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. We are really still talking about this in the 21st century??? Really?

  2. It strikes me that ComRes clearly have a dog in this fight.

    On abortion, ComRes were at this again:

    Surely, pollsters should be providing their clients with research services. They are selling their expertise and should not become their public cheerleaders. People should always be able to trust a pollsters’ interpretation of figures as being neutral and above reproach, rather than having to ponder whether they are singing the tune of whoever bunged them the cash.

  3. Very interesting Anthony-thanks.

    The responses to the three question poll are very interesting-they are the questions I would want to answer if asked, rather than the two question version.

    Given your comments I wonder why GO went into print on the importance of this for Conservative GE prospects?

  4. As the Tories wouldn’t win a majority on their current or indeed previous vote they are probably on the right track aiming for what Tebbit called “the Common Ground” although I don’t Tebbit had this particular measure in mind.

    The danger for the Tories lies in what the polls don’t show and that is what opposition to Gay marriage would say about them.

    The danger would be that they would be portrayed as regressive and backward looking when to win they need to appeal to middle England and swing voters who mostly support the proposals.

    Like Anthony I don’t like theses kinds of questions because the tend to show a mix of what the think of the proposal and the proposer and it is hard to tell which is which.

    I have my suspicions that if Labour were in power and proposing this a fair number of Current and former Tory voters would have given different answers.

    I wonder if anyone has done any poling to show how opinion shifts when you change the name of the party making a proposal.


  5. “A presiding officer at a Leeds polling station tweeted: “First voter came in after 2 hours 30 minutes. Her candidate might be winning.”

    On a knife edge in Leeds for the police commisioners election! Be good if she gave a false reply to an exit poll and the pollsters were proved 100% wrong!

  6. Ask yourself this:

    Do you think you can derive Andrew Hawkins’ view on gay marriage from the questions he asks and his interpretation of the results?

    If the answer to this question is yes, his legitimacy as a pollster must surely be called into question.

    Should people only pay for ComRes polling if Mr Hawkins agrees with them?

  7. I don’t know what all the fuss is about Gay marriage. The government should bring forward legislation so that same sex couples are treated the same as hetrosexual couples. As some church ministers won’t want to allow this in their churches, then allow them to be able to say no. At the moment a vicar can refuse to marry a hetrosexual couple on numerous grounds. Don’t see why people are scare mongering about the ECHR.

  8. Peter Cairns

    AIUI, no party was mentioned when asking the questions. I mean not ‘the Conservative party is proposing single sex marriage – what is your….’etc.

    The party affiliations would have been gathered in response to other questions (on VI) elsewhere in the survey.

    But you are right if that were indeed so. We discover that people are quite willing to contradict themselves once they hear that what they might otherwise agree with is being proposed by the party they normally do not vote for. Competence questions seem invariably to deliver such a result for instance

  9. In regard to PCC voting, why are they bothering with a preference voting system. I had four choices of candidate and could put first and second preferences.

    I was the only person voting and the staff said that very few people had been in. My guess is that they will be lucky to get 10% of people voting. The areas such as Bristol where they are also voting for a Mayor will be different.

  10. Interesting piece. I suppose part of the equation with the 70% agreement figure re: the statement about marriage includes those whose concerns are etymological rather than in terms of the “sanctity of marriage”.

    I’m really not sure this issue is a deal-breaker either way though to be honest.

  11. *** New poll alert*********

    14pt Lab lead with Ipsos-MORI CON 32 (-1); LAB 46 (+3); LIB DEM 9 (nc)

    This will cheer Colin up. :)

  12. @Amberstar (from the last thread) has really spoiled my day, with her news that paying interest to yourself on cash in the sock drawer is not a valid economic practice.

    For years now I’ve kept a tally on money down the back of my sofa, and by the regular application of a variable compound interest rate, plus a few additional contributions as time passes, I had calculated that there would now be sufficient cash down there to allow me to retire early.

    If she is now saying that this isn’t the case, it looks like I’m going to have to have a painful discussion with my financial adviser.

  13. I thing the yougov daily polls are only serving to confuse as they are now reporting wild variations.
    I reckon the people being asked the repeated questions are getting fed up and are just giving nondescript answers
    As i have said before a weekly poll is more than adequate.

  14. Just been to vote in the PCC election. I was outnumbered 4 to 1 by the election staff. There was a bag to discard unwanted polling cards: it didn’t exactly look full to the brim. Perhaps my vote will count for more than usual.

  15. WTNL,

    I think I’m right in thinking that with an electorate of say (for the sake of argument) 20 million and a daily poll sample of about 1,000, one can expect a gap of nearly 55 years between being contacted by YouGov for a daily VI poll once and it happening again. Or are the samples chosen less randomly than that?

  16. Mitz – its a panel survey, drawn from a panel of 350,000 or so, you can work out the maths. We have tried explaining normal sample variation.

  17. Thanks Anthony – have just found the FAQ elsewhere on this site about sampling and was about to respond to myself, telling me what an idiot I am.

    Just more than one a year then?

  18. Mitz – some people more often, some people less often (depends on the demographics and sheer dumb luck). There is a hard block on people getting it too often (if you have done the survey within a certain period of time you will be blocked from being invited again), but mostly it is just random, so someone could end up doing it once a month, someone else could end up never ever being invited to a political survey.

  19. Bad economic data coming out of the US today, even more shocking because the pre election data had surprises to the upside(ok I admit I wasn’t shocked cos in a cynical mofo) recession coming soon, it looks like and of course the eurozone is back in recession. And we haven’t even plunged over the fiscal cliff yet

  20. Alex

    I have a proposition for you

    How about we both get banking licences, then I deposit 10000 pounds into you bank you now have the reserves to lend me 200000 pounds. Now it gets better cos I have enough reserves to lend you 4 million pounds

    I know there must be a flaw in this scheme but I can’t find it

  21. Any polling as to how high up the agenda this is? IMHO it’s very high up the agenda for certain Tory MP’s and very low for everyone else.

  22. Richard/Alec – oi! Amber was being very behaved and continuing this long conversation about the nature of money and banking on its original thread so it didn’t infect the discussion under new posts, heed her fine example! :)

  23. RiN

    That’s exactly what happened and why a zillionquintillion squids ended up secured on a mudhut in Louisiana occupied by a short hours cook.

  24. @rIn – “I know there must be a flaw in this scheme but I can’t find it”

    Perhap’s it’s that the old cat sometimes has an accident* on the sofa, meaning that my £4m would smell of p*ss.

    [*I say accident, but I’ve seen her do it. I think it’s quite deliberate].

  25. 14pt Lab lead with Ipsos-MORI CON 32 (-1); LAB 46 (+3); LIB DEM 9 (nc)

    Where will I find this?

  26. 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.


    Once again showing that the British public are closer in spirit to our European cousins than our American ones.

    If only politicians would notice… too often the UK looks the wrong way for ideas. Especially on social policy.

  27. R HUCKLE

    Oh yeah!

    Economic Optimism Up.

    Labour lead Up.

    …..yep…looking good .

    :-) :-)

  28. USA employment numbers seem to be Sandy related.

    CPI up up over there too though. But no Central Bank is worried about inflation at present.

  29. The question should be asked:

    Should the rights of a minority group be subject to the whims o f popularity contests?

  30. Big UKIP vote in Corby ?

  31. Dave North
    How many of voters would understand the question you formulated?

  32. Howard

    Of course as citizens of the united kingdom we have no rights except those granted to US by the queen in parliament, so Dave north’s question is moot

  33. Sorry reposting Doug’s comment from the end of the last thread cos its just too strange to be ignored

    “In the Devon and Cornwall Police Commissioner election, Brian Greenslade, LD Leader of North Devon District Council is standing as an (cough) Independent, against the official LD candidate. Mr Greenslade has yet to be expelled from the Lib Dems (as he should be). Probably because if he was there’d be no-one else to organise what remains of the LDs in North Devon.”

    This sounds surreal

  34. Richard – it is the case. LD council leader said he was going to run when it seemed like the LDs weren’t running candidates. When the LDs did announce they were putting up a candidate, he didn’t apply, and went right on standing as an independent.

    Everyone expected him to resign from the party or be expelled… but no, he’s still there, as the LD leader of a council no less. Quite bizarre.

  35. Got to say it but that Ipsos Mori polls looks a tad suspect. With some small but distinct signs of a slight easing of the lead, to see Lab up 3 at 46% looks a touch out of line. I could be wrong on this, but my impression is that IP polls seem to bounce around quite a lot?

    The Bouncing Polls – sounds like an East European circus act.

  36. Good Evening All.

    Where can we find that IPSOS MORI poll about which you are pleased?

    I share your joy at the rapidly improving economy.

  37. Devon PCC
    I know Mr Greenslade. He certainly will not remember me (that sort never do). He has become what is known as ‘a big figure’ which in his case is quite apt for at least two reasons.
    Perhaps he thinks he can emulate Bloomfield of NY as some sort of ‘I’m bigger than you lot’ but normally more than a few million dollars is needed to press that point home.

  38. Hello it has been a very long time.

    On the issue of Gay Marrige, I am not motivated either way. I am not enthusistically in support of it nor I am indigniatly opposed to it. It is just one of those issuse where you have got to move with the times. I am speaking as a conservative by the way NOT a Cameroon.

    Regarding the By-Elections, I will give them all to Labour.

    With Corby in particulary I am predicting Labour will have around 50% of the vote or more. The highest I am willing to give would be about 70%. I expect a low turnout.

    Thank you for your time :)

  39. @ Alec

    :-) LOL :-)

  40. @Alec

    Or an 80’s electropop band.


    On their website.

    I am not pleased with it.

    Is the economy rapidly improving ?-could you provide links please.

    I doubt it .

  42. KYLE

    It has indeed.

    nice to see you post again. :-)

  43. Thank you Colin.
    I found this site quite addictive so I decided to stop for a while.
    Well that and the fact that I had quite a few bees in my bonet and this isn’t a thread for partisan rubbish but I am a lot calmer now after getting away from the corrosive influence of partisan mud slinging.

    I must say that this thread has not changed a bit.

  44. @ Colin

    The silly thing is that actually Labour may do better in a 2015 election, if the economy is improving. If the economy is still in a bad shape then it may be a case that voters are worried about a change in government.

    Personally, I think the economy will go through another period of recession during 2013 and will not really recover until mid 2014. There are signs that the world economy is slowing down. Europe is back in recession. China is having some problems. There have been recent protests in Argentina about economic problems, when I thought that had been doing well over recent years.

    The Autumn/Winter statement by GO will be interesting as I don’t think he has any room to do anything. I will be the old trick of announcing something that won’t happen for several years. i.e an government investment scheme with no money in it until 2016. I think he will go ahead with the 3p fuel increase and not scrap it as recently rumoured in the news.

  45. KYLE

    Pleased to hear that.

    Bits of mud get flung now & again-but AW usually catches them before they fall :-)

  46. R HUCKLE

    Yes- others have advanced that idea ( improving economy good for Labour)………….not so sure myself. Certainly think DC/GO will be trying to ensure it isn’t by reminding folk of certain things.

    I’m really unsure how the next two years are going to proceed.

    Yes, the “Autumn” Statement is going to be fascinating & I agree he has no room for anything significant.

    Can’t wait to see the OBR numbers actually ( sad isn’t it ? )

  47. Alec – I need to do a post later, but basically it’s down to a lack of past vote weighting.

    Regular readers will know that MORI are one of very few pollsters who don’t use any political weighting on their polls, because they think the problem of false recall is such that recalled vote cannot be trusted enough to weight by.

    These days MORI’s recalled 2010 vote without weighting doesn’t actually differ that much from other companies a lot of the time, so this isn’t always a big issue. This month though the sample is very odd indeed – recalled vote looks like its about CON 34%, LAB 40%, where as we know, the actual results at the last election was about CON 37%, LAB 30%.

    False recall can explain away some deviation, but here I think there’s just a sample with far too many Labour voters in.

  48. Can a gay vicar refuse to marry a straight couple? Just for a laugh if nothing else.


    Re your cunning money-making system, why don’t you kick it off by depositing said £10000 in my account and then we’ll see where the flaw lies. Best to give it a while though.

  49. A 14pt lead for Labour I would have thought was as meaningless as the 35-39 result the other day, just another wild fluctuating poll, maybe there are to many polls at the moment, instead of picking up a trend could it be there just registering whatever is in the news that day that has made people fed up or angry rather than capturing a genuine political point of view.
    After all at the next GE I will vote for the party I’ve supported for some years but if asked on a bad news day I may well say and often do never again.
    Having said that I voted for a independent today in the PCC because they were the best candidate for me and the thought of old has been politician of any persuasion looking for a lucrative meal ticket to supplement there generous pensions over rides any party loyalty.

  50. @ paulcroft

    Can a gay vicar refuse to marry a straight couple? Just for a laugh if nothing else.

    Yes I believe that it happens all the time, perhaps not as much as it use to. Go back 30 years and a Vicar would refuse to marry a couple who were living together, if the Bride was to dress in white. Reasons for not marrying may be that the couple don’t live in the area of the church, have not attended the church previously or for issues connected with the religious standing of couple e.g Catholics that have previously been divorced.

    I read your question again, noting you mentioned a gay Vicar and could not be bothered to change the answer.

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