I started writing this blog back in 2005, largely because I thought the media’s treatment of opinion polls was so unremittingly awful. One problem was the media’s tendency to treat whatever poll they had commissioned themselves as it if were the gospel truth, while ignoring polls commissioned by other papers. In voting intention at least they have improved on this – I quite often see journalists putting reports of voting intention figures in the context of other polls that have shown similar or contrasting trends in support. However, the problem is still rife with other polling questions – newspapers will write a whole story based on a single question in a poll they have commissioned, ignoring the evidence from many other polls on the same subject.

There is a classic example in the Independent today and their treatment of last night’s ComRes poll. I don’t wish to criticise the Indy too much- they have not misrepresented the poll in anyway, it is reported in an entirely fair and accurate way. Nevertheless, but taking a single poll question in isolation it ends up creating a shallow and one-sided picture of public opinion.

ComRes’s poll yesterday 72% of people agreed with the statement “It is time for the Coalition to change its economic policy to be focused more on promoting growth and less on spending cuts”. Taken in isolation, that suggests overwhelming opposition to the government’s economic policy and support for Labour’s alternative.

However, we don’t have to take it in isolation, as we have lots of other evidence too. I’ve written in the past about the shortcomings of “do you agree or disagree with this statement” questions – they risk skewing answers in the direction of the statement. For example, in December ComRes asked whether people agreed with the statement that “The Government should not increase public borrowing any further and its top priority should be to pay off the nation’s deficit as soon as possible” and found 74% of people agreed. Taken in isolation that would have suggested overwhelming support for the government’s position… except that ComRes also asked if people agreed that “The Government should borrow more in the short term to increase economic growth as much as possible even if it means reducing the deficit more slowly” and found that 49% of people agreed. In other words, 23% of people agreed both that the government should not borrow any more, and also that they should borrow more. ComRes’s findings in that poll suggest that the picture is not as clear as the single question today would suggest.

Unsurprisingly given the importance of the question, other polls and companies have come at the same question from different angles. Populus this month read out two sentences summarising the government view and the Labour view on the economy and cuts (without identifying them as such), and asked people which they most agreed with. They got an almost even split, 48% in favour of the government’s stance, 49% in favour of Labour’s stance.

YouGov do a similar question as a semi-regular tracker, asking people to say if the government should stick to its present strategy of reducing the deficit, even if this means growth remains slow, or whether the government should change its strategy to concentrate on growth, even if that means the deficit stays longer or gets worse. The last time YouGov asked that, also this month, showed 33% supported the present strategy and 39% wanted to change (29% weren’t sure or didn’t want either), so slightly more support for Labour’s stance than the Conservative one.

If you take a broad overview of all the polling evidence you end up with quite a mixed picture – certainly opinion seems to be moving in the direction of more of an emphasis on growth and less on the deficit, but the public remain quite evenly split. Looking at other polls people are opposed to the cuts, and they want to see more emphasis on growth. But they also want to see the deficit reduced, and think the cuts are necessary in order to do that. Ask them if they want to have their cake they say yes, ask them if they’d like to eat it they also say yes. Taking just a single polling question doesn’t give this broad picture at all – and indeed, depending on what the question was could produce entirely contradictory pictures.

The question we should ask ourselves is this – when the media talk about opinion polls, should they actually be doing their best to explain and illustrate the public’s opinion on an issue, taking all the available evidence into account, even if it ends up being muddy, confused, unclear and possibly quite dull? Or should they be plucking out single findings and trying to weave them into a sensational story?


241 Responses to “Polling on economic policy”

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  1. SOCALLIBERAL.

    Good Morning to you.
    Before my 10k run on beach.
    In England the Church has been on the ‘left’ on the socio-economic issues, and so has ‘rome’.

    In terms of the appalling abuse issue: 10,000 children were removed from their homes in our country in 2010-2011.

    It goes everywhere.

    Confession is sacrosanct.

    Have you read; ‘The last acceptable prejudice’?

    There has been a recent politcal struggle in our borough of Richmond, surrey, where the Church is now going to be able to build state aided primary and secondary schools; there was quite a struggle with a lobby which opposed such schools, supported by Vincent Cable.

  2. The latest Lab lead could be an outlier of course, but also could be the result of impact of the revising downwards of the UK GDP for the period to end of March.

    Add to this the clear message from Mme Lagarde about the state of the UK economy and I think increasingly joe public are perceiving this gov have made a mess of the economy and that Lab have been right all along for the essential need to stimulate growth.

    Further, all the signs are that this is a gov and PM deep in trouble – and joe public (or at least a large slice) are recognising that.

    By this time tomorrow, I’ll probably be eating humble pie (hot, subject to VAT) with the Lab lead down to single digits…

  3. NickP
    Since I couldn’t actually find an answer given to you anywhere –
    Rest of South (SE+SW) 1997
    Con – 39.9%
    Lab – 28%
    Lib – 26.4%
    (Lab ahead of Lib in SE, but Lib ahead of Lab in SW)
    So change since 1997 (Warning: SubSamples and possibly outlier of a poll) –
    Con -2.9
    Lab +11
    Lib -16.4

  4. And I should note – that’s the *result* in 1997.. I don’t have any *polling* from the period but I suspect that the polling was massively in favour of Lab compared to the result.

  5. John TT agree re
    “On the VI, I don’t think the Conservaties will lose sleep until they are under 30 with a year to go – Labour on 45 looks soft until they grab the agenda and deliver a vision”
    Re Economic record/capabilities.
    imo the voting public don’t follow IMF reports GDP figures etc except maybe a little at GEs when they can add to the views the are reaching based on their own experiences.

    For me the key is about responsibility for Economic problems. Understandably the Cons (and LDs) sought to blame Labour for most of the difficulties in 2008/10; broadly acknowledging world-wide factors but ‘we are much worse in the UK because of Labour’.

    This may or may not be true (a debate for elsewhere) but those claims do not sit comfortably with the Gov’t defence now that all our Economic woes are down to the malaise in the Euro Zone.

    I do think that without following the details the public do sense a contradiction that is eating at the heart of Governments Economic credibility; the Budget presentation and some of the content only accelerated this process imo.
    Of course if the private sector steps up with decent jobs and unemployment and under-employment starts to fall in the next year all may well be rosy in the Coalitions garden.

  6. Peter Cairns

    You may well have missed it but YouGov have since put up the full tables including Westminster and Holyrood VI for that Scottish poll here:

    http://d25d2506sfb94s.cloudfront.net/cumulus_uploads/document/ntiyzpelka/YG-Archives-Politics-ScottishVI-280512.pdf

    Westminster is:

    Con 14
    Lab 40
    Lib Dem 5
    SNP 35
    Green 2
    UKIP 2
    BNP 0
    Respect 0
    Other 1

    Non voters 14%

    Scottish Regional Vote:

    Conservative 13
    Labour 34
    Lib Dem 4
    SNP 36
    Green 6
    Scottish Socialist Party 3
    Solidarity 0
    Other 3[1]

    This rather shows that the SNP aren’t as unpopular for Westminster or popular for Holyrood as you might think – though in a real campaign the greater emphasis on UKI/Scottish issues might swing things in the way you suggest.

    [1] Judging from the demographic on this, 2 points of this are probably UKIP and they should really be asked for separately – they got more votes than SSP or Solidarity in 2011 after all.

  7. Back on topic, those Scottish tables do show the very close link between voting and belief on the economy.

    Of those who think Scotland would be financially better .. off if Scotland became independent from the rest of the UK only 4% will vote No. Of those who replied “worse off” only 1% will vote Yes.

    Of course we’ve got the old correlation-not-causation thing going on here and those pro/anti independence may have convinced themselves that it will be good/bad for the economy rather than the other way round. But it does show how important economic issues will be in any referendum.

  8. Phil – He didn’t actually say “I agree with Rupert”, but his praise was certainly effusive, and he stuck his neck out to show his loyalty.

    Gove will do well to slow down a bit in his speech, simply because he might develop a reputation for being a brilliant speaker, rather than a gret thinker, which I think he wants to become known as.

    Ozwald – re the level of debate here – I remember Wayne and “Atlas Shrugged” (who intended no irony in the choice of name!) and came in on the end of Max, so i’m aware that the level of debate can fluctuate. Pretty good at the moment, and the real psephologists (ie not I!) are to the fore, thank goodness.

  9. John TT

    Thanks for your response last night.

    re “He siounded like a well-trained politician, and not as sincere as the real person underneath.”

    As Gove might have said before Leveson-“to whom”?.

    We will have to disagree on the point. Since the tv audience for Leveson is , I imagine, hardly opinion changing nationally, it will be Gove’s performance in his job which will be of more significance.

    I pin great hopes on that.though he & his new Chief Inspector have fires to go through yet-what’s new in education in this country?

    As for “the real person”-we will all have to make our own minds up.Conservative Party members may be doing that in a leadership ballot some time in the future.

    That of course won’t include me :-)

  10. …..john -meant to say I didn’t understand the reference to “Textspeak”-blissfully technophobe !

  11. Colin “to whom?”. To me! I did enjoy the use of “whom”, adifferent pronunciations of “elan” (I prefer the Anglicised), and especially Gove’s point that low circulation of ideas doesn’t negate their value – he listens to them.

    If his performance in his job is as automaton-like as his vocal delivery, he’ll find it hard to accomplish what he wants. What he sounds like does matter a little when he’s negotiating and seeking to persuade.

    I presume you are not a Conservative member because you are a leftie :)

  12. Colin – atb?

  13. As Rawnsley wrote in the Observer, the Leveson inquiry was set up to investigate the media but has become an inquisition of politicians.

    Gove’s appearance has generated some discussion on this site but was ignored in the media. [They are waiting for the main event: Hunt.]
    Gove’s defence of “free speech” was predictable from an ex-Murdoch journalist [though one notes he tramples on any opinion from schools which challenge his views]: but our “free press” is predominantly a right-wing one, vast swathes of which seek to deform rather than inform public opinion, & which recent events have shown to be mired in corruption.
    There may not be an easy solution but it seems peverse to pretend there isn’t a problem.

  14. @Tingedfringe

    Interesting statistics comparing the South 1997 to today. What they mean in terms of seats is a different question! The LibDem loss of votes to Labour could mean Tory gains. Does the small swing from Con to Lab lose the Tories more than they gain from the Liberals?

    From his acceptance speech Ed Miliband’s strategy has (so it seems to me) been based on the assumption that the answer to that question is “Yes”. His New Labour critics have based their critique on the answer being “No”.

    My feeling is “It Depends”. A more rational assesment would be that the situation is now “chaotic”. By which I mean that small differences can have large unpredictable consequences.

    My prediction for 2015? The UNS prediction will be wide of the mark!

  15. Just as Gove attempted to turn the tide in favour of the “impressive” figure of Murdoch, one Mr Coulson is detained again and will now have to explain why he continued (under oath) to stand by his one rogue reporter story at Tommy Sheridan’s Perjury trial.

    Perjury is a big one and if it sticks he could be behind bars sooner than we thought.

    Might un-nerve Hunt again if he was emboldened by Gove. But Cameron can’t be looking forward to the possibility of his spin doctor going to jail.

  16. Andy Coulson arrested re allegations of perjury. Presumably something he said at the Leveson inquiry. Interesting times for Hunt and Cameron in the next few days.

  17. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-glasgow-west-18262740

    Coulson arrested for perjury. It is getting a whole lot worse for DC and the boys.

    I remember when AC resigned I thought. “He’s just committed perjury in the TS trial!” Because, if you remember, he resigned the day after testifying. Tricky Tommy asked him a whole set of thorny questions about hacking which he had to answer on oath.

    It will be VERY interesting to go back through the trial manuscript to see what he said and what he was asked. I always believed that it was something that had happened at the trial that made him realise he had to resign.

    It seems like at the time AC was caught on a dilemma – if he told the truth he would let the entire cat out of the bag about phone-hacking. Now it seems he’s in a dilemma because to save his skin he’s having to admit loads of stuff he previously denied on oath.

  18. Very bitter Lab supporters here re Murdoch. The economy will decide election. Balls and Ed have less credibility on it than Kinnock

  19. Peter – “Andy Coulson arrested re allegations of perjury. Presumably something he said at the Leveson inquiry.”

    No, the speculation is, as AdrianB says, that it is in connection with his testimony to the Tommy Sheridan trial.

  20. And yet more U-turns on the budget. Their now thinking of scrapping the cap on donations (which was always a bit silly I thought).

    Blimey – I can’t remember a budget that has so quickly been undone and had to be remade. The 10p debacle was one thing (and rightly castigated), but that was just one measure.

    In this year’s budget itself we had the U-turn on child-benefit caps. Now we’ve had U-turns on pasty’s, caravans and donations. Pretty soon we’re going to need a set time in the parliamentary calendar for The Un-Budget: Repairing all the Mistakes We Made Three Months Ago.

    I think the Tory VI numbers really would take a bit of lift if they could just avoid hapless, gaffe-prone governing for two consecutive weeks.

  21. Levenson is waste of cash that should be used for care for elderly. How very revealing that Labour are so much more comfortable defending z list phone yacked celebs – a point I make and I thjink gets through elsewhere.

  22. It will be interesting to see whether if Coulson goes down if it has any perceivable effect on VI. It could be most people have already made up their minds and it is factored in.

    Or it could be many people are barely aware but seeing Coulson jailed in a blaze of “Cameron’s ex-adviser jailed” headlines will concentrate their attention with a bang.

  23. JJB

    You may be right that many people don’t “get” levenson, but its fallout could be far-reaching as far as the polls go. I think you are “in denial” as the saying goes.

  24. Mote and beam, sir. Mote and beam

  25. Am I in denial, AW? About what?

  26. Johntt

    @”I presume you are not a Conservative member because you are a leftie ”

    No you don’t. :-)

    Being a member of a political party , with all that it entails, is very unappealing to me.

    all the best !

  27. Mote & Tree trunk :-)

  28. I think the bigger news is that Doctors have voted to take industrial action. Elective operations during the strike period will be cancelled, as will routine non-emergency GP appointments.

  29. I suspect the ‘care of elderly’ will become an increasingly relevant issue in coming years when the baby boomers (I’m one) wake up to the fact that they are going to lose all their capital, as well as their lives through slow death, as my parents have done. The longer you hold out in your dotage, the more cash the kids are going to kiss goodbye.

  30. JJB – it wasn’t just celebrities who got hacked though, was it?

    It was proven that Royals were hacked (and a people were imprisoned for it). It was widelsy suspected that celebrities were, and many people probably feel they are fair game.

    But Milly Dowler, the McCanns, politicians?

    When it also came to light that we aren’t just talking about a bit of hacking, but collusion between hacks, PIs and the police, with bribes to officers, the disruption of a murder inquiry, what could be seen as blackmail against those few who would speak out before last June?

    You may want to think it’s just about celebs being precious, but I think a lot of people see more than that, and it will only harm perceptions of the government if they seek to defend the media, especially where there are personal links via Coulson, Gove, Brooks, etc and alllegations over the BSkyB deal rumbling on.

  31. NickP – I was thinking more of discussion here in the run up to the mayoral elections, but nevertheless, it’s not polite or conducive to non-partisan discussion to accuse others of being denial because they don’t agree with you.

  32. Is there a danger that Cameron is so damaged by the issues affecting News International former employees, that he is unable to continue as PM ?

    Cameron has said before that people must take responsibility for their own conduct and if he is found to have made mistakes in regard to his relationships with people, that he will make an appropriate apology.

    The problem with this, is that some significant numbers of voters are cynical about politicians in general. While they may accept apologies for mistakes, there would be questions about judgement. One of the key account-abilities for a PM, is their level of judgement.

    I could envisage it getting to a point, where Camerons personal ratings are so damaged, that some parts of the Conservative party might look to trigger a leadership contest.

  33. Being a member of a political party cost me £12 per year. That’s all it entails, the rest is voluntary (I do nothing) and it gives me the moral right to make this web page look prettier and is a sort of biodiversity, do you not agree AW?

  34. You don’t need to be a party member to use a party background, it doesn’t make you a spokesman of the party, it’s just to show others who you support.

  35. Danivon – most of that happened when New Labour were close to NI. The Other Howard, I think there is more we can do here even within limited cash, and also to deal with annuities

  36. Sorry I meant howard

  37. Great piece by Peter Kellner, Britain’s Jubilee blues. I think He smeant to say the country has gone to the corgis.

  38. Howard,

    “Being a member of a political party cost me £12 per year. That’s all it entails, the rest is voluntary (I do nothing)”

    Spoken like a true LibDem!

    Roger,

    “This rather shows that the SNP aren’t as unpopular for Westminster or popular for Holyrood as you might think”

    No it shows exactly what I think; the movement away from the SNP to Labour in Westminster voting intentions is about peoples negativity towards the coalition in London and not disappointment with the SNP.

    what the average of polls shows is that Labour are ahead of the SNP for Westminster and the SNP are ahead of Labour for Holyrood.

    With the coalition seeming weak Labour have risen in Westminster polls north and South of the border as you would expect them to, but less so in Scotland because their principle opposition here is not the one doing badly.

    At Holyrood the SNP have dropped back on 2011, but a key factor then was Salmond v Gray.

    Lamonot v Salmond won’t really be a factor in polling until an election and only then will we see if she can win in what has become an almost Presidential competition.

    As to the ecomomic question you are quite right, overwhelmingly people who would vote yes think they would be better off and vica versa.

    That doesn’t tell us if they are voting that way for there own financial concerns or those of the country or if they are voting on a short or long term view of Scotland’s prospects.

    If you like me see Independence as the chance to address Scotland’s problems rather than a solution to them then you might reasonably expect a sort of J curve with things being tough for a while and then getting progressively better.

    Unfortunately I suspect that there are quite a few Scots with what you might cruelly call a Greek mentality;

    They know we can do better, but don’t want to make the hard choices to make it happen.

    It will be hard to convince people to vote yes to facing up to the challenges ahead when it is easier for them to blame London for not facing up to them.

    Peter.

  39. @Adrian B – “… if you remember, he resigned the day after testifying.”

    In 2010 there had been calls to reopen the police investigation into phone hacking (following NYT and Guardian revelations). Coulson had been questioned early in November but not arrested or cautioned. CPS announced that no further charges would be brought regarding NoW – Coulson was considered to have been exonerated.

    Coulson’s testimony at the Sheridan trial was in fact early December 2010.

    Rumours began to circulate in the New Year that so-called “Chapman Tapes” (supposedly records of an ex-journo’s telephone converations with editors), had been lodged with a solicitor, copies made and delivered to Scotland Yard.

    Coulson left Downing street late oin January 2011, Ian Edmondson had just been sacked from NoW. A week later Operation Wheeting was opened.

  40. @ Peter

    They [the Scottish electorate] know we can do better, but don’t want to make the hard choices to make it happen.
    ———————————-
    And the same to you, Sir.

    Many of us (including the leader of the Scottish Greens) seem to believe that it is the SNP who are ducking or deferring the hard choices about currency, defence, head of state, the EU etc.
    8-)

  41. JJB – maybe it was. But all parties have tried to cosy up to them at some point, so that’s not what will sway people much. Neither will who was in government, unless you can find a link between government and the hacking/police corruption activities.

    What matters more to current politics and polling is the perception of current politicians and parties. New Labour has gone, but the guy who hired Andy Coulson is still in post. We’ve just seen a cabinet minister tell us how great Murdoch is and try to argue as if the only issue is censorship (Gove is right to want free speech, if a little overzealous). Soon Hunt will have to come up and answer awkward questions about what he did in the last 18 months.

  42. joe james b

    Levenson is waste of cash that should be used for care for elderly. How very revealing that Labour are so much more comfortable defending z list phone yacked celebs.

    So I take it you’ll be calling for the dismissal of the government that set it up then and fresh elections. :P

    I do think this is taking partisanship to a rather silly level. And that’s without the call to stop things when they don’t go your way and spend the money on fluffy kittens or whatever.

    Leveson was set up to address:

    the culture, practices and ethics of the press, including contacts between the press and politicians and the press and the police; it is to consider the extent to which the current regulatory regime has failed and whether there has been a failure to act upon any previous warnings about media misconduct

    Now if you think that is all hunky dory and always has been, then fine. There seem to be some pending court cases that suggest things might be otherwise. I suspect however that you really think that the Press should be left alone because it is on your side. But if you think about it there’s no guarantee that will last. Indeed the more powerful groups such as News International become the more they will want and the more likely to switch sides to demonstrate that power.

  43. AW ” I was thinking more of discussion here in the run up to the mayoral elections, but nevertheless, it’s not polite or conducive to non-partisan discussion to accuse others of being denial because they don’t agree with you.”

    Okay. I’m not sure I was ever in denial over the mayoral elections. I just did not accept that the huge poll gaps were right.

    Ken vs Boris was decided by about 60,000 votes out of 2 million-ish. I thought Ken could do it and I was that close to being right.

    Closer than a helluva lot of the polls, in fact.

  44. Amber,

    “ducking or deferring the hard choices about currency, defence, head of state, the EU etc.”

    They are not a Parties choices to make, they are Scotland’s.

    We have proposed keeping the pound and negotiating do do so, but if post Independence the Scottish Government of the day wants to adopt the Euro or introduce the Grott, that will be up to it.

    On defence it will be up to the Scottish government to set a defence budget and decide what to spend it on, just like any other European Country. We may have our own thoughts but they can’t be binding.

    On the head of state we have proposed we keep the Queen until people decide otherwise which is more a statement of fact than a policy. If post Independence people want anything from Princess Ann to Wee Jimmy that will be their choice.

    On the EU we are clear that we will inherit membership, but there might be a desire to look at the Terms and whatever the outcome is it would be up to a future Scottish Government to decide them and change them.

    The SNP position is clear, we have put forward transitional proposals on all these things but the long term solutions will be decided by Scots post Independence.

    If Unionists are so keen that the Scottish People get answers to these questions prior to the referendum, why not give us yours.

    Would you support or oppose Scotland continuing in the EU?
    Would you oppose Scotland using Sterling?
    Would you insist on Trident remaining in Scotland?
    What equipment from the Army, Navy and Irforce would you offer us.
    How much of the North Sea will we get?
    What share of UK debt will you expect us to have?
    What proportion of Britain’s EU rebate do you offer us?
    What guarantee will you give to retain the Barnett formula if we stay?
    What exactly are the new powers on offer if we vote No?
    Will you put up border posts?
    Will Scots be barred from joining the UK armed forces?
    Will we have free trade without barriers or tariffs?

    In short if you really do want answers you should be more than calable of laying them out. You seem very keen to ask the questions and cast doubt but very reticent to give us your answers!

    Peter.

  45. I don’t usually get involved with the Scottish independence argument but a couple of questions occur to me:

    Does there need to be a minimum turnout? If say 51% of a 50% turnout voted to leave the UK that means that 49% of those who voted don’t want to leave…and only about a quarter of voters have actually voted to leave.
    That wouldn’t seem like a big mandate for a major change like that.

  46. Another u-turn, Buzzard trapping plan abandoned as government U-turns again.

    Are u-turns good or bad for a government? I am sure they are a bad thing. Is there any polling on u-turns being good or bad? Or does it depend on the u-turn?

  47. @ Peter Cairns

    The SNP position is clear, we have put forward transitional proposals on all these things but the long term solutions will be decided by Scots post Independence.
    ———————–
    It’s like I said – the SNP are deferring the hard choices to an electorate many of whom, you yourself complain, do not feel equipped to make those choices.

    Appeals by the electorate to the SNP for guidance on these issues falls on deaf ears. Why not make some hard choices yourselves, Peter before calling the electorate ‘chicken’?
    8-)

  48. @NICKP

    Not sure about a minimum turnout being required. What if the question was reversed? Should Scotland stay in the Union? What if less than 50% voted? Would the SNP then be allowed to say lets leave?

    I think anyone who does not vote on such an important issue probable doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other, or just does not care. The decision should be based on those who vote only (did I split an infinitive?).

  49. @ Peter

    If Unionists are so keen that the Scottish People get answers to these questions prior to the referendum, why not give us yours.
    ——————————-
    Independence is the SNP’s proposal. We ‘Unionists’ get to ask the questions, you chaps get to answer – or not, as the case may be. I have no objections to the SNP ducking & deferring, if that’s how they want to do it. Actually, come to think of it, I don’t mind the SNP calling many of the electorate ‘chicken’ & ‘afraid of hard choices’. If that’s going to be your strategy for convincing voters to back the proposal, I’ll be LOL :-)

  50. Are not minimum turnout requirements for referenda flawed as supporters of the losing position can abstain to stop the threshold being reached.
    A minimum yes vote works with 25% of the Elecorate being required for example but even then I am probably opposed.
    Why should the views of someone who can’t be bothered affect the result?

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