report them) seem to repercentage to exclude don’t knows and won’t votes, others don’t. Hence you get some where ND and SYRIZA are close together in the low 20s, some where they are close together in the high 20s.

    Across all the polls though they seem to be pretty close. The thing about the Greek system of course is that 50 seat bonus for the winner, so there is a huge difference in seats between ND being just ahead and SYRIZA being just ahead.

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  21. @AW
    `The thing about the Greek system of course is that 50 seat bonus for the winner`

    Is that system designed to provide a strong majority government which it failed to provide last time?

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  22. Smukesh – exactly!

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  23. @PETER CAIRNS

    …but what are they doing to enable peoples’ freedoms? If all they can do is nanny, what use are they (any of the parties)?

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  24. Anthony – the Greek question ties in with ours o this extent: Are the Greeks being fed “muddy, confused, unclear and possibly quite dull” analysis of their options, or are tehy being fed sensational interpretations in order to sway them?

    Sorry for twisting your final words around! The reporting of public opinion can affect the opinion (I forget the name of the effect). I’d be interested to know how the Greek press is reporting the issues, and how vested interests are driving the debate for the voters there.

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  25. Some people are significantly better than others at this prediction lark!

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  26. 14% Lab lead or my name’s not Gunga Din. {as me ole Dad used to say.]

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  27. Update – Labour lead on 12: Latest YouGov/The Sun results 30th May CON 32%, LAB 44%, LD 9%, UKIP 7%; APP -36 y-g.co/LG9AOt

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  28. Latest YouGov/The Sun results 30th May CON 32%, LAB 44%, LD 9%, UKIP 7%; APP -36

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  29. CON 32%, LAB 44%, LD 9%, UKIP 7%; APP -36

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  30. @Garry Gatter

    You did well sir, congratulations!

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  31. Prediction: Lab ahead by 12. Did I win :)?

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  32. Ahem
    Last?
    :)

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  33. Statgeek,

    People have the freedom to choose there politicians and under PR they have repeatedly chosen the people who have introduced these “Nanny” policies.

    if people didn’t want Free Care or A Smoking Ban, they would have voted for someone else.

    It could just be that from the traditional Labour vote to One Nation Tories, Scotland just has a more collective politics than the South.

    Peter.

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  34. COLIN and Billy Bob et al.

    SOCAL LIBERAL

    Good Evening

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  35. Without of course commenting and speculating:

    BBC is flashing that Mr Coulson has now been arrested.

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  36. COLIN.
    Good Evening.

    i. Is there another global church?

    ii. This is not the site, I think, to teach you the doctrine on Confession/Reconciliation/Penance Sacrament, but Henry V111;s own book which earned him and our Monarch the title Fidei Defensor, from the Pope, is a good start.

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  37. @ChrisLane1945

    The fall out fron the Tommy Sherdian trial continues to rumble on.

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  38. I think you mean charged Chris. He was arrested about 16 hours ago – the BBC aren’t that slow!

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  39. @AW, Chris Lane

    Indeed. He has been charged and allowed to go back to London while the Procurator Fiscal decides how and when he will be tried.

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  40. Anthony – he was detained under suspicion, not arrestesd 16 hours ago – a vagary of Scottish procedure. He has now been arrestesd and charged. Presumably Murdoch would consider the difference a “nice idea”

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  41. @PETERCAIRNS

    (My last word on the matter)

    A smoking ban is not good governance. It does not allow the people freedom of choice, or freedom of action. If anything, the opposite. Any ban on anything is similarly bad governance. As my old Dad would have said, they have nothing much to do, so they have to be seen to be doing something (anything).

    If the freedom from Westminster delivers controls and bans, then I’m not sure I want it. What else can the people vote for? Turnout has been at record lows, which gives an idea of how unpopular parties’ policies are these days. They are all shades of one another it seems.

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