PollWatch: In which ComRes asks the slanted questions, and I ask them why.

by Stephen Tall on June 3, 2010

I don’t pretend to understand a huge amount about the science of opinion polling – like any political geek, I dabble, but that’s it. However, I do understand a little more of the art of opinion polling, of manufacturing the response you want to deliver a story.

So I was pretty disappointed to read the latest ComRes poll, commissioned by The Independent, which asked a couple of deeply flawed questions. Here’s the worst of the bunch, asking the public to agree or disagree with the following statement:

The political horsetrading which followed the inconclusive General Election result showed that an outright win is much more desirable than a hung parliament.

Now it’s an interesting question to find out what the public did feel about Britain’s first taste of post-election bargaining in the full glare of rolling news – I’d love to see a genuine question putting it to the test.

But this question by ComRes is risible – a serious pollster would not use the loaded term ‘political horsetrading’ if they were genuinely interested in finding out the public’s views. Unsurprisingly the public reacted negatively to the notion of ‘horsetrading’, with 74% saying they preferred an outright win.

What, though, if the pollster had tested the public’s attitudes with a more neutral question, something like:

On 7th May no single party won an overall majority, so the three major parties opened discussions to see if they could reach agreement. Some people say that this is a good thing, resulting in a programme for government based on the most popular policies from each of the parties. Other people say it is a bad idea, and that it would be better if a single party had won an outright majority and could govern alone. What is your view?

Now I wonder what might have happened if ComRes had asked that question. I suspect they would have got a very different answer to the one they got. Which leaves one question hanging … Why did they ask a slanted question that they must have known would provoke a negative response?

Voting intentions:
For the record, ComRes found support for the parties as follows:

    Conservative 37% (-1), Labour 33% (-1), Lib Dems 21% (n/c)

This is consistent with most other polls – indeed, I think it’s the sixcth consecutive poll which has shown the Lib Dems at 21%. Okay, the balloon of ‘Cleggmania’ may have popped, but that’s a lot better than some of us would have dared hope in the immediate aftermath of the coalition deal being struck. But it’s very early days of course.

ComRes also tested post-coalition attitudes to the Lib Dems, using one of those “putting words in your mouth” questions beloved of newspapers but which brings political science into disrepute: “Now that they have joined a coalition with the Conservatives, it is difficult to know what the Liberal Democrats stand for” – 65% agreed, but 29% disagreed. Given it’s a statement which invites the public to offer a nod of cynical agreement, I was mildly encouraged that getting on for one-third of the public disputed it.

Electoral reform:
ComRes also asked a question about changing the voting system, testing the statement: The first-past-the-post system for elections to the House of Commons should be replaced by a system that reflects more accurately the proportion of votes cast for each party.

It’s welcome, though entirely unsurprising, to discover that 78% agree, with only 18% disagreeing. It would have been more interesting, though, to find out what the public thought of the Alternative Vote (a non-proportional system) compared with a genuine system of proportional representation (such as STV) or the status quo of First-Past-The-Post.

A propos almost of nothing, here’s a famous clip from Yes, Prime Minister which looks behind the opinion polls:


(Also available on YouTube here).