There has been some too and froing in the Spectator over the YouGov poll a fortnight ago on the War on Terror. Last week Matthew Parris wrote (alas, subscription only) that he didn’t believe the results and raised some questions over the wording and Allister Heath’s original article (also subscription only). This week Allister hits back, defending his interpretation of the poll.

I have always championed the need to look at the actual questions of polls and draw your own conclusions, so in that sense, good on Matthew Parris. On the other hand, having written a blog about opinion polls for the last couple of years, people do have an unfortunate tendency to want to explain away polls that tell them the public think things they’d rather they didn’t.

Allister has defended his own write up of the poll in the Speccy, so what about Parris’s comments on the poll itself? Parris raises specific questions in regards of two of the questions: firstly in regard of whether people think we are at war, and secondly over the use of passenger profiling. To try and get to the bottom of this YouGov have carried out some more detailed questions to try and get a proper idea of exactly what people do think about the war on terror (the full tables are here)

The original YouGov poll for the Spectator asked people to choose between two statements – either “we are in a world war against Islamic terrorists who threaten the West’s way of life” or “Islamic terrorism is a regional problem that holds no real threat to the West”. Parris complains that it is a false dichotomy, and he himself would have preferred to say that while the terrorists were obviously not confined to the Middle East, they were just a ragbag of random extremists, not an organised threat. In hindsight the original question also had two variables within it – are we ‘at war’ and is it a threat? In theory, someone could think we were at war, but that the terrorists did not really threaten our way of life, or that there was a genuine threat, but we weren’t at war.

Therefore YouGov broke the question down into a number of more specific questions. Who exactly did people was behind the terrorist threat – was there an organised terrorist conspiracy, or a semi-organised selection of groups? Do the terrorists genuinely threaten the West’s way of life? What are their motives? Should the government consider us to be at war?

The results largely reflect the earlier findings in the Spectator. Exactly half of the respondents think that Britain is facing an organized terrorist plot with a further 36% of people thinking that there is a plot, but that it is not well-organised, and consists only of a ‘rag-bag’ of individual terrorists and terrorist groups. 8% think there is no plot, just the actions of a few unconnected terrorist groups.

Regardless of how organised it is, a large majority people think that the West is genuinely at threat from Islamic terrorism. 70% think the terrorists do pose a threat to the West’s way of life, with 24% saying they do not pose a serious threat. The majority (54%) also think that the aim of the terrorists is to spread an extremist version of Islam across the globe, rather than simply to right the wrongs they believe have been committed in the Middle East (28%, 9% said they had a different aim, and 9% did not know).

The difference between this and the earlier poll is on whether we are at war. Asked whether “western governments should consider themselves to be at war with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism”, 33% said yes, but 60% said no. This paints an interesting picture of public opinion – half of people think we face an organized plot against us (with the overwhelming majority thinking there is at least a disorganised plot) and the majority of people think that plot poses a genuine threat to the West’s way of life… yet the majority of people do not think it should be considered a war.

To suggest a reason why would be pure speculation – perhaps it is a desire to be away from the frontline, an unwillingness to face the problem, perhaps people do not want to legitimize the terrorists by calling it a war, perhaps people took the word war to have implications of involving increased use of force that they disagreed with, perhaps it is because the rhetoric of ‘war’ against Islamic terrorism has become associated with the deeply unpopular President Bush, perhaps people simply see war as something that happens between states and armies, not terrorist groups. Without further questions we can’t tell.

The second point Parris queried was over passenger profiling. In the Spectator poll passenger profiling was defined as “a process of selecting passengers based on their background or appearance” and 55% of people said they’d like to see it introduced. Parris suggests that ‘background’ shouldn’t have been there, what profiling was really about wasn’t using background information to target passengers, but targeting them based on their appearance.

There was also a YouGov poll in the Telegraph last week which seemed to contradict the poll in the Spectator. In the Telegraph poll the question of passenger profiling was combined with that about the new security measures on planes (e.g. the restrictions on liquids and hand luggage). 8% said the checks should be done away with, 8% said they should apply only to those who the security services have intelligence about, 6% said they should apply only to those of Middle Eastern or Asian origin, but 75% said “all passengers should be subject to new checks: the terrorists can always recruit people who don’t look like terrorists”.

Neither of the earlier questions were perfect. The first question might have made profiling sound too innocuous by talk of ‘background’, the Telegraph question confuses several issues and presents another false dichotomy – either the security checks are applied to everyone equally, or are applied only to people of a certain racial background while entirely ignoring other people – you couldn’t have some extra security for everyone but a lot extra for some people.

YouGov has asked a further question on passenger profiling – this time giving a definition that doesn’t shy away from saying exactly what passenger profiling might mean (“conducting additional security checks on those who match the profile of past terrorists, for example young men of Middle Eastern appearance”), and removing the false dichotomy in the Telegraph question by asking people to chose between using passenger profiling to select all those who receive extra checks, using passenger profiling to select those who receive checks, but also randomly selecting some other people for extra checks and finally rejecting the use of passenger profiling entirely.

These results here were that, as in the Telegraph poll, few people supported the idea of using passenger profiling alone to decide who gets security checked (only 16% of respondents). When passenger profiling was used in conjunction with random checks thought it was supported by 72% of people, with only 9% rejecting passenger profiling entirely. It appears as though bring background into the equation wasn’t what made the difference, people were just as happy to support profiling based purely on appearance. The strong opposition in the Telegraph seems to be people rejecting the idea of ignoring people who don’t match the profile, rather than an outright rejection of profiling by race.

Asked in general whether the government should tone down anti-terrorist laws and “pay more attention to the grievances of the Muslim population in the UK”, maintain the existing anti-terrorist laws or “increase the present anti-terrorism laws, regardless of whether this causes offence to the Muslim population in the UK”, the majority, 55%, of people supported tougher anti-terrorism laws regardless of the effect this had upon the Muslims population with only 12% supporting a more conciliatory approach.

Asked a similar question on foreign policy the answer was less decisive, but still tilted towards an aggressive approach to terrorism – 14% supported Britain’s present foreign policy, 41% supported a more aggressive approach and 32% thought “Britain should pursue a more conciliatory foreign policy and try to lessen the grievances of those who support Islamist terrorism”.

Combining these three polls together we can get quite a detailed view of the nuances of the public’s attitude towards the “war on terror”. Most people think there is a genuine threat to the West, and they expect it to continue and to get worse in the future. Most people think we are threatened by an organised terrorist conspiracy, not just unconnected local groups. There is majority support for harsher anti-terrorism measures at home, and while attitude to foreign policy is more divided and influenced by hostile opinions of President Bush, more people support a more aggressive foreign policy than support a more conciliatory one.

In general the wording of questions can and does make a difference, especially on an issue where people have such nuanced, developed but strongly held views. If you are asking a factual question then it is easy to phrase, but as soon as you get into more complex opinions it becomes almost impossible to come up with a perfect form of wording for a question that no one will raise an issue with, or ponder how it may have been answered if it had been phrased slightly differently. The bottom line is that the more questions we ask, using different wordings and approaching issues from different angles, the better our understanding becomes.

pdf Download full tables HERE.

Lots of media attention over the Taxpayers Alliance’s new poll by ICM over the weekend (the full tables are here, but are 224 pages and 5 MB, so be warned. A shorter presentation is here). As one might expect, the poll concentrated upon taxation but also addressed crime, education and health. For the record most of the questions were asked using a 0 to 10 scale, with 0 being total disagreement and 10 being total agreement. The topline figures presented by the TA are based on all those saying 6-10 as being yes, and all those saying 0-4 being no, with 5 being neutral. For some other questions I (like the Taxpayers Alliance) have used the average score on the scale of 0-10.

56% gave a positive response to the statement that “if Britain reformed public services and cut waste it could lower taxes without having to cut spending on vital services?”, with only 17% disagreeing. This is actually nothing new – past polls have found even more support for such statements (this ICM poll for Reform in 2003, for example, found 81% agreed that “if the government reformed public services and cut waste it could make services better and reduce tax at the same time”). The polling evidence is very strong that people think it is possible to cut taxes without damaging public services. The question is firstly whether they would actually think such a thing was desirable, and secondly whether they think any of the present political parties could or would do it.

The ICM/Taxpayers Alliance poll asked people about a series of taxes and asked them to say if they would like to have them cut. Unsurprisingly every tax listed had a majority of people in favour of cutting it – obviously taxes are unpopular. What is more interesting, and more surprising, is which potential tax cuts met with the most support. On a scale of 0-10, with 10 being definitely would like to see it cut and 0 being definitely not, the tax that people most supported a cut in was council tax with an average score of 8.13. It was followed by, somewhat surprisingly, inheritance tax with an average of 7.83 and an increase in threshold where people start paying 40% tax. Raising the personal allowance to take some people out of tax entirely had an average rating of 7.67, lowering the basic rate of income tax a rating of 7.51, lowering VAT 7.37 and lowering business taxation 6.91.

While it comes as no surprise to find council tax at the top of the taxes that people want to see cut, inheritance tax and the higher rate threshold are somewhat more surprising. These are taxes that impact the relatively wealthy (in assets or in income respectively), yet cuts in them are more popular than cuts that would benefit the less well-off, such as increasing the personal allowance. It seems as though targeting tax cuts at the least well off doesn’t suddenly make them politically acceptable (though, of course, it may have wider ramifications in terms of a party’s political image. Even if a policy is itself popular, if it makes a party look like it is only concerned for the wealthy it could potential be an electoral negative.)

ICM also asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with a list of arguments in favour of lower taxation. The most agreed with argument was “Lower taxes would allow you to spend more of your hard-earned money on your own priorities”. This was followed by arguments in favour of increasing the treshhold for the top level of taxation and the personal allowance, which both specifically related the cuts to how they would affect individuals. Finally, there was high agreement with two ‘anti-politician’ arguments, which promoted tax cuts as a way of controlling politicians, e.g. “It’s morally wrong that politicians take so much of our money then waste it. We should cut taxes to force them to budget better.” ICM’s focus groups revealed the same message “Tax cuts have to be presented in specific terms that make sense to individuals, and from the anti-politician rather than the ideological perspective.”

The arguments with the lowest levels of support are also instructive. Arguments that cited the positive effects of free markets and involving private business in providing services rated poorly. The argument that we should “stop subsidising Scotland so much so the English can have a tax cut” also rated poorly. The bottom rating argument was “Labour’s tax rises have damaged Britain’s economy and they’ve managed services badly. The Conservatives would manage things better which would provide savings for tax cuts” – my suspicion is that part of the reason that this argument rated lower than all the others is the mention of the word Conservative.

Looking briefly at the other subjects addressed in the poll, the focus groups suggested that people had very little idea of how the NHS worked or the fundementals of policy. They thought that money had been wasted on a grand scale, but that the service would probably have been even worse without it. There was no faith in politicians being able to improve it, but no confidence in private companies to do so either. On education arguments about exams getting easier went down very badly in focus groups (as being “unfair on the kids”), but people did agree that standards of literacy and numeracy had got worse. Concepts like competition raising standards in schools did not chime with the groups. On the issue of crime, when asked to rate several possible explanations for crime “weak sentencing” was seen as the worst cause of crime, followed by poor education and poor rehabilitation. Immigration and family breakdown were the explanations seen as least convincing by the public. In every area TA/ICM found that privatisation was very negatively perceived, concluding that the term is probably tarnished beyond the point of rescue.

The Taxpayer’s Alliance’s conclusion is not that the Conservative party should immediately adopt a low tax agenda. Past polling has shown that people do not believe that the Conservatives would cut taxes whatever they promise and the TA/ICM’s focus groups support this finding – people do not believe they would be any different. Rather the Taxpayers Alliance conclude that a tax cutting agenda would have to be promoted from an anti-politician angle and, while the Conservative party could in theory present itself as an anti-establishment, anti-Westminster party, it would require such a change that the better course of action would probably be for third party groups to campaign on the low tax agenda independently of parties (such as, of course, the Taxpayers Alliance).

I would add one caveat to the poll. For all of the taxes listed ICM found a majority of people said they would like it to be cut – however, this question was asked directly after a list of 16 arguments in favour of tax cuts. Taxes are inherently unpopular anyway, so it should come as no surprise that in a direct question people say cut them. In reality though tax cuts are paid for in some way, shape or form which may make them less popular. There can be little doubt from this poll and from previous polls that people do think it is perfectly possible for taxes to be cut without damaging public services, but that doesn’t mean that they necessarily think that money raised in such a fashion should be spent on tax cuts when put alongside alternatives. Prior to the last election a couple of polls asked the question of, if the government did manage to save lots of money through efficency savings, would they rather it was spent on tax cuts or ploughed back into public services. In both cases, two-thirds of people said they would prefer the money to be spent on public services rather than tax cuts.


August YouGov Poll

The topline voting intention figures in August’s YouGov poll for the Telegraph, with changes from last month’s figures are CON 38%(nc), LAB 31%(-2), LDEM 18%(nc).

The poll supports ICM’s findings earlier in the week in regard of the two main parties – the Conservatives seem steady while Labour seem to have lost support over the last month, possibly as a result of their response to the crisis in Lebanon or the foiled terrorist attacks.

Clearly there has not been a boost in the Liberal Democrat vote like that recorded by ICM – some commenters have asked whether the ICM change in the Liberal Democrats was genuine, given that the level of support ICM recorded for them in July seemed unusually low. Could it just have been a return to the norm after a rogue poll? I didn’t think so, a second ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph at the end of June had also shown a fall in Lib Dem support. Given that their large boost in ICM’s poll isn’t reflected here though, it is a possibility.

In his commentary Tony King says “because YouGov typically elicits the views of approximately twice as many voters as the other polls, its findings are less subject to random sampling fluctuations. Month by month, YouGov’s findings tend to be less dramatic than the other polls’. Largely for that reason, they are probably more reliable.” There is more to volatility of polls than just the random sampling – in fact ICM’s polls are normally just as stable as YouGov’s, despite the smaller sample size. Over the past 6 months or so they have become far more erratic. I can’t think of any reason why this might be, I’m inclined to think it’s bad luck – they’ve just happened to have a couple of outlying polls.

On YouGov’s other trackers, David Cameron retains a small 2 point lead over Tony Blair as the “Best Prime Minister”. The Conservatives have also pulled ahead of Labour as the best party to run the economy, possibly due to the impact of the rise in interest rates since the last YouGov poll. On a forced choice question on whether people would perfer a Conservative government lead by David Cameron, or a Labour government led by Gordon Brown, Cameron lead by 7 points, 43% to 36%. This is almost unchanged from the last time YouGov asked the question, when Cameron had a 6 point lead.

The Telegraph also includes the aggregate data from YouGov’s polls over the last 6 months, allowing us to see where the swing to the Conservatives has been concentrated. As has been noted in various polls, the swing is significantly larger amongst women than men – 6 points rather than 2 points. It is also far larger in London than elsewhere in the country(though not in the South-East, which along with the North-West and Yorkshire has one of the lowest swings). The regional differentials don’t actually make much difference to the bottom line figures on how these levels of support would play out at a general election. Taking the average of YouGov’d polls over the last 6 months, on a uniform swing they’d see the Conservatives getting 274 seats. On a regional swing using these figures, they’d get 276 seats – no significant difference at all.

The Daily Telegraph today reports the first findings from YouGov’s monthly poll for August. In regard of the foiled terrorist plot to blow up airliners, there are no huge surprises. 42% say they are a lot or a little more scared of flying, but the overwhelming majority of people (90%) say it will make no difference to whether they fly or not in the future. 6% said they would avoid flying in the future if possible and 8% said they would probably take their holidays in Britain from now on (which given the impact on air travel, may well be a sign of wanting to avoid inconvenience and irritation rather than fear of terrorist attack!) The vast majority of people thought that the police handled the threat very well (44%) or fairly well (42%). There was slightly less strong support for the performance of the airlines (22% very well, 52% fairly well) and airports (19% very well, 44% fairly well).

Despite people voicing concerns in previous polls that the government were exaggerating the terrorist threat, the majority (72%) of people think there was indeed a genuine threat to blow up transatlantic planes. Only 6% of people think there wasn’t, with 22% unsure. Asked who was behind it 72% of people thought it was Islamic extremists, either with help from abroad (67%) or acting alone (5%). 3% thought it was the Labour government and 3% thought it was the USA or Israel.

Perhaps the most significant finding in the poll though was the trends in attitudes towards the government and Islam. YouGov asked some questions which had previously been asked straight after the London underground bombings. In 2005 the public had been fairly evenly divided in how well they thought the government were handling the threat of terrorism – 31% thought their handling had been excellent or good, 32% thought their handling had been poor or very poor. The balance has now shifted against the government – 27% think their handling is excellent or good, with 38% thinking it has been poor or very poor.

Attitudes towards British Muslims and Islam in general have also deteriorated. In 2005 23% thought that practically no British Muslims supported terrorism and 64% of people though there was only a dangerous minority. 10% thought a large proportion of British Muslims were prepared to condone or take part in terrorism. The same question in this month’s poll found that 18% of people thought that “a large proportion” of British Muslims were extremists, and only 16% thought that practically no British Muslims supported terrorism.

Asked if Islam “as distinct from fundementalist Islamic groups” posed a threat to Western Liberal Democracy a majority (53%) now agreed. This is up from 46% in 2005 after the London underground bombings and up from 32% in 2001 after September 11th. In the aftermath of the Twin Towers falling 63% of people thought that Islam per se did not threaten Liberal Democracy…that figure is now down to 34%. As attitudes towards British Muslims and Islam itself become ever more suspicious, it does not bode well for community relations.

(No voting intention figures yet – they will presumably be in the Telegraph tomorrow or next week)

“It would be interesting to know what has happened to the Labour Muslim vote”, wrote Neal Lawson at the Guardian’s Comment is Free yesterday. Ask and ye shall recieve Neal – the rather surprising answer is that appears to be alive and well.

Accurate polls of British Muslims are actually rather hard to do. For phone polls there is no nice list of only Muslim phone numbers to randomly select from, and the census data from 2001 is the only available data for coming up with weighting targets for the demographic make up of the Muslim population – hence many polls of Muslims are unweighted. Added to this is that, presumably for cultural reasons, polls of British Muslims encounter a very high refusal rate from women.

ICM have tried to get round the problem of sampling Muslims by ringing back Muslims they’d identified in their normal surveys, and increasing the sample size by asking people interviewed if they have contact details of any other Muslims they think would agree to be interviewed. This isn’t perfect of course, since in theory people may well be more likely to give details of people with views similar to their own.

The recent NOP poll for Channel 4 on the other hand, used normal random telephone dialing, but only in places where more than 5% of the population were Muslim (presumably even in areas with more than 5% Muslims it must have taken a huge number of unsuccessful phone calls to houses that turned out not to contain anyone Muslim in order to get a sample of 1,000 people). This is obviously a trade-off between the absurdly prohibitive cost of doing random dialing across the whole country and discarding 97% of your calls, and excluding Muslims who live in areas where less than 5% of the population is Muslim. NOP also did 7% of their interviews in languages other than English, while I believe that ICM only interviewed English speaking British Muslims.

What this all means, is that polls of Muslim voting intention aren’t 100% reliable, and aren’t easily compared to each other. Add to that the fact that ICM’s polls of British Muslims back in 2004 were not weighted because of a lack of authoritative demographics, while their more recent poll in February 2006 used the 2001 census data for weighting purposes (as did NOP). Still, with those caveats out of the way…what has happened to the Labour Muslim vote?

  Date CON LAB LDEM Respect Other
ICM Mar 2004 25 38 36 n/a 2
ICM Nov 2004 16 32 41 n/a 10
ICM Feb 2006 16 44 30 n/a 10
NOP Apr 2006 13 51 24 6 6

Now, you need to remember all the caveats above – NOP used a very different sampling technique from ICM, and it might have been more favourable to Labour; ICM’s newest poll is weighted, when the older ones were not – that said, on first appearance it certainly seems as though Muslims voters have drifted back towards Labour since the last election.