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. Crossbatt

    Worry not, there is no harking back to prior days. Merely a confidence that when it comes to the time to put the cross in the box, enough will waver and give the blues a small win overall.
    As someone once said, it’s the economy stupid. It’s the only thing that matters as without it nothing else can run. And Labour has no competence at all on the economy as the polls show. Other than a few sound bites which have been overtaken by events, there is no plan as far as I can see.

    Nighty night.


    Yeah I think I got mixed up there, East Ren has one of the largest Jewish communities in the UK.

    “I am not sure Murphy is at risk but I don’t accept the idea that lots of Tories vote for Murphy”

    I don’t think he is either but I do know he has won part of the Tory vote especially in areas like Busby, Clarkston and Thornliebank.

    The only way I can see an SNP upset is if Barrhead and Neilston overwhelmingly vote SNP and some Tories vote SNP tacitly.

    Anyway if he is elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016 does that not mean a by-election will be called and his personal vote would go with him?

    Or will he keep both jobs and rake it in?

  3. @Spearmint

    Hindsight suggests that had Balls had the balls to stick to his guns, a coherent narrative of austerity policies holding back what proved to be a only weak recovery that passed most people by was quite sustainable. Even now, we’ve only just seen the start of real growth in wages, and that only thanks to a collapsing oil price.

  4. An interesting contribution from Ladbrokes Inc to earlier discussions.

    “Whilst the Greens’ odds in places like Bristol West & Norwich South have shortened a little in recent days, the more significant betting moves have been in seats where a Green Surge have improved the odds of a Tory victory.”


    @ Allan Christie
    “…the Scotland votes website also forecasts a SNP victory in East Ren.”
    I could well be wrong, but the Scotland Votes ‘predictor’ looks as if it is just a straightforward UNS calculation. If so, I wouldn’t set much store by that either.

    Any local knowledge you have is probably much more valuable than models of this kind

    It could be I’m not too sure.


    The Greens will poll well but like UKIP they will be a busted flush come the election. I just love all the fun UKIP and the Greens are giving us at the mo.

  7. @Phil Haines

    Wouldn’t Labour and it’s members be advised to spend less time complaining about how others parties are winning ‘their vote’ and more time positively campaigning to address the concerns of those people as yet clearly not convinced by them?

    Elections are competitive, and you can’t complain just because you are not having it all your own way.

  8. What an amusing poll.

    I’m looking forward to Friday’s GE predictions, as usual.

    Also I would like to thank OldNat for his work on Scottish Crossbreaks, that’s very helpful.

  9. @Crossbat
    I’ll certainly agree that ppl getting excited with the Tory lead 24 hours ago was daft: brings to mind a week Monday, when we had a 6% Tory lead and a 5% Lab lead to ponder. Looks to me like Lab and Con are very close, but since May we have been having occasional polls with tory leads, but more Labour leads. Last night’s always looked to me like it was just part of the noise in that largely static pattern.

    By contrast, what you could say about the Green vote since May is ‘going up’, or about the LD/Green gap ‘going down’, and last night (and tonight) are a continuation of that _trend_, and a little noise around it.

  10. CMJ, Phil Haines,

    Stoppit. Although you’ll be pleased to know that the Hallam posters I’ve been designing this evening are mostly very positive.

  11. @ Phil,

    I agree, but I would say that, wouldn’t I.

    I also think they made their case quite badly. The UK recovery is lagging being France! France! But how many people actually know that? And having made the case badly for three years they then found it difficult to keep making it in a less politically friendly climate.

  12. Mostly positive

    That’s good to hear :-)

  13. Allan Christie

    “The Greens will poll well but like UKIP they will be a busted flush come the election”

    I agree that neither will win many seats under FPTP, but “busted flush” is too harsh.

    For new parties to raise their vote to a level sufficient to win FPTP seats is exceptionally difficult.

    If they can raise their votes to a level that allows them to start making some breakthroughs in 2020, I’d think that they would privately be quite content.

  14. @CMJ

    Neither I nor Ladbrokes are complaining about anything. Just pointing out the electoral consequences of the actions of the party you support, at least in terms of how it’s altered perceptions in the betting markets of the Conservatives’ prospects of winning various seats. I think that is perfectly reasonable in terms of the house rules of this site, and you are of course at liberty to take issue with those perceptions. However, if you wish to enter into a discussion on the merits of policy positions, that’s for elsewhere.

  15. Allan,

    Well your half way there!

    East Renfrewshire might have one of the largest Jewish communities in Scotland, maybe even a third but not even close to one of the biggest in the UK.

    Secondly, you may well find Tories who vote for Labour in Busby, but you’ll find a lot more equally well off Glaswegians in Busby who have always voted Labour.

    More importantly where as since 1997 the Tory vote has stayed largely the same it is the SNP and LibDem votes that have fallen.

    In 2010 Murphy’s vote rose from 44% to 50% but the combined SNP/LibDem vote dropped by more while the Tory vote was static.

    I see three possibilities, the most likely Murphy takes a hit but hangs on, the SNP pull off a sensation against the odds or the Tories sneak through the middle.


  16. @Spearmint

    Badly is understating the ineptitude by some way.

    Lots of bad puns come to mind, but I’ll be a gentleman and refrain.

  17. OLDNAT

    Yes that was a little too harsh and in the case of the Greens I would like to see them do well however UKIP are just too extreme and will probably implode.

    FPTP makes it almost impossible for new parties to make breakthroughs and I do prefer PR but when it comes to the likes of UKIP then to some FPTP will be seen as a safety net.


    Okay I think I might have to call the proverbial Taxi on myself over the Jewish community. I’m sure East Ren has the largest in Scotland by a country mile.

    “I see three possibilities, the most likely Murphy takes a hit but hangs on, the SNP pull off a sensation against the odds or the Tories sneak through the middle”

    I think JM will take a hit but I get the feeling a lot of people round here don’t mind Jim so long as he’s not seen and not heard. His new found fame might be a voter turn off especially in places like Barrhead were the Labour vote is strong and people might boke at his past politics.

  19. #where

  20. Quick question, folks. I’ve been asked to write an article on the 2010 general election and a follow-up on the 2015 one. So I now have to check my lazy assumptions to see if they’re true. The first assumption concerns geographical scoe of polling, namely.

    Are the polls quoted by Anthony in his archives (http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/voting-intention-2 ) for GB only or for the whole of the UK?

    Honest answers, please.

  21. And for KeithP

    Today’s YG Scottish crossbreak

    SNP 41% : Lab 31% : Con 18% : LD 4% : UKIP 2% : Grn 2%

    Mean of last 14 YG Scottish crossbreaks

    SNP 41% : Lab 28% : Con 17% : LD 5% : UKIP 5% : Grn 4%

    Over this month, so far, there seems to be something of a squeeze on UKIP/Greens, a slight downward trend for the SNP, and a consequent slight rise for Lab and a slightly bigger Tory rise (all pretty small, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tories pushing up towards a mean of 18/19%).

    Statgeek will keep me right on that speculation!

  22. Martyn

    All GB. “UK”PR doesn’t do all of the UK (and some contributors would like it so concentrate on even less of the UK!)

  23. As a Green, I’m beginning to ponder whether we need something like the French system, with two rounds of voting.

    While I’m happy to see Green getting some attention and rising support, lets be honest – very few of these new supporters will actually be happy with many Green policies if they stood a real chance of becoming law, and the net effect of voting Green will be to gift the nation another ‘Greenest Government Ever’.

    Likewise UKIP and the Tories. I like the fact that at last, we have a political influence to awaken the established order and challenge some of the political ‘facts of life’, even if this comes from the wrong perspective (from my point of view) and is largely destructive.

    However, getting governments by default isn’t very healthy, and having to choose between who you really want and who you despise least isn’t a great way to inspire engagement.

    Having a first round vote where a bunch of seats are allocated proportionately (say 50 – 100 seats) and then having a second run off between the top two in each seat for a FPTP result would brighten things up, and enable voters to choose whether or not to vote tactically or according to principle, with much less chance of the collateral damage we currently have.

  24. Labour pigged up their response to the Government’s economic plans [snip], because they were too concerned about the media response from outlets that hate them.

    Of course, yet again, the real issue is that the political agenda is set by media figures who have no problem deliberately damaging the economic and social fabric of the country as long as their team wins.

  25. ALEC

    Your post made me smile.

    To read you, of all people, complaining that the “wrong sort of people” might be thinking of voting Green

    That was a multi lol moment .:-)

  26. Allan Christie

    In your seat Yesterday, a spokesman for Mr Murphy responded: “Jim Murphy is the MP for East Renfrewshire and has been selected as Labour’s candidate for this year’s general election.

    Sensible decision by Murphy IMHO, but that announcement seems to have been made very quietly.



    @”Labour pigged up their response to the Government’s economic plans [snip], because they were too concerned about the media response from outlets that hate them.”

    Don’t think so.

    They just got it wrong-from start to finish.

    Thats what comes of thinking tactics always trumps strategy.

    It doesn’t-as so many politicians learn to their cost. The good old Bandwagon does tend to stop rolling.

  28. Colin

    Liked it :)

  29. @Old Nat – yours of 6.39

    Such a high Tory % might well see them win D&G and the Borders – maybe even K&Deeside, thus finishing with 4 seats in Scotland whilst loosing the UK GE as a whole. Strange world!

  30. ALEC

    “While I’m happy to see Green getting some attention and rising support, lets be honest – very few of these new supporters will actually be happy with many Green policies”

    Never mind the new Greens, what about the old existing grumpy ones? You know like their opposition to the Greens constitutional proposals!! ;-)

  31. So, Jimbo is standing again for Westminster, is he? Does that mean he’s not sure of getting into Holyrood? That said, others have simultaneously held seats in both chambers, so it wouldn’t be a new phenomenon. But if at any stage in the future LiS were anywhere near forming a government he would need to spend a huge amount of time and energy working at his ‘second job’.

  32. Colin
    Like it too. Bandwagon is a much better word than the dog whistle phrase.

  33. OLDNAT

    Thanks for the link. Yes it was kept all very quite and he will have to answer the question before 2016 if he will stand down as an MP if he wins election to the Scottish parliament and what seat will he contest in that parliament?

    I can’t see ole Ken Mac standing aside for Murphy especially if the polls are anything like what they are now.

    Also in times of savage cuts to the public purse I don’t think many will take too kindly to him drawing to salaries.

  34. I thought we had polling evidence last week that it is not Economic competence that matters and/or the consistency of approach but the impression the largely Econimically Illiterate Electorate has.

    We could debate ad nauseum the merits of Labours’ evolving Econimic position, and GOs alledged nuanced U Turn (predicted by many at the time of the first coalition budget) but our views matter zilch.

    The key question imo is how much credit will the Government and in particular the Tories get for the improved finances for typical families in the 6 months leading up to the GE?

  35. JOHN B

    If the guy had any decency then he would take a desk job in Labour HQ between the UK and Scottish election instead of having the prospect of drawing two salaries. We are talking about less than a year between the two elections so why the rush to stay as an MP?

    He will be on the list for sure so he know’s he’s going to get into Holyrood.

  36. A good indicator of Labour being worried about Murphy losing East Renfrewshire is the extent to which he has to pull back from the national role to work in his own seat.

    An advantage he and Labour have is double coverage.

    The SNP leader gets coverage in Scotland but very little Nationally. In a Westminster campaign the BBC. Will give Murphy equal coverage to Sturgeon and Miliband more coverage than either.

    Lots of people on the SNP side get angry at that but in a way it’s just a natural consequence of a national election within a national election!


  37. R&D
    “Probly wasn’t even one in a row in reality: still those odd ones do offer some people a bit of excitement and some time with their calculators and predictions.”

    Personally, I think it was like Bale’s goal for Real, going over the touch line at pace to cut back in and score.

  38. Allan Christie

    From Murphy’s point of view, not being an MP or MSP would reduce his media profile hugely, so not standing in East Ren, where he remains likely to win, would be daft.

    Being in both Parliaments by itself isn’t a problem by itself – it’s been quite common, and everyone in that position so far has donated one to charity.

    If LiS were strong enough in 2016 for him to be FM, then causing a Westminster by election should be no problem.

  39. An interesting Channel 4 blog on a similar topic to what Alec said – I was supposed to appear in this but time constraints meant he never spoke to me. He did find time to speak to my old Green flatmate though…


  40. There’s a reselection process which Labour Party incumbents have to go through with their CLP. Jim’s team always told me that he hoped to stand in his current seat for 2015, assuming he was reselected.

    It’s considered important that candidates’ CLPs & constituents are ‘the first to know’ so that’s probably why the local paper had the story before the MSM.

    And it’ll be interesting to see which constituency, if any, he stands for in Holyrood. Most have their candidate selected already so maybe he’ll just be on a regional list.

  41. IMO Labour’s mistake has been to accept the tory austerity argument – thinking they were playing it safe and taking the LOC vote for granted.

    This looks to have blown up in their faces with the SNP and now the greens taking bites out of their vote share from the left.

    The next election looks like ending a right dogs breakfast with whoever forms the govenment have very dubious democratic mandate – seenig as they will have only arond a third of votes cast, whilst the likes of the greens and UKIP – with maybe as much 20% of the vote between them being farcically under-represented. A lab/SNP deal will bring the old west lothian question to the fore big style. Another general election within a year would seem a likely scenario.

    I think the era of two parties dominating and our present election system might be about to be tested to destruction.

  42. If the guy had any decency then he would take a desk job in Labour HQ between the UK and Scottish election instead of having the prospect of drawing two salaries.

    Labour Party members wouldn’t be happy about having a leader who wasn’t a current MP or MSP.

  43. Something that has crossed my mind on the Green polling is what effect adjustments for past vote might have on their polling figures.

    By definition, most voters in the 18-24 bracket have never voted before, and would likely be a large part of the Green support. How would those figures be adjusted in that case, and could it make it more likely to make their figures spiky?

    I would also point out that if a lot of Green votes are coming from the youngest voters, it would undermine the recent argument that the young are a bunch of Thatcherite consumerists.

  44. @Alec

    Something akin to the Italian system would be better still, that is basically a proportional system but awarding a significant number of top up seats to the coalition with the largest share of votes, such that that coalition would then be likely to have a majority of seats. (The Italian system guarantees this majority although such a guarantee isn’t a prerequisite to encourage compromise and anyway the effect of the majority is limited by the two tiers of the Italian system.)

    The key consequences is that coalitions and the policy platforms that go with them are thrashed out before the election. The seat bonus focuses minds. Minor parties know that the winning coalition is very likely to form a government on its own, so if they want to have any influence they negotiate on a reasonable bottom line. Minor parties also know that if they choose to stand outside of a coalition, the “wasted vote” argument comes into play with a vengence – for example, a vote for a stand alone SNP could be validly portrayed as a vote to let a Conservative dominated coalition claim the top up. Larger parties are keen to broaden their coalition in so far as the extra support that parties bring with them isn’t offset by any toxicity or the absolutist nature of their demands, in order to win the top up bonus. So there is pressure on the larger parties to compromise too in negotiations. Extremist parties are marginalised outside of coalition groupings, thanks to their toxicity.

    Above all, the system is democratic in that people voting know exactly what governing coalition they are voting for and on what terms, rather than leaving it to the politicians to decide in smoke filled rooms afterwards. So Nick Clegg would have to decide what side of the fence he was sitting on before we voted. I suspect such a system would force the LDs to split. It would be interesting to see the LDs reaction if Labour ever proposed this version of PR – would they run a mile in favour of retaining FPTP?

  45. @ Colin

    I don’t see Alec’s comments worthy of a lol to be honest.

    We’ve now seen two out of the three main parties move away from their core ideals in the last 20 years in an attempt to get votes that weren’t in tune with their core ideals (although in the case of the Lib Dems you could say it was the leadership that wasn’t in tune rather than their voters- the same could be said for Labour although this was a bit more nuanced).

    If the new members or voters aren’t on board with what is an incredibly society-changing set of policies then it doesn’t do the Green ideal much good in the long term. If middle class people are joining the Green party because it is anti austerity they would be in for a shock because for middle class people it is very much austerity (although not in the conventional sense of the word). The middle classes would certainly “suffer” in terms of the cost of their overseas holidays, spa days, driving to work, the cost of your punnet of strawberries in December, getting the latest gizmo etc. The upside if Green policy went to plan would be full and more satisfying employment, an overall care system second to none and a sustainability both environmentally and also less prone to global financial shocks.

    I have no idea of the make up of those joining or intending to vote for the Green party and it may all be good news for them (I’m sure there are easily 50,000 potential members in the country who broadly agree with their manifesto) but the danger to their core ideals is that if they are attracting supporters who just want a left wing version of the Labour party and then the Green ideal gets diluted such that their supporters get cross when the cost of their petrol goes up and aren’t prepared for the inconvenience of using public transport however much improved it is.

    (Apologies in advance for simplifying a lot of the Green issues- I know it is more complex than the examples I gave).

  46. Amber

    I’m surprised you give such comments the courtesy of a reply. As Ole Nat say, having two jobs is not that unusual in politics and we all know it.

    To deliberately leave yourself with none – even briefly – would seem a pretty stupid alternative, especially for a politician.

  47. @Jim Jam

    ‘I thought we had polling evidence last week that it is not Economic competence that matters and/or the consistency of approach but the impression the largely Econimically Illiterate Electorate has.’

    I agree, and if Ed Balls’ Bloomberg speech 2010 is anything to go by, it is exactly addressing that impression which is his priority. I just happen to think that he has ‘called it’ incorrectly and misjudged the public mood.

    Ed Balls specifically identifies in the speech that Keynes was ignored for 20y, even though JMK was correct in his analysis. EB emphasises that there is no point in being right if you fail to be elected… and I think that explains the ‘inconsistency’ of his narrative. IMO as the economy showed some signs of ‘recovery, Mandelson et al persuaded him that the public were not ready to accept such a divergence from the Coalition’s TINA argument, and EB ‘swerved’.

  48. SHEVII

    I can see that you too are a devotee of Neil Lawson:-

    The “right class” for “us”.

    I find that sort of divisive class based politics repulsive.

    Look-I strongly suggest to Alec, and indeed any others of his “Lawsonian” persuasion-make your mind up-do you want a successful & growing Green Party-or do you want a Labour Government.

    Complaining that the “middle classes” are voting green in too big a number -and that Labour will be compromised is pick & mix politics.

    We have a FRTP system.:-Political Parties seek voters-voters decide-governments are formed.

    If you don’t like the voters who are now voting for “your” party -that is just togh luck mate.

    Its called Democracy.

  49. @colin

    I dont think those voting green are too bothered about some of the less realistic aspects of their manifesto as they recognise that they are very unlikely to come to pass (they would essentially mean the overthrow of entire economic system) – as even if they formed a government as some point in the future they would be up agasint hugely powerful vested interests – Look at how greeces syriza has modified its stance as it has got nearer govenment.

    Leftwing people voting green are doing so because they are the only major anti-austerity party. Personally I would like to be able to vote for red/green coalition (similar to syriza or podemos in spain) and I suspect so would as many as 20% of the eletorate.
    The hope is that arguments for things like renationalisation, a decent welfare state and a big investment in social housing and renewable energy would be included in mainstream political debate – in the same way that UKIP have forced immigration onto the agenda.

  50. @ Shevii

    “”They are attracting supporters who just want a left wing version of the Labour Party”

    Well, about 8 years ago I knew a local Green Party organisation pretty well. The leadership was made up of ex-CP members. So, at least in the case of that organisation, this has been around.

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