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. @ Colin

    I must say, I caught the ‘tetchy’ in Leveson’s tone; my interpretation was that Leveson considered Gove to be partial & in danger of over-simplifying the issues. Perhaps I was mistaken.

    Did Leveson make the same request to Gove which he made to Blair i.e. that he would agree to provide further input &/or recommendations for Leveson to consider?

  2. @Colin

    Leveson also floated the idea of an independent adjudicator whom journalists could consult – before they publish – so they could then be assured that there are reasonable grounds for the story. Small-claims redress (non-court) system. He is floating all sorts of ideas at this stage.

    Gove had one position – free speech is paramount – and answered every question, when Jay asked him for a diagnosis of the problem before the inquiry, with a restatement of the prognosis which the inquiry already had before them (Gove’s speech). Imo they both felt they were not making a lot of progress with him… on a number of ocassions he didn’t really grasp the question and they had to go back and explain it again.

  3. Gove’s tactics were interesting. He basically started with a statement that Murdoch is great and then argued that any attempt to rein in Murdoch was repressive and an attack on freesom of speech. His defence to all those meetings with NI was basically I never discussed the bid.

    It was bold and might embolden Hunt and Cameron.

    But Jay and Levenson weren’t particularly interested in him. If Hunt tries the “I’ll do what I like and so does Murdoch” expect forensic dissection.

    Cameron (and if he appears, Osborne) can’t afford the “I worship Murdoch” defence either, although it would be bold indeed!!!

  4. Incidentally, contrary to the opinion of Tories, I think Gove more or less gave up any advancement in politics today.

    If his erstwhile pals start to go to jail today’s defence of phone hacking, intimidation and back door influence will look very stupid indeed.

  5. Latest YouGov/The Sun results 29th May CON 32%, LAB 45%, LD 8%, UKIP 8%; APP -39

  6. Latest YouGov/The Sun results 29th May CON 32%, LAB 45%, LD 8%, UKIP 8%; APP -39

  7. Good Evening all.

    Is 45% a high for ED?

    Are the Lib Dems at all worried, and is there any route out for them?

  8. Lab ahead in every category INCLUDING rest of the south.

  9. Interesting to note that the approve/disapprove amongst LDs is almost neck and neck. Does this suggest that they could sink lower?

  10. I watched the Gove performance and was taken with his fast rate of speech, attention to consonants (very Scottish!) and the time he gave his already fast brain to process by half repeating the questions put to him before answering crisply. He seemed a bit too glib, dismissive and well-rehearse, in contrast with Leveson’s very thoughful, pause-ridden delivery.

    Gove sounded a little weak on his idea of sanctions available that would render regulation unnecessary. “Puiblic ridicule and ostracism” seem to be the equivalent of “don’t buy the newspaper” as sufficient redress for those whose lives and reputations hhave been harmed by the contents of previous editions. Inadvertently, Gove exoposed that position of Murdoch’s as rather weak.

    Cicero said there are only three things you need to achieve success : Will, Understanding and Memory. In this context, Will includes the wealth that enables one to enforce one’s Will. The Wealthy seem to inherit the earth. In erudite circles that Gove seems to admire, his Latin quotation may well lead to the opening of a box that might just bite him where it hurts.

    Great joust, though, and good to see a fantastically articulate speaker take on Mr JAy and his Lordship.

  11. http://cdn.yougov.com/cumulus_uploads/document/tsy7kbehe0/YG-Archives-Pol-Sun-results-290512.pdf

    Labour also now ahead in the rest of south.

    I expect to see Labour achieve their biggest lead sometime this week. I think the u-turns will be seen as a negative, as people see this as weakness and incompetence. The fact that the government have reacted to public opinion, just makes people think the government have admitted that they were wrong.

  12. To put my response to Colin and others into the context of AW’s analysis of the Independent, of course Gove would suggest The Independent should only be subject to counter-argument by those who want and have the resources to raise objections – the rest of us should just stop buying it if we feel it’s unfair. Hmm.apologies for typos.

  13. @R HUCKLE

    There seems to be much debate about whether u turns are a good thing or bad thing. In the press it is always portrayer as a defeat. Politicians hate having to do it. And I am sure supporters see it as weakness and opponents likewise see it as a weakness. I doubt if many people think ” they got it wrong but at least they admit it and have the courage to reverse their decision”.

  14. Does anyone know how well distributed the two 8% showings are for the UKIP and the LD Party?

  15. The Greeks had a stab at politics well before the Romans, anyway – Rhetoric by Aristotle was the first book on spin, and annoyed the socks off Plato, and Socrates, who recognised that we are imperilled by the victory of form over substance.

    The Oath is supposed to counter the odious infringement of rhetorical technique into argumjetn – if we are all telling the truth (and we must be because we are under oath), then advocacy can win the day.

    Mr Jay would no doubt appreciate the irony – the better job he does in terms of his employment of Aristotle-inspired technique, the less chance we can be sure that Leveson can arrive at something Truthful, in this secular and cynical age.

  16. When did Lab last lead in Rest Of The South? I’m new at this polling game…did they lead there in 1997?

  17. ChrisLane: libdems “Is there any route out”

    Oblivion I imagine.

  18. I’m afraid after the old rascal’s appearance yesterday, and with Leveson and Jay positively swooning in his presence, both Gove and May’s appearances today were always going to be a case of “After the Lord Mayor’s Show”. Blair is always pure political theatre, wherever he goes, and he didn’t disappoint. Flying eggs, courtroom intruders, demonstrators at the door and the old master displaying his panoply of rhetorical gifts. Accordingly, today, I detected very little media interest or coverage and, considering Gove and May had an impossible act to follow, their submissions were destined to be relegated to almost total irrelevance. In that sense, I had some sympathy for them for it must have been a little like those batsmen who had to follow Viv Richard to the crease. Once the great Sir Viv was dismissed, and he had vacated the stage, the stands usually emptied and the bars re-filled. So it was, metaphorically speaking, for Michael Gove and Theresa May today. Hunt’s appearance on Thursday may fill the stands again, though.

    As for tonight’s poll, I’m a tad surprised to see a 13% Labour lead appearing again. MOE around a 11% mean or the start of a drift to a run of larger leads? We need more polls to be sure, but are we starting to see that Labour VI edging ever slightly upwards? If so, then something is definitely going on out there, as we old politicos often like to say.

  19. @ Gary Gatter

    It is a bit like when Gordon Brown got it wrong by removing the 10p tax rate. They never really admitted they were wrong, until they had lost the 2010 GE. When a budget is issued, they should have gone through all of the measures to make sure they could be explained and that any additional tax outweighed any negative impacts. No point raising say £30m, if it causes thousands of job losses as a result and devastates an industry for years to come.

    The point is that people and the media have already made their minds up, that the 2012 budget was very badly handled. Making a few changes to some of the most unpopular measures, will probably not make any difference.

    If the government wanted to regain support, they could reduce fuel duty by say 5p a litre from 1st June 2012, for a period of say 4 months, to mark the Queens Diamond jubilee and to mark the UK holding the Olympics. People have stopped using their cars as much and the reduction many encourage some people to use them more, therefore helping to mitigate some of the lost revenue. It would also obviously help industry for a short period.

  20. NICK P.
    Tony was further ahead, naturally.

    The TIMES was gushing about St TB today

  21. @ AW,

    Brilliant post – I also like your last sentence. I almost felt you were asking me whether I agreed with your statement … “Newspapers should be better at educating the public on polling”! :-)

    What you have written does raise significant issues with the Scottish Independence question because the SNP are pushing for the question “Do you agree that Scotland should be independent”. That surely is a leading way to ask a question and certainly boosts the “yes” vote. Surely that needs to be challenged, purely on fairness and objectivity grounds.

  22. This pasty tax thing,although ridiculous,is causing real
    harm, in mhop.Yet another U turn and then those rather
    damaging revelations about Gingsters.Like Rebeccas
    horse the more ridiculous a goverment becomes the
    weaker it is.

  23. chrislane

    Your pal Tony won a healthy majority in his last gen election…but polled a lower percentage of the vote than Cameron in 2010.

    He should have done better in 1997…he had a massive popular mandate and was untoppleable. They did great stuff together, Blair and Brown, how much more could they have done together if they hadn’t (both) been so massively flawed?

    But the current Government puts them into context in competence and achievement.

  24. @john tt – “Inadvertently, Gove exposed that position of Murdoch’s as rather weak.”

    Satis eloquentiae, sapientiae parum.

  25. Billy Bob – I do hope you are referring to Gove and not me!

  26. Nick

    Blair won a lower percentage than Cameron in 1997?

    I think not

    and yes we are all flawed….

  27. @john tt

    No, I wouldn’t dream of comparing you to Mr Gove.

    One moment which gave rise to some merriment at the Inquiry was when Gove thought Jay was comparing him with the philosopher JS Mill.

  28. Chris: I’m not.

  29. While the Labour lead in the rest of the south is interesting, the picture in Scotland is also of note Lab 42 SNP 30.

    When did Labour last have a 12 piont lead in Scotland?

    The other number to note Tories at 19% with the 18 to 24!

  30. @R HUCKLE

    I don’t think the greenest government ever can reduce fuel duty.

  31. Johntt

    Enjoyed your posts-they produced that old sense of inadequacy that my humble grammar school education fell so far below that provided in your privileged seat of learning-and the warm memory that I had never been insulted in such an erudite fashion as by your goodself.


    You might concede that in Gove’s case Cicero’s “Will” did not involve excessive amounts of wealth in the adopted fish processor’s household.

    It was a great joust, and he is indeed fantastically articulate -if perhaps overly polite.



  32. “I don’t think the greenest government ever can reduce fuel duty.”


    The most open Government ever too. Apart from Gove’s private emails and certain risk registers.

  33. Billy Bob – Yes, I think he took it as a compliment “Why would I be offended by such a comparison” and was immediately assured that Mr Jay hadn’t meant to compare.

    I therefore find no comfort in your similar assurance!

  34. I also was seeing (or imagining it was there) the labour lead slowing drifting downward. 45% is pretty good 2 years after 29%.

    I don’t think Gove was on such a great tack with his defense of (press) freedom. If that freedom results in a murder investigation being messed up, then perhaps that particular freedom isn’t the marvellous thing we thought it was.

  35. davem
    While the Labour lead in the rest of the south is interesting, the picture in Scotland is also of note Lab 42 SNP 30.

    When did Labour last have a 12 piont lead in Scotland

    If you look at the last sub sample for Scotland a few days ago then the SNP were ahead by 6 points.

  36. Colin – what a elight to find you on the other end of my line!

    I take it you are now into Textspeak, and I wish you the same.

    You will have me scurrying furtively to google and wikipedia before long again I’m sure.

    My seat of learning was provided by the local authority. I won a scholarship to the Direct Grant/Public school and did my homework diligently in the knowledge that the taxes collected allowed me to prosper, possibly at the expense of more worthy 11-year-olds.

    I like Mr Gove’s desire to release teachers from the binds of bureaucracy, but I don’t think he’s helped his cause to-day, unfortunately. He weas big on memory and will, but his style of delivery suggested (perhaps falsely) a lack of understanding of where he was and what he was being asked to contribute. He siounded like a well-trained politician, and not as sincere as the real person underneath.

  37. 3 quick `U` turns from the budget…I wonder if Osborne is setting himself up for a reshuffle away from the Treasury if growth figures don`t improve.

    A bit surprised at the 13 point lead as Labour have hardly featured in the news…And the lead in the South a definite outlier we might agree.

  38. The subsets can be misleading… Labour ahead in the rest of the South? Cameron’s feet wouldn’t touch the floor if that really was the case.

    The 6% of Con’s 2010 vote (2 percentage points of the electorate) who have switched to Labour looks to be a regular feature atm. They aren’t don’t knows, would not votes, or registering a protest – going to Labour makes it more likely the Tories have lost them for good.

  39. DAVEM,

    The average of the last ten Scottish polls is approximately 42/31 in Labours favour. The average for the just under 90 YouGov polls since Christmas is 38/33 so with Labour opening up a 10-12% lead over the Tories they have gone from +5% to probably about +10%.

    However I suspect that is as much to do with the coalitions weakness than the SNP’s. As I have said before Scottish Westminster intentions tend to be seen through the prism of who can form a Uk government.

    If it looks like a Tory win Labours vote declines and the SNP can do well, if it looks like Labour can keep the Tories out the SNP vote drops and Labour benefits.

    I see little sign that Labour are gaining ground on the SNP because of their performance at Holyrood or discontent with the SNP in government.

    it is a bit like the rise of UKIP I think it has more to do with the Euro Crisis being in the news than discontent with the Tories on the deficet or the NHS.


  40. :-) We were due an up-side outlier.

  41. Billy – On the VI, I don’t think the Conservaties will lose sleep until they are under 30 with a year to go – Labour on 45 looks soft until they grab the agenda and deliver a vision, and jet around the world to chase influencers (we don’t yet know who or what will replace Newspaper Owners after Leveson has finished with the Shake and Vac.

    I suspect there will be a lot more refreshing debate than there has been in oprevious elections, and that therefore the polls might well jump about more as the date approaches.

  42. “On the VI, I don’t think the Conservaties will lose sleep until they are under 30 with a year to go – Labour on 45 looks soft until they grab the agenda and deliver a vision”
    Weird, 45 is soft and 32 is solid ?
    Also ignores Ed B’s 5 point plan. But If blues don’t need to lose sleep until a year to go then by the same logic Lab won’t lose any sleep about the agenda and their visions until a year to go..

  43. Ozwald – I think there’s a difference between the sleeping habits of the Conservatives and Labour. Labour have not slept easily since the coalition with Bush over Iraq. The Conservatives have found sleep rather easier, for all sorts of reasons. The left have never slept as well as the centre-right. APologies for generalisations – it’s only a perception that DC promotes by his legendary quality time with family.

    32 is by no means solid, but it’s not far enough from their 2010 result for them to worry too much.

    If I said “looks soft to the Govt”, would you agree?

  44. @Ozwald – “32 is solid”

    16% of that VI disapproves of the government’s record to date.

    So let’s say 27% is solid. the other 5% may be considering a holiday with UKIP, a spot of apathy, or who knows – jumping into Labour’s arms.

    I don’t underestimate the potential pitfalls for Labour, but the Tories will have to make a difficult transition – keep open LD links, or shift rightwards towards their base – either of which entails upheaval for them in the run-up to the election.

  45. @JOHN TT
    `If I said “looks soft to the Govt”, would you agree?`

    I agree with some of what you say,especially the lack of media support for Ed.And IMO,that`s why the really big Labour leads haven`t materialised aka,Cameron or Blair…

    But Labour haven`t really dipped below 39 for the last year or so even during government successes such as the war in Libya or the veto in December.And if Labour manage to motivate these voters enough,they should be able to poll atleast around 38% at the next election.

  46. Smukesh – sorry I’m off to bed but will look again in the morning.

    Good point – and I refer you to the 30+ leads that LAbour enjoyed before their “one-legged donkey” win in 1997.

    I wonder who or what can replace the cold hand of The Sun on the debate. Now that we are in the midst of a seach for sincerity and a rejection of cynicism, what could the parties come up with that could move the polls in the years following the Leveson report?

    There’s a movement of plates under way, not the plates of the circus, but those of the established earth. Labour needs to be agile, because you can bet your bottom Remnimbi that the likes of Gove will adapt.

  47. @John TT
    After his ill-judged performance yesterday, Labour need fear little from Gove. His comments unreservedly lauding Murdoch and defending the indefensible actions of his former colleagues could well define him for years to come.

  48. Btw, for anyone who cares. Mitt Romney officially received the number of neccessary Delegates tonight to win the GOP nomination. It was a forgone conclusion that he would but tonight is officially the night.

  49. @ Lefty Lampton (from the previous thread)

    “Many years ago, as a schoolboy at a Catholic school, we had the sanctity of Confession drilled into us.

    The local parish priest told us that if someone came to Confession and confessed to having murdered someone, he, the priest, would not report it to the police. Instead, he would tell the confessor that God’s forgiveness would be withheld until he handed himself in.

    It’s part of a millennia-old tension between the power of organised religion and the power of the secular civic authorities. The Catholic church has historically been very much on the anti-State end of the spectrum. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God that which belongs to God” is the the watchword. Matters of conscience have historically been seen by the Catholic church as belonging to God and something where the State’s remit is very much of secondary importance.

    That philosophy is one of the reasons why child abuse by Catholic priests was dealt with (sic) in-house without involving the State. It is one of the many reasons why I detached myself from the Catholic church as soon as I was old enough to form my own cogent opinions.”

    Thank you for your insight. I don’t think these are bad people. I just question what their thinking was and try to understand the mindset. It’s startling in this case considering how infamous this disappearance was and how terrible this crime was and how stumped police have been. It really was a cold case if ever there was one (because even in a lot of cold cases, at least the famous ones, cops have often have prime suspects, they just don’t have the evidence to bring charges). The original suspect who they focused in on for decades wasn’t known to them until a few years after the disappearance. The other suspect who’s former basement they dug up a few weeks ago wasn’t a suspect until this year.

    The priest here claims he didn’t report the crime because it was a confession to a group and not to him individually.

    I can understand distrust of the state. A healthy distrust of the state is a good thing. It goes too far though when you won’t report heinous crimes to the state as a result.

    @ Hannah (from the previous thread)

    “Catholic priests have secrecy of confession, but this was a Pentecostal church, and I’ve never been to a church that practices confession, so I don’t know how these operate.”

    I think this guy belongs to a Pentecostal church now but I think when he confessed to his church group, he belonged to a Catholic Church.

  50. @JohnTT
    “32 is by no means solid, but it’s not far enough from their 2010 result for them to worry too much”
    I can agree with that. I am mindful though that when blues are so far behind somehow the Lab ratings are spun as being flawed and soggy. When blues are well ahead it is “because the voting public are fully behind them”. The level of debate on this site is usually better than that.

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