I thought it a good opportunity to provide a round up of the available evidence we have about what the public think of airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria… and to give a reminder to people of what is NOT good evidence. First, here’s the recent polling evidence:

  • Survation/Mirror polled after Cameron’s statement this week, and found 48% agreed with Britain beginning airstrikes against Islamic State alongside France and the US, 30% of people disagreed (tabs here)
  • YouGov earlier this week asked if people would approve or disapprove of the RAF taking part in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. 59% would approve, 20% would disapprove (tabs here).
  • ComRes for the Indy on Sunday asked a question on whether people would support Britain taking part in airstrikes against ISIS without UN approval (there wasn’t a parallel version with UN approval). 46% would support airstrikes without UN approval, 32% would not. Tabs are here. A slightly earlier ComRes poll for the Daily Mail asked if people would back British military air strikes against Syria – 60% would, 24% would oppose (tabs here)
  • BMG for the Standard asked a question on whether Britain should extend it’s current airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq to cover Syria as well. This found an even split – 50% thought they should, 50% thought they should not (tabs here)
  • I don’t think ICM have asked a direct support/oppose bombing question, but last week they asked a question about Parliamentary consent. It found 46% supported airstrikes if Parliament agreed, 23% supported airstrikes without Parliamentary consent, 12% opposed airstrikes regardless, 19% didn’t know (tabs here)

The precise levels of support differ from poll to poll as they are all asking slightly different questions using slightly different wordings. However the overall picture is pretty clearly one where the balance of public support is in favour of airstrikes – even the most sceptical finding, from BMG, has people evenly divided. That’s not to say British public opinion is gung-ho enthusiasm for conflict, if you look through the rest of those surveys there is plenty of doubt (for example, several polls have found that people think intervening will increase the risk of terrorism here in Britain). On balance, however, public opinion seems to be in favour.

On twitter and other social media there is lots of sharing of a “poll” by ITV that apparently shows a large majority against Britain taking part. The reason this “poll” gives such sharply different answers is because it is not representative and has no controls upon it. I have written about this many, many times (and for many decades before I was writing the great Bob Worcester dutifully fought that same long fight). The sort of open access polls that used to be on Ceefax, and for people to phone in to newspapers, and these days pop up at the bottom of newspaper stories and the sidebar of websites are completely useless as a way of accurately measuring public opinion.

Opinion polls are meaningful for one reason and one reason alone, because the sample is representative. It has the right number of young people and old people as Britain as a whole, the same number of rich people and poor people as Britain as a whole, the same numbers of left-wing and right-wing people… and therefore, it should have the same proportion of people who are anti-bombing and pro-bombing as there are in Britain as a whole. An open-access poll on a website has no such controls.

When a poll is properly done the researcher will use some sort of sampling method that produces a sample that is demographically representative of the country as a whole. Then when it’s finished, they’ll fine tune it using weighting to make sure it is representative (e.g. if the proportion of women in the sample is lower than 51% they’ll weight the female respondents up). The people answering the poll will be invited and contacted by the researcher, preventing people or organised campaigns skewing a poll by deliberately directing lots of people who share their views to fill it in.

Numbers alone do not make a poll representative. A common error is to see a professionally conducted poll of a 1000 people and a bigger open-access “poll” of 10,000 people and think that the latter is therefore more meaningful. This is wrong – it’s how representative the sample is that matters, not how big it is. The classic example of this is the 1936 US Presidential race, the one that made the reputation of George Gallup. Back then the Literary Digest conducted a mail-in poll with a sample size of 2.3 million people, Gallup conducted a normal sized professional poll. The Digest’s poll predicted that Alf Landon would easily win the election, Gallup correctly predicted that Roosevelt would win a crushing landslide. The problem was that while the Literary Digest’s poll had a vast sample (probably the biggest sample of any opinion poll, ever) it wasn’t representative, it was skewed towards richer people who were more likely to vote Republican. Gallup’s sample was tiny compared to his competitor, but it had proper controls and was properly representative.

Unlike the polls by ComRes, ICM, Survation and YouGov the ITV “poll” won’t have controls to make sure the sample is representative of the British public – indeed, they don’t even collect any demographics to see whether it is or not. There is nothing stopping organised campaigns seeking to influence an open poll – for example, StoptheWar could’ve sent an email out to their mailing list encouraging them all to fill it in. There is nothing stopping anyone with the wherewithal to delete a cookie from their computer voting many, many times. It is, in short, meaningless.

Following May the properly conducted polls got something wrong too of course – but that’s a reason to be wary of even properly conducted polls, not a reason to suddenly put trust in “polls” that don’t even attempt to do things properly.

“Polls” like this, which Bob Worcester christened “Voodoo polls”, are a blight on journalism and opinion research. Because to the casual observer they can’t be easily distinguished from a properly conducted poll they mislead readers into thinking they are meaningful. I assume newspaper websites use them because they drive traffic, but serving up “news” that any journalist with a basic grasp of stats should know is meaningless – or in this case, actively wrong – is doing a disservice to their readers and listeners. At least when the BBC do things like this caveats are normally added saying the “poll” was self-selecting and isn’t representative. ITV don’t caveat it at all, so who can blame all the excited anti-airstrikes people on social media for thinking it means something and jumping upon it? I’m sorry, but it doesn’t – properly conducted polling suggests the public split broadly in favour.

Of course, none of this means that it is necessarily correct for Britain to take part in airstrikes. Polls are not a magic 8 ball where you ask the public and they spit out the “correct” answer. Public opinion can be wrong, and often is. The evidence is that public opinion favours bombing ISIS in Syria, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the government or opposition should do so.

340 Responses to “Syria polling round up and a reminder about voodoo polls”

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  1. OLD NAT.
    Wow, and thanks

    I am trying to teach about Select Committees and their role in Scrutiny of the Executive tomorrow.

  2. chrislane1945

    Channel 4 says vote was 4:3.

  3. “no-one from the “New Labour” wing of the party has so far attempted to work out why Corbyn won and how to respond, The only response so far seems to be to blame the Labour Party members etc for voting the wrong way.”

    It’s pretty simple

    1) PLP lean Blairite
    2) members lean Corbynite
    3) lab voters are a bit of both but critically a large chunk have a different view on immigration to either

    given they’re both going to ignore the immigration issue it’s an argument about which group is best able to appeal to the rest of the Lab core vote and floaters

    which boils down to an argument about how you see the economy from the point of view of the bottom half of the population

    – if you think things are okay and liable to stay that way or get better then the Blairites are a better bet (this is why the Blairites are there in the first place as a legacy of the ten years of easy credit that burst in 2008)

    – if you think things are bad and liable to get a lot worse then the Corbynites are a better bet (leaving aside problems with the current personnel)

    Personally i think it’s clearly the second option (excluding current personnel issues) but probably (imo) not enough to outweigh the immigration issue unless the Tories screw up massively.

  4. “I am trying to teach about Select Committees and their role in Scrutiny of the Executive tomorrow.”


    God, some peeps get all the best gigs…

  5. dittoing above but it’s looking like the end result will be

    Russia/Assad/Kurds vs Isis/US/France/Britain/Turkey

    oops i mean

    Russia/Assad/Kurds vs Isis vs US/France/Britain/Turkey

    with the chance of a very big bang when they meet in the middle.

    still, small price to pay for the right of the US to regime change anyone they feel like.

  6. Chris Lane

    The Formal Minutes of the Select Committee are available online in pdf format (so I can’t give the link on this machine)., but here’s the text.

    Tuesday 1 December 2015 MORNING MEETING Members present: Crispin Blunt, in the Chair
    Mr John Baron Yasmin Qureshi
    Stephen Gethins Daniel Kawczynski
    Andrew Rosindell Nadhim Zahawi
    1. UK policy on Syria The Committee discussed this matter.
    [Adjourned till this day at 2.30 pm.
    AFTERNOON MEETING Members present: Crispin Blunt, in the Chair
    Mr John Baron Stephen Gethins Mr Mark Hendrick Adam Holloway Daniel Kawczynski Yasmin Qureshi Andrew Rosindell Nadhim Zahawi
    1. UK policy on Syria Motion made and Question put, That the Prime Minister has not adequately addressed concerns contained in the Committee’s Second Report of Session 2015-16, in his response provided on 26 November.—(Mr John Baron).
    The Committee divided.
    Ayes, 4 Mr John Baron Stephen Gethins Yasmin Qureshi Andrew Rosindell

    Noes, 3 Adam Holloway Nadhim Zahawi Daniel Kawczynski

    Resolved, That the Prime Minister has not adequately addressed concerns contained in the Committee’s Second Report of Session 2015-16, in his response provided on 26 November.

  7. What were their concerns?

  8. @ mr jones

    Since you bring up the subject of immigration.

    theres an interesting story in the Guardian today that analysis of figures from the OBR show that Osbornes budget surplus in 2020 is based on the assumption of even further rises in net immigration, without which the surplus drops to zero.

    clearly it’s not just a problem for the Labour party.

  9. kentdalian

    True, it’s been clear for years now the Cameroons believe immigration will solve all the economic problems rather than make them worse.

    We shall find out.

  10. Seems that the PM has …… [OK, Anthony. I have self censored by urging his MPs not to “walk through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers” according to Laura Kuenssberg.

    That doesn’t sound very much like the stance of a PM confident of the support of Parliament and the country, and drawing the nations together in a common cause.

    I’d love to know what Chris Lane’s students thought.

  11. Cameron now reduced to calling Corbyn a “terrorist sympathiser”, and urging Conservative rebels not to go through the lobby with him.

    It’s starting to sound like he’s not so confidant of of sucess tomorrow after all.

  12. Kentdalian

    According to John Nicholson MP “More than 100 MPs from the SNP, Plaid, Labour, Conservatives, Greens & SDLP have now signed an anti bombing amendment for tomorrow’s debate.”

    (Not that the amendment is a total rejection of the Government motion. The first 3 words – up to “House” are acceptable to those opposed).

  13. Actually it’s worse:

    “You should not be walking through the lobbies with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers,” Cameron reportedly told the committee, which is made up of all the party’s backbenchers.

    David Cameron has called moderate members of the PLP (e.g. Keir Starmer) “terrorist sympathisers”. I don’t think I’d have done that, were I the PM.

  14. And the entire SNP are included as “terrorist sympathisers” too. I bet that’ll be going down well with the Tartan Tweeters!

  15. BTW, Tartan Tweeters is an affectionate term, as opposed to Cybernats, which is not.

  16. Amber

    We’ve seen worse – and noted the effect that such comments have on VI too. :-)

  17. I can’t help feeling the PM has just shot himself in the foot with this.

    In effect he’s just raised the stakes for those Labour MPs intending to vote with him, who regardless of their intentions, could now be interpreted as endorsing this view of the rest of the party.

  18. Amber

    No offensive implication was assumed – unless you meant the Buchanan tartan. :-)

  19. America has announced the deployment of an expeditionary force in Iraq which will operate independently of Iraqi and other local forces. Boots on the ground? I wonder how that will play in the debate tomorrow.

  20. @PeteB

    “I’ve noticed that actors always have a uniquely nuanced and deep understanding of international affairs.”

    Well, Ronald Reagan was an actor and he won the Cold War by all accounts.

    Mainly his own account, it must be said.


    As for the decision to extend our bombing of Isis into Syria, I’m [snip – AW]

  21. @ Hireton

    Some of the Kurdish groups have been politely requesting [more] UK boots on the ground in Iraq for some time. There are already UK training forces working with the Kurds there.

  22. Of the 9 Select Committee members attending, 6 were Conservatives…

    Cameron is pulling out all the emotional stops. We must support our mates….who cares about Syria, it’s all too complicated.

  23. @ Old Nat

    I think he decided he couldn’t get away with calling Jeremy Corbyn a “terrorist sympathiser” but couldn’t resist alluding to it & thereby casting the aspersion onto a much wider group. He really doesn’t seem to have thought it through. A bit like the 70,000 thing, now I come to think about it.

  24. @amber star

    Yes I know. And this is explicitly going beyond supporting local forces so the question arises how long before the UK commitment will be expected to extend beyond current training support and presumably some special forces.

  25. “David Cameron has called moderate members of the PLP (e.g. Keir Starmer) “terrorist sympathisers”

    They better switch off their mobiles so the drones can’t get a signal.

  26. Amber

    Agreed. I doubt that Cameron actually thought about the reaction his comments would bring about, outside the little closed circle of Tory MPs.

    Did he actually mean that everyone voting against his Government’s motion was a “terrorist sympathiser”? I doubt it.

    However, his […] comment does suggest that he may have had a more successful career as a boxing promoter than a politician.

  27. If Cameron can’t convince Andrew Rosindell – a man prone to wrap himself in the flag (usually literally) at the the slightest opportunity, then he’s got real problems with his backbenchers. I suspect Cameron’s latest denunciation will also embarrass the Lib Dems who have announced support and may now be regretting it.

  28. @ Crossbat

    “As for the decision to extend our bombing of Isis into Syria, I’m [snip – AW]”


    You shoulda realised that’d get modded, ‘cos you’re not supposed to mention who gets bombed, that gives too much info.

    Mentioning that there was a bombing is ok, and that it is in Syria, it’s ok to give that info, too. You can even say if it’s the RAF. But the minute you mention WHO is the target, this suddenly makes the poll unrepresentative or summat.

    No one knows why.

    P.s. It’s ok to clarify other things tho’…

  29. Bit of good news. Mark Zuckerberg is giving away his fortune.

  30. I wonder about Cameron’s intervention. If HB (and some others) votes with the government is quasi equivalent of resignation not from the s. cabinet, but from the seat.

    I really would like to understand DC’s motives (beyond the obvious, which didn’t call for this). Is there a change in the polls? Is it really possible that he would have only a narrow majority and hence expose himself politically?

  31. If he gave it to the polling companies, they could do properly representative polls!!!

  32. Carfrew – not a bad idea. One might well think an accurate measure of public opinion is a public good, that shouldn’t be at the whim of the media and polling companies wanting to get profile.

    The polling done by the Pew Research Centre in the US is funded by the trusts set up by the children of Joseph Pew, the founder of the Sunoco oil company for the purposes of “informing the public, and stimulating civic life”. No such British equivalent.

  33. Unless you count Lord Ashcroft. And he seems to have got bored of it – assuming, one hopes, that he’s making a good recovery from his illness.

  34. Apparently there is a YouGov poll about to be realised showing that support for bombing has sharply decreased. This would be the trend picked up by Survation.

    Now people are hearing the arguments support is draining away.

    On Cameron’s comments I reckon he is furious that the foreign affairs committee hasn’t backed him. So just lashed out.

  35. Very interesting YouGov figures support for airstrikes 48%(-11)
    Labour voters have completely swapped round going from supporting 52-26 to opposing 42-35

    The problem of using polls to dictate policy.

  36. Sam Coates Times tweet
    ?Tonight The Times / YouGov publish a new poll revealing that support for bombing Syria has dropped sharply in a week”

    Does this explain Cameron’s %^&^%(&^(&^ comment? (saved you the bother of modding it, Anthony)

  37. Or just Labour loyalists lining up with their party?

  38. @Couper / Neil A

    It seemed obvious to me that there would be a spike in support for intervention against ISIS in Syria after the Paris attacks. The further time passes the greater opposition is likely to grow. This is why DC has been pushing for a vote at the earliest possible juncture.

  39. @ Neil A

    Or just Labour loyalists lining up with their party?

    Isn’t that the point of political polling – to see whether Party policy & public opinion are aligning?

  40. New thread.

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