The start of what was the hunting season was greeted by a new opinion poll from ORB, commissed by the Countryside Alliance, which they claimed showed that support for a ban had dramatically fallen over the last 6 years, and now had only minority support. It was immediately rebutted by the League Against Cruel Sports claiming that the Countryside Alliance’s figures showed that “the support for a ban has increased since 2002, so they must be gutted”. So, they can’t both be right, has support for the hunting ban gone up, or down?

The ORB poll asked a straightforward question on whether or not people supported the ban, “To what extent do you personally support or oppose a ban on hunting with dogs?” This found that 45% supported the ban, 30% opposed it, and 23% didn’t really care either way. This is identical, or close enough to compare, to the wording used by MORI in their previous surveys on hunting, which found that in February 2005 47% of people supported the ban, and 26% opposed it while all the way back in 1999 63% supported it and 24% opposed it.

Now, if we compare the change in the figures between February and now, there is a small move against the ban – although it could probably be explained by sample error and differences in methodology between the two pollsters. On the other hand comparing the figures today with those back in 1999 it’s pretty undeniable that the level of support for a ban on hunting has fallen dramatically, though the majority of the change seems to be people who once supported a ban now having no opinion either either way.

So, what was the League Against Cruel Sports talking about? I think they are, rather cheekily, referring to an NOP poll commissioned by the Countryside Alliance back in 2002, which gave people the choice of either a ban (36%), no ban (18%), or hunting continuing under regulation (41%). The Countryside Alliance used the combined figures of people who wanted to keep hunting under regulation and keep hunting unchanged to claim in newspaper adverts that 59% wanted to keep hunting, adverts which became the target of complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency. The pro-ban option in the poll was worded “hunting should not be allowed to continue at all as cruelty is more important to me than civil liberties”, which reads like rather leading wording to me, although in fairness ICM polls giving a three way choice with more neutral wording gave pretty similar results.

So the League Against Cruel Sports seems to be having a bit of fun at the Countryside Alliance’s expense – if you compare this poll with the answers to the polls that gave a three way choice – ban, no ban or regulation, which the Countryside Alliance always used to use as its statistics of choice, then the number of people supporting an outright ban has indeed gone up since 2002 – but in reality you cannot compare the two question designs at all, since we don’t know what those people who supported regulation would have said in a straight choice about whether they supported a ban or not.

The only real change in opinion seems to be that, now there is a ban in place, a lot of people who once said they supported a ban no longer seem to hold an opinion either way. That could be because people have seen the ban in action and no longer think it such a good idea, or it could simply be that now hunting is no longer a hot political issue, people no longer care one way or the other.

Last week there was some fuss over the Times’ decision to make their frontpage headline a story about a Populus poll that put David Davis ahead of David Cameron amongst Conservative voters. The actual number of Tory voters asked the question in the poll was only 122, meaning that the margin of error was 9% and, therefore, David Cameron could actually still be ahead.

The problem is that, while a poll of 1,000 has a small enough margin of error (3.1% in fact) to draw reliable conclusions, if you look at the detailed figures of what, for example, male respondents said, you need to take just the number of men who did the survey, meaning you get a bigger margin of error. If you want a really atrocious example – take a look at the BBC today.

The BBC have commissioned a poll from ICM on faith. The poll found that 14% went to a religious service once a week or more, while 40% went once a year or less. 72% thought it quite or very important that British society continues to be based on Christian values.

Asked about how much people thought they understood about the main religions in the UK, 51% thought they understood a lot about Christianity, with a further 36% saying they understood a little. Most people were less familiar with all the other faiths in the UK – only 18% of people thought they understood a lot about being a Muslim, with 35% saying they didn’t understand it at all. The figures for Judaism were almost identical, followed by Hinduism and Sikhism, which was the least understood religion – only 11% thought they understood a lot about it.

Finally ICM asked about British attitudes to Islam – 33% of people said they had a positive image of Islam, while 20% said they had a negative image. 19% said the London bombings had made their perception of Islam more negative.

This is all well and good – the problem is the BBC report here, which breaks down the survey to include such findings as “37% of Muslims said they knew nothing about Judaism” and “significantly, 31% of Jews said they knew nothing about their own faith”.

The sample only included 28 Muslims and 5 Jews, so the respective margins of error are 19% and a whopping 44% – in other words, the breakdowns of the answers by religion (other than for Christians) are entirely worthless. The moral is that, while it’s a jolly good thing to look at the tables on the websites of the polling companies and draw your own conclusions from the tables, do remember to look at the base for each demographic break to see if the sample is actually big enough to be meaningful before jumping to conclusions…especially if you are a major public sector broadcaster ;)


Last week Tony Blair suffered his first Commons defeat as Prime Minister over the provision in the Terrorism Bill to detain suspects for up to 90 days. How much damage has it done to Tony Blair? Is his authority irredeemably damaged, has he any chance of getting through his reforms of education and the health service? Time will tell.

What we do know is what the public think, thanks to an ICM poll in the Guardian over the weekend – the full tables, including the actual questions which were annoyingly absent from the Guardian’s report, are now online here.

Firstly the vote itself – should the government have attempted to forge a compromise to get a bill that allowed detention for more than 28 days? 28% of people told ICM that 28 days was a sufficent length of time anyway and 18% objected to even the 28 day figure. Amongst the remaining 49% of respondents who gave an opinion, a majority (29%) thought it would have been better for the government to come to a compromise with the opposition, while 20% thought the government was right to stick to their original preference for 90 days, despite the fact that it lead to defeat.

Asked if Blair’s authority had been damaged by the defeat 22% said it had been greatly damaged, while 41% said it had been somewhat damaged. Only 31% thought Blair had emerged unscathed. While the answers were predicatably partisan, even most Labour identifiers thought that Blair had been damaged.

Asked about the rest of Tony Blair’s programme, a majority (55%) of people thought that the Prime Minister would have to learn to compromise with his critics if he wanted to get the measures through, although Labour identifiers were more evenly split, with 51% saying he should compromise but 47% thinking he should stand his ground and re-assert his authority.

Finally ICM asked when Blair should stand down. 24% said now, but as usual with such questions this was disproportionately made up of Tory identifiers. In comparison 19% of people, including almost a third of people who identified with the Labour party, still wanted Tony Blair to go back on his previous announcement and stay on to secure a fourth term.

Populus’s poll earlier this week caused some excitement when it suggested that David Davis might have pulled ahead of David Cameron amongst Conservative voters after Davis’s focus on policies like the return of grammar schools and promises of tax cuts. The only people who really count in the leadership election though are Conservative members, and a new YouGov poll in Saturday’s Telegraph shows that opinion amongst them is virtually unchanged since last weekend – with a third of the votes now cast, David Cameron retains a large lead.

Amongst the 33% of Tory members who said they had already cast their vote David Cameron leads David Davis by 68% to 32%. The levels of support amongst Conservative members who have not yet cast their vote is almost the same – 66% Cameron to 34% Davis amongst those who state a preference, with 12% saying they have yet to decide. These figures suggest that there has been no significant change in support since YouGov’s survey last weekend and with at least a third of the votes already cast David Cameron now appears to be firmly set for victory.

The answers to the questions on the candidates’ images and which would be better at leading a united party, in the Commons, coming across on television and so on remain practically unchanged – there is a slight increase in the proportion of people who think David Davis would be a better performer in the Commons, but even there Cameron retains a 15 point lead.

David Cameron does not seem to have been damaged by the revelations that he supports the downgrading of ecstasy to a Class B drug – unsurprisingly Conservative members told YouGov they thought it would be a bad thing by 65% to 19%, but evidently it has not cut Cameron’s lead.

Finally YouGov asked whether the Conservative party should act to ensure more female candidates are selected in winnable seats. 66% of party members said they were in favour of the Conservative party increasing the number of female candidates, with 19% opposed. Asked what measures to increase the number of female candidates they would support however, suggested that most Conservative members would be opposed to anything that approached compulsion. 82% would be happy with simple encouragement from CCO, 35% would support a rule forcing winnable associations to put at least one women on their shortlist. More extreme measures than this met with very little support indeed – only 14% supported target seats being forced to chose candidates from a ‘gold list’ of candidates, made up of 50% women and a minute 3% of members supported the use of women-only shortlists.

There is a fascinating – if not bizarre – Populus poll in today’s Times. David Davis has moved ahead of David Cameron amongst Conservative supporters, despite the fact that the same supporters think that Cameron would stand a better chance of winning, would lead a more united party and would put forward more bold and compelling policies. The same poll suggests that Cameron would cut the present 8 point Labour lead to just 2 points, while Davis would increase it to 11.

First the good news for the Davis camp – in Populus’s post-conference poll David Cameron was preferred slightly to Davis amongst voters in general (by 29% to 21%) but enjoyed a large lead amongst Tory supporters (by 45% to 15%). Today’s poll still has Cameron leading amongst the wider public (by 37% to 30%), but amongst Tory supporters Davis has caught up and overtaken Cameron and now leads him by 50% to 37%. While part of this is obviously a fall in Cameron’s support, the majority is due to a huge collapse in the number of people saying they don’t know – last month 41% said they didn’t know, this month only 13% said they didn’t know and those former don’t knows have apparently overwhelmingly broken in favour of Davis.

It is important to remember that this a poll of Conservative voters, not the Conservative members who will (or in many cases have) actually cast the votes in the leadership election. The question is whether or not this swing in support will be reflected amongst normal party members. The last YouGov poll of party members showed there had been a swing towards Davis – but that Cameron still enjoyed a large lead. While fieldwork for both polls started on Friday, Populus’s continued across the whole weekend so could have picked up a later swing. Opinions of Tory voters do not necessarily reflect those of party members, so we have no way of knowing until there is another poll of party members.

More interesting is why opinion has changed like this – public opinion doesn’t just change at random, there are almost always identifiable causes. Here is the mystery – asked who would make the Conservative party more in touch with ordinary people, Conservative voters think Cameron by 42% to 15%, they think Cameron is more likely to lead a united party by 36% to 12% and, by a considerable distance, think Cameron is more likely to win a General Election by 45% to 11%.

While the poll was taken after the Question Time debate, given the relatively low proportion of the public who actually watch Question Time, this is unlikely to be the direct cause of the whole swing. The natural assumption is that Conservative supporters have swung behind Davis in response to his well publicised policy statements on taxation, Europe and the return of Grammar schools. This would explain why Davis’s boost amongst Tory voters is not reflected amongst voters in general – he has been concentrating on policies that appeal directly to Conservative voters and those Conservative voters prefer the candidate with the ‘right’ policies to the candidate they think has the best chance of winning.

The problem with this explanation is that the poll also found that Conservative voters thought that David Cameron was the candidate most likely to “put forward bold and compelling policies on the economy, tax and public services” (by 33% to 14%). Clearly Conservative voters must have found something they like about David Davis or something they dislike about David Cameron to lead them to prefer Davis, but this poll doesn’t tell us what it is!

Finally the bad news for David Davis – the same poll included hypothetical voting intentions for a General Election where the party leaders were Gordon Brown, Charlie Kennedy and either David Davis or David Cameron. As ever, I shall add the caveat that these hypothetical voting intention questions are just that – hypothetical. Respondents know the context they are being asked in and use them to indicate preferences for leadership candidates. That said the contrasts are very large indeed. With the Conservatives led by David Cameron Labour would lead by only 2 points (CON 35%, LAB 37%, LD 20%); against David Davis Labour would enjoy an 11 point lead (CON 32%, LAB 43%, LD 18%).

UPDATE: A comment by Andrew Cooper on Mike Smithson’s website reveals that the Populus poll used a split sample for the questions meaning that the respondents who said they preferred Davis weren’t actually the same respondents who answered the questions about which candidate would be better at various things. In itself this makes no difference – once weighted both halves of the sample would be equally representative of the population. What it does mean is that the sample size for those questions was only 750 and, once you take only the people who say they will vote Tory at the election, the headline figure of 50% of Tory voters preferring Davis was based on only 122 so respondents. A sample that size has a margin of error of just under 9%, so potentially Davis’s lead could all be down to sample error (though it is more likely that he is ahead). That said, even at the extremes of the margin of error, Davis has still made huge strides in his level of support since the party conference.