YouGov have some polling for the Times on attitudes to terrorism and Syria following the attack on Paris. The full results are here, and the Times’s write up is here.

There are two important findings in there. One is attitudes towards Syrian refugees. Back in September YouGov found 36% thought we should accept more Syrian refugees, 24% keep the numbers about the same, 27% that we should admit fewer or none. That support has dropped sharply, now only 20% think Britain should accept more (down 16), 24% the same number (no change), 49% fewer or none (up 22).

It would be wrong to assume this is necessarily connected to the attack upon Paris. The previous poll was conducted at the start of September, a week after the photos of the body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on the beach and amid sympathetic media coverage of refugees trudging across Hungary seeking a route to Germany. At the time there was evidence that the public had become more favourable towards the idea of accepting more Syrian refugees. However time has passed, the media coverage of sinking boats and desperate refugees has faded away again, and I expect a significant chunk of the change in public opinion is because of that – some heartbreaking photos and coverage did provoke a temporary change in opinion, but it was only temporary.

The other interesting finding is on sending British and US troops back into Iraq to fight Islamic State/ISIS. 43% of people now support sending in ground troops, 37% of people are opposed. The change since the last time YouGov asked is barely significant, but it’s part of a longer and much more clearer trend. Back in August 2014 when YouGov started asking this question the British public were strongly opposed to sending troops back into Iraq, but since then opinion has steadily moved in favour of intervention. We are now at the point where there are significantly more people in favour than opposed.


On other matters, the monthly ICM poll for the Guardian came out yesterday, with topline voting intention figures of CON 39%, LAB 33%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 12%, GRN 3% (tabs here. Their weekly EU referendum poll has figures of REMAIN 43%, LEAVE 38%. Survation have also put out some new figures, voting intentions are CON 37%, LAB 30%, LDEM 6%, UKIP 16%, GRN 3% and EU referendum intentions are REMAIN 42%, LEAVE 40% (tabs here.

A quick note on two EU referendum polls from the end of last week. One was by Survation, conducted for the Leave.EU campaign – tables are here. Topline figures there were Remain 47%, Leave 53%. This is interesting mostly because it shows a lead for Leave when the overwhelming majority of polling shows Remain with a narrow lead (the last poll to put leave ahead was YouGov in September). All the polls so far using the referendum question are here.

The other data was from the British Election Study face-to-face survey. This is not new data by any means, the fieldwork was conducted between May and September (mostly in May, June and July). It found referendum voting intentions of Remain 61%, Leave 39%. On the face of it this looks interesting – as discussed last week the face-to-face BES sample avoided some of the problems of the pre-election polls and got the recalled Conservative lead over the Labour party about right. Is this potentially a sign that the mainsteam polling on the EU referendum could also be getting it wrong, and be understating the Remain lead? I would be very cautious before drawing any such conclusions, not least because of the timing of the fieldwork – polls now may be showing only small leads for Remain, but back in May to July when most of the BES fieldwork was done there were some bigger leads, especially from MORI and ComRes telephone polls, which had Remain at 63%, 65% and 75% in polls at the time.


One of the key bits of evidence on why the polls got it wrong has today popped into the public domain – the British Election Study face to face survey. The data itself is downloadable here if you have SPSS or Stata, and the BES team have written about it here and here. The BES has two elements – an online panel study, going back to the same people before, during and after the election campaign, and a post-election random face-to-face study, allowing comparison with similar samples going back to the 1964 BES. This is the latter part.

The f2f BES poll went into the field just after the election and fieldwork was conducted up until September (proper random face-to-face polls take a very long time). On the question of how people voted in the 2015 election the topline figures were CON 41%, LAB 33%, LDEM 7%, UKIP 11%, GRN 3%. These figures are, of course, still far from perfect – the Conservatives and Labour are both too high, UKIP too low, but the gap between Labour and Conservative – the problem that bedevilled all the pre-election polls, is much closer to reality.

This is a heavy pointer towards the make-up of samples having been a cause of the polling error. If the problems had been caused by people incorrectly reporting their voting intentions (“shy Tories”) or people saying they would when they did not then it is likely that exactly the same problems would have shown up in the British Election Study (indeed, given the interviewer effect those problems could have been worse). The difference between the BES f2f results and the pre-election polls suggests that the error is associated with the thing that makes the BES f2f so different from the pre-election polls – the way it is sampled.

As regular readers will know, most published opinion polls are not actually random. Most online polls are conducted using panels of volunteers, with respondents selected using demographic quotas to model the British public as closely as possible. Telephone polls are quasi-random, since they do at least select randomised numbers to call, but the fact that not everyone has a landline and that the overwhelming majority of people do not answer the call or agree to take part means the end results is not really close to a random sample. The British Election Study was a proper randomised study – it randomly picked consistencies, then addresses within in them, then a person at that address. The interviewer then repeatedly attempted to contact that specific person to take part (in a couple of cases up to 16 times!). The response rate was 56%.

Looking at Jon Mellon’s write up, this ties in well with the idea that polls were not including enough of the sort of people who don’t vote. One of the things that pollsters have flagged up in the investigations of what went wrong is that they found less of a gap in people’s reported likelihood of voting between young and old people than in the past, suggesting polls might no longer be correctly picking up the differential turnout between different social groups. The f2f BES poll did this far better. Another clue is in the comparison between whether people voted, and how difficult it was to get them to participate in the survey – amongst people who the BES managed to contact on their first attempt 77% said they had voted in the election, among those who took six or more goes only 74% voted. A small difference in the bigger scheme of things, but perhaps indicative.

This helps us diagnose the problem at the election – but it still leaves the question of how to solve it. I should pre-empt a couple of wrong conclusions that people will jump to. One is the idea polls should go back to face-to-face – this mixes up mode (whether a poll is done by phone, in person, or online) with sampling (how the people who take part in the poll are selected). The British Election Study poll appears to have got it right because of its sampling (because it was random), not because of its mode (because it was face-to-face). The two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand: when face-to-face polling used to be the norm in the 1980s it wasn’t done using random sampling, it was done using quota sampling. Rather than asking interviewers to contact a specific randomly selected person and to attempt contact time and again, interviewers were given a quota of, say, five middle-aged men, and any old middle-aged men would do.

That, of course, leads to the next obvious question of why don’t pollsters move to genuine random samples? The simple answers there are cost and time. I think most people in market research would agree a proper random sample like the BES is the ideal, but the cost is exponentially higher. This isn’t more expensive in the sense of “well, they should pay a bit if they want better results” type way – it’s more expensive as in a completely difference scale of expense, the difference between a couple of thousand and a couple of hundred thousand. No media outlet could ever justify the cost of a full scale random poll, it’s just not ever going to happen. It’s a shame, I for one would obviously be delighted were I to live in a world where people were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds for polls, but such is life. Things like the BES only exist because of big funding grants from the ESRC (and at some elections that has need to be matched by grants from other charitable trusts).

The public opinion poll industry has always been about a finding a way of measuring public opinion that can combine accuracy with being affordable enough for people to actually buy and speedy enough to react to events, and whatever the solutions that emerge from the 2015 experience will have those same aims. Changing sampling techniques to make them resemble random sampling more could, of course, be one of the routes that companies look at. Or controlling their sampling and weighting in ways to better address shortcomings of the sampling. Or different ways of modelling turnout, like ComRes are looking at. Or something else yet unspeculated. Time will tell.

The other important bit of evidence we are still waiting for is the BES’s voter validation exercise (the large scale comparison of whether poll respondents’ claims on whether they voted or not actually match up against their individual records on the marked electoral register). That will help us understand a lot more about how well or badly the polls measured turnout, and how to predict individual respondents’ likelihood of voting.

Beyond that, the polling inquiry team have a meeting in January to announce their initial findings – we shall see what they come up with.

Things remain very quiet on the polling front, but we do at least have the weekly ICM tracker of EU referendum voting intention. Latest figures are REMAIN 46%, LEAVE 38%. 46% is the highest ICM have recorded for Remain in their weekly tracker, though it’s still well within the normal margin of error. For now the picture from ICM’s regular polling remains one of a small but stable lead for Remain, rather than any movement in either direction.

Full tabs are here.

The referendum on EU membership will naturally cover the whole of the United Kingdom, but the vast majority of polling covers only Great Britain. This is because Northern Irish politics are so radically different from the rest of the UK. I suppose in some cases one could make a similar case for much more polling in the post-devolution age as Scottish politics diverges more and more from English politics, but we are where we are – the default position is still for polls to cover Great Britain but not Northern Ireland. When we get closer to the referendum I expect we’ll see some start to include Northern Ireland, but for the time being many questions will just be being asked on the back of regular Omnibus surveys covering just Great Britain.

The Belfast Telegraph today have a new poll from Lucidtalk asking specifically about EU voting intention in Northern Ireland. Current Northern Ireland voting intentions are REMAIN 56%, LEAVE 28%. Unionist voters are more than two-to-one against EU membership (REMAIN 21%, LEAVE 54%), Nationalist voters are overwhelmingly pro-EU (REMAIN 91%, LEAVE 8%).

Northern Ireland is only 3% of the UK population so is unlikely to have a decisive effect in the EU referendum unless it’s extremely close – even if Northern Ireland does vote two-to-one in favour of EU membership, that would increase the REMAIN lead in the UK as a whole by about one percentage point. Still, worth remembering when looking at GB polls that the UK position will be ever so marginally more pro-EU once Northern Ireland is included.