I return once again, with a heavy heart, to the issue of gay marriage. There is more rather one-eyed polling by the campaign against gay marriage, dutifully reported the Telegraph. The way polling commissioned by the lobby opposed to gay marriage is reported by the newspapers and those commissioning it is almost a masterclass in poor interpretation of polls.

Firstly we have the problems of polls conducting using agree/disagree statements, which risk bias in the direction of the statement asked (which I have written about at length here) and often give contradictory answers if properly balanced with statements in the other direction. For example, in this poll 62% of people agreed with the statement “marriage should continue to be definied as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman”. The campaign against gay marriage have consistently focused on this question and interpreted this as meaning that 62% of people are opposed to gay marriage. However, the same poll found people agreeing by 44% to 38% that “legalising gay marriage is important because maintaining the distinction between civil partnerships and marriage worsens public attitudes towards gay people”. One could just as easily cherry pick that question from the poll and claim that more people support than oppose gay marriage.

As I have written before, we have a multitude of polls that have actually asked directly whether or not people support the legalisation of gay marriage, and they should really be the starting point for anyone looking for polling evidence of whether people support or oppose gay marriage. I summarised the main polling on the issue earlier this month, but suffice to say, polling asking a straightforward question on whether people support or oppose gay marriage consistently finds more people support it than oppose it. Polls that offer more nuanced options, and ask if people support gay marriage, only civil partnerships, or neither gay marriage nor civil parterships, still consistently find support for gay marriage in the mid-40s, but normally find a substantial minority of people who support civil partnerships but not gay marriage, so sometimes show more people opposed to gay marriage than support it.

Secondly we have “would X make you more or less likely to vote for party Y” questions. Again, I have ranted about these at length before, but essentially it is a type of polling question which gives false prominence to and therefore greatly overstates the importance of specific policies when voting intention is actually driven by broad perceptions of parties, their competence, leaders, capability on major issues like the economy and so on.

Now we have that hoary old chestnut of a poll showing people want a referendum on gay marriage. As previously discussed, if asked in an opinion poll people want a referendum on almost everything – unsurprisingly, given that questions on referendums basically boil down to “would you like to have a say on this or should it be left to the hated politicians to decide”. It doesn’t mean there is some huge untapped demand for a referendum on that particular issue, people support a referendum on anything you ask about (the one exception I have managed to track down was a MORI poll back in 2001 that found people did not want a referendum on abolishing the monarchy)

Why do I keep coming back to this? I think its mostly the consistently credulous and one-sided reporting of polls on gay marriage in some sections of the press. Readers of some newspapers could be forgiven for thinking that the polling showed that the public were opposed to gay marriage, when any fair minded look at the broad range of polling on the issue would show that the balance of opinion is broadly positive towards it.

168 Responses to “So it comes to this, a poll on a gay marriage referendum. Sigh…”

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  1. Thanks Anthony!

  2. don’t have a strong view either way. thank goodness after the other thread. :-)

    thanks as well.

  3. What do we mean by “marriage” ?

  4. In this modern day and age Gay marriage should not be a contentious issue. Sometimes I think we live in the dark ages with regards to Gay marriage in the UK.

    Although I do have a gay friend who is opposed to gay marriage and gays being able to adopt children (not because they might support UKIP) <<<I had to get that bit in :) but becasue of the stigma it could cause to children in School etc.

    My own personal view is that I wouldnt have a problem seeing Dale Winton tying the knot David Laws . :)

  5. While there are obvious downsides (as there are with wholly representative democracy), there is an attraction in introducing direct democracy.

    If people, when polled, regularly prefer the idea of deciding major issues by referendums, rather than allowing “hated politicians” to take the decisions, it would seem only democratic to accede to such a clear popular preference.

  6. It would be difficult to find a issue I care less about or that would encourage me to vote for or against any party that was putting it forward.
    Cameron,Clegg,Milliband not interested move on please.

  7. @ Anthony

    Thank you for the methology discussion.

    Shouldn’t the first question be: do you care if gay people could get married/their personal relationship is regulated by family laws rather than commercial laws


    “Shouldn’t the first question be: do you care”

    Quite. When polled, I frequently want an option of “Don’t care”. On some issues I would prefer a somewhat stronger and more obscene option – though that would doubtless offend Anthony’s co-workers! :-)

  9. Allen

    I have a problem with dale winton tying the knot with David laws.

    They are incompatible

  10. Anthony

    I get the feeling that you have views on this subject, its very rare for you not to be totally impartial but I get the feeling you are for gay marriage and think its necessary for the Tories to do this in order to prove they have moved into 21st century

  11. I can’t believe that in the year 2012 we are still discussing this. Religion has a lot to answer for! Grrr!!!


    Are we moving this onto the Church of England? :-)

  13. Richard – people come up with all sorts of ideas about what I might or might not think, sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong. A gentleman doesn’t tell!

  14. Anthony
    Just come in and briefly looked back to see what was occurin’.

    I suspect this thread may take us from the frying pan into the fire but, as I predicted, it almost stopped people commenting on the EU thing, so this may be the same out there in the voter firmament.

    I suppose the (er) ‘other issue’ may reinforce whatever needed to be reinforced as far as anti-EU sentiment is concerned, so perhaps Tuesday Morn will dawn with a big swing to UKIP in what you announce as the Sunday / Monday poll.?

  15. I think a referendum on this would be an abdication of responsibility by MPs. Since 1975 we seem unwittingly to have adopted the principal in the UK of having referendums on constitutional changes – this is a thoroughly new invention in itself, and in my view undermines the Whig settlement of 1689 – but hayho – its too late to row back on that now as a new convention seems to have been established. However, to extend referendums to social policy just strips further from our constitutional position where we elect “our Member” in each constituency on the basis of them making a considered view as an individual. Without retaining the purpose of having a single member who weighs up the facts on our behalf in parliament, we might just as well vote for party lists instead IMO. That is the dreaded creeping referendumitus dealt with!
    Now for the issue itself. It is extremely difficult to enact legislation to allow Gay marriage where you have an Established Church that is ideologically and scripturally bound to oppose it yet duty bound by law to perform marriage for any parishioner who asks for it. On a social basis I can see no objection is reasonable to its introduction, but I think it will require disestablishment of the CofE at the same time. That would create a danger of unpicking more of the Whig constitutional settlement of which I am a great fan. So, I’m in a bind over this issue!!! Don’t know on practical grounds what can be done.

  16. Sorry – delete: principal – insert: principle in my last post

  17. “marriage should continue to be definied as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman”

    That statement could could be taken primarily to mean that marriage should be a “life-long exclusive commitment”, ie it shouldn’t become a temporary arrangement or an open marriage where other partners come and go. Is that the sense in which some people are agreeing?

    It is possible to read “between a man and a woman” as not governed by the “exclusive” part of the clause. There are other possible readings.

    In that case people are not necessarily responding in a contradictory way but responding in their own way to a question which leaves room for ambiguity.


    One slight problem with your thesis is that the consultation on gay marriage applies to England & Wales (as in 1689, Scotland makes its own decision on such issues).

    Yet the Church in Wales is long disestablished. Should such decisions for the Welsh depend on the views of a purely English institution?

    Things have moved on a tad since 1689.

  19. The church of England should be dis established in fact it should never have been established in the first place but a horny king needed a divorce, so hey ho

  20. Anthony

    A gentleman never tells but that doesnt stop you

  21. On balance, I’m in favour of having civil partnerships for everybody. Let’s do away with the traditional romanticism; let’s have proper contracts with terms & conditions tailored to suit each specific relationship! Then the expectations of each party to the contract will be clear.

    Each person can bring along their solicitor, instead of a best man or bridesmaid. It’s sensible forward planning & will save a great deal of time & expense during the divorce – it might avoid the divorce (or even the marriage) altogether, if there is clarity about the partnership conditions before it is entered into! :-)



    “I have a problem with dale winton tying the knot with David laws”

    “They are incompatible”

    You do have a point, one prefers Eastenders and the other Corrie..would never work out!! ;)


    “I can’t believe that in the year 2012 we are still discussing this. Religion has a lot to answer for! Grrr!!!”


  24. I can’t see why civil partnerships aren’t enough for them. Why does every single traditional building block of the family, and hence society, have to be subverted?


    “the other Corrie”

    You must mean Bill Smith. When he left, the Corrie Folk Trio became just the Corries.


    “Same-sex marriage became legal in Norway on January 1, 2009 when a gender neutral marriage bill was enacted after being passed by the Norwegian legislature in June 2008.Norway became the first Scandinavian country and the sixth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage”

    There you go Tinkerbell, go get your man… what’s holding you back? ;)

  27. OLDNAT

    Ha Ha very funny lol. :)

  28. PETE B

    ” Why does every single traditional building block of the family, and hence society, have to be subverted?”

    I said exactly that when slavery was abolished!

  29. If every tradition is destroyed you end up with something like the Cultural Revolution, or Pol Pot’s regime. I remember many of my contemporaries in the 60s and 70s reading Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’. Is that where all this anti-tradition stuff comes from?

  30. PETE B

    Something of a reductio ad absurdam there!

    Lots of what you probably consider as “traditions” were revolutionary introductions in their day.

  31. @ Pete B

    Marriage for commoners as you interpreted it is an 18th century invention for tax reasons. A tradition…

  32. @ Pete B

    Mao, as many other peasant politicians propagated tradotions (traditional Chinese medicin was invented in the 1950s in lieu of health care. Cultural Revolution didn’t attack many traditions apart from seniority.

  33. @ Old Nat

    I like your reference. Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that Mrs Nat is enslaved! But nevertheless, either conciously or sub/unconciously, you hit the nail on the head. For many women marriage was (or even still is) akin to slavery! I was only half joking when I said I’d prefer the default to be civil partnerships.

  34. “Religion has a lot to answer for!”

    I won’t argue with that, but forms of marriage have existed in any number of cultures where there wasn’t religion in the accepted sense… ancient Chinese and Greek custom allowed for same-sex marriage in some areas, ancient Rome went so far as to outlaw it.

    The spread of Christianity has been credited with actively encouraging the concept of “free marriage” (choice in the selection of a marriage partner) as opposed to the practice of marriages being arranged, sometimes from birth, in many parts of what we would call Europe.

  35. Good Evening All.

    We can compile a long list of social reformers who were inspired by religion.

    Blair included lol.

  36. Traditions… The last wife, if I can correctly recall was sold by her husband through an ad in 1847 for 1 s 3 d. Actually a bit later a wife was left to the CoE in a will. She was put on auction.

  37. any polls out?

  38. @ Billy Bob

    Not in Catholic countries. They needed parental approval. A legacy of this that in most traditionally catholic countries you can’t exclude offsprings from a.will (compulsory share) and that the wife normally does not inherit and has only the right to use the property.

  39. OLD NAT
    ” it would seem only democratic to accede to such a clear popular preference.”
    This is an unusually obfusciferous offering from your usually lucid pen. For starters, a) its democratic basis has to be doubted in the absence of clear information on what are the facts and issues addressed; and b) it would not, therefore, be “clear”; while c) you don’t define popular and preference, – not as these related to the constitutional responsibility of an elected government (thanks, Tony Dean),. but in any rational meaning of the words. Anyway, who decided that referenda are an acceptable subsTitute for government?


    I apologise for the obfuscation. :-(

    Who decided that referendums WEREN’T an acceptable substitute for government? – The Governors!

    Arguably, one could separate the broad determination of policy direction (by the people) and it’s detailed implementation by government.

    There is no “right” way of doing things.

  41. Amber

    Agreed re role of women in a marriage can be equivalent to slavery, or legalised (and supposedly for one client) courtesanship, or any other arrangement which is power and economically driven.

    After all the term “adultery” originated in adulteration of the man’s property rights in his children.

    Aren’t traditions wonderful?

  42. @ chrislane1945

    “any polls out?”

    If not, have some nice charts:

    http://www.statgeek.co.uk :)


    I love graphs – and your site makes them much more accessible.


  44. Being that it seems that UKIP are against Gay Marriage, I wonder how much of their support is derived from this issue.

  45. @Oldnat

    Ta very much. A team of over a hundred software developers worked together tirelessly for months to bring you that.

    Well…almost 2 actually…

  46. I really don’t get this bigotry. I just don’t get it. Allowing Gay marriage doesn’t harm ordinary marriage in any way. It’s not going to become compulsory. I do sort of understand the fears about the ECHR interfering with religious liberty, but I think in terms of civil marriage it should be equal. At the moment civil partnerships are pretty much marriage in all but name, as far as I’m aware. Changing it to the word “marriage” is what seems to be causing the issue.

    I think the perfect system is that two people can go to the registry office and get married, no matter what their sex. Or alternatively, you can go to a Church to get married as long as the Church agrees to marry you, and both aren’t treated any differently by the state.

  47. Amber. I usually really like your comments but:

    “On balance, I’m in favour of having civil partnerships for everybody. Let’s do away with the traditional romanticism; let’s have proper contracts with terms & conditions tailored to suit each specific relationship! Then the expectations of each party to the contract will be clear.
    Each person can bring along their solicitor, instead of a best man or bridesmaid.”

    Was that serious? Or joking?

  48. I remember reading the list of people that you weren’t allowed to marry in the Book of Common Prayer during some particularly dull sermons… A man may not marry his:


    Father’s mother
    Mother’s mother
    Son’s daughter
    Daughter’s daughter

    Father’s daughter
    Mother’s daughter

    Wife’s mother
    Wife’s daughter

    Father’s wife
    Son’s wife

    Father’s father’s wife
    Mother’s father’s wife
    Wife’s father’s mother
    Wife’s mother’s mother
    Wife’s son’s daughter
    Wife’s daughter’s daughter
    Son’s son’s wife
    Daughter’s son’s wife

    Father’s sister
    Mother’s sister
    Brother’s daughter
    Sister’s daughter

    Nothing in there about that nice bloke Steve.

  49. Even as an avid poll follower, polls like this bring on poll fatigue. Whatever next, a poll on what came first, the chicken or the egg ;-)

  50. @Laszlo

    Forgive my ignorance about Catholic countries, but that would reinforce the point about needing a lawyer at your elbow when entering into a contract… surely any coersion would be grounds for annullment?

    Was there really no age limit on needing the parent’s consent? Imagining the constraints which people had no real choice but to endure – it is quite chilling.

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