The British Polling Council should also be strengthenedby David Lipsey / April 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
How would our politics be without opinion polls? Well, pretty certainly pretty different. I go back with polls a long time (having been polls adviser to the Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan) and can remember both the struggle to establish them as accurate data and then the pluses and pitfalls of their existence.
The struggle first: the left of the Labour Party did not like opinion polls because they tended to show their shibboleths—nationalisation, nuclear disarmament—were not popular. The right liked them because they showed that moderate policies were what the people wanted. Many National Executive Committee meetings were taken up by futile debates on the subject. But successive leaders of the party wanted polls, and commissioned them.
This was not always to their advantage. Callaghan’s decision not to hold a general election in autumn 1978—as the report of the recently published Lords Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media, which I chaired, recalls—owed much to polling in marginal constituencies which showed that Labour was unlikely to gain the seats we needed for a majority. Unusually Labour’s excellent pollsters, Mori, failed to point out that the sample sizes in their survey were too small adequately to support their conclusions. Unfortunately Callaghan, a great man but no statistician, was moved by the crude findings. The rest is history.
If the polls are accurate, they of course add to knowledge of what is going on in politics. Arguably this bolsters democracy. However in Britain the polls have managed three catastrophes in succession: the 2015 general election where they predicted a hung parliament, the European Union referendum where they expected “Remain” to win; and the 2017 general election, which predicted a shoo-in for Theresa May.
It will be interesting to see if the polls currently being conducted for next week’s local elections continue that worrying trend or provide a return to form for the pollsters. To misquote Oscar Wilde,” our report says “to get one election wrong may be regarded as a misfortune, to get two wrong looks like carelessness, and to get three wrong suggests something somewhere has gone horribly amiss.”
There’s no way to tell if these are blips on an honourable record, or if rather polling is now dead as the dodo. There are however reasons to think polling is getting more difficult. One is…