Should we ban opinion polls from being published in the lead-up to election day?

One-third of MPs (including a third of Lib Dem MPs) say yes – but more are opposed. At least that’s the finding of a ComRes survey of 159 MPs in the wake of the Indian Election Commission banning exit polls in the five states holding elections this month, plus a ban on any opinion polls in the final 48 hours of campaigning.

    Would you support or oppose a ban on the publication of opinion polls for a defined period prior to General Elections?

    Support
    All 30%

    Con 25%
    Lab 35%
    LibD 32%

    Oppose
    All 45%

    Con 49%
    Lab 39%
    LibD 38%

    Don’t know
    All 25%

    Con 26%
    Lab 26%
    LibD 30%

Here’s what Andrew Hawkins, chairman of ComRes, has to say about it:

“The internet has had two profound effects on political polling. Firstly it has made it quicker and cheaper, but it is too soon to tell yet whether it is as accurate as the telephone polling. Secondly the internet, and especially the advance of social and other online media, renders entirely nugatory any attempt to ban the publication of opinion polls in the run-up to elections.

“Of the polls conducted during the 2010 election campaign, just four were face-to-face, 33 were by telephone and 51 online – and the final telephone polls had a better accuracy record than the online ones. Interestingly though, as Nate Silver points out, the average error in the 2012 Presidential Race was smaller among online pollsters than it was for telephone. The 2015 UK General Election will doubtless help decide which methodology is likely to dominate in the longer term.”

Many countries operate an ‘election silence’ – a ban on campaigning which often includes a ban on publishing opinion polls.

Though I have an instinctive dislike of banning things, part of me’s attracted to the idea. It would introduce a genuine uncertainty into the result which might, just might, boost turnout. After all predictions of an election landslide can become self-fulfilling – the lowest general election turnout under the mass franchise was in 2001, at least in part because the result was never seriously in doubt.

However, pragmatically, I suspect what Andrew Hawkins says is right: that there is little hope of preventing leaks of polls online, some of which may even be semi-authorised by parties or interest groups looking to manage expectations or even to influence the result. Better to have the full information published for all to see.

Incidentally, Lib Dem MPs are most likely to trust polls conducted face-to-face (95%) rather than by telephone (85%) – just 49% trust internet polls. In reality almost all political polls are conducted by phone or internet and how the poll is conducted is one of many factors – and probably not the most important. As Anthony Wells pointed out here last year, how pollsters account for likelihood to vote, deal with don’t knows, weight their samples and prompt voting intention all affect the numbers that get reported.

(NB: ComRes interviewed a representative sample of 159 MPs online and using self-completion questionnaire in April-May 2013. Data were weighted to reflect the House of Commons in terms of party and constituency region. So I’d guess 15-16 Lib Dem MPs replied.)

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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11 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Nov '13 - 8:00am

    No. Stephen, trust your liberal instincts! Banning things almost always has unintended consequences, especially something as harmless as opinion polls in the run up to an election! What a precedent for information restriction that would set! 🙂

  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 13th Nov '13 - 9:42am

    Yes, why not ban opinion polls in the lead up to the General Election? It would complement your Gagging Bill which will inhibit campaigning in the period prior to the election and confirm the anti-democratic, totalitarian credentials which it is now obvious that the Liberal Democrats hold in common with the Tories.

  • If Liberalism is about anything its the Free spread of information, information is power. The idea of banning Polls just at the time when are most likely to be accurate seems particularly bizzare.

  • There’s another reason why banning polls isn’t a good idea – it’s up to the public to decide what influences its votes, and knowing the answer from polls often does.

    Far better therefore to let the public have access to accurate information, open to public scrutiny, than to have the public rely on whispers and rumours. I’ve expanded on this at http://www.markpack.org.uk/46499/banning-polls-before-elections-is-a-bad-idea-even-if-it-worked/

  • No to a ban on polls. What’s the point?

    Yes to voting on a sensible day when people have time to i.e. NOT on a Thursday. That’s the most important change we could make for the better.

  • A Social Liberal 13th Nov '13 - 4:28pm

    If 15 to 16 Lib Dem MPs replied, then only 5 thought it was acceptable to ban polling.

    I do not understand how, or accept that, from this low base it can be extrapolated that a third of Lib Dem MPs would support this.

  • “If 15 to 16 Lib Dem MPs replied, then only 5 thought it was acceptable to ban polling.
    I do not understand how, or accept that, from this low base it can be extrapolated that a third of Lib Dem MPs would support this.”

    I presume Stephen meant that this was the number who were approached (and that all those who were approached replied), though it’s not entirely clear.

  • Peter Andrews 13th Nov '13 - 6:20pm

    I think the disadvantages of a poll ban far outweigh the small advantages and a ban would be thoroughly illiberal

  • peter tyzack 14th Nov '13 - 9:46am

    remembering that all the comments above are from those who are on-line; noting that the ‘accuracy’ of the poll results comment doesn’t allow for the fact that the result is ‘informing the voter’ and therefore likely to be more ‘accurate’ the nearer to polling day it is; recognising that we talk about ‘two horse race’ and thereby encourage the voter to think in terms of backing runners instead of making a choice of candidate(as in STV); remembering that the effect of the Leaders’ debates adds to the celebrity culture surrounding our elections; realising that everyone likes to be able to say afterwards that they actually backed the winner. There is a whole raft of pressures through our friends in the media to persuade us through the correct gate (including the wish to promote only two choices to make it simpler)… Polls are just another tool used by the powers in the press, and we on here should be aware of their vested interests, their non-dom/non-UK tax-paying status, predominantly anti-European, republican. If only the broadcast media didn’t rely on them so heavily too.
    If Councils and Parliament have to have a Purdah period then it would not be difficult to have no polling during that same period. It would enable the public at large to make-up their own minds about their own LOCAL candidate, rather than be swayed by outside influences ..

  • We all know the weaknesses with opinion polls – but why ban, we need to know, can discriminate … banning would be very illiberal … and trends are important.

  • Alternatively you cold keep the opinion polls and ban elections.
    This is what we have in the UK for the position of Head of State. We are not allowed to vote for our Head of State but we are under a constant wash of opinion polls, editorials and fawning BBC “special” coverage telling us how wonderful and radiant our Head of State is.
    Surely the logic of this approach is that we stick with our unelected Head of State and our unelected House of Lords (all 850, with more to come at Christmas) and get rid of polling day altogether.

    Get rid of polling day and just make sure that membership of the House of Commons could be restricted to mainly white, middle-class men. Membership of the Cabinet could be restricted to mainly old Etonians and the Prime Minister could be someone who went to preo school with members of the Royal Family. Or is that the system we have already?

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