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.

51 Responses to “Would you support or oppose the “Really Evil Tax”?”

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  1. I for one want to tax being really evil. It might discourage people from evildoing…

  2. I thought all taxes were “really evil”

  3. @RiN,

    Only the taxes on the things I do or buy. All other taxes are perfectly fair and equitable.

  4. “It’s only fair…” & “David Cameron should…” seems to making statements of fact then asking you to disagree. That would seem biased whatever you asked. Shades of John McCain’s secret black lovechild push polling.

    “Do you think it’s fair that…” or “Should David Cameron…” would seem less obviously slanted. I think calling it bedroom tax or not are the least biased bits of those questions.

  5. I have a feeling the conservatives wil be heavily embarrassed by the eastleigh result,

  6. As ever – can I remind people that this isn’t a venue to discuss whether policies actually are any good or not, just wider public opinion about them (and polling upon them!)

    Keep your own opinions about it to yourself!

  7. Labour and Miliband seem to have won the publicity war. It is now almost univerally labelled ” the bedroom tax”.

  8. Perhaps labels don’t matter. What it really.comes down to is whether the pollees believe they will be subject to it. If they do, they probably won’t support it. So the political battle is for those against the tax to pursuade as many as possible that they will/might/ be affected by it.

  9. Well it is an extra charge for a bedroom. So “spare bedroom charge” would be technically accurate.

    Although it leaves open what one might mean by “spare”. If it’s unused that is one thing. But if you asked people whether they still wished to say yes if it meant the elderly wouldn’t be able to have relations over to stay, that might get a different response.

    And does this only apply to council or housing association accommodation as the Comes question suggests? Because if so that might mean people affected can move into private rented accommodation with a spare bedroom and avoid the charge while costing more housing benefit. ..

  10. This reminds me of the discussions on LVT (Land value tax), where it is the value of land you are taxed on based on the area of live in rather than the house.

    When the think about it many people can see the merit in it, but call it the “Garden Tax” and Middle England would have kittens.

    As with AV if the LibDem’s who have toyed with LVT tried it the Tories would butcher them.


  11. The photo of Michael Gove blowing a raspberry, on the Observer front page, is an all-time favourite.

  12. Labour lead at 11 Latest YouGov/Sunday Times results 15-17 Feb – CON 32%, LAB 43%, LD 12%, UKIP 9%

  13. Andrew,

    Shouldn’t you also look at the use of the word ‘fair’ in the statement “It’s only fair that people who have spare bedrooms in council or housing association homes should receive less housing benefit”?

    ‘Fair’ is also an inherently positive word. The government uses it to push through quite a number of genuinely regressive policies. When you look at the statement above it doesn’t make any sense. Fair to who? The people who will be affected by this are living in social housing and already earn so little, if anything at all, that under the government own rules they are eligible for financial support towards the cost of housing? The taxpayer who will foot an increase in housing benefit as many affected by this downsize to more expensive private rent housing because there isn’t any 1 or 2 bed social housing where they live?

    As a policy there are few positives and many negatives (I know some/many will disagree) so the word ‘fair’ is repeatedly used to make it more acceptable to the majority of people who aren’t going to be affected by it. It’s a term that insinuates that those affected by it are having an easier time in this Depression than those not affected when the opposite is almost certainly the truth.

  14. I have no idea why I wrote Andrew at the top of my post instead of Anthony.

  15. Employee representation on boards -a la German, something I’ve long advocated – is apparently supported by huge nmbers of my fellow citizens, including 70% of Tories, according to Survation.

  16. JoshC – that’s the reason agree/disagree with the following statements produce answers that are skewed in one direction or the other, and why I don’t like them!

    As Berious suggests further up the thread, it’s nearly always better to ask things in a more neutral way (e.g “Do you think it is fair or unfair for X?”, “Do you support or oppose Y?”, “Do you think the government should or should not introduce Z?”)

  17. Catch 22 for those who are willing to downsize. TOne-bedroom homes are very scarce or non-existent . Our local council says they will have to let people run up arrears if they can’t make up the £8 per week shortfall. £18pw in some cases. But other councils or housing associations will not offer them a (smaller) home when they have arrears and their credit rating is at risk too.

  18. More importantly, how do you think this will effect VI?

  19. NickP
    How do I build a wrongometer so I can more objectively measure levels of wrongness?

  20. There has been some commentary that pensioners will be affected by the bedroom tax where one member of the couple is below state pension age, as universal credit rules will then apply in these cases. With the raising of the state pension age for women also coming in over the next few years, many baby boomers will find they are not regarded as pensioners for benefits purposes (not state pension) until their younger partner reaches state pension age. This would appear to be the demographic which is most tempted by ukip. It could mean an alteration of plans for some as they contemplate retirement, which currently many are in the process of doing and such major considerations will surely have an effect on VI. One demographic to observe as welfare reforms kick in.

  21. With any proposed mansion tax, which seems now to be heading towards property portfolios worth over £2m, rather than just individual properties, presumably the tax will be on the net value after mortgage?
    If one has a property portfolio worth £3m but mortgages totaling £2.5m, then ones ‘worth’ is only £500k. The bank owns the rest in reality.
    So the way round the tax is simply to mortgage yourself to the hilt?

  22. AW
    The problem with the question you put above is that the answer is ‘yes’.

    (One of the two).

    But of course online polls can have tick boxes, I grant.

  23. tinged

    “How do I build a wrongometer so I can more objectively measure levels of wrongness?”

    Point taken. But there has been a lot of moral outrage on these pages about nurses that do not show decent levels of compassion towards patients. How do we measure what level is “decent”? It must be well before patients are dying of malnutrition or neglect but not sacking people for being brusque.

    Somethings are wrong and it is not always clear at what point they start being wrong. Somethings are wrong relatively…cuts in benefits for residences with a spare room compared to cuts in taxes for people earning over £150,000. One hits low paid workers, the other benefits the rich (who might be an employer).

    Something rotten in the state of Denmark.

    [Either way Nick, this is not the place to explore it…]

  24. Paul Croft. Has there been a new Eastleigh poll then to justify your ‘feeling’ about the election there?

  25. “How do we measure what level is “decent”?”

    Walk into a ward. If there’s any reason to complain, it’s not ‘decent’.

    I don’t know how to separate ‘decent’ from ‘good’ or ‘exceptional’ in patient care, but I imagine it will be a combination of food quality, time waiting for treatment / attention, and other things that affect the psychological aspect of hospital visits or stays.

    Decent is cleanliness, staff attitudes, the bare minimum to be called a professional establishment.

  26. “Walk into a ward. If there’s any reason to complain, it’s not ‘decent’.”

    You haven’t met some professional complainers that I know.

  27. NickP
    I was only pointing out that “Some things are wrong” = “I disapprove of some things”.

    Exactly the same with “decent” – “This care is decent” = “I approve of this level of care”.

    But I tried to make the point in a humorous way. The ‘-ometer’ gag amused me anyway.

    Saying ‘X is wrong’ doesn’t add anything to explaining any issues with the policy or how the public view the policy, only that it gives you ‘the feels’.

  28. On the bedroom tax.

    To say that it is aimed at people with ‘spare bedrooms’ is misleading.

    You are penalised if you have more bedrooms than what is considered to be the minimum amount of bedrooms you need to live decently.

    i..e a family with two kids in a three bedroomed house are penalised becuase the two kids could – according to the rules – share one bedroom – (unless they are differnt sexes above a certain age).
    So that famliy are faced with either finding the money for the room or being forced to uproot themselves to find accommodation eleshwere, probably in the private sector and – if they live in london – quite possibly many many miles away from where they may have lived all there lives.

    Simarly someone may be living in a two bed roomed house and has his child – or children – to stay with them several nights a week. (This is my situation as I have joint custody of my daughter). They are penalised as the rules do not recognize this arrangement as being a family – even though many people were given two bed flats precisely for this reason (my situation again).

    These rooms are not ‘spare’ – they are being used and are need – and they quite often tiny box rooms.
    But because the individual room cant be taken away, many thousands of the poorest people in the country are being forced out of there homes or having to find money they haven’t got to pay the extra rent.

    The other effect of this policy will be that many people will stay put – as they have no real choice – and run up rent arrears. Organsied non-payment and mutual support organsiastions are springing up all over the country similar to what happened with the poll tax.
    This will mean that housing providers will have to spend huge amounts of money chasing arrears and conducting time consuming evictions and legal battles against thousands of tennants. Many housing associations could go bust and it make a huge dent in social housing budges – having a hugely negative effect on the building new homes and maintaining existing ones.
    In addition the local authority has a statutory duty to house families – so many of the people who are evicted will have to be placed in hugely expensive emergency accommodation.

    [Snip – AW]

    (I know we are not supposed to be partisan [Then don’t – AW]

  29. I suppose, even with unintended bias present in ‘do you agree’ questions, it would still be useful to measure trends with the same question being put over a period, as long as the question was not messed about and stayed literally the same.

    So even if you ask questions about immigration, without qualifying which sort you are asking about, (a common area for misunderstanding), one could see whether xenophobia was on the rise or otherwise.


    When a polling company can’t do the math, it makes you wonder if they are in the right business. is this a rounding thing ? Even if it is, it still gives that impression. I would have thought PR would be important to a polling organisation.

  31. @Reggieside
    Good post. You are in a better position to judge what is fair than some who are asked to reply to a loaded poll question. In many cases the ‘spare room’ is no more than a tiny box room and is used as storage because social homes seldom have much cupboard space.

    On the homeless issue Under the Localism Act councils are no longer forced to provided accomodation for the homeless if they choose not to. This new provision slipped in largely unnoticed.

  32. Doesn’t actually seem as though the housing policy is any different from the previous policy. Where my friend lives several pensioners moved from houses into flats to free up houses for families. There may be more compulsion involved than the previous Labour policy. If you’re a tenant there’s never the same freedom as in your own house. I should imagine Cameron might be rather reluctant to cut Housing Benefit too severely as it props up the housing market and local authority spending. IDS was on BBC today – whether you agree with him or not he is giving some analysis.

  33. Greg
    Simple human error? I do this all the time here when doing very quick sums where there’s the added risk of a typo (although I don’t work for a polling organisation and try to correct my mistakes when I notice them..)

  34. @ozwald

    Local Authorities still have a statutory duty to house families – so they will be paying ten times more in housing benefit to put the families they have just evicted into emergency accommodation.

  35. @Reggie
    There is also the issue that some unemployed people in certain council areas (Labour’s Birmingham council, for example) will have to start paying reduced council tax contributions (around £200/yr in Birmingham) and also that homes that have been unoccupied for a certain period of time will have to pay 150% council tax which is also a massive change (and likely to affect those in care).

    So I’d imagine that those changes are going to hit people already hit by the under occupancy charge.

    Of course, the political fallout will depend on who they blame – if they blame the local council, they will take the political hit (Labour in this case) but if they blame the government, they’ll take the political hit.
    It’d be interesting to see a poll shortly after the changes take place to see who the public do blame.

  36. @ Ozwald

    “On the homeless issue Under the Localism Act councils are no longer forced to provided accomodation for the homeless if they choose not to.”

    Just for information, has that responsibility passed elsewhere or has it ceased to exist altogether?

  37. @Reggieside & Aberdeencynic

    The Localism Act 2011 enables local authorities to end the main homelessness duty by arranging an offer of suitable accommodation in the private rented sector, without requiring the applicant’s agreement.
    The proposed draft Homelessness (Suitability of Accommodation) (England) Order 2012 sets out those circumstances in which accommodation used for the private rented sector offer to end the main homelessness duty is not to be regarded as suitable. It also looks at how best to strengthen requirements in relation to location and suitability, when local authorities secure accommodation for the use of households owed duties under the homelessness legislation.

  38. @Tinted Fringe

    Based on previous ‘blame games’, I’ll opt for the government, as the Labour Councils will shift it, citing funding or ‘nasty party’ policies. Ed Miliband will do likewise. Cue a circle of non-action from gov and non-gov people.

  39. How does the public perceive ministers who when they err, blame someone else, repeatedly.

    Or does public disatisfaction.with.court rulings on Human Rights matters override this

    For the record, I really don’t know what TM is talking about at Article 8 ECHR has always been a qualified right. I don’t know a single judge who has disagreed with.this.

  40. Just a thought, occasionally expressed by me before, but it is rather curious that two serious pollsters, ComRes and YouGov , can conduct opinion polls over virtually an identical period and get such divergent results. The Tory VI (31% v 32%) is very similar but YouGov has Labour 7% higher, Lib Dems 4% higher and UKIP 5% lower. Accordingly we have an 11% Labour lead with YouGov, consistent now over the last four or five polls, but a 5% Labour lead with ComRes. What’s manifestly true is that while both may be wrong, both can’t possibly be right.

    I hear the arguments about sampling error and different methodologies, but we don’t have YouGov opinion, or ICM opinion, or Ipsos/Mori opinion, or Survaton opinion, we have public opinion. Who’s measuring it accurately in the current climate, I wonder?

    Of course, this divergence between pollsters allows for hilarious cherry-picking by partisan observers, of which I’m one by the way. Let’s be honest, we all are in our own endearing ways. Last night’s ComRes poll thread was a classic of the cherry-picking genre with one poster seizing on Labour’s 36% and saying that this was proof that they’d subside to 33% come General Election time. Then it works other ways with ICMers pointing to this bit of micro polling data showing Balls and Milliband are duds, then Ipso/Mori dancers selecting data that suggests Miliband is steering Labour to electoral disaster and Survatoners emphasising data showing Miliband beating Cameron on approval ratings. There’s something for everybody if you look hard enough! A smorgasbord of psephological cherries for the plucking!

    Anthony has already illustrated in the preamble to this very thread how tendentious polling questions can lead to slanted results. It’s all very silly and I guess all we can really do is look at the polls of polls, taken over time, and desist from delving into individual, quite often maverick, polls that might suit our particular political predilections.

    In that sense, UKPR’s rolling poll average, currently showing L 42 Con 31 LD 10, may well be just about where we are. Unless we see other trends occurring over time, then the odd rather strange looking one like yesterday’s ComRes should be more or less ignored.

  41. CB11

    You stated ‘we all are’ (cherry picking partisans). Well, I am not.

    Please ‘include me out’ of that statement. (smiley)

    I’ve just discovered something interesting about the Dutch pollster De Hond (yes, his name really is Mr The Dog) and his online polling. Apart from his very large sample, (2500 voters from a panel of 40,000), he presents them with their past vote when asking their present choice.

    I wonder if Anthony has any thoughts on that procedure?

    His last results are here. Hope the link works. The ‘Saga’ party (50 Plus) are doing well.

  42. Bah, it didn’t. Click on the article
    ‘Kabinet verliest snel steun’ and then click on the table on the article.

  43. Tingedfringe – Crikey, that would be hard to do. As far as I’m aware the vast majority of councils are making some people who previously had all their council tax paid through council tax benefit pay a proportion of council tax, there don’t seem to be many councils who are capable of swallowing up the cost themselves.

    In that sense, it is largely a result of central government. Aside from those councils in a good enough financial position to have a choice of whether to pass on the charge or not, most other councils have no choice.

    Whether people blame the council or the government therefore is really a measure of how well they understand what is going on and what their level of knowledge and awareness is, so you need to ask them without giving any hints in the question. Something like…

    “From this year many local councils are reducing council tax benefit so some people on low incomes who did not previously have to pay council tax will have to pay between 10%-20%* of council tax.

    Who do you think is mostly to blame for this decision?
    Central government
    Local government”

    But that implies in the question that it is the decision of local councils. On the other hand, if you said in the question that local councils were doing it as a result of central government reducing the funding for council tax benefit you would be telling people the correct answer when what you are really trying to measure is the level of misunderstanding of a policy.

    I’m not certain it’s actually possible to do it in a fair way

  44. I hope there no taxes on underused cardboard boxes

  45. Howard

    No polling I know of which is why I referred to a “feeling”.

    Of course there is some analysis there also, based on newsapaper reports and so on and I could be wrong and Maria could romp it.

    However, my “feeling” is that if the next poll shows her in a poor second place then cons could become non-voters or UKIP very quickly and it could therefore get worser and worserer for her.

    As a person she seems very out of step with mainstream UK.


  46. @Greg

    While we’re correcting people, it’s ‘maths’.

  47. Community charge and it’s predecessor poll tax is one of the few UK taxes that is truly regressive.

    If you accept it is a primarily a property tax , of course the 8 million people who rent in the UK and pay it who didn’t have to pay rates would disagree,then it falls at its highest proportionate to value at the lowest band in the area with the lowest property prices and at it’s lowest proportionate to property value in the highest available band on properties with the highest property prices.

    An individual living in a £100 million property in Central London for example pays less in absolute terms than an individual living in a £500,000 property in Hull.

    The bedroom tax which is designed exclusively to tax tenants in social housing is an extension of this.

    The problems IMO the Conservatives currently have is that rightly or wrongly their policies appear to be cushioning the impact of austerity for the very best off while targeting those of more modest means and the genuinely poor.

    If this isn’t addressed by 2015 I feel it is likely to bite them in the **** in the GE

  48. The Financial Transaction Tax as about to come into force on the continent is only halfway to being Robin Hood Tax. The tax certainly comes from some rich people (as does plenty of other taxes, such as the UK banking levy).

    The one bit they’re definitely not doing is giving it to the poor, if the persistent refusal to help Southern Europe beyond the bare minimum is anything to go by.

  49. new thread thingy

  50. CHRISLANE1945
    Good Morning All. Half Term Holidays.
    The Eastleigh tory candidate seems an honest woman, telling the truth about state secondary schools; as she sees them. As far as OFSTED is concerned, the media do not report that up until very recently it is possible to be awarded an ‘Outstanding’ verdict (Grade One) and yet not to be given an ‘Outstanding’ for the criterion of ‘Teaching and Learning’.


    But Ofsted is a massively broken system, six ways from Sunday, in which a perfectly decent school can be labelled “satisfactory”.

    One of the reasons for that is rather topical for this site as it has to do with sampling effects when it comes to SATs. Are you aware of it?

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