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. @colin

    So the RAF will not be bombing Raqqa?

  2. @Kendalian

    “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 think they’ve tried, but they didn’t understand. It’s that members didn’t accept the New Labour view that Labour didn’t win by compromising too much with the electorate. Members were more inclined to baulk against the way that arguments against austerity had been watered down too far, a view which I think was correct. And of all the candidates, Corbyn was the only one who clearly played to that perception. Burnham had the chance to, but bottled it.

  3. Thanks Oldnat.


    Yes-though the current status of Raqqa is interesting. Sam Kylie on Sky News was just saying that IS leadership has reportedly started to leave -possibly for Mosul, the major centre of population under IS control.

    You may be aware that the Kurdish taking of Sinjar cut the road from Raqqa to Mosul. The retaking of Mosul is a major undertaking & I wonder whether this will be the site of IS’ last stand in the Levant?

  5. Bah, Hansard is impossible to navigate. Can’t find the PM quotations anywhere.

  6. @Phil Haines

    ” ….Members were more inclined to baulk against the way that arguments against austerity had been watered down too far, a view which I think was correct. And of all the candidates, Corbyn was the only one who clearly played to that perception. Burnham had the chance to, but bottled it.”

    Agree wholeheartedly.

    Too much emphasis is being put on Corbyn – I don’t believe the party voted for him on a personal level, but did so because he was the only one to express what many felt about austerity.

    Had Burnham found a way to do that I think he probably would have won overwhelmingly .. instead he tried to be all things to all people.

    The point now is that if the PLP want rid of Corbyn they need to find someone who can convincingly unite the party around an anti-austerity platform that can be sold to the public.

    Whether that’s possible is another question entierly.

  7. Whilst trying to self-educate about the situation on the ground (in my lunch break) I stumbled across this wiki entry re: the battle for Hasakeh in NE Syria. Utterly fascinating. Kurdish YPG units and Syrian army units, acting separately, but both fighting ISIL (and exterminating them) and not fighting each other. And at the end, negotiating a share-out of the territory gained from ISIL.

    Also worth noting that coalition airstrikes were involved – indirectly benefitting the Syrian government forces.

    Yet in other parts of Syria YPG are fighting the government.

    It does make you wonder if, at least at a local area level, some sort of cooperation agreement couldn’t be worked out between anti-ISIL forces. In Hasekeh, the Syrian army is a long, long, way from safety – isolated in a small redoubt behind (what is now) Kurdish front lines.


  8. “the New Labour view that Labour didn’t win by compromising too much….”

    Sorry, that is the reverse of what I meant. Try instead:
    “the New Labour view that Labour lost by failing to compromise enough…..”

  9. Neil A

    Cameron said:

    “Turning to the question of which ground forces will assist us, in Iraq the answer is clear. We have the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga. In Syria, the situation is more complex. However, as the report I am publishing today shows, we believe that there are around 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters, principally of the Free Syrian Army, who do not belong to extremist groups, and with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on ISIL.”

    If you go to the Hansard page & press Ctrl & F together on your keyboard, you can enter the search term you’re looking for – makes looking for something specific much easier.

  10. @Colin

    It would be ironic if, having damaged the Labour party so badly, RAF involvement in airstrikes never even happened due to collapse of ISIL positions in Syria.

    One has to wonder what could be achieved if Turkey stopped worrying to much about the Kurds and let them focus on clearing out ISIL from the north of Raqqa province. The small number of Sunni Arab moderates currently allied with the Kurds might even be enough to occupy Raqqa, if ISIL were to go into headlong retreat.

  11. @Neil A

    The 70k ground forces was said by Cameron during his statement on Syria he made last Thursday (26th), look on parliament live tv somewhere around 12 pm.

  12. ………….and if IS does in fact leave Raqqa for Mosul, then the focus switches to Iraqi forces & their perceived successes against IS.

    Of course the deadly Shia/Sunni schism is the key problem there-but reports like this might encourage the belief that IS can be seen as the common enemy-even across Islam’s corrosive sectarian divide.


  13. Here is the full text of the Syria motion, on which MPs will be voting:

    That this house notes that ISIL poses a direct threat to the United Kingdom; welcomes United Nations Security Council Resolution 2249 which determines that ISIL constitutes an ‘unprecedented threat to international peace and security’ and calls on states to take ‘all necessary measures’ to prevent terrorist acts by ISIL and to ‘eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria’; further notes the clear legal basis to defend the UK and our allies in accordance with the UN Charter; notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement; welcomes the Government’s continuing commitment to providing humanitarian support to Syrian refugees; underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction in Syria; welcomes the Government’s continued determination to cut ISIL’s sources of finance, fighters, and weapons; notes the requests from France, the US and regional allies for UK military assistance; acknowledges the importance of seeking to avoid civilian causalities; using the UK’s particular capabilities; notes the Government’s will not deploy UK troops in ground combat operations; welcomes the Government’s commitment to provide quarterly progress reports to the House; and accordingly supports Her Majesty’s Government in taking military action, specifically airstrikes, exclusively against ISIL in Syria; and offers its wholehearted support to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

  14. NEILA

    Indeed-the situation is very fluid & no doubt will become more so. Who knows where the focus will be ?

    If IS can be coralled in Mosul , & Raqqa relieved by their abandoning it, then the focus switches to the Vienna discussions & the governance of Syria.

    I think its some achievement to get all the key players there-but how will Putin play it re. the fate of Assad?

  15. I still wonder just how many Tory rebels there will be.

    The PM did a good job of putting the emotional case for strikes, but that is a few days ago now and they may have time to think through the pitfalls. Could it be too much thinking time to properly bounce a Commons vote?

  16. NEILA

    You might be interested in this :-


    and this quote :-

    ““I think what this will do is force ISIS to make choices — whether Raqqa is important, whether Tal Afar is important, whether Mosul is important,” Brig. Gen. Mark Odom, the senior United States military officer in Erbil, said in an interview after Kurdish forces and Yazidi militias backed by American airstrikes drove the Islamic State from Sinjar. “We are going to find out whether ISIS is really a state or whether the commanders start to turn inward and look after their parochial interests.”

  17. Colin @Neil A

    “how will Putin play it re. the fate of Assad?”

    In October, the Washington Institute published an analysis of the Russian and US interests and problems in trying to work with the Kurdish forces and their allies.


    Western leaders have two options for responding to Russia’s intervention and its attendant ripples: do nothing and pray that Syria becomes Putin’s Afghanistan, or play by his rules and secure their own place in shaping the future Syrian peace process. In either case, they need to acknowledge that the PYD will not hesitate to ally with Russia and Assad if that is its only path to a continuous territory in the north. Syrian Kurds have been told repeatedly that the West will not allow them to gain more territory, and they fear a potential anti-Kurdish offensive backed by Turkey, so for now they are looking favorably on the Russian intervention. Moscow may not be able to help Assad reconquer the entire north, but it could certainly prevent the Sunni Arab rebellion from threatening an expanded Kurdish Rojava

    (Amber’s contribution the other night on US restrictions on Turkey are interesting in this regard)

    Now, Al Jezeera are suggesting that Russia is making progress in getting the anti-Wahabbi forces to work together. In Northern Syria that essentially means themselves, the Syrian Government forces and the Kurdish led SDF.


  18. OLD NAT


    Its a diplomat’s worst nightmare.

    Turkey is as much a problem as an ally in all of this. The EU, imo, will live to regret paying Turkey & allowing visa free travel in exchange for Turkey policing its external borders.

  19. So it will be

    Russia + Kurds + Assad Versus ISIS v Britian + France + US + Turkey

    Listening to Mary Creagh on daily politics she seemed to be more interested in regime change as opposed to simply defeating ISIS.

    So, once ISIS is beaten back, we have Russia + Kurds + Assad Versus Britain + France + US + Turkey

    Very dangerous.

    Turkey will never give power\land to the Turks so we risk a major conflict.

  20. “Turkey will never give power\land to the Turks so we risk a major conflict.”


    Indeed, that virtually guarantees problems…

  21. Couper

    Or, maybe, in Syria (assuming Daesh are forced out into Iraq, the Gulf States and elsewhere) –

    Assad regime + Kurdish Alliance (backed by Russia and Iran) v US/UK/Saudi backed rebels : with Turkey either frozen out by mutual consent, or encouraged by US/UK to foment even more trouble.

  22. Carfrew

    Or it might be a brilliant solution! :-)

  23. @Oldnat

    Well I suppose you could always test it out in Scotland first, see if it works there…

  24. Or… we could have a political settlement on a new inclusive Syrian transitional government that includes moderate Sunni rebels, and autonomy arrangements for Kurds, with Assad stepping aside for a unifying figure from outside politics (Zakaria Tamer, maybe? in the footsteps of Vaclav Havel?) Russia receives guarantees re: her bases. Iraq and Iran receive guarantees re: the protection of Shia minorities. The West receives guarantees re: the protection of all minorities. Turkey gets guarantees that the Rojava autonomous region will not provide arms or finances to PKK militants. ISIL gets a whole lot of munitions up the jacksy from all sides…

  25. “The SLP is pro-independence, though we would advocate a very different independence to the pro-EU pseudo independence advocated by the SNP.”


    Decisions, decisions…

  26. Many people have blamed the PLP for Corbyn winning the Leadership. I don’t really buy that – putting him on the ballot paper facilitated his candidature but did not make it inevitable that the membership would support him. I place the blame for Corbyn’s success squarely on Harriet Harman and in particular her disastrous response to Osborne’s July Budget. The latter is what gave Corbyn real momentum – had Harman not been so maladroit Corbyn would probably done no better than a distant third place.

  27. Afternoon folks, just checking in after a few weeks away, and luckily I came across an interesting thread!

    The Syria question is a very interesting one from a polling point of view, because the one key thing that’s naturally very difficult to capture in a questionnaire is, how much does the person actually know about what they’re being asked? Most people, unless they’ve been under a rock, will know something about ISIS and about the Paris attacks and maybe a bit about Syrian refugees. But in reality, other than news junkies*, what percentage of the public can really give an informed opinion either way? AW made this point above that the general public can be wrong, but for me it goes even deeper than that – on a situation as complicated as the current one in the Iraq/Syria region, the opinion of the general public is almost irrelevant**.

    From this irrelevant person’s opinion, I must admit to a degree of scepticism – I think that Cameron made reasonable points on the legality and morality of airstrikes, but the medium-term objectives (including the aforementioned 70,000 FSA troops and the future of Assad) are a key missing link. Perhaps this can be teased out during the debate tomorrow. One question that I didn’t notice from the debate (albeit I haven’t read through all of the Hansard minutes) was regarding how effective the *current* UK strikes against ISIS in Iraq have been. Some progress appears to have in Ramadi, but Mosul appears to be still under control of ISIS (please correct me if my info is out of date!).

    * As I’ve noticed above, even us news junkies are resorting to Wikipedia to find out what’s going on, which is a bit damning of the ability of the press to even report on the region.

    ** Of course, it’s not necessarily irrelevant from a voting intention point of view!

  28. @ Graham

    Harriet Harmans interpretation of the role of the Leader of the Opposition in was a little bizzare to say the least.
    One would think the title gave a clue !

  29. Good afternoon all from WC2N

    Putin should hold talks with Assad, the Iraqis and the Iranians to give independence to the Kurds in Iran Iraq and Syria then sit back and watch Turkey implode when the final part of the jigsaw revolts against Ankara to join the newly formed Kurdistan.


    It looks like a ploy to try and take some of the Tartan Tory vote away from the SNP. At least they won’t get my vote because I’m doon south

    Seriously though, its just an undercover nut job from Tories in Scotland to try and bolster the right because under Ruth and Cameron they are actually going backwards in Scotland.

    It’s a bit like Tories in Scotland standing as independents in council elections because they know the Tory brand is toxic.

  31. This thread reminds me of a “How to Solve the problems of the Middle East in 3 Sentences” handbook. A few bombs here, a meeting there and, Bob’s Your Uncle, everybody lives happily ever after.

    Beware armchair military strategies, received wisdom and quack solutions, especially when applied to problems as intractable, convoluted and labyrinthine as those that apply to benighted countries like Syria and Iraq and organisations like Isis. There are ways out of the morass but, like Northern Ireland, we’re probably generations away from a lasting solution.

    Of course, playing out in the background to the recent focus on Syria and Isis, has been a violent deterioration in the age old Palestinian and Israel conflict. The world is paying little attention to this, for now, but that conflict is a festering cancer that casts a dark shadow over the whole region and is the author of most of its miseries.


    “Of course, playing out in the background to the recent focus on Syria and Isis, has been a violent deterioration in the age old Palestinian and Israel conflict. The world is paying little attention to this, for now, but that conflict is a festering cancer that casts a dark shadow over the whole region and is the author of most of its miseries”

    Some would argue that the creation of artificial borders by the British and the French over the past century was the real ” author of most of its miseries” when it comes to today’s conflicts in the middle east.

  33. @Crossbat,

    You’re right, we should leave it to the experts in the foreign office, military and intelligence services.

  34. I agree with Graham’s analysis above. Harman’s response to the July budget was poor, but lets not also forget the welfare vote which I think was pivotal. Corbyn was the only candidate who voted against the government welfare cuts, meaning only he was in line with majority of the party membership.

    From that point on, his campaign gained huge momentum. If Burnham had voted against the welfare bill rather than abstaining, he would have been in a position to capture some of the left leaning vote in the leadership, which in the end coalasced around Corbyn.

    Back to tomorrow’s vote, a majority of favour of bombing now looks highly likely. This is a v flawed response though and does not reduce the risk of home grown terrorism like the Paris attacks. Like Al Qaeda before it, IS is an ideology and a concept and therefore cannot be defeated by bombing.

  35. Allan C
    I’ve noticed that every conflict in the world can be blamed on us.

    I checked the Sykes-Picot agreement on Wikipedia, and it seems that the Russians were promised Istanbul, and only didn’t get it because of the revolution! The whole strategic situation would be very different now if they’d got Istanbul!

  36. PETEB

    Someone told me yesterday on Facebook that the only reason I believed that Assad is responsible for the refugee crisis in Syria & the War going on there is because ” that is what Bush & Blair want you to believe”.

    This was on a thread congratulating a famous actor for saying that we should “talk” to IS about their “grievances”.

    What can one say ?

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

  38. PETE B

    I wouldn’t say every conflict can be blamed on the West but a large part of it can and especially in the middle east although it doesn’t excuse the actions of the numerous fanatical bearded be-headers such as IS and the Turkmen.

    Yeah the Russian’s must be kicking themselves over the Sykes-Picot agreement, maybe Crimea was a late consolation prize.

  39. COLIN

    I found your facebook page. Can you add me? ;-)


  40. AC 4.37

    I would not argue that the British and French ’caused’ the present situation in Syria/Iraq etc,; however I would argue that the situation created after WW1 (by those who tried to sort out what was left after the end of the Ottoman Empire) is now in terminal decline – much the same is also the case in central Africa and the Saharan states.
    Few international boundaries survive unchanged for more than a century.

  41. Good Evening All from Bournemouth East.

    The Stop the War demonstration has just stopped the Labour HQ phone banking evening for the Oldham by election, according to ‘twitter’.
    Many in the new Labour Party and associates seem to want to be a party of protest.
    The review by Margaret Beckett, which the leadership is now considering, suggests that Labour is associated, in English marginal, as a party which is unrealistic about economics and people outside of the ‘core’ area of support.

    There seems to be a ‘disconnect’ between views of activists and ‘floating voters’.

  42. “There seems to be a ‘disconnect’ between views of activists and ‘floating voters’.”

    We’ll see how big that is on Friday morning.

  43. In almost unrelated news, the charitable organisation I involved with in Devon launched our crowdfunding appeal to raise £3,500 for renovating a school building for use as refugee accommodation. It’s a 14 day appeal.

    After less than 12 hours we’ve raised £3,115.

  44. Carfrew (2.13 pm)

    “I suppose you could always test it out in Scotland first, see if it works there”

    The Tories did try it out in Scotland, for many years – but it didn’t work.

  45. ITV News

    “The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has decided by a majority vote that they do not support the Prime Minister on proposed airstrikes against the so-called Islamic State in Syria, ITV News understands.”

  46. @Oldnat

    Yes, but that was imposed from Westminster. “Outwith” and all that. Couper’s innovation is different: it’s when you do it to yourselves. Might work better, more buy-in etc…

  47. “There seems to be a ‘disconnect’ between views of activists and ‘floating voters’.”


    And possibly non-voters!! Peeps keep leaving us out…

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