How Do You Digest The Opinion Polls…..With A Large Pinch Of Salt!!

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In his first Thursday Night Insight, Mark Tipping looks ahead to one of the UK’s biggest surveys – next week’s General Election.

When faced with producing a Thursday Night Insight, it’s a challenge to find a suitable subject to write about. However, my challenge was solved when UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown set the date of May 6th 2010 for the General Election.

And so the media frenzy began with journalists presenting special election reports every hour of the day and night. But has the prospect of a General Election really gripped the nation? The ad-hoc research I’ve conducted in local pubs and bars (well, someone had to do it!), has highlighted a lack of discussion of party policies and more of a focus on the “lighter” side of politics (more of this later!).

This is certainly the case in our office. There was astonishment when my colleague, Oliver Truman, announced that he was taking the day off after the election because he wanted to stay up late watching the results come in.

But is it really the electorates’ fault? I would argue not. Another conclusion from my research was a perception that the three main parties and their key issue policies are fairly similar to each other. Gone are the days of the Conservative and Labour parties being at opposite ends of the political spectrum with the Liberal Democrats alone in the centre. This feeling has been exacerbated by the MP expenses scandal when all three parties were seen to be as guilty as each other.

One thing that has been different this time has been the introduction of the Televised Presidential Debates, sorry, that should be Televised Leaders Debates! These debates were billed as many things: “History in the making”; “A new age of politics”; “The election in your living room”.

However, to quote the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, the first debate was “ultimately a bit of a damp squib, with well-rehearsed answers and fully briefed participants.” This theory was confirmed when Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg left his coaching notes in a taxi. Furthermore, “it didn’t help that (presenter) Alistair Stewart interrupted at every opportunity with all the discipline of an ineffective schoolteacher, costing all three leaders the chance to expand on their points.”

Comments on the second debate were little better. In particular, it was viewed by some as three simultaneous party political broadcasts with little true debate and all the answers being delivered straight to camera rather than at the opposition.

The third debate will focus on the economy and is approaching fast. There is evidence of the general public becoming more involved in the process. However, this involvement might not be what the leaders were looking for. The public wants to hear details of the leaders’ plans on how to solve the problems left by the recession rather than another evening of hand wringing and vague promises.

Another problem lies in how the political parties have approached the debates. They have been seen as possible “banana skins” that could lose an election rather than an opportunity to win it. In some respect, the potential minefield led to what colleague Oliver called the X-Factorisation of the election, i.e. the worst performer gets voted off!

Turning to the ever-present opinion polls, how much can we rely on their results?

Polls have a somewhat chequered past, in particular, in 1992 when they got the result wrong! A POSTnote issued by the House of Commons before the 1997 election suggested a number of improvements. For time and cost reasons, opinion polls typically comprise between 1,000 and 2,000 interviews. This leads to a statistical margin of error in a party’s support. The suggestion was that results should always be presented with associated uncertainties, for example, 33% ±2% or 31%-35%. Furthermore, some polls are conducted using quota sampling based on the UK voting population. However, it is important that the quotas are set accurately on things that affect voter behaviour. A failure to do this led to the opinion poll debacle in 1992. Two other areas that can affect the reliability of a poll are whether the respondent will actually go on to vote; and what will those who are currently undecided do on Election Day.

A further problem lies in the way that the results are then used. Newsreaders frequently report on a party’s share of the vote having falling by 1% when, in fact, this fall lies within the uncertainty in the share of vote figures and could simply have occurred by chance. It also needs to be remembered that opinion polls merely present a snapshot of public opinion at the time the poll was carried out. For example, a typical question is “How would you vote if there were a General Election held tomorrow?” Headlines then claim findings that are not there, e.g. “Poll Predicts Conservative Victory”, when in reality, a poll never predicts anything.

Consequently, my suggestion is that we should take polls as an indication rather than as a prediction, i.e. with a large dose of salt!!

And finally, I mentioned the “lighter” side of politics earlier, in other words, election silly season! The first story I noticed was when Unilever launched legal action against the British National Party after it used a jar of Marmite in an election broadcast without permission.

Then the company which licenses children’s TV character Peppa Pig withdrew her from Labour’s launch of their manifesto for families at a children’s centre. Schools Secretary Ed Balls joked: “Unfortunately Peppa Pig is a global media star, acclaimed around the world, very busy, with many dates in her diary.” A spokesman for Gordon Brown said the prime minister and his family were “big fans” of Peppa Pig.

Other ways of measuring voting intentions using food have emerged. At Pizza Express, the Gordon Brown pizza includes fiery chilli and ground beef, while David Cameron is represented with cheese and rocket. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg gets fresh tomato and spicy sausage on his pizza. Ben & Jerry’s have renamed their iconic flavours with a political twist and are selling limited edition versions…Gordon Fudge Brownie, Cameron Chew Chew and Cheesecake Clegg.

However, the lighter side prize must go to ex-boxer Terry Marsh who is standing as an independent candidate. He has changed his name by deed poll to “None Of The Above X” (electoral law bans parties from using the name, but not individuals).

Onwards to decision day on May 6th!!!

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