New Coke, the sweeter reformulation of Coca-Cola that the company launched in the 1980s, is remembered as a failure of market research or at least, of the interpretation of market research. Surveys in advance, focus groups and taste tests preferred the new version of Coke. When it actually launched there was a negative backlash. People didn’t like their Coke being messed with and Coca-Cola eventually reversed and went back to the old formula. It’s a classic example of how a product that tests well in the artificial environment of a survey or taste test doesn’t necessarily perform the same way “in the wild”, when subject to the full chaotic system of public opinion.

This isn’t going to be a post about Coca-Cola market research strategy in the 1980s – I am sure it was far more complicated than the myths that have grown up about it – rather this polling from YouGov for the Times about NHS spending. At the weekend some of the papers reported that Labour were considering an increase in National Insurance contributions to help fund the NHS. YouGov asked people directly about this – would they like to see the basic level of National Insurance go up from 12p to 13p to help fund the NHS – indeed, people would, by 48% to 37%.

Politicians have in the past tended to use National Insurance as a rise that is less noticeable to the public than income tax, even though for salaried employees it is much the same thing (obviously it has different thresholds, but it’s still essentially an extra 1% of your salary deducted at source). I was a little cynical about that – did it really work, or do people treat it just the same? Or even, would people prefer the honesty of an income tax rise? YouGov asked the same question using a rise in the basic rate of income tax. Funded from income tax its the other way around, 34% support it, 51% are opposed. It looks as it the ruse works – if the extra 1% of people’s wages is labelled a NI rise, people support it. If it’s labelled an income tax rise, people oppose it.

Of course there are technical differences between NI and income tax (the way it affects the self-employed, or isn’t paid by pensioners, or is paid by people on lower pay than income tax is) and in theory they could contribute to the difference. I suspect most of the answer is simply that people are more aware of income tax and how it works and understand national insurance less well. Hence they are less supportive of a tax rise when they understand exactly how they’ll be paying it.

To bring it back to the New Coke analogy though, what does the question tell us about the policy? Would it be a popular thing for Labour to promise? Well, I think it tells us there’s a risk there. If support for a tax rise is conditional upon people not understanding it very well it does pose the question of what would happen if they had it explained to them, or even “misexplained” to them (remember how a National Insurance rise was packaged up as a “Labour jobs tax” by the Tories before the last election?). Essentially people like spending more on the NHS, they generally dislike paying more taxes (YouGov also asked if people would support keeping income tax, NI and health spending the same – people supported that too!). In the artificial scenario of a polling question you can link those two things and force people to consider them as one, you can use a form of tax people answering the question aren’t so familiar with. If it was an actual party policy, it would be out there being debated by parties, reported by the media, discussed in the pub. Would it be a discussion about how Labour are willing to make the hard but necessary decisions on providing the funding for the future of the NHS? Or would it be a discussion about how Labour would be putting up ordinary people’s taxes? Until a policy goes out into the wild that’s not an easy question to answer.


Tables for the weekly YouGov/Sunday Times poll are now up here. Topline voting intention figures are CON 34%, LAB 39%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 11%. In the lack of any really big news stories this week, the rest of the poll was a bit of a grab bag of issues – Labour and Falkirk, accident and emergency, cyclists going through red lights…

The ongoing Falkirk story still doesn’t seem to be having a particular impact with the general public. Only 26% of people said they were following the story very or fairly closely – 48% were not following it at all or were totally unaware of it. On most of the questions YouGov asked they found a high level of don’t knows – for example, 19% think Miliband has handled Falkirk well, 36% badly, but 45% don’t know.

On wider trade union issues, 55% would support changing the law so strike ballots required the support of 50% of eligible members, not just of those voting. 65% think the “leverage tactics” used by Unite in Grangemouth were unacceptable and 54% would support a ban on trade unions involved in a dispute protesting outside the private homes of directors.

Moving to the NHS, amongst people who have used their local A&E in the past few years 82% say they received a good service. 18% thought their local A&E services had got better, 23% worse. However 41% thought waiting times had got longer. More generally 50% are confident that A&E will be able to meet people’s needs this winter, 38% are not. If they had to choose, 46% would prefer retaining A&E services even if it meant resources were stretched, 26% would prefer fewer but better resourced A&E.

Finally 44% of people have personally seen a cyclist go through a red light in the last month, 43% have not. 63% think it is fairly or very common for cyclists to go through red lights. 87% of people think this is unacceptable even when a cyclist can see the way ahead is clear and 78% think cyclists who go through red lights should be prosecuted. Amongst regular cyclists themselves (that is, people who say they cycle at least once a week), 18% say they have gone through a red light in the last six months. 24% think it is acceptable to go through a red light if they can see the way ahead is clear and 69% would support the prosecution of people who cycle through red lights.


YouGov’s weekly poll for the Sunday Times is now up here. Topline figures are CON 33%, LAB 41%, LD 9%, UKIP 10%, so a higher Labour lead than usual, but with a recent average lead of six points it’s well within the margin of error. As usual with the YouGov/Sunday Times polls there is a broad range of subjects, including the economy, the NHS, education and support for stay at home mothers.

The regular economic optimism question now shows a feel good factor (the proportion of people expecting their financial situation to get better, minus those who expect it to get worse) of minus 25. While still negative, it equals the least negative rating since April 2010.

Asked more specifically about the state of the economy, 25% think the economy is still getting worse, 34% that it has stopped getting worse but there are no signs of recovery yet. 30% now think there are signs of recovery and another 5% think we are on the way to full recovery. This is a big shift from when YouGov last asked the question in April, when only 14% thought there were any signs of recovery. Asked how much they think the government have contributed to any economic recovery, 32% of people think the government’s actions have helped the economy recover, 23% that they made little difference, 36% that they made things worse.

41% of people think that A Levels got easier over the last ten years and 53% think that the toughening up of the exam marking last year was the right thing to do (21% disagree). An Oxbridge education is seen as being worth £9000 a year tuition fees by 52% to 29%. People are more evenly split over other top universities (37% think they are worth £9000 a year, 41% do not), and almost two-thirds of people think tuition at universities outside the top twenty is not worth the money. Despite this people are still evenly split over whether it is financially worthwhile going to university – 41% think increased graduate earnings are worth more than the cost of going to university, 40% think they are not.

Labour maintain their usual strong lead on the NHS, 32% to the Conservatives’ 20%. Only 21% think that Jeremy Hunt is doing a good job as Health Secretary, 52% a bad job. Looking to the future 51% of people think it will be possible to keep the NHS free at the point of delivery, even if costs continue to rise, 38% think that the NHS will eventually become unaffordable. A majority (58%) would oppose means testing NHS services in the future.

By 39% to 14% people think the government is doing more to help mothers who go out to work than those who stay at home (15% said they were doing equal amounts and 32% didn’t know). Asked which group NEED more help, 43% say they both need support, 25% think working mothers need more support, 15% think stay at home mothers need more support. The £1200 a year allowance for childcare for working parents is supported by 49% to 34%. People are less supportive of giving similar financial support to stay at home parents, 41% would support it, 41% would oppose it.

Finally, by 67% to 20% people see zero-hour contracts as a bad thing, and 56% would support a ban on them.


The weekly YouGov/Sunday Times results are now online here. Voting intention is CON 31%, LAB 39%, LDEM 10%, UKIP 13%. The leader ratings are Cameron minus 18 (up from minus 25 last week, and his best rating for a couple of months – perhaps on the back of statesmanlike coverage at the G8), Miliband minus 33 (from minus 35 last week) and Clegg minus 52 (unchanged). The rest of the poll largely covered the NHS and education.

58% of people don’t trust the NHS much, if at all, to be to open about its standards, a drop from last weekend as cover-up stories continue to come out. Neither are people confident that the rules will be changed to stop future cover ups.There is widespread support for the sacking of staff found to be involved in cover ups (88%), their criminal prosecution (71%), and slightly less so for stripping them of their pensions (54%).

Labour continue to have a narrow lead as the most trusted party on education, 26% to the Tories’s 22%. Michael Gove’s approval rating stands at minus 27%, and his flagship policy of free schools is supported by only 29% of people (38% are opposed and 33% don’t know). The balance of opinion is that British schools are worse than those in other western countries, and that standards have dropped over the last three years. In contrast most people think our universities are equal (33%) or better (31%) than those in other western countries, though a majority (63%) think that tuition fees do not represent value for money.


You may remember my blog post about the Observer reporting a voodoo poll as if were representative of members of the Royal College of Physicians a couple of weeks ago. Back then an open access poll hosted on a website campaigning against the government’s NHS bill found 92.5% of respondents wanted the RCP to “publicly call for the withdrawal of the Health and Social Care Bill”, and this was reported as being representative of the RCP’s membership.

I dutifully wrote a letter to the Observer’s readers’ editor, Stephen Pritchard, and he addresses the report in his column for the Observer today. Mr Prichard writes “we know opposition among hospital doctors is extremely high, but readers have a right to expect that things that we proclaim to be polls are properly conducted, using scientifically weighted samples of a population or group” and, as I have before, points journalists to Peter Kellner’s British Polling Council guide for journalists on how to report opinion polls. Full marks to the Observer for addressing the matter seriously.

Meanwhile, the RCP has since commissioned a ballot of its whole membership, professionally carried out by Electoral Reform Services. The ballot managed a 35% response rate. It found that 69% of members were opposed to the bill, but that only 49% thought the RCP should seek the withdrawal of the bill, with 46% saying the College should work constructively with the government to try and improve it.

That’s 49% who wanted the RCP to call for the Bill to be withdrawn, not 92.5%. That, dear readers, is an example of why voodoo polls are bunkum.

(Nigel Hawkes at StraightStatistics also has a post welcoming the RCP conducting a proper survey of their membership, rather than touting voodoo polls here)