Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Poll Dance

Spot the connexion between these two news headlines:
The people don’t want a referendum on Europe, insists No 10
Yes, that's right, they're both reporting on the same opinion poll.

The trick is in the question.  Respondents were asked "Which of the following statements comes closest to your view?", with the options:
  • No need for a referendum in the foreseeable future
  • There should be a referendum, but now is not the time
  • There should be a referendum now
Of 2006 respondents, 379 (18.9%) chose "no need", 626 (31.2%) chose "yes but not now", and 1001 (49.9%) chose "yes, now".

So a Downing Street spokeswoman could say without lying "The British people do not want a referendum on the European Union at the moment", because most respondents (by a majority of 0.2%) don't want a referendum now.  The Telegraph headline drops the qualification "at the moment" because headline writers like to keep things snappy.  And the Express could say honestly enough by their standards "A new poll showed more than 80 per cent of voters are crying out for a referendum", because indeed the poll shows that 81.1% of respondents think there should be a referendum.  "Demand" and "Crying out" are wild exaggerations, but it's the Express; readers expect nothing less.  Note that the "Now" in the headline refers to the time of the opinion poll, not when the vote is wanted.

Opinion pollster Antony Wells remarks "Referendums are popular per se, whatever the subject asked about, people will support having a referendum on it."  To which I would add: they're much less enthusiastic about voting in the referendum itself: the turnout at the referendum on AV was 42%, compared with 65% at the last general election.

Also, there's a gap between "no need for a referendum" and "there should be a referendum".  Another option could have been included along the lines of "I might want a referendum in the future as the EU evolves, but there's no need for one as things stand".  I think that would have increased the total "no need" vote.

A fair representation of this poll would be "Half the population wants a referendum now on the EU, and only 19% is willing to rule out a referendum for the foreseeable future".  Is there any demand for fair representations?


Incidentally, this was an online opinion poll.  I don't think the method is worse than telephone or face-to-face polling.  It shouldn't be confused with online polls which are open for anyone to vote in: they're worthless.


  1. Please don't take this the wrong way, but I'm not sure you're a natural journalist - "49.9% want a referendum now, 31.2% want one at some point, 18.9% don't want one in the forseeable future" isn't a great headline. Not much better than "Poll results inconclusive - some want a referendum now, some don't."

  2. Well, I can't speak for the rest of the UK population, but personally, I'd quite like it if newspapers provided more accurate information in their stories (and headlines). It might make me more likely to buy a newspaper.

    But as Luke implies, perhaps I'm in the minority.