Opinion: Has the polling got out of hand?

May2015In this run up to the election we have been bombarded with opinion polls on who is going to win the election – or not to win it, as it now seems.  Looking at the May2015.com website, which tracks polling results, in the month to 18th April, 53 polls were published, an average of almost two a day. On 9th April for example five separate polls were published. I don’t know if the same people have been asked several times, but the results seem amazingly consistent!

I, like some others, have some concerns about this plethora of polls. Firstly, if two or three polls are published every day, quite frankly, what is the point? They completely lose their impact and are quickly discounted because new opinion polls – and betting odds! – appear the very next day.

Secondly, are they actually influencing policy? Did Cameron decide to announce the housing association property sell-off on 14th April because the Tories found themselves a few points behind in the polls? Is that also what the Lloyds Bank share sell-off was really all about?  And what about Labour? Did they announce their fully-funded rail fare freeze on 13th April alongside their manifesto because they had slipped a bit in the ratings? I know it’s just conjecture, but it does sometimes feel a bit like policy by polling results – particularly by the Tories who have ditched their ‘more austerity’ message in favour of anything they think will be more appealing.

And what of the cost? Of course this is other people’s money so it’s their right to spend it as they wish, but the Guardian estimates that Lord Ashcroft has already spent £2 million on conducting national and local opinion polls – all to discover much the same voting intentions today as 365 days ago. One is tempted to say, what a waste of money, but even very small ups and downs in the polls can, it seems potentially influence voting patterns. The same Guardian article states that “In 1997 Michael Portillo lost his hitherto safe Enfield and Southgate seat days after the Observer published a constituency poll showing he only had a three-point lead.” Was this indeed cause and effect?

Political polling seems to have become a national obsession and small ups and down in the polls seem to be fuelling frenzied new policy announcements. One journalist writing in the Sunday Times said that living through the current campaign is like being “trapped in an episode of The Magic Roundabout. Our politicians seem to be going round and round in circles, on a stage dotted with fake money trees.”

Opinion polls may have their place in election campaigns, but let’s inject some sanity into this frenetic analysis of voter intentions.

* Judy Abel has worked in the health policy field for around 15 years, including at the British Medical Association, for the All-Party Parliamentary Health Group, and in policy roles at Asthma UK, the Neurological Alliance and Versus Arthritis until the end of 2021. She was also the Constituency Office Manager and Senior Caseworker for former Lib Dem MP, Sir Simon Hughes from 2012 to 2014. All views are her own.

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  • The inability of journalists to understand polls is quite separate from the use of polls.

    There is a perfectly reasonable critique to be made of writers who don’t understand margins of error, random fluctuations and methodological shortcomings. That should have been made instead of the above argument which seems to be complaining that data is a bad thing in judging public mood or formulating policy to win an election.

    Which, frankly, is a bit anti-intellectual.

  • Opinion polls are not a public service. They are not provided by philanthropists who have the noble desire to inform the voter.
    They are bought and sold like election propaganads and in US elections TV advertisements. Their purpose is to provide someone with the answers they are seeking. If they do not produce those answers as desired they are buried or appear only on page 17. They are a product of the capitalist system not a product ofnThe democratic system. Just remember that someone is making money and. Pretty good living out of pulishing polls. That is why they are there.

    I notice the reference to the Sunday Imes ournaist ad the well loved chldfens TV programme.
    I have to saybthat I find the idea of being trapped in an episode of ‘The Magic Roundabout’ better than being trapped watching some of the BBC election coverage.
    Zebedee, Florence and Dougal have a much sharper political grip than some of the ‘speak-your-weight-machines’ that the parties put up as spokespersons on political shows.
    This is possibly unfair to speak-your-weight-machines, because the Labour Party in Scotland has elected as their leader someone far less human than a robotic, charmless automata.

    ‘The Daily Politics’ often does better as Andrew Neil shouts and bullies the more brainless of his guests and tries to get them to answer at least one question before he allows them out of the studio.
    He did not have that problem with today’s guest Jeremy Browne. JB was once an MP for Taunton and he does answer questions on TV. He says how he sees things from his perspective. This is good news for the average viewer and indeed for anyone who does not intend to vote Liberal Democrat in a couple of weeks from now.
    Those of us who have always voted Liberal Democrat will have rocked back in our chairs in amazement to hear him describe today’s Labour Party, The Greens. Plaid Cymru and the SNP as “HARD LEFT”.
    Whatever else one might accuse these political parties of being, HARD LEFT is hardly appropriate. To line them up with the SWP and other Trotskyite loons indicates that JB most definitely has “run his race” and lost all perspective on UK politics.

  • Scratching my head, wondering just what the point of this sour piece is.

    Seriously, if you don’t like what the polls are saying, don’t flipping well read them !

  • paul barker 20th Apr '15 - 6:15pm

    I dont get the point of the article. If you want a general sense of whats going on you could just rely on one of the many polling averages published every day ( The BBC for example or The Metro) or , less tiringly, every week like that of the site UKPR (UK polling report). Alternatively you can start keeping your own average, all you need is pen & paper, I keep 3 myself because thats the sort of fun guy I am.

  • @Paul.

    Didn’t you predict that Labour would be imploding by now 🙂
    Miliband is top with some bookies to be PM.

  • Philip Thomas 20th Apr '15 - 6:26pm

    In 1992 the polls thought Kinnock would be Prime Minister…

  • The main point I was trying to make is that when there are even minor fluctuations in the polls, the parties tend to announce new uncosted policies depending on how they are doing. The polls are therefore potentially influencing policy – especially in there are multiple polls every day.

    Also polling in individual constituencies could potentially have the effect of manipulating the results. With some Lib Dem candidates only a few percentage points ahead in their seats that could affect the outcome as it possibly did in Michael Portillo’s case. People tend to want to back the winner when the tide is turning, especially if they are undecided. I am surely not the first person to say that polling potentially effects the outcome of elections!

    Malcolm – you seem to be what you are accusing me of. Come on lighten up a bit!

  • John Tilley thanks for the heads up on Jeremy’s interview. I must loom it out on I player

  • David Allen 20th Apr '15 - 7:32pm

    I think the problem is the fake money trees, not the polls.

    Once upon a time, politicians used to answer persistent questioners with the line that they could not promise to avopid bad things in the future (such as tax increases) because they could not tell what economic storms the ship of state might soon be sailing into. This may have been outdated last-century language, but it was relatively honest. Nobody knew then, and nobody knows now, how economic events will pan out. The old-fashioned political fashion was to acknowledge this reality.

    Things have changed. We have a government which claimed that the sky would fall in if the deficit was not abolished within one parliament. It was not. Unabashed, the government boasted of its long term economic plan, which was as real as the Emperor’s new clothes. Unabashed, they made fantasy plans for what the economy would do three and five years into the future. They even persuaded their Labour opponents to vote for the fantasy plans, so strongly had they embedded magical realism into our economic thinking. We have now reached the point at which the truth is almost mentally inaccessible. Egregious fantasies, such as the idea that a right-to-buy giveway can be carried through without hurting any losers, have become politically saleable ideas. That’s because truth has been buried under a welter of fantastical claims.

    It isn’t the polls that are primarily responsible for this febrile atmosphere. It’s the dominance of political spin over reality.

  • HARD LEFT these days appears to describe any opinion which is opposed to believing the market is the best vehicle to provide everything.

    Centrist politics should surely support what works best, regardless of dogma. Railways / police / forces – state monopoly for example, restaurants, IT services, taxis – privately run. The privatisation of probation services to foreign multinationals and replacing officers with machines is happening now. I would categorise this as LUNATIC HARD RIGHT, and yet it is accepted as normal.

  • Julian Gibb 20th Apr '15 - 9:48pm

    Individual polls are meaningless. However a poll of polls can be very accurate. The polls have been fairly accurate over the last decade as the models are tweaked. They do have a lag factor which matters little until the final few weeks. It is during that period that last minute swings are missed. Many,many people still change their mind very late in a campaign if a “trigger” occurs – a gaff / leak / etc.

    Individual sites such as ElectoralCalculus are building quite a reputation in the accuracy of result versus prediction.
    Don’t blame the polls if the results are not to your liking – that applies to us all.

  • I see there’s a poll that puts Clegg and the Lib Dems as preferred coalition partner over Farage and Sturgeon

  • The one that gives Clegg a lesser disapproval than Farage or Sturgeon?

  • The publication of polls should be banned from the day when nominations go in.

  • Thanks very much for your comments – love your take on the Magic Roundabout John! I was prompted to write this by the sight of journalists trying to find something new to say when the poll estimates have regularly been 277 seats apiece for the Tories and Labour – give or take a seat or two. It was when I saw the Poll of Polls flashing up on Sky News with the same old results I thought this is surreal!

    Sorry, would have replied sooner but been in Glastonbury for the past two days away from my PC. Really chilled out now! Glad to see loads of posters out for Tessa Munt – more than for the Tories by a long way…that’s my contribution to the polls!!

  • I want to add a quote to my recent article on polling:

    “Lord Ashcroft wants something. It may be an improvement in the nature of our national political discourse. It may be a more informed electorate. It may just be a ring-side seat for the greatest political show in town. But given the election is only 12 weeks away, and the way in which he continues to frame the campaign, we need to know what that is. And even if we can’t find out, we at least have an obligation to ask.” Lord Ashcroft’s Polls are Not What They Seem -Telegraph 9th February.

    Even the Telegraph is questionning the reason behind these Ashcroft polls. Certainly If they are doing anything to destabilise the fortunes of Lib Dem candidates in this Election we need to be shining a light on it now.

  • Alex Sabine 24th Apr '15 - 1:07am

    @ David Allen
    “I think the problem is the fake money trees, not the polls. Once upon a time, politicians used to answer persistent questioners with the line that they could not promise to avoid bad things in the future (such as tax increases) because they could not tell what economic storms the ship of state might soon be sailing into. This may have been outdated last-century language, but it was relatively honest. Nobody knew then, and nobody knows now, how economic events will pan out. The old-fashioned political fashion was to acknowledge this reality. Things have changed…”

    Very much agree with that, David. As you say, it is a product of spin, and also of a kind of puerile “gotcha” political and media discourse in which matters of judgement or opinion or indeed mere forecasts are treated as verbal battering rams or cheap debating points, and in which nuance or the expression of anything less than certainty is branded a gaffe. I am ‘only’ 35 but I sometimes wonder where the grown-ups have gone 😉

  • Alex Sabine 24th Apr '15 - 3:17pm
  • As we get closer to the election, I still wonder whether the results of polls in marginal seats could influence voter intentions, especially when it comes to tactical voting. Today the Independent called Lord Ashcroft the ‘influential pollster’. I do have concerns about one person seeming to wield so much influence in this election campaign.

    @David and Alex. I do agree with your comments, although think the ‘fake money trees’ have, at least in part, been a response to shifting poll ratings (although I suspect there will be few new spending announcements now as the Election is so close). The ‘I’ front page today actually asked why none of the parties had spelled out in detail how they would cut the deficit.

  • Jane Ann Liston 25th Apr '15 - 1:08am

    Ashcroft may actually be helping us in some places. In North East Fife we’ve been telling voters that the Tories simply can’t win here for some time. Voters who really don’t want the SNP to win here could find from the Ashcroft poll that the best way of avoiding that is to vote for us.

  • @ Jane. That’s Interesting. If any Ashcroft poll works in favour of the local Lib Dem candidate I have no problem with that!. It’s the polls where they may work against us that I am worried about. Best of luck in North East Fife!

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