ICM’s monthly poll for the Guardian has topline figures of CON 37%, LAB 34%, LDEM 21%. The changes from the last ICM poll are Labour up 2, with the other two parties unchanged. The poll was conducted between the 15th and 17th of February.

The poll continues the pattern we’ve seen since September last year of Labour doing comparatively better compared to the Conservatives in ICM polls done for the Guardian than in polls done for other clients. As I said when I first commented on this apparent pattern, I can find no obvious explanation for it, but as the months go past the patten seems to be consistent. The shift in voting intention from the last ICM/Guardian poll, which may be the better comparison, is Labour down 1 and the Lib Dems up 1.

The rest of the poll concentrated on attitudes towards taxataion. Forced to chose between tax cuts and reduced services or sustained spending, 51% said they would chose sustained spending with 36% backing tax cuts. What to make of this question depends largely on the wording – it is implied in the Guardian’s coverage that people were presented with the choice of existing spending or tax cuts even if it meant cuts in spending for services like the NHS. In practice no party will ever go into an election promising tax cuts at the expense of the NHS: parties promising tax reductions will present them as being funded in more acceptable ways, while judging from past election campaigns their opponents will try to paint any promised cuts as being funding out of whatever public spending is most popular. How popular tax cuts actually are will depend upon which of these various claims the public actually believe.

What are TfL hiding?

Last week Mike Smithson broke the story of a BPC investigation into an Ipsos MORI poll carried out for Ken Livingstone. In the Evening Standard today Andrew Gilligan picks up Mike’s story and has got some comment from John Curtice and Ben Page of MORI.

The story begins back in December with this press release from the Mayor’s office, claiming to show that a poll for Transport for London showed two thirds of respondents were in favour of the new emmissions based congestion charge.

There is no info on when the poll was conducted or what the questions were, but normally pollsters are obliged to release this along with the full tables for polls that are released to the media, either by publishing the tables on their websites, or upon request. MORI however have refused to release the tables for this survey. In the Standard Ben Page explained that they asked TfL for permission, but it had been refused. In response the British Polling Council – the association of polling companies who have agreed to abide by its disclosure and openness rules – has set up in an investigative sub-committee consisting of Peter Kellner, Peter Riddell and John Curtice to look into the case.

So what are TfL hiding? And what are the rules?

At the simplest level, it could be as simple as some of the questions showing a lack of support for Ken’s policies, or even TfL just not wanting to release the data, as is their right. There doesn’t have to be anything dodgy at all here.

Mike Smithson says his understanding is that there were some additional political questions in the poll that shouldn’t have been asked in a taxpayer funded poll. Gilligan cites some anonymous sources agreeing with this, but it is flat out denied by the Mayor’s office – who would say that, wouldn’t they? – and more convincingly by Ben Page who states “There is nothing in those surveys about the elections, or Boris. We have not been paid by the Mayor to ask voting intention questions”. (UPDATE – Mike Smithson makes an important correction to the quote from him in the comments here)

On top of that, I don’t think the BPC disclosure rules would compel MORI to release those questions anyway. The disclosure rules state that if a privately commissioned poll is made public they have to disclose the tables, question wording and so on for the published questions but they can keep private other unpublished findings as long as they don’t contradict or affect the published answers. So in theory a client could easily ask lots of transport questions and lots of political questions, release the first lot and be entirely within their rights to keep the second lot secret.

The other possiblity cited in the Standard is that someone was playing fast and loose with either the interpretation of the results, or with the wording of the original question. This at least would make sense, the wording of the questions hasn’t been announced and if the tables and wording were revealed in full any slight-of-hand would become apparent. The Mayor of London has some previous here – check out reports of this April 2005 poll for the Mayor of London’s free newspaper the Londoner – this time by ICM, which apparently showed 79% support for the Olympics. The questions itself is fine, but if you look at the full survey, you’ll see if was asked straight after a truly shameless question asking if people agreed with Nelson Mandela that London was the best place to hold the Olympics.

The rules of the BPC are intended to promote openness. While membership is open only to companies conducting proper representative polls, there’s no policing of what the right methods of sampling, weighting and so on are. It’s primary purpose is to ensure full disclosure of tables and methodologies so that people can see any sharp practice for themselves – if you see figures from ICM, Populus, YouGov, ComRes or other members reported in the newspapers you can find out whether the questions are biased or the question order dodgy by looking at the raw questions and tables yourself. It acts as a strong incentive for the member companies not to allow clients to get away with such practices because they know they know it would be clear for everyone to see and it would be their reputation that was damaged. It lets us trust the polls because, even if we ourselves don’t examine the tables to look for sharp practice, the fact they are available means that someone else somewhere will, and would pick up any misbehaviour. It is a wholly good and admirable endeavour.

Ipsos MORI’s Ben Page explains their position on this poll in the Standard: “Our position is that ongoing satisfaction surveys and policy surveys of the kind we do for TfL do not constitute a poll and are not covered by the BPC rules. We believe they are covered by the rules of the Market Research Society, which do not require us to publish immediate data breakdowns”. The rules of the BPC refer to “All data and research findings made on the basis of surveys conducted by member organisations that enter the public domain” and that this also applies to any privately commissioned polls that enter the public arena. Obviously it will be down to Peter, Peter and John to look into the details of the case, Ipsos MORI’s full explanation and make a decision on how the actual rules apply in this case. Personally though, whether or not this does fall within the current rules, my opinion is that if there is just one instance when it is overwhelmingly desirable that the rules should apply, it is when polls are commissioned and used by a political figure to support his position in the policy debate.

Once upon a time Bob Worcester told Robert Maxwell where to stick it when the Mirror’s owner wanted to decide whether or not the results of the polls he commissioned were ever released…


As usual the Sunday Times commissioned questions on a wide range of subjects, so here are some of the other findings from the weekend poll.

The Beijing Olympics. 49% of people said they would support a boycott of the Olympics by British athletes in response to China’s policy in Darfur and their past record.

Rowan Williams. The story seems to have blown over now, and there were no polls on the issue at the time. The YouGov poll found that 67% of respondents thought the Archbishop had damaged his authority through his comments. People were eqaully split on whether he should stand down as Archbishop of Cantabury, with 40% agreeing and 40% disagreeing.

National identity. Asked to chose just one word to describe themselves, 42% of people chose British, 54% chose one of the constituent nationalities. The YouGov tables don’t offer a single break for England, but in the English breaks people identifying primarily as English and people identifying primarily as British are pretty evenly matched. In Scotland 68% of people identified themselves primarily as Scottish, with only 22% saying British.

Phone tappling. YouGov gave respondents a list of scenarios and asked whether it would be appropriate for the authorities to tap telephones under those circumstances. Large majorities were opposed to the authorities bugging people organising peaceful demostrations against the government or trade unionists planning a strike (though even in those circumstances 9% and 8% of people respectively thought bugging would be OK with just the permission of a senior police officer). Only 34% objected to the bugging of people planning illegal (but non-violent) protests. For people suspected of more serious offences there was overwhelming support for the principle of bugging – 88% thought it fine to bug suspected drug dealers, 91% suspected terrorists. In both cases a majority thought only the permission of a senior police officer should be necessary.

There was, however, some support for the idea that conversations with lawyers or MPs should be sacrosanct. 28% thought suspected drug dealers conversations with lawyers should not be monitored. 22% thought suspected terrorists conversations with their lawyers shouldn’t be moderated. For conversations with MPs the figures were 23% and 18%.

After almost a fortnight without any voting intention polls there is a new poll from YouGov in the Sunday Times. The topline voting intention figures, with changes from YouGov’s last poll back in January, are CON 41%(nc), LAB 32%(-1), LDEM 16%(nc). The poll was conducted between the 14th and 15th of February and clearly shows no significant change in party support over the past two weeks.

The Sunday Times often commission questions on a wide grab bag of issues, so I expect I’ll be posting again tomorrow on other bits and bobs in the poll, but the Sunday Times are highlighting the economic questions. They found David Cameron and George Osborne have a 6 point lead over Labour on who people would most trust to run the economy. There’s a lot of different ways of asking which party people trust most on the economy, and no doubt they produce different figures, but I think this is the largest lead the Conservatives have managed to pull out in one of them under David Cameron. Answers to economic optimism questions remained grim – 50% expected their household finances to get worse in the next, with only 12% expecting them to get better.

44% of respondents wanted to see Alistair Darling removed as Chancellor, with only 27% thinking he should stay in the job. Those answers will probably be largely partisan – but with only 27% backing him I expect even a fair proportion of Labour supporters want him out.

The Sunday Times normally put the full tables of their YouGov polls up on their website, so check there later for more details.

Voodoo polling corner

A sudden outbreak of voodoo polling this morning, or more to the point a sudden outbreak of serious newspapers reporting a voodoo poll as being meaningful.

What’s a voodoo poll? It’s what Bob Worcester calls the little “press the red button to vote” polls on Sky News, or the little readers’ votes things on the BBC website. They are entertaining enough, but they mean nothing whatsoever, they don’t measure the opinion of a representative group of people, they only measure the opinions of people who wander past that particular website (or are directed to said website by people trying to influence the poll) and care enough about the issue to vote…often several times if they know how to delete cookies from their computer. The classic voodoo polls were the old Today programme man of the year things, which used to have flagrant, mass vote rigging to try and get John Major or Tony Blair as the man of the year.

We all know that they don’t mean anything and certainly shouldn’t be reported as representing public opinion, and yet…The Times this morning reports that “A poll by the Berwick Advertiser showed 79 per cent in favour of switching allegiance from Westminster to Holyrood”, the Telegraph claims “the results of a poll have suggested that 80 per cent of the residents agree”,The Scotsman tells us that “an online poll has suggested 80 per cent of residents are backing the suggestion”,the BBC reveals “a poll carried out by the local newspaper revealed 79% of people in the area backed reunification with Scotland.”

The poll in question? It’s on the sidebar of the Berwick Advertiser’s website here, you can vote in it now if you want. Doesn’t matter if you live in Berwick, or indeed the UK. It’s a classic voodoo poll, so no attempt to limit it to the proper universe of people, nothing to stop it being fixed, no attempt at producing a demographically representative sample. These things really shouldn’t be published by reputable newspapers as an indication of public opinion – or at least – not without heavy caveats about them being non-representative, self-selecting polls.