Back in the summer I wrote a piece titled “Why Voting Intention Polls Matter” largely about the Brown boost in the polls but making the point about the real importance of opinion polling in politics today.

It isn’t about predicting what the next election will be, because apart from those taken immediately before an election, polls can’t do that. They aren’t really important because they measure public opinion either – they can do so, you can tell if people’s gut instinct is in favour of inheritance tax or against environmental taxes or whatever, but it takes quite a lot of analysis to get anything concrete out of it. Most newspaper polls are written with a view of getting a good news story out of the results, rather than actually aiding understanding. You’d have to look at questions asked various different ways, in different polls, looking at issues from different angles, before you really got a good understanding of what the public think about an issue.

Polls are important because they set the political weather. They are the means by which we know if a party is doing well or badly, if a leader is on the up or on the down. In that sense, they have overwhelming power to set the agenda, to decide if interviewers begin an interview by asking why a party is doing so badly, to decide whether media reports talk about a party leader fighting back or enjoying a honeymoon, to determine whether a party’s policies are reported as something that might actually happen in the future, or just a doomed suggestion.

Gordon Brown would always have pondered the possiblity of a snap election, but the only thing that turned it into something that was actively considered, the only reason why some of the young Turks around him were pushing for an early election was that the polls told him Labour had a double figure lead. If there hadn’t been polls commissioned that week, or if they had shown only a narrow Labour lead, would an early election ever have become the likelihood it briefly seemed?

The only reason Gordon Brown eventually decided not to call an election, whatever he may say, is surely that opinion polls told him he might well lose it. Again, had there been no opinion polls that week, or had they showed Labour still with a double point lead, isn’t it likely that we’d be in the middle of an election campaign now?

And Menzies Campell, it seems clear that the reason he had to step down as Liberal Democrat leader is at least partially to do with the recent polls showing the party down at 11% or 12%. If the polls still showed them at 18%, or if there were no opinion polls to point out how low they had sunk, wouldn’t he still be there? That is the power of the polls.

Are the polls too important, too influential? What would the alternate be, people will always want to try and measure public opinion. Were polls banned tomorrow people would look at local council by-election results (and many already do), or Parliamentary by-elections, or silly voodoo polls on the telly or whatever. You would just get less accurate measurements of public opinion. And, at the end of the day, polls are but a way of measuring public opinion – the best way we have. What encouraged an election, cancelled an election and removed Ming Campbell was public opinion.

89 Responses to “The power of the polls”

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  1. Thank Anthony.

    I still believe that by over estimating Labour support in 1992, the polls helped to galvanise Tory voters into making sure that they came out to vote against Labour and may well have been responsible for that late swing.

    Had the publication of polls been banned at the start of the campaign as I was advocating then I think the likely outcome would have been a hung parliament, but of course we will never know for sure.

  2. I strongly doubt that Martin, given that polls all along before the election showed a Labour lead too.

    If anything had a galvanising effect it could have been the narrowing of the lead during the election campaign. A rising Tory vote in the polls may have motivated more Tories into thinking they could still actually win again after-all.

    Personally I think as a matter of free speech polls should be allowed upto and including election day.

  3. I am not particularly worried if polls are halted close to elections or not. What does concern me is the way in which Newspapers interpret them and indeed often seem to Spin them for there own benefit/agenda.

    I’ve never heard of an offical compaint to the Press Complaints Commission about the way a poll has been presented, although as most regulars here know Anthony and others have pointed out repeatedly how the actual results in a poll bare scant resemblence to the headlines accompanying it.


  4. Channel 4 polls immediately following the speeches by Brown and Cameron could have been regarded as mischievous, if you think they were bound to lead to spikes of support for each leader, but you wouldn’t expect either of them to complain about them, either the favourable or unfavourable.

    Lucky for the pollsters, their profile is raised, they’ll have more customers, but I think the “spinners” are simply doing what they do with everything.

    Would the PCC get involved if some-one complained about, say a grossly mis-leading or loaded question?

  5. The media will spin, just as parties will spin. But at the end of the day its better for freedom of speech and a free democracy for each individual paper to decide how it wants to report things during an election – than to have the Government of the day saying during an election what you can or can’t say.

  6. The PCC wouldn’t, but the Market Research Society can and does.

  7. Thanks Anthony

  8. Sean Fear (on Political Betting) suggests if recent council by election results were projected nationally the results would be Tory circa 36% and the Lib Dems and Labour both on 27%. On those figures Ming might still be in place, Cameron wouldn’t have had the nightmare summer, and Brown would be in trouble.

  9. Except Ralph, that reads rather like the figures I recall when we have the major May local elections every year. The Lib Dems have pipped Labour into third a couple of times now.

    I still swear that reading anything into local council by-election is about as useful as reading tea leaves.

  10. Anthony – Can you explain to me why my two responses to Ralph have been edited.One asked him why if Brown was in so much trouble they are odds on favourites on Political Betting to win the next election.The other was why he didn’t point out to everyone that at the bottom of the colomn he quoted where the statement “Simon Fear is a London Conservative”.I also insinuated that his exclusion of this statement may have been deliberate.

    Am I missing something here???


    I almost missed your rant about my predictions further up – you both seem very concerned by them and their accuracy !!

    Let’s put things straight for everyone reading your comments – Firstly i only ever said the END OF SEPTEMBER (not September) , secondly i included the first week of October mid September when Labour were at their height in the POLLS !! Thirdly it was not I , but T.Jones that started the ticking clock comments when he thought he was rather clever while Labour werte in the lead in the POLLS . That one came back to bite both of T.Jones & Gary Gatter . Fourthly – i never went missing at all as quoted by T.Jones , my comments were as regular as clockwork with each POLL .

    [edit – that’s out too – AW. The comment gets through because I want to let people have the right to reply when they are attacked, but be less partisan]

    T.JONES QUOTE above = “Check back.Mike’s ticking clock was wrong.First he said the start of September,then the end of September,then first week in October,then before the coference season,then like alot on here he went missing for a few weeks(now I wonder why that was).Then when they eventually did turn which was after the conference season he claimed he was right.”

  12. Accusing everyone else of being politically partisan is as bad or worse then making partisan comments yourself. You can see why in Mike Richardson’s comment above which is taken up by claiming that he isn’t being partisan. Rather then a discussion about polls or politics it becomes a discussion about whether A is biased or not. It just enourages partisan comments.

    Ralph didn’t say Brown *was* in trouble, he said that were the local government by-election figures with Labour at 27% the ones the media used Brown *would* be in trouble (and ad hominem attacks on a argument because it is made by a Conservative are out. Either Sean’s figures are correct or wrong, either local government by-election figures are useful or not)

    I don’t like moderating the comments here, it’s a pain in the arse. I want to get back to the point when I don’t have to and it looks after itself, but I don’t want it to slip into the same sort of partisan commentary you get everywhere else. Most people who comment here value it for the non-partisan nature of the discussion (and I know most also go elsewhere to have the enjoyment of more partisan bickery! No problem with that, I’d just like to offer something different). If you do value it though, you need to work with the spirit of it.

    Some partisany sort of comments get through, it because rather than just drive people away by blocking all their comments I hope in time people learn what the comments here are for, start to value them and work within the spirit of non-partisanship. Some of the most valued commenters here started out being flagrantly partisan and then got it. I really don’t like the moderation, I have only ever banned two people and would hope not to have to ever again. That needs people to work within the spirit of the site – that means actually trying to be non-partisan, not trying to work the system by capitalising POLLS, or treating comments with different political views as opponents to be argued with.

    I seem to spend more time writing about the bloody comments policy than I do writing about polls. It would be so much easier to just let this end up like every other comments section – I hope people actually understand why I bother doing it.

  13. Anthony,

    Well said, I think it might help if more people used there real names and stated their political allegence up front ( and unlike a lot of sites people here do), but thats just a personal thing.

    I’ve never had a post moderated that i can remember, and if I have been critical or partisan I tend to have commented on what I think Cameron or Brown are doing wrong with regards to targeting what the polls show they should be.

    I don’t see that as being anti one party or another so much as attacking them when they are adopting the wrong strategy.

    I am pretty anti tory and aren’t particularly taken with Cameron , but in terms of the places he needs to win over to win an election his strategy has been good. the odd effect of saying that her is that some people have suggested that I am some sort of “Tartan Tory”.

    In addition I’ve been critical of brown, seeing much of his talk on Britain or crime as being simply poll lead positioning which has been so blatant that it has undermined his credibility. Thats not an anti labour SNP rant, but for me a legitimate criticism of a strategy badly execuited.

    Also, I am glad no one high up in my party reads this because I,ve hardly been talking up our chances at a general election.

    I know it can be a fine line but people should try to stop the mud slinging, I know one US forum which wasn’t about politics but allowed some discussion which effectively banned all political posting for the duration of the presidential campaign because the vitriol got so bad.

    It might seem extreme, but if it gets to the stage that nothing worthwhile is being said and all your doing is moderating, then suspension in an election is an option you may need to consider.

    Finally, what did you think of the Guardian/ICM poll on “Class”.


  14. Anthony

    Couldn’t agree with you more. I visit this blog to come across reasonably rational opinions some of which obviously come from people with different political views to my own but who have something to say which makes one reflect a bit. For instance down here in the south I don’t come across many SNP folk (if any) so I find it interesting to read Peter Cairn’s contributions. As you wrote there’s plenty of places for ranting but not many places like this. I hears Kavanagh waxing lyrical about the EU Treaty on Any Questions yesterday (you’d have thought the Sun was THE infallible source of the truth) and I’m looking forward to some polling evidence about whether most people REALLY care much about this?

  15. Warren,

    Thank you for reminding me about Ashdown.

    Actually, perhaps Ming was an aberration in that the Liberals alternated between a Scottish/West Country leader for most of the post-war period:

    i.e. Grimond / Thorpe / Steel / Ashdown / Kennedy

    There is one other feature Huhne & Clegg share which marks the out as unusual among Liberal / LD MPs. They both stood in 2005 in seats already held by their party, whereas most LD MPS have either won their seta n a by-election or from one of the other parties at a GE. I can only think of two other current LD MPS who fall into this category (Wallace & Viscount Thurso)and they represent seats the Liberals ave held for decades.

  16. Peter – the vast majority of the posters here do get it, and I’m very grateful to them for making the discussion here what it is (one of the reasons I don’t like making posts like the above is that I unvariably get some emails from valued posters who contribute to exactly the sort of non-partisan discussion that I want but who are worried that they are being too partisan). If you are trying to be non-partisan you are almost certainly doing the right thing – Peter certainly is – the problem is those who don’t bother trying, or try and subvert it to win little political points.

  17. I take your point Anthony.I’ll leave and come back another time.Sorry for trying to even out some of the discussions on here,which are generally one sided.

    Maybe in a few months.

  18. That wasn’t a dig at you or the blog.It’s just that the majority of the posters who post on here are of Conservative persuasion.I have actually lurked on here for a while but thought it was all getting a bit too one sided .Alot of my posts were actually in jest,but hey,who needs humour.Will keep lurking but keep my comments to nearer the election.Good luck to Dave Hawk and Gary Gatter,keep the minority alive on here.


  19. Mike Richardson you said “Firstly I only ever said the END OF SEPTEMBER (not September)”, please look at your post, August 3rd “I reckon the polls will be back to a Tory lead by September”.

  20. Anthony, I do try not to be partisan and do try not to score points (sorry about my last post, I just could not resist, Mike Richardson had somehow got his facts wrong). This is a great site, if I am too partisan I apologise and will try not to be too one sided on my comments. But more importantly, when is the next poll?

    T Jones, I don’t think you should go or stop posting comments on here. But never ever say TTFN again, it made me feel very old ;-)

  21. I’m not sure that position on political philosophy is at all the same thing as position on political party.
    It seems to me that the former is not a function of partisanship, but a whole mixture of things like upbringing & background-career choice & experience-intellectual preference etc. etc.

    These criteria can transend pure party allegiance. Indeed it is the nature of political parties that they change emphasis ( though hopefully not core beliefs!!) from time to time.
    So one can be in a position where bits of policy from a number of parties can appeal at any one time-unless one is uncompromisingly attached to one party or another come what may.

    My core beliefs are right of centre ( though I prefer that phrase as a guide to general political geography rather than a precise political grid-reference)…but I voted for Blair in 1997-and have not felt personally comfortable again with the Conservative Party until I heard Cameron’s speech in Blackpool.

    I hope you return soon T Jones-whilst recognising Anthony’s guidelines,I find it intellectually stretching to read & try to respond to differing political perpectives.

  22. I have posted on here for some time now. I think that time is over and from now on I will become an observer. This is a great site to get the latest polls and peoples views on them, I am looking forward to the next poll.

  23. Gary – no problem with any of your comments (and YouGov’s monthly poll should be on Friday, with ICM’s sometime mid-week)

  24. Gary – We can all lurk together in the shadows…The shadow cabinet maybe?

  25. Gary – One last thing,thanks for actually pointing out that what I stated was correct. TTFN…whooops.

    This leaves the baton with Dave Hawk.Hold it well Dave.

    Till we all meet again.

    *** Fades off into the shadows awaiting the call of the election ***

  26. Having ben away for a little while, it seems forumers have entered a sort of self-evaluative stage. So I’ll say my bit! I’m 24, so probably amongst the youngest contributors here, and not really that died-in-the-wool, having, in the two general elections in which I have been eliigable to vote, voted Lib Dem and Conservative. I am Libertarian or classical Liberal philosophically and admire the Liberal party of the nineteenth century. I do, however, like David Cameron much more than any previous Conservtaive leader since John Major. I also like Nick Clegg as well, but in a general election I would not vote Lib Dem unless I lived in a Lib Dem/Labour marginal, like Cambridge where I was at 2005 when I was a student there.

  27. power of the polls etc.Was just browsing the polls from April 1991 as I seem to recall there was some pressure for John Major to call an election due to the Gulf War factor and some favourable opinion polls. As it happens a small Tory lead quickly evaported as the press bandwagon hyped up an election.Very much like the last few weeks.

    On a wider issue I believe polls can affect turnout,and therefore the result, drastically.If voters feel it’s going to be a close run thing they’ll come out-as they did in 1992. If they feel it’s more or less in the bag for one party they’ll stay at home in large numbers, 1997,2001 and 2005. I suspect the next election will be quite close,with both the Tories and Labour in the mid to high 30s and the LDs around 16%.

  28. The fierceness of the rivalry might also affect turnout (not much difference = lower turnout) as an example close to home, this site may well experience a larger “turnout” (number of posts) during a partisan exchange of comments, and may reduce when the temperature cools. Not at the expense of the humour we hope.

    I’ve been known to bait the opposition on other sites more than once, and now that the feverishness of the first PMQs clashes has abated, the debate has been less unpleasant elsewhere, but still is way below the erudition on here.

  29. Tony,

    Sorry for not wording things better. I was using Sean’s figures as an example of how things would look without polling.


    Has there been any polling to show where the Lib Dem vote has gone if it has gone?

  30. “Has there been any polling to show where the Lib Dem vote has gone if it has gone?”

    an unscientific reading of the polls would suggest it has split between both Labour and Tories at around 60/40.There was an interesting graphic in the Guardian showing which party people rated the best on various issues.The LDs appeared to have around a 6-10% rating on every issue-almost invisible.It looks like we are back to the classic thrird party squeeze.

  31. Ralph. It’s very difficult to say.

    If you look at the breakdown of how people who say they voted Lib Dem in 2005 say they would vote in an election tomorrow, those who no longer vote Lib Dem split evenly between the Conservatives and Labour (it varies quite a lot from month to month, since this is a very small subsample of people, but over time it appears to be pretty even).

    However, as we know people aren’t actually very good at accurately relaying how they actually voted in 2005. I suspect a fair few of those people saying they voted Labour in 2005 are actually people who are natural Labour supporters who tactically (or as an anti-war protest) voted for the Liberal Democrats last time round, so some of the people who show up in polls as supporting Labour in 05 and Labour now, are actually LD->Lab switchers. So no straight answer, but Brian is probably right that they have disproportionately switched over to Labour.

  32. If they have disproportionately broken for Labour, where has the rise in Tory votes come from? Labour too?

    Are the Tories gaining from both while Labour gains from LDs to cancel out the loss to the Tories?

  33. Philip,

    I suspect you are probably right in that in 97 there were a lot of home owning non-union Tories voted for Blair because he was seen as new and the Tories tired.

    Nor should we forget the effect of the ERM fiasco and indeed the hit to Tory credibility from the likes of BSE. (Gummer and his burger).

    Labour were traumatised in 79 when all those working class people voted Tory because ” Labour wasn’t working”. Some had lost faith or patience with Labour but , for me anyway, a fair percentage were fair weather friends who had never really had deep party allegience.

    On sites like this we tend to classify people by party support but we are less good at measuring the depth of that support. I suspect that in any election there are close to 20% who would vote for any of the three main parties (plus us of course).

    One of the worst and most basic mistakes a party can make is to believe that the people who vote for them are all their supporters, they never are.

    It would be intertesting to see a poll that asked people how many parties they had voted for over the years.

    I often think that one of the most interesting parts of the poll results are where we see the percentages who will vote as they are classified. The number for Labour and the Tories is often around 15% but can be over 25% for the LibDems.

    Part of this is tactical like a Labour supporter in a LibDem/Tory marginal, but I think it would be interesting if Anthony gave us a graph that showed this difference over time, so that we could see how the numbers of party supporters prepared to switch from there allegience had actually changed since the last election.

    It might go some way to answering the question of who has lost faith, gained credibility or the nature of the current churn.


  34. “If they have disproportionately broken for Labour, where has the rise in Tory votes come from? Labour too?”

    Yes,why not? Both parties are in the market for the large amount of voters who are ‘soft’ in their choice of party.

    Peter Cairns: Interesting point.I have a close family memner in Westmoreland who has always voted Lib Dem to keep the Tories out.Due to Cameron she’s now undecided.It’s not scientific but I doubt she’s unique either.

  35. Quote – ” Labour were traumatised in 79 when all those working class people voted Tory because ” Labour wasn’t working”. Some had lost faith or patience with Labour but , for me anyway, a fair percentage were fair weather friends who had never really had deep party allegience.”

    I’ve heard some estimates that about 5 million working class people switched to the Tories in 1979. But there must have been some churn in the figures. Labour still came out with 11.5 million votes – slightly up on October 1974 and a similar share of the vote to February 1974.

    There was a higher turnout.

    The Tories probably advanced less amongst middle class people, whereas Labour made some gains in this area – according to the polls.

  36. Joe,

    Regardless of the churn and where the votes went, I think my comment is still valid, Labour were traumatised, and the Tories equally in 97.

    Perhaps the warning is double edged not only shouldn’t you believe your own propoganda about your supporters, but you shouldn’t believe propoganda about what actually happened at an election…..


  37. I’ve always found the 1979 results a bit of a puzzle because to read the broadbrush accounts in the media you would think there had been some massive loss of Labour votes.

    I suspect there was a big swing in the working class votes (particularly C2) which were direct losses for Labour, and gains for the Tories.

    The Tories would also have regained quite a lot of 1974 Liberal votes, and some abstainers from Oct 74. But they also did well amongst new voters according to the polls.

    I suspect Labour just about replenished their 11.5million net by getting some extra voters out compared to Oct 74, making some gains from the Liberals, and even some middle class votes generally, plus they secured a favourable swing in Scotland, and some parts of the north west.

  38. Peter

    As often before, I agree with your analysis regarding the party loyalty of those who arn’t party members. I have never voted for a party or even for an individual. I place my cross where it will be tactically most effective in countering what Tony Blair called “the forces of conservatism” which hasn’t so far meant voting for the Conservatives.

    The closest I ever came to voting for an individual was when I voted for Anne Lorn Gilles in Western Isles. I would have voted for her on the normal basis anyway, but after seeing and hearing how she was treated by the Christian right at an election meeting, I would now give her my vote anywhere any time even on Big Brother or Pop Idol.

    There were people there baying like dogs because, while they expected the LibDem to support liberal polices and the big party candidates to dissemble, they were shocked that a Gaelic speaker, imbued in Gaelic culture as she is, and claiming to be one of their own, did not share their views on abortion, divorce, hanging … etc. .. and the Establishment of a national Presbyterian church.

    “a bit lke Christians and Lions” Winnie Ewing said to me afterwards, but she was wrong. It was the lions that got eaten.

    I was looking for the fire exits.

  39. Lorne not Lorn please Moderator

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