Gay marriage… again

Guido and the Spectator have a story up about a letter from Andrew Hawkins at ComRes accusing David Cameron of misrepresenting polling data over gay marriage. It seems to be an issue that keeps coming back, so I thought I may as well revisit the issue once again and look at what the polls actually say on gay marriage.

Now, to start at the beginning with Andrew’s letter. In Cameron’s original letter he wrote that 10% of Tory voters said legalising gay marriage would make them less likely to vote Conservative, compared to 7% of people who said it would make them more likely. Cameron’s letter claimed the difference between these figures was so close as to not really be significant. The specific factual criticisms Andrew makes about these claims are correct. What Cameron appears to have done is quote figures from page 5 of this poll, which refer to the Labour party, rather than the figures from page 2 of the poll which refer to the Conservative party – the page 2 figures would suggest a rather bigger gap!

However, looking only at the opinions of current Conservative voters seems a rather bizarre thing to do in the first place. The Conservative party, after all, would presumably be interested not only in holding onto current support, but in gaining support from people who are not already supporting them. If you look at the figures overall, 10% of people said gay marriage made them more likely to vote Conservative, as opposed to 13% who made it less likely… the same 3 point gap as in the figures Cameron wrongly quoted.

Gay marriage is a swings and roundabouts issue – it no doubt alienates some people with socially conservative or religious views, it appeals to other people with more socially liberal views. Lord Ashcroft’s polling on the same subject has somewhat more useful crossbreaks. Its overall findings are almost identical to those of ComRes – Ashcroft found 10% said they were more likely to vote Tory as a result of gay marriage, 12% said they were less likely to vote Tory as a result of gay marriage. Both polls found former Con voters saying it made them much less likely to vote Tory. However Ashcroft also provided cross-breaks for people who didn’t support the Conservatives in 2010 or now, but said they might consider doing so. These people said the policy would make them more likely to support a party – but it was a smaller group and by a much smaller margin. So, the polling is consistent in showing the potential loss is bigger than the potential gain… but not by a significant amount.

As it happens, I think “would X make you more or less likely to vote Y” are often useless and misleading questions anyway, as I have ranted about before. They give an issue false prominence, when actually people’s votes will more likely be driven by bigger issues like the economy and perceptions of party competence, secondly people responding to polls are not stupid and tend to use them to register their support or opposition to a policy regardless of whether it affects their vote, third people are poor judges of what actually drives their voting intention, so the bigger impact of policies may be on broader perceptions of party image that are not picked up in polls like this.

In short, what drives voting intention is an extremely complicated question. Political scientists spend whole careers studying it, doing complicated analysis of data sets from British election studies and trying to model it. It would be very nice if we could understand it in a single polling question and I can understand people’s attraction to questions that look as though they do… but it really doesn’t work like that.

Moving on to the second part of the letter, whether polls consistently show people support gay marriage. Cameron says in his letter that “All of the published polls have found that more voters support equal civil marriage – however described – than oppose it”. This isn’t really true either.

Below are a list of polls that essentially asked if people supported gay marriage and gave them a straight yes/no or agree/disagree question:

Ashcroft/Populus? – May 2012. Support 42%, Oppose 31%
ICM/Sunday Telegraph – Mar 2012. Support 45%, Oppose 36%
Populus/Times – Mar 2012. Support 65%, Oppose 27%
ComRes/Independent – Oct 2011. Support 51%, Oppose 34%.
YouGov/Sunday Times – Nov 2012. Support 51%, Oppose 38%
YouGov/Sunday Times – May 2012. Support 51%, Oppose 35%

As you can see, they all show more support for gay marriage than opposition to it, though there is some variation in results and in wording (for example, the Populus one talked about “equal rights” in the question, the Ashcroft one gave a “don’t mind either way” option).

So far Cameron’s statement looks true… but now look instead at the questions below from Angus Reid and YouGov, they gave a three way option – asking if people supported gay marriage, supported civil partnerships but not gay marriage, or opposed both. This gives a slightly different picture.

YouGov/Sunday Times – Mar 2012. Support gay marriage 43%, support civil part only 32%, oppose both 15%
YouGov – Sep 2011. Support gay marriage 46%, support civil part only 28%, oppose both 17%
Angus Reid – July 2011. Support gay marriage 43%, support civil part only 34%, oppose both 15%

There is still a plurality in favour of gay marriage, but if you add together those who support civil partnership but not gay marriage and those who oppose both of them then in some cases there are more people opposed to gay marriage than support it – so when David Cameron says all polls show more people support gay marriage than oppose it however you ask the question, it isn’t really true. If you ask it as a three way question, it suggests that the two way question isn’t necessarily giving the whole picture, and that some of the people who say they support gay marriage would actually be happier with just civil partnerships. I suspect some of this is people not wanting to look bigoted – they don’t want to look homophobic so they say they support gay marriage even though they’d rather just have civil partnerships. Alternatively it may just be simple confusion between gay marriage and civil partnerships.

The broader picture, therefore, is that there is a very large majority of people who support legal recognition of gay relationships, and if people are forced to choose more people support gay marriage than oppose it… but if you don’t force people into that artificial yes-no there is a substantial minority of people who think the half-way house of civil partnership is enough.

Andrew Hawkins’ letter refers to the ComRes/Coalition For Marriage poll that found 70% of people agreed with the statement “Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman”. I have written about this before here, and my view remains the same. I think it has been rather over interpreted. Perhaps the logical inference is that anyone agreeing to this statement must be opposed to the laws on marriage being changed so that same sex-couples can marry, but in this case we don’t have to infer, we have lots of other questions in other polls that actually asked directly about gay marriage, so we can be fairly certain that 70% of people are not interpreting the sentence that way.

Andrew speculates that online or offline fieldwork could explain the difference between different polls on gay marriage. In theory I agree with him – people may be embarrassed to admit to unfashionable views in a live telephone interview and may be more willing to openly admit them in an online poll. It would be good to see some directly comparable online and offline questions on gay marriage to see if it’s true in this case. However, almost all the polls I have mentioned above were conducted online anyway, including those by the traditionally telephone based researchers like ICM and Populus, so in this case the difference in results does seem to be mostly down to question wording.

So in summary,

(1) Polls asking if supporting gay marriage would make you more or less likely to vote Conservative show marginally more people saying less likely than more likely, but there are good reasons to be very cautious about questions asked in this format. People are not good at reporting what actually drives their voting behaviour. There is also the effect on the wider image of the Conservative party, whether it is seen as tolerant and in touch with modern Britain, which effects voters but is harder to pick up in polls, not to mention perceptions of Cameron and his leadership (as Lord Ashcroft wrote here, if Cameron did change his mind it wouldn’t just be the policy effect, but whether he would look weak, or like he was flip-flopping). I would be extremely, extremely cautious about drawing any conclusions about whether the net benefit of backing a policy is positive or negative.

(2) Taking the polling as a whole, all polls that ask a direct yes-no or agree/disagree question on gay marriage show that more people support it than oppose it. However, if you give people the option of gay marriage, just civil partnerships or neither, then in some cases marginally more people oppose gay marriage than support it. The only polls that show a majority opposed to gay marriage that I am aware of are those commissioned by groups campaigning against it, which tend to ask slightly different questions about whether marriage should be redefined, rather than asking direct questions about same-sex marriage.

(3) David Cameron wrongly quoted the ComRes poll in his letter, and it isn’t true to say that all polls however asked show that more people support gay marriage than oppose it. However, the broad thrust of his letter is basically right – the polls suggest that the British public are, generally speaking, pretty positive towards gay marriage.

75 Responses to “Gay marriage… again”

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  1. Appalled that this is still an issue. No one who does not want to be involved need be, that includes clerics of any denomination. Just get a move on with introducing equality. Equality is not “special treatment” as some try to imply. This is 2012 not 1220.

  2. Dear Mr Huckle

    That’s a bit lazy

  3. Turk

    The whole point of regular polls is that you don’t then risk a single poll showing a lead of 4 and a month later one showing a lead of 13 [or vice versa] and read a trend where none may exist.

  4. @ Paul Croft

    I am not sure you would ask a vicar whether they were gay or not ? They may just be happy.

  5. For those who can’t wait for Anthony’s authoritative post the Ipsos-MORI details are here:

    One extra that distorts their results is that they use a very strict filter of “Absolutely certain to vote” (10) This means that the effective sample size isn’t the 1014 of the headline but only 488. Hence the variability that a small er sample size will encourage.

  6. RH:

    You wouldn’t need to if they had a “no straights” policy for marriage. You could probably just guess.

  7. Why don’t we just do what they do in France, the state marries, you, and the state marries you regardless of gender. If you then want that union endorsed by a religious service you are at liberty to do so. All you then have to do is find a gay vicar or priest to perform the service, I wouldn’t have thought that would have been a problem.

  8. ipsos mori:

    31% are satisfied with the government, 62% dissatisfied
    40% are satisfied with David Cameron, 54% are dissatisfied
    40% are satisfied with Ed Miliband, 43% are dissatisfied
    27% are satisfied with Nick Clegg, 59% are dissatisfied

    Ed doing well

  9. I don’t want to appear disingenuous here, but am I reading that Ipsos/Mori poll correctly and it’s showing a 14% Labour lead and their VI rating up to 46%? If so, that’s significantly up from the 10% lead last month and suggesting, unlike YouGov, that the Tories remain becalmed in the very low 30s and Labour are steadily improving.

    These by-elections, particularly Corby, ain’t half going to be interesting tonight!

  10. David,
    Yes you post an interesting point. I believe many used to get married in a church because otherwise they felt it was not ‘real’. As only C of E was authorised to register marriages, (other than registrars) it gave it a head start. Of course true believers of another denomination would go through the dual process.

    Now, anyone can register a marriage, more or less, so, as with so much else, the C of E loses a bit more hegemony.

    As an aside, in checking my facts for this post, my google request sent me straight to the UK Border Agency (!!!!) and other sites still tended to stress the C of E or a registrar’s office rather than ‘local authority approved premises’. (CAB site for instance).

    I still think the C of E likes to have its finger in the pie, as we see after local outrages and disasters.

    Old Nat does not need to write in and say I am talking about England, I know!

  11. Very much looking forward to all the polls today,but particularly Corby.Does
    Anyone know what time the result might be announced?

  12. Did anybody else read Kettle’s column in today’s Guardian? By his recent bland standards, it was reasonably interesting and it would be difficult to argue with his thesis that the age of plenty, certainly for European nations, is a thing of the past and that we need to get used to many years of sluggish growth and intermittent recession. In summary, he thought that austerity was here to stay in the West and whilst this played more to the centre right’s political strengths, there was scope for centre left parties too if they moderated their message from an overriding emphasis on public spending to cure all ills.

    All very good so far but then the rum old soul concluded with a testimonial to George Osborne’s political skills! Apparently, the Chancellor’s recent observation that Obama’s re-election was proof that incumbents can win in difficult economic times is testament to his mastery of political and electoral strategy (my words, not Kettle’s!).

    There you have it then. It’s Osborne wots going to win it for the Tories in 2015!

  13. Crossbar,yes I read this on a long and seemingly interminable journey.It
    Seemed to me to me to be rubbish and was then backed up in general trend
    By their editorial.Both,surely written by him,that there is absolutely no alternative to our present economic course.

  14. Ann – Corby isn’t being counted till tomorrow, so don’t wait up!

    Manchester Central and Cardiff South are being counted tonight, so is the Police Commissioner for Wiltshire, but everything else starts counting tomorrow morning, results expected to start showing up at around lunchtime.

  15. Crossbat, not bar,sorry very tired.

  16. Crossbar,

    Read Kettle and agreed with almost all of it. I stood up in Highland Council about three years ago and said that this was just the start and that after a decade of debt driven growth fuelled by consumer spending we were facing a Japan style lost decade…. Just another six or so years to go.


    As for Scotland the Free Church opposes “Gay” marriage in favour of “Dour” marriage!


  17. according to the Electoral Reform Society, the turnout for the PCC elections will be as low as 18.5%. So it looks like we’ll get results quickly.

  18. KeithP – no we won’t, apart from Wiltshire they aren’t even opening the boxes till tomorrow!

    There is a spreadsheet of the timings of the count in each area here:

  19. Have I missed something?

    Surely this is boring semantics to the main world who see two choices

    1) Civil wedding / partnership
    2) Religious wedding / partnership

    I suppose if you are religious fundamentalists it may mean a difference but given the increasing secularisation of the world who cares? I certainly see no difference.

  20. (Actually, to correct myself they are opening the boxes in several areas tonight, but they are only actually counting votes in Wiltshire)

  21. Anthony,thank you.Actually quite pleased,I can go to bed now.Iintersting day

  22. Words can’t describe adequatley the level of excitment I feel about the PCC results.

  23. I meant quickly in the sense of soon after the ballot boxes are opened, whenever that might be. It sounds like it might be all done in 5 minutes flat.

  24. I’m not against a homosexual of any gender marrying another similar one. I’m not religious.

    Then again, I’m not especially for it.

    Since they have civil partneships available, it seems just trouble-making to me.

    Stop whining, start living.

  25. Anthony….it is a bit late as I’m over in California breaking my back in american politics – but I wanted to say this is a truly well crafted piece of analysis deserving of greater attention. Thanks John

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