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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    Identifying and getting rid of the wrong sort of activist can be the devil’s own job. My own local party once accepted a new member who was very bad news. He volunteered for everything but was very aggressive on the doorstep (and with fellow members when they tried to calm him down). We rescinded his membership but he complained to central office who were initially inclined to support him. They thought we were being petty and overreacting. It then turned out that he had been complained about before but moved association before that was properly looked into. We did get him expelled from the party eventually but it took intervention at a quite senior level.

    The problem in our case was that quite junior central office staff handled the case initially and didn’t want to bother more senior people with it. They tried to decide on the case based on their own, almost negligible, experience of life and smooth it over. I’m sure this happens in all parties.

  2. Old Nat

    I did not appreciate it was St. Andrew’s Day. I thought Google were celebrating Scotland’s Davis Cup victory!

  3. @RMJ1

    Bullying and harassment takes place in most workplaces and within many organisations and I understand the point you’re essentially making. However what puts the current case involving Mark Clarke, the Tory activist, apart is that someone has died, allegedly as a direct result of what was allowed to go on involving this individual. This puts it in a very different category and I can well understand why the father of the person who ended up taking his own life wants an independent inquiry and some answers.

    This might be a classic case of the dangers of turning a blind eye to bullying and harassment. Most of the time it occurs at a low level and out of sight, with most victims either putting up with it or leaving. The consequences in this case were appalling and tragic and I’m assuming this is why Schapps decided to fall on his sword.

    The questions the Tory Party will have to answer is how much was known of Clarke’s behaviour and how much was tolerated in return for the benefits he was delivering in terms of electoral campaigning results. A Faustian pact that may well have gone horribly wrong.

  4. @Cherish

    “The Mail on Sunday had screaming headlines about the case & Monday’s front page of the Mail will surely disturb the PM & the Conservative party too.”

    Anthony snipped a response that I made to Neil A on this very point. Neil suggested the scandal was a storm in a teacup whipped up by the BBC and the non-Tory press. I suggested to him that he might be mistaken on that.

  5. One silver lining to all this is that the Steve Bell If… cartoons are on one of their best-ever runs.

  6. @Hawthorn

    “One silver lining to all this is that the Steve Bell If… cartoons are on one of their best-ever runs.”

    What, even better than that series in the 80s when he had that stowaway penguin from the Falklands on a mission to assassinate Thatcher?

    John McDonnell’s inspiration, possibly?


  7. Crossbat11

    I was only a toddler during the Falklands War, but I do remember the two-headed sheep (and the two-headed Thomas the Tank Engine stuck in my memory as a child too).

  8. @Hawthorn

    You’re right about the passage of time and I quite often need to be reminded about how long ago some these events were.

    Bell’s cartoons, both the strip and the set piece varieties, are a constant source of delight and amusement. Consolation too when the Left is in the political wilderness. During the long Thatcher and Major years, Bell could always be found in the Guardian throwing punches and keeping the old flame flickering.

    He might need to provide that service again as the wilderness beckons once more for the British Left.

  9. With a claim that 75% of the membership opposes military force against ISIS, Corbyn looks set to impose the whip on his MPs.

    The Times Leader today supports him , if he does-because that is his “mandate”-and he has to exercise Leadership with it.

    What his MPs do in response is a different subject-presumably we will find out when today is done.

  10. @ Colin

    It is not a very enviable place for Corbyn indeed.

    It is quite interesting how they did it (the sampling). I wonder how reliable the sampling is (although they obviously don’t want to expose themselves to an amateurish mistake, so, probably, OK).

  11. Typical incompetence of many of Corbyn’s enemies to try to knife him over one decision where he is probably correct.

  12. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/datablog/2015/nov/30/labour-losing-touch-public-opinion-research-suggests

    Someone at the Guardian has been playing with Tableau to produce a very interesting infographic.

    Unsurprisingly, it shows Labour losing backing since the election, but what the commentary doesn’t mention is the Conservatives losing a large chunk of support as well.

  13. The claim of 75% Labour members agreeing with Corbyn on Syria is utter nonsense.

    Anybody could respond to his email & there is no place on the page for membership numbers to be input.

    There is evidence of submissions using fake identity & email addresses, such as donald duck, adolf hitler, [email protected], [email protected] & many, many more.

  14. LASZLO

    I make the assumption that the”place” he is in , is the one of his choosing. I don’t think we need to offer him sympathy do we?

    This is what his Leadership “Mandate” is for-to move his MPs to the place occupied by his new Membership.

    We will see if that is what he tries to do.

  15. Cherish

    Agree, it is a voodoo poll with knobs on.

  16. @ Hawthorn

    It wasn’t a poll, but a self-selecting survey, and it is presented as such by the party itself.

    @ Colin

    No, I don’t have sympathy for Corbyn. Indeed, the question is replacing a lot of MPs or replacing the members.

    Neither of them is feasible … And while the shadow chancellor tried to say that it is foreign policy, there are many domestic political and economic issues where the split is similar.


    @”The claim of 75% Labour members agreeing with Corbyn on Syria is utter nonsense.”

    …..in which case Corbyn’s opponents will merely add it to the list of alleged attempts by the Leader to push MPs in his direction.

    Surely the Corbyn camp wouldn’t make such a silly mistake after all that has gone before?

  18. LASZLO

    Agree absolutely-the War of The Mandates has to be resolved.-The Leader is certainly “Elected” by the Members. But MPs are only Selected by them-UK voters “Elect” them.

    I was very interested in AW’s comment that the Party Election Nomination Rules were designed to ensure that the Leader would have a strong support in the PLP. Those “lent” nominations for JC really opened this Pandora’s Box to Membership Control.

  19. I am pleased to see that Corbyn has not conducted a voodoo poll. This is just a voodoo consultation, completely a different thing.

  20. @Cherish

    Not only that. A “consultation” along the lines of:

    “As your Leader, I believe you should back me because of reasons X, Y and Z. You do, don’t you? Go on, go on, go on….”

  21. “Jeremy Corbyn has told the shadow cabinet that Labour Party policy will be to oppose Syrian air strikes – but MPs will be given a free vote.
    The Labour leader’s conciliatory offer to senior colleagues is a climb down of sorts, given he was considering whipping the party to vote against bombing.
    However Mr Corbyn is insisting Labour Party policy must be opposition to air strikes – a position an estimated two-thirds of his own shadow cabinet disagrees with.
    Labour leadership sources says they believe the new position ends the possibility of resignations today because no MPs will be forced to vote against Mr Corbyn.”


  22. The “right” thing to do, logically, is for all Labour constituency parties who are unhappy with the voting record of their MP to consider whether to replace them as the candidate.

    MPs shouldn’t be expected to change their views. You are supposed to select and elect an MP whose views you approve of.

    If that means that Labour goes into 2020 with hundreds of new candidates who are more in Corbyn’s image, then that is the “correct” outcome.

    Of course, this may not be the electorally saleable option or what’s best in the long run for the health of the party, but so far as I can see it is what “working as intended” would look like.

  23. BBC reporting that Corbyn is requesting a two day parliamentary debate on the issue. Stalling? Or hoping to sling enough mud at Cameron’s proposals that he can get his MPs to support him?

  24. Good afternoon all from central London and happy St Andrews day.

    Neil A

    Ah I see you get your news from Russian nationalist propaganda websites! I now understand half of what you’ve written in 2015 a lot better”

    It may be a Russian mouthpiece (Fort Russ) but they do quote from reliable sources, other than that most of the info I read is from Janes Military and other Western websites.

    I wouldn’t say any of the pro Russian sites are more biased than the BBC CNN or NBC when they report on pro Western stuff.

  25. The survey was sent to various groups (my wife is affiliated member and she got one). Yet apparently they sampled only the full members. Whether the survey was open to cheating, I can’t judge, but if they had so many replies, and the sampling was random, they would have a pretty good gauge.

    The whole thing baffles me. I can see the real polling result, and I believe that it’s close to what people think, but I honestly don’t meet people who agrees with the bombing. Caveats: I live in Liverpool and obviously one’s acquaintances are not representative. Yet, over the week it came up in conversations with probably about fifty people, but none …

    I am genuinely perplexed.

    “Typical incompetence of many of Corbyn’s enemies to try to knife him over one decision where he is probably correct”

    That’s the way I see it but one has to ask why Cameron who has a majority in the commons has to depend on Labour votes?

    Cameron has lost several votes now despite having a commons majority so surely his leadership is on the wobbly side of being secure.


    The claim of 75% Labour members agreeing with Corbyn on Syria is utter nonsense.

    The Guardian’s piece on this states:

    The party said a random sample of full individual Labour party members showed 75% were against UK bombing in Syria, 13% were in favour and 11% were undecided.

    The figures showed the party had received 107,875 responses in a consultation, of which 64,771 were confirmed to be from full individual members. The remainder included affiliated supporters and registered supporters.

    which suggests either Labour or Patrick Wintour doesn’t know what a ‘random sample’ is (probably both). But YouGov’s polling[1]:


    also showed 58% of full Party members opposed, so there’s a clear majority against[2]. Polling was done 19-23 Nov so it’s possible members have moved further against bombing since and there will be a lower proportion of DKs.

    75% might be a little on the high side, but it’s not implausible and Corbyn certainly represents the views of the membership, not his critics.

    But YouGov also asked […] do you think members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet should follow Jeremy Corbyn’s lead, or be free to vote as they choose [about] whether Britain should take part in air strikes against Syria and the members backed a free vote by 79% to 20%. As Anthony hinted earlier people tend to think free votes are a good thing and Labour members are no different. So again Corbyn seems to have made the popular decision.

    [1] YouGov specifically asked Would you approve or disapprove of the RAF taking part in air strike operations against Islamic State/ISIS in Syria?
    . It’s possible that if Labour only asked about Syria generally even more would be opposed if they suspected that mission creep might lead to attacks against other groups.

    [2] There was no significant difference between full members and others (TU members, supporters) who also had a vote in the leadership, if anything they were slightly less opposed (55-32).

  28. Allen Christie

    ” Which votes has Cameron lost in the HoC since May?

    I think Cameron (and you know I;m not a fan) is totally secure in his party for as long as he wants to stay IMO.

  29. Why should he have “no trouble” getting a majority? Immediately after the election, everyone was saying that 12 was too small a majority for stable government and Cameron would have a torrid time trying to maintain control!

    There’s no mystery. We’ve all got a pretty good idea which Tories will be voting against, and which Labour MPs are minded to vote against. If Labour whipped “No” and had total compliance, there’s no way there would be a majority.

  30. Looks like it will be a free vote. Lynsey German from StopTheWar tweeting her dissatisfaction. She’s a close pal of JC so she may actually know.

  31. Neil A

    Because the various Ulster Unionists are on board and because the Tory rebels are supposedly fewer in number.

    I can only guess he wants a wider consensus in case the bombing all goes horribly wrong.

  32. Jeremy Corbyn may well whip his MPs (he doesn’t really do compromise), but plenty would rebel anyway. I think the numbers are there to get air strikes through.

  33. Oh lol, the news broke to the contrary just as I typed that last comment.

  34. Well I think they’ve made the only decision that won’t cause massive damage, at least in the short term. I can’t criticize them for that. Corbyn needs to spin it as consistent with his long-held tradition of believing that individual MPs should stick to their principles and vote with their consciences. To do that, I think he needs a better spin doctor – or at least, to listen more closely to the ones he’s got.

  35. Actually, I think I have worked out how Corbyn will end up being deposed.

    The more he is forced into compromise, the more his less reasonable (being polite here) followers will shout “betrayal” and flounce out.

    All that is needed is for Corbyn to get less than 50% support against an anti-Corbyn unity candidate. Result: neither the Corbynites nor the Blairites in charge.

    Fingers crossed!

  36. AW

    Apologies for the modded post; I accept I got it wrong.

    What I should have said is that both sides are doing political jockeying here as the outcome should end up being at least a slim majority for strikes now.

  37. Hilary Benn has resigned from SC.

  38. ………….after DT had reported that Corbyn will put the case against bombing at dispatch box, followed by Benn who will put the case for, at a debate later in week.

  39. Fascinating article from Roger Scully on how perceptions of how Cameron/Milliband performed during the election campaign.


    During the campaign, Welsh panellists gave Milliband the edge. After the result was known, he was deemed to have done worse.

    What we are seeing in the two tables above is how the outcome of the election itself changed perceptions. Perhaps the lesson is simply is the rather unoriginal one that hindsight is a wonderful thing and we should beware how much it can shape our thinking. Of course, it is obvious now to everyone that Ed Miliband had a much worse election campaign than David Cameron. But it wasn’t necessarily quite so obvious to everyone at the time.

    As Anthony reminds us above ” Public opinion can be wrong, and often is”.


    Which votes has Cameron lost in the HoC since May?

    I think Cameron (and you know I;m not a fan) is totally secure in his party for as long as he wants to stay IMO.

    He hasn’t lost many votes so far (technically only one) but there’s a whole range of subjects which he hasn’t been able to bring forward because he knows he might lose the vote. For example on fox hunting, EVEL (as originally proposed), the ECHR, etc. The climbdown on tax credits is another example and it looks as if there may be more problems over the attempt to cut back on freedom of information. His unwillingness to bring forward the proposals for bombing in Syria suggests there may have been uncertainty there as well.

  41. Nothing on the News-that Benn report must be wrong.

  42. Colin

    The Benn story came from (or at least was spread by) a spoof BritainElects Twitter account.

  43. @Neil A

    ” Or hoping to sling enough mud at Cameron’s proposals that he can get his MPs to support him?”

    That’ll be his strategy, I would think. Your language is a little lurid, and one man’s mud-slinging is another man’s constructive criticism, but my guess is that Corbyn wants to buy more time. Norman Smith, the BBC’s political reporter, said tonight that the Labour “pro-bombers” are melting away quite quickly and the alleged 100 may be no more than 40 now. If the debate tips a few more waverers to Corbyn’s side of the argument then Cameron will start to get twitchy about convincingly winning a Commons vote. The SNP and Lib Dems look solidly against and Cameron will soon start to look nervously over his own shoulder to judge the scale of any Tory rebellion.

    Corbyn is gambling that time will alter the arithmetic and I think he may be right. It also increases the chance of an event occurring that may sway minds. He’s getting some of the politics of this right at long last and may just scupper Cameron’s plan. If he does, I sense a political dividend for him much further down the road. He needs to hold his nerve.

    P.S. Is there any truth in this Twitter rumour that Lord Feldman has resigned?

  44. @Hawthorn – “All that is needed is for Corbyn to get less than 50% support against an anti-Corbyn unity candidate. Result: neither the Corbynites nor the Blairites in charge.”

    It will take time for that to happen though.

    It’s only been two months since he got made leader, though it seems longer. It’ll take some time before people admit that they either made a mistake or flounce off because they feel betrayed by Corbyn.

    I think you are stuck with him for at least 18 months – you would need to wait till Nov 2016. (Those new people who signed up in Sept will come up for renewal in Sept 2016 – based on whether they renew or not, Lab should be able to decide whether it’s safe to go for a new contest).

    I still think Yvette Cooper has a shot at replacing him (rather than Hilary Benn). She’s maintained a complete radio silence – she’s not part of the shadow cabinet and therefore not having to defend her position and have daily rows with Corbyn, the way poor Benn has been drawn into. And she’s refused to do the rent-a-quote thing. She’s just patiently waiting…

    To cheer you up, here’s an account of IDS’s last conference as leader:


    It’s every bit as gobsmacking as what’s happening to Labour now, complete with shadow cabinet ministers contradicting him, but the public has forgotten all about it! There is life after this stuff.

    Allen Christie
    ” Which votes has Cameron lost in the HoC since May?

    I think Cameron (and you know I;m not a fan) is totally secure in his party for as long as he wants to stay IMO

    Okay maybe not so much lost votes but he has done some spectacular U turns and backtracked on other issues.

    Cameron might be secure for now because of the civil war in Syria, sorry I mean within Labour ;-) and that’s taking the pressure off him but his groundhog day will come after the EU vote.

    The tectonic plates are shifting within the Tory party and I’m not talking about Eric Pickles shuffling across the commons floor.

  46. Millie

    “I did not appreciate it was St. Andrew’s Day. I thought Google were celebrating Scotland’s Davis Cup victory!”

    The FM has suggested that 30 Nov should henceforth be “St Andy’s Day”.

    However, given that St Andrew was Syrian, and there seems to be something of a “Let’s bomb Syrians”, her suggestion may have more in common with the transmogrification of the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas into the Windsors. :-)

  47. St Andy’s Day….I’ll drink to that.

    slàinte mhath

  48. @Candy

    “I still think Yvette Cooper has a shot at replacing him (rather than Hilary Benn). She’s maintained a complete radio silence”

    Would that be the same Yvette Cooper I heard being extensively interviewed by Eddie Mair this evening on the radio as I drove home from work? She was talking about the Shadow Cabinet meeting earlier in the day and appeared entirely relaxed about sharing her thoughts on whether we should bomb Isis in Syria and whether Corbyn had handled the issue well thus far.

    As for her having another tilt at the Labour leadership, I would think she’s a busted flush now. She campaigned woefully for the job in the summer and her insipid and lacklustre performance, along with Burnham and Kendall,who were similarly devoid of inspiration and stardust, contributed greatly to the Corbyn surge. I’m convinced that a credible, politically astute and charismatic mainstream candidate would have beaten off Corbyn, but no such person emerged. Maybe, no such person yet exists.

    It’s no good for moderate Labourites to now whinge about Corbyn’s success because their inadequacies contributed to the bandwagon that ultimately ran them over. They need more self awareness and should come to accept that the ultimate condemnation of them all is that they allowed Corbyn to win.

  49. @ Hawthorn

    ‘Actually, I think I have worked out how Corbyn will end up being deposed.
    The more he is forced into compromise, the more his less reasonable (being polite here) followers will shout “betrayal” and flounce out.’

    That is certainly the assumption of Peter Mandelson but IIRC he also thinks that it will take about 18m to achieve. According to Charles Clark, the intention is for a Shadow shadow cabinet to be in readiness to step into the
    breach… originally spearheaded by Yvette Cooper but now, Dan Jarvis appears to be being lined up to be parachuted in.

  50. Crossbat


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