Descriptions matter, hence politicians and campaigning groups often go to great lengths to try and frame the language that policies and causes are described in, trying to get policies they support referred to in inherently positive terms and their opponents policies with inherently negative terms. Think of the fantastically successful efforts of supporters of the very dull sounding financial transactions tax to have their cause consistently referred to as a “Robin Hood Tax”, or attempts by those opposed of estate taxes in the USA to get people to call the target of their dislike the “Death Tax”.
This does, of course, pose rather a problem for pollsters. If even the language used to describe a policy is politically contentious how do you ask an unbiased question on it? You can’t ask about a policy without referring to it, yet just the language you choose to describe it is coming down on one side or the other.
Sometimes it is relatively easy – there is a non-contentious neutral term in the middle. For example, supporters of same-sex marriage tend to refer to it as “equal marriage”. Its opponents tend to refer to it as “redefining marriage”. The impact of the wording is clear, ComRes questions asking about redefining marriage tend to show a majority against, Populus questions that have asked about gay marriage in terms of giving gay and lesbian people equal rights have tended to produce the most positive results. The obvious solution which most polls have taken is to take a less contentious term in the middle, like gay marriage or same-sex marriage, which is not so value-laden or innately associated with one or the other side of the argument.
Other times it is more difficult. The government’s planned changes to housing benefit are officially called the “under occupancy charge”, but have been referred to by Ed Miliband and some of the press as the “bedroom tax”. There is not an obvious neutral point, just the way the government refer to it, or the way the opposition refer to it. Prima facie it is better to ask the question about the “under occupancy charge” – it is, after all, its official name and not an inherently positive or negative term, while “bedroom tax” is a pejorative term of abuse for the policy. However, it’s not always clear cut, if we go back to the 1980s, for example, after a while the community charge was almost universally called the poll tax – it would have been almost obtuse not to call it the poll tax when asking about it, since that was what everyone called it. Generally speaking, I’d say one should avoid value-leaden slang terms for policies, or terms solely associated with champions or opponents of a cause… but it is a matter of judgement.
In the particular case of the ComRes/People poll today on the charge, ComRes have gone for the solution of referring to it using both terms – “From April, unused bedrooms in social housing will be subject to an under-occupation charge or ‘bedroom tax’ meaning housing benefit will be reduced for working age households if they are deemed to have spare rooms.” (though such neutrality in language is then somewhat undermined by then using the term “bedroom tax” six times in the rest of the survey)
The reporting of the poll, incidentally, goes on to illustrate just why one needs to be wary of “agree or disagree statement” polls. As I’ve written at length before now agree/disagree statements risk biasing answers in the direction of the statement, and often produce apparently contradictory answers within the same survey (the post here includes some cracking examples). This isn’t necessarily a problem if the survey includes statements in both directions, because looking at the whole you can get a rounded picture, but for those more interested in pushing an agenda than discerning the truth it particularly lends itself to partial reporting and cherry-picking.
For example, in the ComRes poll today they found people agreed with the statement “David Cameron should abandon the ‘Bedroom tax’ entirely and think of other ways to save money.” by 45% to 37%. However, asked if they agreed or disagreed with a statement in the opposite direction “It’s only fair that people who have spare bedrooms in council or housing association homes should receive less housing benefit”, 46% agreed and 36% disagreed. The two statements are not necessarily contradictory, but taking either one of them in isolation without reference to the other creates a very different impression of what public opinion on the issue is. The People’s write up does at least mention that second statement briefly in passing, much of the interpretation of the poll elsewhere ignores it completely.