The use and abuse of opinion polls

Peter KellnerPresident
January 12, 2015, 9:08 AM UTC

Politicians need to listen hard to voters – without abandoning long-held principles

Let me start with an apology. For the next four months you will be bombarded with more political numbers than any normal person can sensibly digest. We pollsters will be responsible for a fair share of them. Sorry about that. However, while politicians try to work you up into a frenzy of fear of what will happen if their rivals win, we shall attempt to calm things down with cool analysis.

That point is worth stressing in the light of what happened in Scotland on September 7. David Cameron was in Balmoral, enjoying the Prime Minister’s traditional late-summer weekend with the Queen. Their breakfast was reportedly spoiled by a YouGov poll showing that the No campaign in the independence referendum had lost the big 20-point lead they had enjoyed for much of last year. The race was now too-close-to-call, with Yes on 51% and No on 49%. As a result, London politicians freaked out. Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg agreed to scrap Prime Minister’s Questions that week and dashed to Scotland.

More seriously, the three Britain-wide party leaders agreed to give Holyrood extra powers if Scotland voted No – famously set out on the front page of the Daily Record two days before the referendum. Both sides in the campaign agreed that YouGov’s poll was a game-changer. Cameron even admitted losing his cool. When he didn’t realise he was being overheard, he told New York’s former Mayor, Michael Bloomberg: “I want to find these polling companies and I want to sue them for my stomach ulcers because of what they put me through.”

If that’s how you feel, Dave, go ahead and sue. I’ll see you in court.

What’s interesting about Cameron’s remarks is that he is blaming the wrong target. YouGov didn’t invent the neck-and-neck figures. We were simply measuring the state of Scottish opinion. The real drama was happening not inside our computers, but on the streets and in the homes of Glasgow, Dundee and other cities, towns and villages across Scotland.

Cameron’s response – and Miliband’s and Clegg’s – should not have been to lose their nerve, but calmly to understand why the No lead had collapsed. YouGov’s poll contained plenty of clues. Scottish voters, and women in particular, were becoming less afraid of independence. More believed Alex Salmond’s assurances that all would be well. Indeed, Salmond had persuaded a number of Scots that Scotland’s NHS might suffer if No won and the Tories stayed in power in London.

The conclusion sensible London leaders should have drawn was: keep calm. Stress the positive case for the union; don’t just rely on scare tactics. There is no need to give away big extra powers – show that the 1997 devolution settlement gave Scots the best of both worlds.

Instead, our poll led to panic, the panic led to the Vow, and the Vow led to the SNP’s biggest ever boost by giving it the chance to tell Scots, “vote for us in 2015 and we’ll force those wee timorous beasties in Westminster to give Scotland an even better deal”. If its recent 20-point lead persists until Election Day, Labour can say goodbye to at least 30 Scottish seats – and Miliband’s chances of becoming Prime Minister

This saga is big, special example of a wider point. As a pollster I naturally want politicians – and everyone else – to take our figures seriously. We help the public to speak and, we hope, politicians to listen. As democrats, we believe in the importance of the dialogue between voters and those who aspire to govern them. When we do our job properly, our results should improve the quality of that dialogue.

But there is a world of difference between politicians listening hard to voters and abandoning long-held principles. The more dramatic our headline figures, the more important it is to probe attitudes and discover what really concerns voters.

Take immigration. When we at YouGov dig below the surface, we find that there is a yearning for a better yesterday, because most people remember it as more secure than today. The real answer is not to stop immigration, however much voters say they want it, for that would actually make things far worse. It is to sort out our schools, improve training, revive the NHS, enforce the minimum wage and build many more homes. We need a steady flow of talented, hard-working immigrants to achieve these goals.

Most politicians across the spectrum know this, but they fear to say that immigration is much more part of the solution to Britain’s problems than part of the problem. More generally, we elect politicians to use their judgement to improve our lives. Every five years we decide whether they have done well enough to carry on, or should be thrown out and replaced by a new set of rulers, whether in Holyrood or Westminster.

In between elections, polls can help politicians understand voters’ lives, hopes and fears. But at the end of the day, MPs and MSPs should have the courage to stand up for their convictions, not cringe and cower in the face of unwelcome polls.

This commentary first appeared in Scotland’s Sunday Mail