Over on the British Polling Council’s website there is a guide for journalists writing about opinion polls, written by YouGov’s Peter Kellner. The key point on it in number 13, advising journalists on what to look for in a poll – was it conducted by a reputable agency? What was the sample size? Was it properly sampled? Who was it conducted FOR? Peter writes:

In either event, watch out for loaded questions and selective findings, designed to bolster the view of the client, rather than report public opinion fully and objectively.

Now, a common criticism of polls is that they get the answers the company commissioning them want. I consistently argue against this accusation – it is the duty of a professional pollster to measure and report public opinion as it actually is, not as we would like it to be. It is our duty to craft questions that are fair and unbiased and accurately reflect public opinion.

Of course, most people could come with examples of questions that could have been better – I certainly could. I would contend these are cock-ups rather than conspiracy, simply because of pollsters’ professional dignity. A Bob Worcester, a Peter Kellner, an Andrew Cooper or a Martin Boon simply wouldn’t sign off a question they thought was biased (and, I hasten to add, neither would an Anthony Wells)

So why does the person who commissioned the poll still matter? Well, because they choose what the questions are asked about. The pollster should ensure whatever questions asked are unbiased, but it’s the client who choses what areas to ask about, and few clients commission polls they expect to damage their case. Hence, a client campaigning for tougher sentencing might commission a poll asking if people want to see longer prison sentences (since they do). A client who supports sentencing reform however might commission a poll asking if people thought prison was effective at reforming criminals (as they don’t). The broader picture is that public support long sentences, despite not thinking prison is particularly good at reforming or rehabilitating criminals. They like it for retributive reasons. However, if you saw only the questions commissioned by the imaginary pro-prison client, or only the questions commissioned by the imaginary anti-prison client, you wouldn’t know that, you’d only get one side of the story.

There are two lessons to take away. One, look at polls in the round, not in isolation. Don’t cherry pick those that tell you want you want to hear and ignore the others, the differences between them tell a story. Two, be careful with polls commissioned by partisan campaigns – if the pollsters are doing their job properly the questions will be fair and balanced, but they won’t necessarily look at the issue from all sides. Ask yourself what questions were not asked – if a poll is on the subject of a policy, proposal or suggestion and doesn’t ask whether or not people actually support that policy, ask yourself why they didn’t commission that question. Sometimes it might just be because there are a million existing polls on the subject. Sometimes it might be because they didn’t think they’d like the answer…

136 Responses to “The questions NOT asked…”

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  1. @R Huckle,

    But who do the banks borrow the money from? Surely if that other entity (presumably another bank, on the international money markets) lends them the money – and therefore has £1m less in its electronic database, then the money is merely moved not created.

  2. @ Neil A

    Houses and land values. Affordability and having banks etc that can lend at a suitable level. In London you would need at least 10x average income to buy a first house. Elsewhere I think it is running at about 6x average income. Banks and other mortgage providers are typically lending 3.5 times average income, with at least a 10% deposit required, plus the various fees.

    Another issue had been the planning system. In some areas, it can be difficult to obtain consent to build, so the price of such land is expensive as a result. If you want cheaper houses, then release a load of government land and only allow affordable homes to be built.

    This is not just a UK issue, but anywhere there is national obsession with home ownership and rental prices are high, there is the same problem. e.g Australia. In Germany, I don’t think they have the same problem, as rents are cheaper in comparison.

  3. @ Neil A

    I may be wrong, but I think they go to the BOE or use inter-bank lending to get the money to lend. Money must be created, as otherwise we would only ever have the same amount in circulation. It is not just money released as QE.

    I think it is mainly the central banks that create the money, as when the inter-bank lending market collapsed, some of the central banks acted as lender of last resort.

  4. In a hypothetical example (I can’t find any actual statistics..)

    If the land for building a house costs £30,000.

    And the value of a house built on that land is £100,000.

    And the cost of physically building a house is £50,000.

    Then there is cash on the table to the value of £20,000. Given the time it takes to build a house, a bank lending the £80,000 could expect to get a nice return within less than a year. Good business.

    Then if property and land prices doubled.

    The land for building a house now costs £60,000.

    The value of a house on that land is now £200,000.

    The physical cost of building a house (presumably) is still £50,000.

    So now you can lend £110,000 – and in less than a year that returns £90,000 in profit. Even better business. And all of the ancillary costs (legal fees, administration etc) shouldn’t rise at all.

    It’s hard to see where in all this a rise in house prices stops banks from lending to developers.

  5. It occurred to me that what the contributors to the programme were actually advocating, once the anti-Tory, Occupy Movement backdrop is strippped away, is old-fashioned Thatcherite monetarism.

    Restrict money growth = control inflation.


    Many thanks.
    Yes bournemouth and poole have areas of wealth and many areas of great social problems, with other areas of lower middle class housing

    The police said the cash economy from thefts feed the drug addiction problem.

    As with other areas, so many young people are out of work, have disfunctional families and poor schooling.

  7. @CHRISLANE1945

    Sorry to hear of the difficulties…Am sure it was a shock but glad that you guys are safe.

    Many thanks, it is nice that UKPR people are kind, even though we sometimes are sharp with people, including me.

    Yes, we are safe, and, though a cliche, it is true, that is the most important thing.

    Our upper sixth daughter has a levels on Monday and Tuesday and had many essays which she has written over half term, as practice, on the stolen lap top.

  9. CHRISLANE1945

    How terrible for you. My sympathy.

  10. Fascinating (and, frankly, terrifying) insight into the cogitations high up in the German administration in this article in the FT

    I have feared from the moment that the depths of the current recession (and we really should now be using the term “Depression”) became clear, that democracy was going to face some very real challenges. I have watched with a combination of horror and bemusement as this has simply not been discussed in detail when considering alternative economic strategies.

    As Martin Wolf comments in that article, it appears that THE most important people in this affair are ignorant of the threat. Very, very worrying.

  11. Wish your daughter good luck from me, ChrisLane. Given we share a Tuesday exam, I’m guessing your daughter does History?

  12. @ Neil A

    Re banks not lending. If there is a risk of financial collapse with people either not buying or not paying their mortgages. The value of the asset is at risk.

    In the 1990’s after the ERM fallout, when interest rates went up to 15%, a lot of people lost their homes. Some of these homes were sold at virtually half price. I know people who made a lot of money from this, buying the repossessions, letting them out and then selling them when the prices rose.

    The point is that the banks have to write down the value of these assets and they have increased Insurances to pay, as well as increased interest to pay on the money they borrow. If you remember in the US, when the housing market collapsed, some of the Insurance companies who provided Insurance to the banks, also got into difficulty. I think the Insurance is contingent loss cover ?

    All of these issues affect the lending by banks, as they upgrade their risk assessment guidelines /acceptability criteria. If banks are not lending at a sufficient level, then houses don’t get built and people keep hold of land as a future investment.

  13. Denmark win – well done, neighbours.

  14. @R Huckle,

    I can understand how the credit crunch would affect investment in housebuilding. But the contributor was opining that high house prices in themselves lead to low levels of housebuilding (ie whilst they are high, not after the inevitable crash). That’s the bit I am struggling to follow.


    Please accept my sympathy-rotten business , being robbed.

  16. @R Huckle – “Banks create money by borrowing it.”

    Sorry, but you’ve got this entirely the wrong way round. Banks create money by lending, not borrowing – credit.

    To do this, they need first to attract a deposit, which is why they pay savers interest (in normal times). On the back of this, they can go out to the market place and lend many multiples of this amount in credit, for which they charge interest, with the spread between what they pay out in interest and what they receive forming the basis of their profits.

    This process explains why, in the run up to the banking crisis, we saw a number of Irish and Icelandic banks offering extremely good interest to new savers deposits – they were dangerously low on capital and had to attract new deposits. Once I saw what the Icelandic banks were offering in 2007 I knew they were in trouble. They weren’t going for profit – just scrabbling for capital.

    There are reams of regulations about how much they can leverage their capital assets (savers deposits) but it used to be around 7.5% of loans held as tier 1 (ie very safe) deposits, or something like that. In other words, over 90% of money doesn’t actually exists.

    They get away with this because savers don’t come and demand their cash back all at once – if they did, this would be a bank run.

    So to lend you money to buy the £1m Picasso, the bank would need to first have around £70,000 of savings deposits in it’s vaults.

    I guess there will be all kinds of complications over asset values and types of assets that I don’t really understand, but the credit crunch comes when banks think their assets aren’t worth as much as they thought, and so then have to restrict the credit they give out.

  17. Thanks Alec

    I was also thinking the banks borrow against the assets that they hold and not just on deposits.

  18. Banks routinely lend far more than they have because they don’t expect people to all ask for their money at once or all their loans to default.

    One of the problems that led to the crunch was that the way they calculated risk made them think they could lend far more than previously. The problem was compounded by banks lending long and borrowing short.

    By lending to each other they thought they were spreading risk which was true at first but the supposed reduced risk led them to lend more and more without increasing their reserves.

    Once it looked like a bank was in trouble banks wouldn’t risk lending to each other short term while needing to borrow from each other short term to cover their own long term lending.

    The whole system ground to a halt.

    We had increased what we had lent to hugely more than the assetts that banked up the lending. People forgot about systemic risk.


  19. @ Neil A

    It takes me a while to get to your new house building point but stay with me. I think the below example might help you understand the concept.

    Here’s how it works in the UK – I’ve simplified e.g. banks may lend 10x’s the deposits they hold; I’ve assumed a swap rather than a chain of buyers all with different banks (or even 2 customers with the same bank!).

    Bank A has a house worth £500k; Customer A has a $500k mortgage debt to Bank A.
    Bank B has a house worth £500k; Customer B has a $500k mortgage debt to Bank B.

    Customer B offers customer A £1M for his house.
    Customer A offers customer B £1M for his house.

    Bank A has £10k of deposits so is in a position to increase Customer A’s mortgage to £1M.
    Bank B has $10k of deposits so is in a position to increase Customer B’s mortgage to £1M.

    Title deeds are exchanged between the banks.
    Bank A now has an asset worth £1M
    Bank B now has an asset worth £1M
    No money has been created (only the BoE can create actual money). But, the swappit-doo has created £1M of asset value (£500k per house = £500k for each bank).

    Whilst the banks can do swaps/ chains of existing assets at escalating values, there is no need to take the risk of financing anything new, including new house building.

    If this still leaves you puzzled, let me know & I’ll try to answer any follow up questions.

  20. COLIN and OLD NAT.
    Thank you.

    On other matters, a friend with TIGPOO?TIGMOO connections says that there is a weekend poll with a 14% Labour lead.
    If LizH is still there, there will be lots of chilled Chablis.

  21. Angus Reid for the Sunday Express (http://www.express.co.uk/posts/view/325595/Tories-14-points-behind-Labour):
    LAB 43
    CON 29
    LD 9
    UKIP 9

  22. Typo alert – it should be 100k of deposits x 10 = £1M

  23. ALEC

    @”So to lend you money to buy the £1m Picasso, the bank would need to first have around £70,000 of savings deposits in it’s vaults.”

    This makes it sound as though the rest is magicked out of thin air.

    I don’t know whether the ratios you suggest are right or not, but any Bank balance sheet will show that assets must equal liabilities.

    These are Barclays Accounts for 2011:-


    The Balance Sheet is at page 108

    This is a very broad summary:-

    £ bn
    Liabilities / source of funds

    Called up share capital 14
    Retained earnings 51
    Shareholders Equity 65
    Customer deps. 366
    Other Bank deps. 91
    Repurchase agreements 207
    Debt securities 130
    Derivative instruments 528
    Other liabilities 176
    Total 1563

    Assets / deployment of funds

    Deposits at Central bank 106
    Trading assets 188
    Loans to customers 432
    Loans to other banks 47
    Reverse repurchase ags. 154
    Derivative instruments 539
    other assets 97
    Total 1563

    I don’t pretend to understand the nature of “Derivative instruments” or Repurchase agreements.-but they broadly cancel out.

    Its interesting to note that Loans to customers & other banks approximately equals Deposits from customers & other banks.

  24. @ PeeWee

    Angus Reid :-) But their last poll (not for the Express?) had Labour +16%, I think.

  25. @ Colin

    @”So to lend you money to buy the £1m Picasso, the bank would need to first have around £70,000 of savings deposits in it’s vaults.”

    This makes it sound as though the rest is magicked out of thin air.
    If the Picasso was previously valued at £500k, the additional £500k could be said to have been ‘magicked out of thin air’. It is still the same painting. Nothing of value has been added but the bank now owns (until the loan is cleared) an asset worth £1M which used to be an asset of £500k.

    Happy bank – it could have been Barclays! ;-)

  26. Amber.

    It doesn’t-at least not in Alec’s example.

    It owns a loan worth whatever it gave to the purchaser of the painting. The Banks asset will always be that value-and that’s what it will get back ( assuming the customer doesn’t default).

    The owner of the painting will see his asset value fluctuate in the way you describe. If he leverages an increase in value by borrowing more on the painting, from another bank , then he has crystallised the “value” which the art market has attributed to it.

    Both banks funding this painting are now reliant on that value being maintained.

    No sane bank would lend that sort of loot for use in such a volatile market………………..banks lend against things whose value can not go down………….like houses, and office blocks-and Spanish airports with no passengers………

    :-) :-)

  27. @ Colin

    I don’t know whether the ratios you suggest are right or not, but any Bank balance sheet will show that assets must equal liabilities.
    Not so, Colin. Assets = Liabilities + Shareholder value. The asset value increase almost inevitably becomes shareholder value which is not a ‘true’ liability; shareholders cannot demand that the bank pay them their portion of shareholder value in cash. They must seek that from ‘the market’.

  28. @ Colin

    The almost unique thing about UK banks is that they give mortgages on the assets. i.e. The bank owns the asset, be it a house or a painting. In the US, the bank does not own the asset. It is collateral for the loan but is owned by the borrower. This legal distinction regarding ownership was partly why UK banks were seen as being very strong & safe.

  29. @ Colin

    Both banks funding this painting are now reliant on that value being maintained.

    No sane bank would lend that sort of loot for use in such a volatile market
    Wrong again, Colin. There’s another peculiarity of the UK system compared to the US.

    In the US, when the bank claims the collateral because the repayments aren’t being made, seizing the asset ends the borrowers liability, even when the sale of the collateral doesn’t cover the outstanding loan.

    In the UK, the bank can seize the asset AND the borrower still owes the bank for the balance of the loan less the proceeds of the asset sale. Only certain types of legal bankruptcy proceedings can extinguish the balance of the debt.

    Minimum risk to the bank; all loss of asset value falls back on the borrower.

  30. @ Colin

    I answered your point but I caused another auto-mod; I think there’s some perfectly innocuous word related to banking which trips the auto-mod.

  31. “The almost unique thing about UK banks is that they give mortgages on the assets. i.e. The bank owns the asset…”

    That is not the case. The lender is merely the mortgagee and the title holder remains the owner. It is only when the position changes to ‘mortgagee in possession’ that matters change and, even then, if I remember my land law correctly the lender still does not attain ‘ownership’.

  32. I suppose the YG poll on attitudes to domestic abuse will be one in which some questions were not asked.


    I’m more than a little surprised (and disturbed) to find that it’s the younger age groups who find it more acceptable that “Sometimes men might make comments about violence towards a wife or partner that are intended to be a joke or light-hearted, for example joking with their friends that they’d like to give their female partner ‘a good slap’…
    In general, how acceptable or unacceptable do you
    think a comment like this ever is?”

    8% of those under 34 think this “very acceptable”, while only 2% of the over 55s think that.

  33. AMBER

    @”Assets = Liabilities + Shareholder value. ”

    Of course.

    @”In the UK, the bank can seize the asset AND the borrower still owes the bank for the balance of the loan less the proceeds of the asset sale. ”

    Er-of course-…so?

  34. AMBER

    @”The almost unique thing about UK banks is that they give mortgages on the assets. i.e. The bank owns the asset, be it a house or a painting”

    I don’t think that’s true. It certainly wasn’t with my mortgage.

    The lender had a legal charge on the house. So the asset cannot be sold without the lenders permission.
    This is normal mortgage practice.

    If the bank actually owned the house, then the bank would record the transaction as the purchase of a house, and the asset in it’s balance sheet would be a freehold property-not a mortgage debt.

    I really don’t believe that banks have balance sheets full of freehold houses. The whole point about the mortgage loan is that it leaves headroom between it & full value of the house. This gives the morgagee some equity in his property-but it also gives the bank the chance that , if it has to repossess & sell, the sale proceeds will exceed the outstanding loan .

    If banks owned the houses they finance, we would never hear of “repossession”. There would be no need.

  35. @ Colin

    The asset, whilst not being listed as an asset itself is used to support the value of the bank’s assets.

    Freedom to dispose of an asset is a fundmental part of ownership. To say that you, rather than the bank, owned your home whilst at same time saying you could only dispose of it with the bank’s permission is, quite frankly, oxymoronic.

  36. No it’s not Amber.

    If it was as you say, there would be no mortgages-just lots of leases.

    Deeds would vest the property in the Bank.

    This is not the case. Deeds vest ownership in the mortgagee-the lender registers a legal charge against the property.

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