I hope most of my regular readers would assume a Daily Express headline about a “poll” showing 80% of people want to leave the EU was nonsense anyway, but it’s a new year, a new election campaign, and it’s probably worth writing again about why these things are worthless and misleading as measures of public opinion. If nothing else, it will give people an explanation to point rather overexcited people on Twitter towards.

The Express headline is “80% want to quit the EU, Biggest poll in 40 years boosts Daily Express crusade”. This doesn’t actually refer to a sampled and weighted opinion poll, but to a campaign run by two Tory MPs (Peter Bone and Philip Hollobone) and a Tory candidate (Thomas Pursglove) consisting of them delivering their own ballot papers to houses in their constituencies. They apparently got about 14,000 responses, which is impressive as a campaigning exercise, but doesn’t suddenly make it a meaningful measure of public opinion.

Polls are meaningful only to the extent that they are representative of the wider public – if they contain the correct proportions of people of different ages, of men and women, of different social classes and incomes and from different parts of the country as the population as a whole then we hope they should also hold the same views of the population as a whole. Just getting a lot of people to take part does not in any way guarantee that the balance of people who end up taking the poll will be representative.

I expect lots of people who aren’t familiar with how polling works will see a claim like this, see that 14,000 took part, and think it must therefore be meaningful (in the same way, a naive criticism of polls is often that they only interview 1000 people). The best example of why this doesn’t work was the polling for the 1936 Presidential election in the USA, which heralded modern polling and tested big sample sizes to destruction. Back then the most well known poll was that done by a magazine, the Literary Digest. The Literary Digest too sent out ballot papers to as many people as it could – it sent them to its subscribers, to other subscription lists, to everyone in the phone directory, to everyone with a car, etc, etc. In 1936 it sent out 10 million ballot papers and received two point four million responses. Based on these replies, they confidently predicted that the Republican candidate Alf Landon would win the election. Meanwhile the then little known George Gallup interviewed just a few thousand people, but using proper demographic quotas to get a sample that was representative of the American public. Gallup’s data predicted a landslide win for the Democrat candidate Franklin D Roosevelt. Gallup was of course right, the Literary Digest embarrassingly wrong. The reason was that the Literary Digest’s huge sample of 2.4 million was drawn from the sort of people who had telephones, cars and magazine subscriptions and, in depression era America, these people voted Republican.

Coming back to the Express’s “poll”, a campaign about leaving Europe run by three Tory election candidates in the East Midlands is likely to largely be responded to by Conservative sympathisers with strong views about Europe, hence the result. Luckily we have lots of properly conducted polls that are sampled and weighted to be representative of whole British public and they consistently show a different picture. There are some differences between different companies – YouGov ask it a couple of time a month and find support for leaving the EU varying between 37% and 44%, Survation asked a couple of months ago and found support for leaving at 47%, Opinium have shown it as high as 48%. For those still entranced by large sample sizes, Lord Ashcroft did a poll of 20,000 people on the subject of Europe last year (strangely larger than the Express’s “largest poll for 40 years”!) and found people splitting down the middle 41% stay – 41% leave.

And that’s about where we are – there’s some difference between different pollsters, but the broad picture is that the British public are NOT overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU, they are pretty evenly divided over whether to stay in the European Union or not.


220 Responses to “No, polling doesn’t show 80% of people want to leave the EU”

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  1. REGGIESIDE

    I don’t really care what they are voting for.

    I have looked at the Green Manifesto [&] won’t be voting Green.

    Other people will-for all sorts of reasons. Some to do with policy-some no doubt to do with protest.

    Thats the way it works-particularly at present-there’s a lot of protest about.

    It will have effects. Political parties will examine them after the vote & react accordingly.

    Trying to finesse these protest votes in mid campaign is futile.

    Parties should say what they stand for & await the people’s verdict.

  2. At the original post in this thread, there’s a funny point I was taught in my polling class: Not only did Gallup predict the election (albeit his method was still slightly buggy because of how his quota system worked), he also predicted the Literary Digest poll’s result fairly well by taking a sample of it!

  3. Pat Kane highlights how Scots 18-24s seem to be more left-wing than their elders (nothing new there really) in the most recent Ipsos poll:

    https://twitter.com/thoughtland/status/558170480595980288

    Con on 1% and Lib Dem not on the 18-24 radar at all. That doesn’t sound very good for the coalition (in Scotland), if the sample is reliable (it seems to be).

  4. However the 18-24 sub sample is very small (sub-50), so treat accordingly.

  5. @ Colin

    I think you have misread my comments. I wasn’t complaining about anything just setting out my opinion of what the “sacrifices” and “benefits” would be of the Green agenda and whether that matches with the people voting for them and the risk to the party if they don’t match.

    If you believe in the Green agenda and that is your reason for being in the Green party then having people who are not on board with the Green agenda risks losing your fundamental reason for being in a political party because little by little you end up with a different set of policies and maybe even a totally different leadership to your beliefs.

    That happened to me with the Blair Labour Party and about 10 years of putting in work not quite on a par with Mr Nameless but not far off was, from my point of view, wasted (I’m not making a partisan point here about whether Blair was good or bad- just saying that for me personally the work I did for the Labour Party ended up for me as having been largely a waste of time because it did not match with my beliefs). I’m sure a lot of Lib Dems feel the same way.

    As far as the class thing goes- it really wasn’t a class war comment. I am middle class and take my middle class overseas holidays- I just used the term because I feel they are probably the ones most likely to have to make big lifestyle changes (for better or worse) to accommodate the 2010 Green manifesto. I didn’t use “Working class” because, assuming the Green agenda worked to plan (big assumption!) they were likely to benefit or the obvious gains would outweigh the losses.

  6. In honour of today being East Renfrewshire Polling Report I’ll admit that I live within a mile of Allan Christie and also have J Murphy esq as my MP.

    I am not surprised that Jim is running again as MP in 2015, the alternatives of triggering a by-election looked risky and difficult. The double jobbing problem only arises should he actually be elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016 and as others have said it has been done before with a charitable donation of one salary being the usual method.

    That said I don’t think locally it would be tenable for him to propose to double job for the full 2016 – 2020 period so if he were elected to the Scottish Parliament next year I’d anticipate him promising to stand down as an MP, triggering a by-election at Westminster.

    The remaining question is therefore will he resign as an MP in advance, thus triggering a by-election for say May 2016 allowing him to do a direct job swap with Ken MacIntosh for example?

    Or would he wait until after the 2016 Scottish Parliament election and resign later? In this situation there is also the possibility that should Labour fail to win the 2016 election he could potentially return to Westminster and resign as an MSP instead (particularly easy to do this if he were only running on the regional list as no by-election would be required).

    An alternative would be for Jim to run only as a constituency MSP in a difficult to win constituency so he’d only actually be elected to the Scottish parliament if Labour were doing so well he’d likely end up as First Minister (similar to what Alex Salmond did in 2007).

    A particularly entertaining variation on this tactic would be for him to run in Glasgow Southside allowing a direct Murphy vs Sturgeon battle to be both constituency MSP and First Minister. Very high risk but also potentially high reward?

    Will be fascinating to watch for future announcements from both Jim and Ken on this issue.

  7. SHEVII

    I don’t know what more to say-except perhaps this-we are using different prisms.

    I realise that I am in a minority group here-not actively involved in politics in the cause of a particular party. I realise that those who are spend their time trying to finesse messages , influence VI, and worrying about their own version of the True Belief in their own party.

    But for the vast majority of voters, I really believe that this stuff is both unknown & irrelevant. They make their minds up for all sorts of reasons don’t they ? Some as remote from Policy, Messaging, & Party “core beliefs” as-Like him-Don’t like him.

    So I fear that just because you believe that Blair’s Labour Party subverted 10 years of your own work-or that the Greens are attracting voters who can’t really be Green, is your problem.

    Party activists & politicians get wound up about this stuff-but the average punter just votes -for a whole range of reasons that you cannot control or dictate.

  8. As a resident of Corby I did not return this ballot because all parties are trying to find their potential support. Before the last general election I wrote to the Tory candidate, Miss Bagshaw, about the money that could be saved using Linux/open software by Government, after that the Tories stopped leafleting our house!

    PS I would have voted to stay in!

  9. Colin

    I agree with you as to how many (most?) make up their minds on issues like voting.

    Apparently, the researchers (who always like fancy names for the obvious) call it “non-sequential information-processing mode”, while the rest of us call it intuitive thinking.

  10. The East Renfrewshire Jewish question was also raised earlier.

    To clear it up the absolute numbers are relatively small with the 2011 census showing 2,400 people identifying as Jewish living in East Renfrewshire. This is around 2.7% of the local population.

    However compared to the total Scottish percentage (0.11% Jewish population) and the next highest Scottish local authority (Edinburgh with 0.18% Jewish population) the Jewish population of East Renfrewshire is a significant demographic locally.

    East Renfrewshire Jews also make up around 40% of the total Scottish Jewish population and many of the 1,000 Jews in Glasgow also live within the neighbouring areas of Glasgow to East Renfrewshire and worship at the Synagogue in Newton Mearns.

    Newton Mearns itself is even more significantly Jewish with a Jewish population of around 1,400 from a population of 22,000 giving a Jewish population of around 16% in the town.

    I think the question of how this affects politics extends wider than just the actual Jewish population though. Elsewhere in Scotland you are unlikely ever to meet more than the occasional Jew.

    If however you live in the Mearns then you will have Jewish friends and neighbours, when Hamas shell Israel you worry about your children’s schoolfriends who are on holiday in Israel etc etc. Jim Murphy has been careful to court the Jewish population locally and it probably does influence the local community beyond the core Jewish population in a way that doesn’t apply elsewhere in Scotland.

    Indeed elsewhere in Scotland and south Glasgow in particular being seen as historically pro – Israel may well be a disadvantage to Jim Murphy and indeed Scottish Labour with him as leader.

    Overall I suspect Jewish / Israeli issues will be marginal in future Scottish elections but they are certainly important issues locally in East Renfrewshire and Newton Mearns in particular.

  11. OLDNAT

    I think “intuition” is something the policy wonks never even consider. And I’m sure it features strongly in final VI.

    I’m not pretending that I am a truly uncommitted voter. I have a deeply held political preference. But when the party who espoused those beliefs just didn’t feel right anymore , I voted for a different one. The Conservative Party at that time was crushed for a generation.

    It was their own fault.

    So when I hear Labour supporters, who for years have fostered ABT & left leaning Green & LibDem Parties but with no effectiveness in Parliament ; start complaining that these parties have/are compromising Labour-my reaction is not sympathetic.

    Perhaps Labour activists would be better employed in finding out why Lab voters, and the LD 2010 defectors are suddenly turning to Greens.

  12. @ Colin

    I don’t disagree with your last post especially about the motivations for people voting in a certain way.

    I was just highlighting from a former activist’s point of view why someone might be concerned- which I think you understood even I if you weren’t sympathetic to my problems :-)

  13. I’m old enough to recall the Daily Express crusade to keep us out of the Common Market. After the Heath government bill was carried in the second reading the Express expressed itself onside with the Conservative Party leadership and closed down its campaign.

    Still it’s fun to see it back to the noble traditions of its founder Lord Beaverbrook – right down to being economical with the facts for the sake of the paper’s established editorial line.

  14. A quick analysis of Yougov’s unweighted samples, comparing 2014 to 2015. Pay special attention to London & Scotland.

    http://www.statgeek.co.uk/2014/09/here/

    It might be me, but I don’t quite see the worth of making a small sample smaller. Cost perhaps?

  15. In further East Renfrewshire PR News, STV has a different quote (from a different spokesperson?)

    A spokesman for Mr Murphy said: “Jim Murphy is currently the MP for East Renfrewshire and the candidate.

    “If that changes his constituents will be the first to be told.”

  16. New thread

  17. SHEVII

    Thanks-sure thing :-)

  18. FTPT

    Not wanting to drag up the previous thread but thanks to NORTHUMBRIANSCOT for his info on East Ren. Quite interesting.

    OLDNAT

    Also read your posts on East Ren. Interesting.

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