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. SYZYGY

    I don’t know what Mandelson thinks, but a Blairite I think would still be beaten by Corbyn. A unity candidate would best come from the soft left.

    I am not hard left but I think the Blairites are pointless as well as useless. I think Corbyn has blown his chance with stupid political mistakes and bringing in the tiresome Trots, but he does serve a purpose at least.

  2. @Syzygy,

    Dan Jarvis. Parachuted in. Very good! I got it, even if no one else did…

  3. @Crossbat11

    I’ve no dog in this fight, so if you say the Labour people won’t elect Yvette Cooper, then I must bow to your superior knowledge.

    As for Dan Jarvis – he has lots of good points – but will a Labour membership that elected Corbyn and presumably shares his views on war, support for the IRA etc, go for someone who is the exact opposite? My impression is that Jarvis would stick pins in his eyes before he endorsed a terrorist group a la Corbyn. This is very attractive to the public, but is it attractive to the Labour members?

    IDS got an even higher endorsement from the Conservative members than Corbyn – he won by over 60%. But the voters were unmoved and he got dumped with an efficient ruthlessness. Conservatives have a strong sense of self-preservation though, which is the reason they’ve lasted so many centuries. Has Labour got that same instinct, or will they go quietly into the good night?

    It’s not clear to me whether they will follow the Con example, or the Liberal one.

  4. @ Syzygy

    Keir Starmer is publicly laying out a case, in the Graun, for voting against extending airstrikes.

    I think Keir Starmer is smart enough to know which way the majority of the PLP is leaning. And I also think he’s quite influential, despite being a new MP. His position may firm up some swithering MPs to vote No.

    People are already tipping Starmer as a future leadership candidate. But he’d need to convince some of the ‘heavy-weight’ affiliates to support him. As would Dan Jarvis. In the event that Jarvis sides with Hilary Benn, he’d be taking a backward step away from building those relationships.

    I’m surprised that Tom Watson has backed Hilary Benn’s position. He must either feel that his relationship with the ‘heavy-weight’ affiliates is nailed on; or he’s not interested in running for the leadership any time soon. Of course, there’s still time for Watson to be ‘persuaded by the arguments’ & do a volte face….

  5. And don’t rule out a ‘meteoric rise’ by Jim McMahon, assuming he exceeds expectations & pulls off a decent win in Oldham on Thursday.

  6. @Amber,

    That would be quite something. I just don’t see how a replacement Labour leader can appeal to the membership though, without being at least to some extent in the same political mould as Corbyn. Unless the party can somehow engineer to have tens of thousands of members totally disengage (or even quit in disgust) the selectorate seems pretty solidly decided.

  7. So I was right that Corbyn would be a disaster as Labour leader wasn’t I folks?

    Somehow he has managed to be both anti-war and responsible for the war. How on earth did he pull that off?

    Scotland’s Labour MP is voting against, but so far Scottish Labour haven’t put forward their position, if they even have one.

    I have heard LibDems are voting for war? Which is a surprise, but Carmichael hasn’t said how he’d vote.

    But at least 57/59 Scottish MPs will be against.

  8. @ Amber

    Interesting observations… and I agree re: Jim McMahon. I was fascinated to see that he has come out against bombing Syria and was surprisingly enthusiastic about Jeremy Corbyn. However, no doubt I would be glad to find that I was being overly sceptical.

    Tom Watson has complained that he has been misrepresented as siding with Hilary Benn, Powell etc. So I assume that he is aiming for the bi-partisan candidature if he has those ambitions (which seem highly likely).

    I also heard a rumour that the number of Labour MPs likely to vote with Cameron has fallen from a supposed 100 to about 40. Impressive if that is the Keir Starmer effect. Let’s hope he keeps on making the case.

  9. @ Neil A

    That would be quite something. I just don’t see how a replacement Labour leader can appeal to the membership though, without being at least to some extent in the same political mould as Corbyn.

    There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Corbyn’s policy positions but he has a lot of ‘history’; & he isn’t good at the politics of being leader. We’ll need to see whether we’re at the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end after Wednesday’s vote.

    That said, the so-called moderates are too disparaging about the Party membership. They’re too quick to say the membership doesn’t resemble the electorate. Many of us do resemble potential Labour voters but not all of us, on every issue, all the time. Nevertheless, the members are actually fairly representative & this meme which gets pushed relentlessly that we aren’t, it just isn’t true.

  10. Presumably Corbyn wants a 2-day debate on bombing ISIS in order to delay the oucome until after the Oldham by election result. Has anyone seen any recent polling about Oldham?

  11. outcome

  12. @ Syzygy

    Good to know Tom Watson has clarified his position during our ‘conversation’. ;-)

    If Dan Jarvis shifts to No along with Tom Watson, we could definitely be looking at 40 or fewer voting to extend the airstrikes.

  13. @Pete B

    The two days would have to be next week as Cameron is abroad Thursday. I am pretty sure Cameron would have given two days otherwise.

    But, Cameron does not want to risk Labour MPs and probably some of his Tories spending another weekend with their constituents.

  14. Amber Star – “Nevertheless, the members are actually fairly representative & this meme which gets pushed relentlessly that we aren’t, it just isn’t true.”

    That’s what Conservatives used to say! :-)

    Conservatives shed members as their party got more centrist – and won a majority for the first time in over 20 years.

    So you could argue that the members by espousing non-mainstream views, were a hindrance rather than a help. It’s likely to be the same for Labour. At the moment the “norm” is to shy away from endorsing any political group. The pool of floating voters whose vote is up for grabs each election increases every year.

    You can also look across the Atlantic at what is happening to the Republicans. They have way more committed activists in the Tea Party than exists on the Dem side. They are struggling to win over independents who are repelled by their activism though.

  15. @ Pete B

    Presumably Corbyn wants a 2-day debate on bombing ISIS in order to delay the outcome until after the Oldham by election result.

    I genuinely doubt it. I think Corbyn just wants a 2-day debate so that MPs get a chance to be heard.

    Has anyone seen any recent polling about Oldham?

    There hasn’t been any.

  16. It does make you wonder just how reliable the opinion polling has been on Syria, the anti-war pressure is coming from constituents not just members. Is it, the polling reflects the views of people that really don’t care all that much but the people that do care are against? So public opinion is likely to be incredibly fickle on this, could easily turn against.

    I would make the cost argument, ‘there is no money for anything good’ but there’s money for war.

  17. There isn’t going to be a 2 day debate because Cameron said tonight the debate and vote will be on Wednesday.

    Corbyn is reported to have said Cameron refused his 2 day debate request because he knew he (DC) was losing the argument over air strikes.

    The LibDems were apparently debating the issue tonight with Farron thinking it overnight then making the decision tomorrow.

  18. @Amber Star

    It’s not a meme if it’s true!

  19. @ Candy

    But it isn’t true. And as the Labour Party & the polling firms get better at measuring the views of members compared to those of potential Labour voters, I am confident that it will be shown to be inarguably untrue.

  20. @Amber Star

    OK, here’s an example. How many maoists are there in the UK population? Less than a fraction of 1%. But all of them are in the Labour party, and because they have just 400,000 odd members, the maoists are statistically significant in a way they arn’t in the general population. Then put them in leadership roles, and you get a sub-set that is wildly out of whack with the population at large, which explains Labour’s unpopularity.

    There is a lot abut Labour at the moment that is similar to the Tea Party in the way it concentrates extreme and out of the way views.

  21. P.S. Take a look at the following table which illustrates how out of whack Lab members are even from those who voted Lab in May 2015, let alone the wider population:

    h ttp://i.imgur.com/b4LbMlb.jpg

  22. @Amber Star – I’d say that you and Candy are both right, in that the Labour membership is now a combination of people who are in tune with much wider public and people who really are not. The people who are not are the most ardent Corbynites, the ones who are delighted by the return to prominence of McDonnell, Abbot, Livingstone, even Galloway. Many of the Corbynites are people who until recently tended to vote for those odd little Citizen Smith parties with names like Revolutionary Workers’ Party of Wapping that used to be forever losing their deposits. Now they are Labour members and suddenly visible and influential in ways that previously they were not. […]

    I’ve seen many comments on social media recently that also indicate that they just don’t get how out of kilter their views are. Claims that ‘the people’ love Jeremy, that ‘the people’ share their views on Britain joining military action against IS in Syria, despite poll after poll indicating otherwise. They love to cite the voodoo polls hosted by media outlets as evidence that the mainstream pollsters are all wrong.

    I write this as a socially liberal, economically centrist, greeny floating voter with elderly parents who have spent their adult lives campaigning and fundraising for Labour and who, together with their active and engaged peers, have been insulted and referred to as dinosaurs by blowhards who joined Labour for £3 a few months ago solely in order to vote for Corbyn. Although I don’t share my parents’ commitment to Labour, it breaks my heart for them that all their decades of good work done for the finest and most altruistic of motives, counts for nothing and they are now bewildered and hurt onlookers watching helplessly as the party they love sinks into an abyss of vitriol and stupidity.

  23. SYZYGY

    Re Jim McMahon’s position. If he has come out against bombing it reminds me that one Iraq War resigner was the Blairite Minister, John Denham. Being on the right of Labour does not necessarily mean being militarist.

  24. The fact that 10-20 Tories will probably vote no, including some right-wing headbangers, is a good indication that this isn’t strictly a left-right issue.

  25. What control can Corbyn now exert over his Shadow Cabinet in the future ?

  26. That’s not really fair to Corbyn. He didn’t play his hand very well, but ultimately he really had no choice but to agree to a free vote.

  27. Let me offer a fairy story.
    Scotland gains its independence but the Pictish Revival State takes over the Scottish Borders and Northumberland, threatening terrorist action against London, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
    Does the RAF bomb Scotland?

  28. @ Hawthorn

    Very true and evidenced by the long list of committed Tories. like Max Hastings, Peter Hitchens and Peter Oborne, who are vehemently opposed to extending the air strikes into Syria.

  29. The SNP policies are almost identical to Corbin’s policies:
    Anti-Trident
    Anti-War
    Anti-Austerity
    Free Education….etc

    But in Scotland SNP is mainstream, so couldn’t it be that it is the English establishment that is extreme and Corbyn moderate? If Corbyn was Scottish he would fit in perfectly with the SNP

  30. @Candy

    ” How many maoists are there in the UK population? Less than a fraction of 1%. But all of them are in the Labour party, ”

    Thats a bold assertion, – all Maoists in the uk are members of the Labour Party – do you have any evidence to back that up ?

  31. NEILA

    @” he really had no choice but to agree to a free vote.”

    Of course he did.

    He could have used the Mandate he constantly refers to , imposing the wishes of the Members who gave it to him , on his MPs.

    That would have been coherant & logical. There may of course have been consequences for rebellion in the PLP. But he has resolved this by trying to portray a Party which is against military intervention in Syria, whilst actually voting for it.

    On Wednesday he will speak for Party Members, and Benn will speak for the Shadow Cabinet, thus institutionalising Labour’s War of the Mandates in Parliament.

  32. With regard to a replacement for Jeremy Corbyn, I think he won the leadership for two basic reasons

    1 – He wasn’t tainted by support for the Iraq war
    That one is easily dealt with as there must be several potential candidates who weren’t in Parliament at the time and have no track record on the subject.

    2 – More importantly in my view was his simple asserion that austerity was a political choice. I think this resonated with the bulk of Labour Party members, suporters & afiliates who were desperate to hear someone articulate this position.

    Until the New Labour/Blairite/Moderate wing of the party come up with a candidate who can address this point they wont get a hearing.

    So far I haven’t seen any attempt by any of them at serious analysis as to why they lost, with the possible exception of Liam Byrne writing in the Guardian.

    Blaming the electorate for getting the wrong way (which appears to be the response so far ) is rarely a good strategy.

  33. * blaming the electorate for voting the wrong way *

  34. @ ” bombing Syria, ”

    Can we be clear-UK will not be bombing Damascus, Aleppo, Homs , Latakia ( !) , or any of the urban centres of population.

    UK will be bombing centres of IS controlled Syria -now part of the “Caliphate” they constructed across the Syria/Iraq border-ie we will be extending our existing activities in the Coalition ,against IS in Iraq.

  35. KENTDALIAN

    @”So far I haven’t seen any attempt by any of them at serious analysis as to why they lost, ”

    I hope you will-it is on Corbyn’s desk apparently-awaiting his decision on release.

    According to reports, the Margaret Beckett assessment ( researched by Deborah Mattinson) is finished.

    A Labour spokeswoman told The Times -” Mr Corbyn is considering its contents before deciding the next step”.

    Reading about leaked contents this morning, my feeling is that you may wait a long time before JC decides on that “next step”.

  36. Might be bombing. Not will, yet.

    I think the pm is wrong to refuse a longer debate. As awful unexpected events unfold he may rue this.

  37. I do have a nagging feeling that the “70,000 ground troops” quote may be a big political mistake. It is very specific and very easy to throw back in his face.

  38. @ colin

    I think maybe you misunderstood what I meant – perhaps I wasn’t clear enough.

    I was refering to the Labour Party leadership election and the fact that 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.

    I’ve heard no-end of soul searching as to why they lost the General Election

  39. @Dave
    So long as there are identifiable targets in the Scottish borders that are involved in plotting terrorist acts, then sure.

  40. In fact that makes an interesting comparison.

    For the General Election the response was “we have to listen to what the electorate are telling us”

    For the Leadership Election it was “we have to ignore what the electorate are telling us”

    In the second case the electorate being the Labour Party members.

  41. KENTDALIAN

    You merely emphasise the problem for Labour.-it isn’t with the Leadership electorate-it is with UK GE voters.

    The Beckett Report is based on research from ten marginal seats & from swing voters who had previously supported Labour but voted Con/SNP in 2015.

    These are the people Labour need to win back.-people who vote for MPs-not the people who vote for Labour’s Leader.

    The PLP know why Corbyn won-AW explained it the other day-an election rule governing nomination , which ensured support in the PLP was ditched/overidden .

  42. PETEB

    I have always thought about OldNat’s abode with an image of the Tora Bora Caves in my mind :-)

  43. Pete, everyone is welcome here. No call for that.

  44. It is not as though public opinion never changes.

    10 years ago, the government’s austerity policies would have been a political cyanide pill.

  45. @ Colin

    Apologies – I hadn’t heard of the Becket Report.

    I’m fully prepared to accept that the Labour Party membership may not reflect the wider electorate. Whatever else 2015 GE demonstated, it’s clear there was no great outpouring of public longing for Labour to form the government.

    The question at the heart of Labours problems ( or indeed any party ), is what is the purpose of a political party ?

    If it’s just to reflect public opinion then why do we need any politcal parties at all? – we could replace them with government by opinion poll.

    I always thought a political party was a collection of people who came together with a common view of what constituted a good society, and then sought to persuade everyone else to support that view at the ballot box, by way of reasoned discussion.

    It seems to have worked for the SNP

  46. COUPER2802

    Re your post on Corbyn’s Labour and the SNP. For a majority of English voters it is probably that Corbyn’s Labour and the SNP are the extremists.

  47. Mark W
    My earlier comment was a joke. Arguably even less funny that McDonnell’s about Mao, but there you go.

  48. Is anyone able to link me any direct quotations from the Commons debate where Cameron talked about the 70,000 moderate fighters? I’ve read the government’s statement which makes no specific claims about these fighters being available to attack ISIL or prepared to occupy Raqqa. I wondered if the reporting that suggests he said this is based on something that arose from a question in the debate?

  49. @Watchit

    Try cheering up your mum and dad with this:

    1. Corbyn has already shown that under his leadership the party will be riven by endless and destructive infighting, and as time goes on he will lose support from saner members from all wings of the party, even those who might not recognise Corbyn as being responsible for the major part of the infighting. I sense that that process is already starting to happen.
    2. When it becomes apparent that he is a serial loser of elections, he will lose support from members as the disasterous electoral consequences of his course become apparent to all. Losing elections badly focuses the mind wonderfully.
    3. The prospect of losing in 2020 will also turn the unions against him.
    4. So epic will be the unfolding electoral disaster that there is no possibility that Corbyn will somehow do just about well enough to put off the day of reckoning until after defeat in 2020.
    5. Faced with a choice of defeat or deselection in 2020, with the former now very much in prospect compared to the (much exaggerated) risk of the latter, MPs will be emboldened to move against Corbyn.
    6. The risk of non-selection (for new parliamentary seats) will be much diminished if Corbyn is ousted by no later than 2018.
    7. Despite the damage that Corbyn is doing to Labour, the move to oust him will help a successor show that he/she is very far removed from that, so an ousted Corbyn’s unpopularity may rebound to a successor’s favour.
    8. We can rule out the possibility that Corbyn has sufficient political nous be alive to any of this until it is too late for him to change course.

    However, nothing is going to happen until after the 2016 local election defeats at the earliest, so I hope that your parents can hang on until then.

  50. NEIL A

    I have a feeling that DC made the comment during QT.

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